I’ve been thinking a lot lately about other people’s pain and about how important and difficult events affect people…not only the people they are happening to, but the people close to them, and the people they come into contact with in the future, and the people who experience the event with varying degrees of separation and suffering. I’ve been thinking about how people process pain and difficulty. And from what I can surmise, singular trauma is a rare thing.
I can’t say with total authority that it doesn’t exist, but…no trauma that I’ve seen or experienced first hand has been singular. It repeats and it ripples out from the center like a water drop in a pool…or out from ground zero like an earthquake or a bomb.
Most of the talk and concern (for obvious reasons) is for people who have been directly injured by trauma…cancer and surgery survivors, car and plane and train wreck survivors, violent event survivors, war veterans…or actual casualties…those killed by gun violence, those who died in childbirth, veterans who committed suicide…
But something I want to talk about that gets overlooked and glossed over if not outright dismissed and belittled is how trauma ripples out and repeats. Being farther away from the center of a trauma means that perhaps the trauma is changed, or lessened, or diluted, but that pain is still real.
First, I just want to say it pains me to write this today (because for me, it’s repeating trauma), and this next sentence in particular is painful:
I’m not worried that sharing my feeling about this event from my (now pretty distant) past that was personal to me will alert people to my real identity…that’s how rampant repeating and rippling trauma is.
When I was a sophomore in high school (25 years ago now), a kid at another school in my district…not even my school…but a school where my first real boyfriend went and where I had other friendly acquaintances and family members attending…took a gun to school and held a classroom hostage. No one was physically harmed at that school (thank goodness), but he’d murdered four people before arriving at school that morning. When the anniversary of this event comes up in my hometown area, or a similar even happens somewhere else around the country, the media barely registers this local anomaly that happened 25 years ago, if they do at all. And when it is actually spoken about, the focus ripples out by degrees, starting with those killed and their surviving family members and close contacts, and then to the classroom that was actually held hostage, and their close contacts…
And those survivors should be the initial focus of any discussion about the matter. They were the closest to the center of the trauma; they were the ones most greatly touched and altered by it. But no one ever mentions (and maybe most people don’t even briefly consider) the other people who were (and still are) affected. Even the students and teachers outside of that classroom, but in that whole school that day…I bet they don’t gloss over that anniversary date. I bet they repeat the trauma every time they see a similar event reported in media. I didn’t even go to that school, but I can remember those feelings of helplessness, wondering if my boyfriend or if one of my cousins was in that classroom, each time I see a similar event.
I’m old now, and when I was in high school, there wasn’t weekly (or more frequent) routine news coverage of school shootings, and there weren’t any ‘intruder’ or ‘active shooter’ drills in school. It wasn’t a situation that demanded preparation like it does now. I wasn’t afraid to go to school after this event all those years ago. But I would be now. I think students and teachers now are all supremely brave.
My son, unfortunately knows this is a possibility, remote or not, at age 11. And he goes to school. But I have to tell you…even with the diluted fear and trauma I received from that incident that I was only tangentially attached to as a high school student myself, whenever another trauma (which seem to always get bigger and more traumatic anyway) hits the news, whenever my son’s school sends home information about drills or security, two things happen with me:
1. I relive that day my sophomore year of high school. I think about the people I knew who went to that school and wonder if they are ok and if they are repeating trauma that’s certainly more amplified than mine.
2. I experience new trauma. It’s not the same as the people living through the event, obviously. But it’s there. That trauma ripples out from the core to touch everyone who learns about it and allows themselves to feel it. So it adds to number 1.
And I’m not the only person who feels this. I’m not the only parent who watches the news and wonders if I should ever let my kid leave the house…even to go to school. I’m not the only citizen who thinks about how safe I am going to a crowded event. I’m not the only woman who worries about walking alone at night or turning down unwanted advances in the wrong tone of voice. I am quite fortunate in my life that I haven’t experienced much devastating trauma first hand (although I have experienced some). But what I have and what I’ve seen repeats and ripples out. If I’m having some anxiety and pause just knowing about the trauma, there are so many people whose ripples are closer to the center where the drop pierced the water who are also having probably more pronounced issues with repeating and rippling trauma.
Trauma, from what I can see and feel, is never a singular event. It changes perspectives. It changes behaviors. It changes lives…not only the lives it takes or directly touches.
I guess I’m writing this today because I want people to look at trauma’s ripples and reruns as real pain. It’s ongoing. Just because a person has made it past or out of a trauma doesn’t mean it’s over for them, and just because a person wasn’t at ground zero doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling pain from an event. It may be diluted, distanced pain, but it’s still real. A kid being afraid to go to school after seeing footage of a mass shooting event is real pain. A woman being afraid to go out on a blind date after hearing a friend’s horror story is real pain. A man being afraid to talk to law enforcement because of a newsworthy pattern of discrimination faced by others in his community is real pain. These events are clearly devastating to people who lived them in the moments, but those people are not the only ones affected by that trauma, and that moment is not the only time the trauma will surface.
When we look at trauma this way, I hope we see that its effects are more lasting and far reaching than just that moment for those people. And I hope that makes other people’s pain harder to dismiss. Eventually, their pain will ripple out to us, and with enough ripples, we could be faced with a tidal wave. Please take all forms of trauma seriously when it’s shared with you, and thoughtfully consider all the consequences and pain, not only the immediate ones and the imminent kind.