The past few days have been difficult ones. Yet again, terror and grief, anger and bewilderment have welled up within me and then broken over me spilling distress and hurt, unleashing panic and sweeping away calm with a decisiveness that leaves me wondering whether it ever existed at all. When post-trauma takes over, when I find myself ruled by it once more, I am swept out to sea. Caught up in a surge of emotion that is incredibly powerful, I find the safety and security of land beneath my feet is taken from me. Removed from reality, removed from the here and now, I am carried out to dark, dangerous depths and stranded in water that harbours only danger.
Now that it has me here, trauma is at an advantage. It can tug at me from underneath, or tower above me before crashing down upon me, it can suggest dangers which don’t exist while masking others that are almost upon me. It can come at me from any angle and outwit me in more ways than I could imagine. It is a perpetually inventive, endlessly changeable force that cannot be predicted, let alone controlled. A human being entangled with trauma stands no chance. I can attempt resistance, attempt combat, but how, where, with what? How to engage such a phenomena? The folly of such an undertaking only too soon becomes apparent: flailing about, almost instantaneously breathless and exhausted, recalcitrance does you no favours – it only defeats you all the more quickly.
So, if you can’t win, if you can’t tame the ocean, can you at least make your way back to land? Yes and no. Thrown once to the waves, I doubt I will ever leave the water. I can never definitively disconnect or dislocate from the space of trauma. But, with determination, stamina and patience, I can make it to the shallows. There, I may still be in the water, but at least it is relatively warm and calm and I can even, sometimes, put my feet down and rest a moment. But, even when in the shallows, where all may appear tame and friendly to the unknowing observer, I know all too well that trauma lurks. It may not be visible but those strong tides can exist in even the shallowest waters and you can stumble into a rip at any time, finding yourself so rapidly isolated once again in those frighteningly dark, deep waters.
A post-traumatic existence is never settled, it is always being negotiated. I am forever at some point in the process of being washed out or swimming back in – emerging, submerged, reemerging. Trauma is a condition of my survival, a cost of my continued existence. Living with this domineering and unpredictable force is exhausting but it is not the worst of it. I can at least learn how to swim, learn how to tread water and how to negotiate the waves and tides. I can find the courage to withstand the deep and the presence of mind to enjoy the shallows, while it lasts. But what I can’t do is cope with the ever-increasing awareness that while I expend my energy constantly negotiating my new aquatic existence, everyone else stands on the land with their backs to the sea. Mainstream society admits only a landed life. It refuses to acknowledge the waves lapping at its heels, let alone the people who have been thrust out to sea. It refuses to accept the reason we, too, are not on land. It refuses to admit how many of us there are who are no longer ashore. It is this refusal of responsibility, this rejection of those who have already suffered so much, which is the most destructive and devastating feature of a post-traumatic life.