The old adage of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a lie. It’s one of those things that people tell you in the midst of suffering in the hopes that it propels you to the other side. Pain and suffering leave lasting changes, many of them negative. The ‘strength’ that people point to is perhaps more aptly labelled perseverance. But trauma also leaves you with weaknesses in your armour; cracks and soft spots that are prone to rupture at the slightest prodding.
I discovered early on as a child that emotion was weakness. The in-home daycare we were sent to before and after school was run by a mostly cold (and occasionally cruel) woman with four children, each of whom directed their anger at us, in varying degrees of cruelty. I very quickly learned that the most effective way to diminish their interest in torture was to control my reaction. No tears or crying out. No flinching. And above all, no telling. My younger brother was not as adept at this and they quickly turned most of their attention to him. I felt helpless to do anything. Daycare wasn’t something we could escape — my mother was a single parent — and for all I knew, all homes would be like this. Or worse. So I just… persevered. And I survived.
When I had my first brush with death in my early 20s, after complications from my first surgery for ulcerative colitis, I had to endure many painful procedures and what felt like insurmountable pain from the complications themselves (a twisted bowel). I was certainly not new to pain — I had suffered from colitis for many years at this point — but the surgery was supposed to be the ‘cure’. It seemed like I’d never see the other side of it. But I did. I got better.
But that’s when the tears started.
It’s not like I had never cried before. I cried when I was sad, or in stressful situations. But for the most part I was able to control it. Now I cried involuntarily during movies and sad commercials.
Not so strange. Still within the parameters of normal behaviour.
If that had been it; if that had been the extent of my physical and emotional challenges, then perhaps I would have been merely scarred. A mildly wounded bird capable of flight, but walking with a slight limp. But then came the arthritis. And diabetes. And then in 2008, a perfect storm of physical and emotional trauma: Crohn’s disease, a failed relationship and a manic episode (precipitated by a medicine my doctor prescribed for anxiety) which involved me spending large sums of money to renovate my house all by myself, little to no sleep for weeks and forgetting to pay my bills for months. Well, ‘forgetting’ isn’t quite the right word. I just thought I didn’t have to. And if that sounds irrational to you, it sounds that way to me too. Now.
The crash from that episode was spectacular. I had to be put on sleeping pills, antipsychotics and lithium (on top of very heavy painkillers). I went from being an explosion of emotion to being largely sedated. I slept. I ate. And I hated it. The pills that were supposed to ‘level me out’ didn’t stop me from feeling the emotions. They were all still there in my head — I just couldn’t express them. I was corked.
After about a year of that I slowly weaned myself off the pills. I could finally feel again. But the crying was back.
And now I cried when I was happy too.
I’m not stronger. I just have knowledge. Knowledge that when a new illness or emotional time bomb hits me that I have the ability to persevere. There isn’t strength with this knowledge. In fact, if anything it makes me feel more vulnerable. To know that it’s not over means I have to get to the other side. Getting to the other side means I have to submit to the suffering. And there are times I really don’t want to. When you know something won’t kill you, you have to make peace with the fact that it’s your new reality. That’s a fairly devastating realization.
Rather than make me stronger, my history of survival makes each new challenge harder. My ability to cope decreases each time. Each time it takes me longer to rebound.
And now it’s not just the big stuff. I overreact to the little things. Even when those things aren’t happening to me. I cry. I cry for everyone and everything.
Trauma leaves you vulnerable. It teaches you to guard yourself and put up walls to protect yourself from future trauma. But it sneaks up on you. You become a sailor in a boat on treacherous seas, hyper-alert and on the lookout for pirates, but forever find yourself running back and forth in your little boat, bailing water from cracks that keep forming in the bottom that you can’t fix.
It’s just a matter of time to see whether it’s pirates that will kill you, or you’ll just sink and drown.