Being with Helplessness

I have been quiet these days online. I have been watching and listening and I have been quiet. What do I say as a trauma specialist who has worked with hundreds of women and men who have survived sexual assault? What do I say as a person who has also been assaulted and spent my life coping with the fall out? What do I say when daily I am watching trauma play out in the news with the Kavanaugh case?

I can start with empathy. I can start by saying to people who have been victimized: I see you, I see the pain, the rage, the confusion, the overwhelm. I see you as human, not a political object. I see your strength and resiliency and your yearning to be healthy and free. I believe you.

I could write about why people do not report. I could write about the mechanisms of trauma and why people don’t always remember. I could write about triggers, self-soothing, and self-care. I could write about trauma informed therapy and how it can help. I could write about the legal system and how it is not trauma informed or set up for victims rights. I could write about rape culture and misogyny. I could write about social justice and action. All of these are important and need to be discussed. I have seen other people writing about it and I am grateful. (Shout out to The Trauma Project on facebook who always has a wealth of information!)

What I am going to write about is the feeling of helplessness from a personal and professional standpoint. From a human standpoint. We humans don’t like to feel helpless. We want a sense of control and direction, of goals and containment. These are normal and healthy needs. They are also a way to cope with the real truth that we don’t always have control. We don’t always get to choose. This is what is at the heart of trauma. Something has happened that we didn’t want, that we didn’t choose, that we can’t control. We cannot change it.

Certainly we can learn to choose how we cope with it, we can learn to respond to it rather than react, we can learn to make meaning from it and grow. We can find some control through our coping. Post traumatic growth can be a miraculous gift that leads us to be even wiser and healthier than if we had not had trauma. So there is always hope in cultivating our resiliency. I have seen this over and over in my work and am always inspired by the dedication, perseverance and beauty of the human spirit in overcoming trauma. There is always a path through if you are willing and find the right support that works for you. There is no one way, there is your way, and we all need community, resources and guides to navigate it.

But back to the feeling of helplessness. Part of the journey is feeling the grief of it. The weight of: this has happened, or this is happening and I cannot change it. Breathing in through the pain of it, allowing it to be there is part of how we learn to accept and cope. It is hard. It sucks. It is never easy but gets easier. We start with one breath. We learn to tolerate it, then take more. We learn that we can coexist with the certainty of uncertainty. We fight to be in this moment, in this body. We learn to accept the unacceptable and eventually make peace with it in our nervous system. We learn that we have been victimized but are not a victim. We learn new narrative: What happened to me is wrong, I could not stop it, I did nothing to make it happen, I did the best I could in a horrific situation to care for myself and cope, what happened is in the past and I cannot change it, but I can change the way I respond to it. And we grieve.

Under the feeling of helplessness is always grief. A deep profound sadness that we live in an unpredictable world where really bad things happen. We live in a world where people hurt each other. Where horrific events happen, accidents happen, death happens. This truth is a tender spot in our humanity that we like to try to avoid. But when you have experienced violent trauma you cannot avoid it. You have lived it. There is no escape, there is only the wisdom of knowing and being with this truth. There is an awareness that develops where we learn that while trauma is deeply personal, it is also universal, it is an inescapable connection point. And there is a gift in this allowing of uncertainty, of helplessness. There is true compassion. There is a profound loving kindness that sits deep in that well that is abundant and inexhaustible.

I have been quiet because like so many right now, the news is an invitation to relive my trauma over and over. Like so many, I have been going through a roller coaster of rage, intellectualization, fear, sadness, exhaustion and I have been pulling out all of my self-care techniques to cope. I have also allowed myself time to feel helplessness. I cannot change this world. What I can do is bear witness and in that be in touch with my own humanity and therefore deeply connect with others. I have been going into work sitting with many other survivors, as I have for years, and holding their vulnerability and pain with the sacredness it deserves. Because with that wound is their amazing resourcefulness and health. Their brilliant humanity of survival, a precious gift indeed. And if I bypassed the sadness of the helplessness I would miss that. I wouldn’t be able to fully show up to do the work in the world I believe in and care about so much. So I grow my capacity day by day to be with what I cannot change so I can be with the wisdom and sanity of the basic goodness in people and to help them grow that in themselves. The goodness that we all want to be loved, happy and free at our core.

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