It is possible to live a considerable number of years, say, three decades or more, not knowing some pretty important things about your own life. It’s possible because some things are terrible, and you don’t want to know them, and so you construct an entire existence around not having to know.

I have written before about how trigger warnings can shut down debate, but lately, I’ve come to see just how inadequate they are at even their intended purpose. Because triggers aren’t always what you think they’re going to be. I had no idea, for example, that I would approach the edge of an unprecedented emotional abyss during the giant floating fetus scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And it’s okay for you to laugh if I tell you that I was monumentally triggered by a giant floating fetus, because, when all’s said and done and the supportive hugs have been given and the tears are dry, it’s pretty funny that I was reliving the worst things that have ever happened to me — bad enough to structure almost half a life around not-remembering — by watching a giant fetus float in its amniotic bubble above an unsuspecting Earth. I have never been pregnant. No one could have foreseen the impact that a giant floating fetus would have on me. But there it was, and if I had been in a movie theatre I would have had to vacate the premises immediately, probably with more than one usher holding me steady.

I haven’t told many people about what I remember, because when I have, it mostly hasn’t gone well. I won’t say that you find out who your friends are when you reveal traumatic moments in your past to them, because that’s not exactly true. What you do find out is how exactly you’ve gone about building your trust in others, something that victims of abuse don’t tend to do with the most ultimately trustworthy people. I have found support, but not always where I thought I would: My partner’s strength and help have been incredible, but the family members I thought I could lean on were the very people who lashed out at me when I opened up to them. The same friends who’ve written hyperbolic texts about how uh-mazing! I am went feral, unleashing insults unprecedented in our friendships and essentially treating my own past as a personal betrayal to them. Meanwhile, family members whom I might have exchanged a few pleasantries with through the years have turned out to be pillars in hours of need.

I thought the worst thing a person could say when you choose to open up to them about a traumatic experience is, “I don’t believe you.” I tried to prepare for that. But it turns out that there are infinite ways that people who profess to love you can stun, and leave you reeling, adding a searing new pain to the old. They can believe you and hate you for it: not because they think the traumatic events were your fault, but because of what they insist that the truth has destroyed for them, independently of how it’s affected you.

It’s impossible to underestimate how far a human being will go to avoid being abandoned by those they trust. It’s also impossible to underestimate just how useful a blanked out person is to a penitent abuser who’d rather other people not know what they’re capable of. I was such a blank-out expert that I myself didn’t even know I was doing. I had a pair of crutches to hide behind: If my eyes didn’t spark with their usual alertness I must have been tired, as in the disabled kind of tired that people who aren’t disabled can’t understand. It helps that my disability, cerebral palsy, remains mysterious even now. No one for sure knows what causes it, and it exists on an extraordinarily wide spectrum. Increasingly, premature births are no longer considered a threat to an infant’s life, but the likelihood of their being born with cerebral palsy is also increasing, because the same medical experts that make their survival possible still have no idea how to prevent CP. So anything about me that doesn’t make sense is probably a CP thing, because who even knows how that works.

But blocking out your body and your emotions is not a CP thing, it’s a traumatized thing. I was 32 before a therapist told me this. She said it slowly, almost in surprise, because she couldn’t understand how this hadn’t come up if my blanking out had gotten so out of control. In the fall of last year I found myself blanking out in response to nearly everything, particularly the stately New England homes filled with perfectly golden light and smiling families that I passed every single day. I blanked out at work, on the train, eating. I blanked out reading the news, and reading things that decidedly weren’t the news. I blanked out every time I saw someone who looked composed and normal, which in Boston is most people most of the time. I’ve always sought refuge in America’s messy bohemian cities: Albuquerque, Austin, parts of Chicago, Seattle, my birthplace of New Orleans. In Boston, people walk like the anthropomorphic version of the stone architecture of their dignified homes and workplaces.

I’ve enjoyed a well-earned reputation as a loquacious and extroverted social butterfly for my entire life, only to hole up in unexplained and crippling anxiety for the duration of our first few months in Boston. I wonder, now, how many people with social anxiety are actually just people hurting for reasons they haven’t confronted. In my case, all the stability around me pushed me to remember what I had, for so long, deliberately pushed back, and there was something in the glowing grins of Boston’s undergraduates and the kind eyes of Boston’s grandparents that forced me to understand what had always been lacking, what had never been addressed, what I am, only now, beginning to grasp.

It’s important, of course, to separate “traumatized” from the simple fact that I’ve always been weird. I don’t strive for the normalcy that defines New England. I actually find it pointless at best and oppressive at worst. But in this region’s relentless composure I’ve learned something valuable: People aren’t made to fritz out at random. Defense mode is not supposed to be a default mode, and fear should be a warning, not a constant.

Living in unstable cities compelled me to normalize something inside me that it’s not to my benefit to normalize. The study of the traumatized brain is nowhere near complete and will never be, but we’ve come dangerously close to concluding that a trauma victim should never feel that there is something wrong with them. There is something wrong, though, with the traumatized brain, namely that it’s traumatized. Just as it wouldn’t be beneficial for a doctor to tell someone that there’s nothing wrong with a broken leg, addressing specific issues is essential for all types of healing. The problem is, actually making someone feel safe necessitates vulnerability for all involved: It can’t happen by slapping a phrase like “trigger warning” onto a book or a movie.

No professor can single-handedly convince a trauma victim that they are safe. Intimate partners struggle with this, therapists struggle with this, close friends struggle with this, because the traumatized brain believes that it is not safe. It is constantly reliving a narrative in which it needs to guard against danger, thinking that narrative is taking place in the present rather than the past. Brains that have not been traumatized understand where danger is and where it is not, but traumatized brains have to undergo an intensive rewiring process before they can make that distinction. You can’t reorient your entire approach to the world if you don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Why would you?

To say there is something wrong, though, is not to discount what’s right. I’m thankful to have lived in so many places where the rigidity that defines New England doesn’t exist, and I certainly don’t think this process would have been any easier if I’d have grown up here. What disturbs me is the possibility that I’ve been wondering through crowds of traumatized people all over the country without knowing it, and that an entire conversation about mental health in America hasn’t even begun. Did my blanking out go unrecognized in large part because it’s so common? Because this many people want to escape their bodies, their emotions, and have taught themselves how?

Normalizing trauma only hurts us. There is nothing empowering about telling someone that victim mode — a quivering voice, a frozen body, empty eyes, fearful gestures — is normal. We are not supposed to feel physically threatened in perfectly safe environments. We are not supposed to feel like the worst thing that has ever happened to us will keep happening. Trauma victims feel this way, and we are not normal, we are in pain. Pain is normal, of course, but normal pain heals itself. Pain that is not normal will not heal itself, on its own, the way a paper cut does. Pain that is not normal needs a lot of help before it will go away, before the body and the brain align, in the present, with new associations. Before I started seeing my therapist in Boston, there were a lot of things I just wouldn’t do, and most people “respected” my “needs,” but these needs turned out to be destructive coping mechanisms that demanded not acquiescence, but a trusting environment in which I could interrogate them, take them apart, recognize where they came from. By understanding what fed my irrational fear I could begin to live a different life.

Sarah Neilson

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and editor in Boston. She writes a monthly column at Full Stop that explores America’s emotional condition.

Understanding the destructive things that I’m used to doing for comfort was, at first, frightening, and sometimes still is. It was easier to self-diagnose and ask my therapist if I might have a particular condition. When I tried this, she said simply, “I would be wary of pathologizing you. From what little I know of you so far, everything you’re describing sounds like someone with a traumatic history.”

It’s also easier to stomach something being wrong with our own brains than something deeply wrong with someone we love who’s had an undue impact on our functions. Blocking out emotions, too, seems to offer protection from incredible pain, except the pain is still there, buried but smoldering, and in its low-level insistence, causing anxiety. Now, this pain is it out in the open, a part of everything from kissing to peeling an orange, and it’s easy to rail against the hurt as a new and unfair thing. Then I remember that it’s always been there. Now I’m just paying attention.


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