Trigger warning for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mentions of suicide, depression, eating disorders, self harm, abuse, and gaslighting.
Words and illustration by Ericia Yeo.
Trauma. What a word.
People think the source of trauma is loud and unmistakable - like war or broken families or physical violence. But trauma is one of the most hidden causes of emotional dysfunction and mental illnesses. The grasp of trauma spreads like poisonous roots, rearing its ugly head in puzzle pieces that don’t fit - a rebellious child, suicidal thoughts, severe depression that “came out of the blue”, eating disorders, anger, self harm, perfectionism, isolation, an inability to connect, and more than anything? Shame. A layer of shame so thick, so deep rooted it becomes a second skin. Shame, shame for being a child, shame for having a body, shame for having needs that clutch at your throat, shame for the hands that have touched your skin, shame for the earthquakes you think you caused. Shame for just being here. Shame.
When I think about my trauma, there is a disconnect, a long bridge across a chasm with a sign that warns anyone from crossing. There is me, and there is all the ‘stuff’ on the other side. Unspeakable. That’s what trauma does, it traps you in fight, flight or freeze. There is no processing, no understanding, no resolution, not even a clear recollection of what exactly happened because the part of your brain that processes memory doesn’t work as it should. This... ‘stuff’ falls through the cracks and creeps up in your everyday life, 5, 10, 15 years later. The beast I've come to acquaint myself with is complex post traumatic stress disorder.
I am a survivor of a pick-and-mix candy bag of intergenerational traumas, abuses, assaults. The mental landscape I have known all my life screams “it's not that bad”, “don’t tell anyone”, “it’s your fault”, “stop being so sensitive”, “get over it”, “bad, worthless, unworthy, unlovable, disgusting”...I now scream back. It took years of struggle, of rock bottoms and dead ends, of gritted teeth and tenacity, of countless angels in my life to find the courage to survive - and a voice. This has been one of the most powerful antidotes to the shame. The power of telling my story has enabled me to be heard, to deny trauma from robbing me of my voice.
Here I am. Still scared, but not hiding anymore. This is how I fight my shame. This is how healing can happen: we start, we talk, we understand - it was not your fault. The fault lies in the perpetrators, systems and cracks we fell through.
Every story is different, we don’t have to understand someone’s story to support or believe them. Sometimes all we can say is, ‘I’ll never truly get what you went through, what you are still going through - but I care and I am here with you’. We reach out and ask, 'what can I do to support you?'. We extend empathy, understanding, love, support, and solidarity to survivors. Because trauma is a hell I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But it is a reality for too many.
What does trauma feel like? It feels like the loneliest place in the world. It feels like nothing will ever be safe.
Hyper-vigilance, fear, nightmares, isolation. Dissociation. An inability to trust anyone or reach out. A relentless inner critic, self-hatred so unbearably intense. Flashbacks that have taken me back into the body of a child where scenes of terror and abandonment just overwhelm. At its worst I curl into a ball, sobbing, covering my ears, whimpering, saying ‘stop’ over and over. Stop. Stop... but nothing is ‘actually’ happening outside. That is what trauma can feel like. The sort of trauma that happens inside, that traps you in a memory that your body will always remember.
For 15 whole years, I did everything I could to run from it. I now know that I did the best I could to endure something I couldn't understand, something unbearable. Recovery is almost harder than surviving. It takes an unimaginable amount of courage to face our deepest wounds and work through them step by step - instead of running away as fast as we can. Recovery is surviving the hurricane and standing in the rubble of the destruction, trying to rebuild a life where I am less scared, where I can function without having to carry the pain of everything I have survived. It is a full time job. I remind myself I am safe over and over again, sitting with the demons that threaten to drown me. I savour every quiet moment I get, every time the light shines through. I write and draw and find ways to speak my truth. I feel my feelings, deep into my core. I show up for therapy even when I don’t want to. I talk. I turn inward to that child who’s hurting and say ‘I see you, I hear you, I am here for you. I am sorry you are hurting’. It makes all the difference. To be here with yourself. To have someone be there with you.
It is messy work. I don't have anything figured out and it is never fair, but I salvage what I can from the aftermath of trauma. I breathe into my belly as deep as I can and learn to make space for it all. At my worst rock bottom, my therapist told me "you can’t take away what people have done to you, you can’t take away the bad things that have happened to you, and that’s going to hurt. It's not your fault you've been dealt such awful cards, but what are you going to continue to do about it?" I now know that this is how I can choose to play the cards I’ve been given. I try. Again and again, as many times as I need, I show up and I try.
Ericia Yeo is a psychology student, writer, and artist passionate about raising awareness about mental health and supporting others. Ericia creates art exploring feelings, mental health and coping that can be found on Find her on Instagram at @ericiaa_.