Content warning: This entry contains discussions of self-harm and suicidal ideation.
During one of my visits to the emergency room this summer, I met a doctor who wore a checkered shirt and spoke in a gentle voice. He was young, about to complete his residency at that particular hospital. We chatted about my studies (“So contemporary art is, like, paintings with colourful stripes?”) while he gave me stitches. “What happened?” he asked. I told him.
“Oh,” he said, “I’m so sorry. That must’ve been hard.”
Another had asked me, “is it because of school?” (Sure.) “Do you live with anyone?” (No.) “Are you serious about…?” (No, it was merely a gesture.) “Do you have a plan?” (No, I don’t. I promise.) There were nurses who checked in on me constantly. “Do you feel like you might hurt yourself?” (No, but if you keep asking, I swear I will.) I woke up one morning to a breakfast plate on my lap. My neighbour peered over. “If you aren’t going to eat the cheese, can I have it?” We complained about the guy who had screamed through the night. “Probably fucked in the head,” my new friend said. (Me too.)
I know this is all very alarming. But the alternative is always worse.
The word “recovery” signals progression. The path of recovery, they say. A path is linear and designates a certain chronology. Like a piece of prose, it proceeds.
Trauma time is written in verse, line upon line, ledge on ledge. Verse reverses. Your body remembers each and every time you have been hurt. Sudden anger, fear, a twitch, phantom pain, “I’m sorry I’m so sorry please don’t leave me.” A flashback doesn’t always involve vision. In my experience it often does not. The body speaks pre-human tongues, a language not yet codified. If you don’t believe in what your body tells you, no one will.
Like a supernova, my dreams are hot and loud and threatening. In these dreams, I am constantly running, blood pumping behind my eyes, my legs heavy and full of lead. These sensations dissipate as soon as I open my eyes, blue bedroom buzzing with aftershock. The rest of the day is blank. The rest is white noise. Hours creep. Each day an iteration of the previous, channeled into static.
In the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away, the child protagonist and her parents are trapped in a ghost world. Forced to adopt a new name, she is told to always remember her original name. If she forgets it, she cannot go home. I’ve cried many times watching this scene. I’ve forgotten so many things, my memories sounds and images from another life. My most buried thoughts bear the fruit of screaming. Can I still go home if it ceased to exist a long time ago? If I were never meant to have a home? If I forget who I am? One day, you walk through a room and realize what you were holding is gone. You can’t find it, even when you get down on your knees.
Trying to locate a piece of memory is like walking through rooms full of strangers. One day, I may find a child in one of those rooms. The child that used to be me lived across the ocean in another country, which I no longer recognize. I suspect it doesn’t recognize me, either. There is nothing inherently bad about losing attachment. Your body does this to survive. It doesn’t always succeed, but it works hard to forget.
Over time your body learns to deal with bad things by itself. My memory is full of intentional blanks. The more I become aware of these blanks, however, the more I try to excavate meaning out of them. My psychiatrist insists that dwelling on awful feelings is not useful. I want to tell her that the decision to linger inside trauma is not arrived at logically. I feel myself summoned to the task, the same way I am called upon to confront the world’s injustices. The child that used to be me was brought across the ocean through a current of blood and money, a system of labour build upon bodies and bodies of knowledge. I could not have existed without this relationship to other bodies. I have a responsibility toward them. I cannot possibly heal without them.
“It must’ve been hard.” This kind of response is good for ticking off a point on an empathy checklist. Meanwhile, your wounds keep bleeding because stitches won’t keep them closed, because trauma has no boundaries, because no space is a safe space when the world wants you dead at every turn. There is so much your doctor doesn’t ask you, may not care to ask you, doesn’t want to hear you say.
Friend, you were built to survive. You have always known this. Trauma has no discrete edges, and neither do our bodies. No matter how many times I’ve beaten it, cut it open, burnt it, starved it, tried to get rid of it, my body finds a way back. It bleeds and writhes in pain, and this is proof that I am still alive, isn’t it?