This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Trauma

You smuggled your way back in again, second night in a row. I’ll never understand the mystery of the human brain and how it sorts and files memories and meaning and components that allow our survival. I started reading a book about the impact of trauma on the brain — not brain trauma, to be clear but those instances when a traumatic event alters the chemistry of our brains — and learned a little about synapses and glia and neurons. Clock me: in ten years, I’ll be back in school to study precisely this. I’ve stood outside my own body to observe as objectively as possible the impact of certain life experiences on the way I process and relate to every other thing in my life. I’ve had my fair share of plot twists and I am getting good at taking the little thread and linking it from Point A to Point B to Point C. I may pose questions like why am I perpetually single or why am I drawn to writing or why do I feel protective of the young children in my life or why did I have to leave Somerville but I mostly know the answers. There’s still exploration to be had along those threaded lines — there’s still excavation that needs to happen — but the main points, they’re relatively obvious. The noodly deeper explorations are why I pose the questions to myself, perhaps even to you.
I think you know the answers to these questions, too. I think you are deeply embedded in the mystery of what makes me me. I think I am deeply embedded in the mystery of what makes you you, too. I don’t know that you realize that in your waking life, but your pervasive gate crashing into my dreams makes me wonder if the same thing is going on for you, too. Do I appear without your consent or control the way you appear to me? It would only be fair if I did. I’m tired of my heart being the only one that’s broken.
Two nights ago, you pushed your way in to stare at me hatefully while I nagged you about your disgusting smoking habit. That’s one version of you that occupies my dreamscape. But it’s not the frequent version. Maybe only a third of the time do you come through as angry, resentful, or hateful.
The other two thirds are like you were last night: hopeful, loving, trying. The scene was the same as the night before — back in the black and white bar with the black and white checkered floor, white walls, black bar with black stools, and wherever I went, so did you, following me like a pesky sibling determined to catch my eye and gain my approval. You cuddled up to me without my consent. You told anyone who would listen that I was someone you deeply loved — that I was your sister. You repeated that often. She’s my sister. You said it to everyone else because I refused to talk to you. I kept moving away and you remained in hot pursuit. She’s my sister, she’s my sister, I love her, she’s my sister, I really really love her, she’s my sister, she’s my sister. It filled my eyes with tears. It shook my confidence and my resolve to keep you at bay. They were words I’d longed to hear from you in real life, words I’d wished you’d say, even after it was too late. I woke up with the echo of she’s my sister pinging around my brain like a pin ball machine run amok.
I woke up resenting everything about you.
I keep waiting to find someone else in this world with a story like ours — someone who can help me untangle this mess. Maybe I’d only find that in an Al-Anon meeting. Maybe I’d only find it in a place where crisis is being managed. I certainly haven’t found it in the wild. I certainly haven’t found it by posing the question. My decade with you formed a new template for how the world works. It created a roadmap. I live in the upside down. Everyone around me stares at me curiously. Probably some cock their heads and say, “She still talking about that? Weird.” It’s hard to explain how formative my ten years with you were. It’s been nearly four years and ten months since I walked cleanly away. They say it takes half the time you were with someone to have fully grieved them. I guess I’m supposed to be close to that graceful five year mark. I guess my immediate trauma about you is less. But it lingers.
You linger.
Always just when I’m starting to feel good. To feel free. To feel like the haunted house has been fully cleansed. That’s when you reappear. My brain has been changed too much by you, I fear. Forever the student, I take the silver lining aspect that reminds me of how much I’ve learned from you and tell myself it’s cool. I’m cool. Everything’s cool.
You made me a better person. You made me a worse one, too. I bet you’d say the same about my impact on you. I bet that you surround yourself with people with my name just so you can keep saying it over and over and over, out loud — Sarah. While I couldn’t speak your name without retching for years. While I couldn’t have someone with your name in my life at all for years. And when I did have to accept two new people with your name in the last few months I lived in Somerville, I did so with genuine hardship. We had different approaches to our mutual importance for each other. We went in opposite directions on that one. And who would be shocked about that? Not me. I couldn’t speak your name because it hurt too much. You had to speak my name to pretend like it didn’t hurt you at all. And that’s the difference between us.
I am a survivor of trauma. You were not the only one who perpetuated that re-coursing of my brain. But you are the most meaningful one. You are the one who rises to the top of that heap. You are the one my brain conjures over and over and over again while I sleep, running the program on what to do in case you ever… dot dot dot. That’s what a trauma response does. It keeps you in a perpetual state of needing to be prepared to react should the threat come near. You’re halfway across the country but, still, my brain throws me into scenarios where first you hate me, then you love me, and records my responses, like a science experiment. I’m my on PhD study. I’m my own case. So deep is the manipulation and deceit that I experienced while in your care that I trust no one but me to look over this evidence. Who else could ever understand the urgency? I’m still afraid of you, six hundred and fifty miles between us.
I need to teach my brain you’re no longer a threat. I need to teach my brain that I am safe from you. I need to teach my brain that you can’t hurt me anymore.
But, clearly, you are a threat, I’m not safe from you, and you can hurt me. Until I know otherwise, I’ll be dropped in this panic room night after night while the program runs.
That is what trauma looks like. It’s a survival response. It’s designed to protect me. It’s designed to shape my world in such a way that I can be OK.
I miss the days when I just loved you and it was easy and we were both so happy. The sharp turn we took away from that is the hardest part about our whole story. What went wrong. Except I know what went wrong. You do, too.
I remember a time I said you were like a brother and you laughed in this way and gave me this look that said, Really, you’d f*ck your brother? even though your girlfriend was standing next you. Even though I never said I wanted that from you. All I wanted was that sisterhood/brotherhood. All I wanted was for us to be permanent for each other in that familial way.
I am your sister. You are my brother. We are family, even if our family is permanently estranged.
I’ll keep drawing the lines in careful formation, this map of our meaning in my brain. I’ll thread them carefully, color coded, without smudge or intentional error. I will map this with integrity. I will do so with the hopes that a trapdoor out of this world might appear for me to fall through with dignity, at last, healed from the wounds inflicted by our era. I will solve this puzzle or die trying.
You’ll probably just continue to tell other women with my name how much you love them, probably with an edge of screw you to me, the OG Sarah in your life. I won’t say you don’t truly love the others. But I will say they all stand in comparison to me. Not even you would deny that.
The brain is a crazy beast, one that I will keep trying to understand. I won’t give up. You won’t, either, I’d guess, picking the lock to my dreams whenever you get the chance. Part of me is happy to see you, relieved even. But mostly I am proud that I never give in to your attempts to draw me back in. It makes me feel like I’ve grown stronger as a result of all of this. It makes me feel like a survivor and not a victim. That matters a great deal.
So see you again soon, I fear. See you when it’s once again out of my control. Such is the nature of life and triggers. Such is the nature of trauma. At least my sleeping mind wants to get ahead of the curve and prepare me for different scenarios. It could be worse, I suppose. I could forget that I ever learned from you at all.
What a neutral spark that very notion sends through me. What a way to think of you fading away, never to be seen again.
From the Today’s Special 2019 blog project.
Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar


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