Childhood Trauma and Memories
The interesting thing about childhood trauma and memories is that those memories will come back during a moment that you think has nothing to do with a traumatic experience. I had one of those recently. I have had more and more of those lately. I will be in the middle of a seemingly unrelated and mundane task, and I am suddenly transported back in time. It is usually the emotions of those earlier experiences that I notice first.
It is those emotions from those experiences that I usually squash down and don’t explore. But now I realize that allowing those emotions to come forth, to explore those feelings as they come is part of the healing process. It isn’t an easy thing for me to do, but I now feel that I have to. And letting those feelings come, though, is what I did recently.
I allowed those emotions to come. At first, I had no idea what triggered those emotions. I was crying before I knew that I was crying. At first, I tried to do what I always do, push those feelings away. Not only is pushing those emotions down instinctual for me, but I am afraid of them. I am so scared of the vulnerability and what that will do to me.
Unbidden Childhood Trauma Memories
I am sitting on my little green step stool, staring into the depths of my corner cabinet. It is a jumbled mess of bakeware, cookware, plastic storage containers, etc. Due to its sheer size and depth, things end up there without a second thought. The catch-all space that becomes ‘out of sight out of mind’ storage.
As I look into that cabinet, at the haphazard ‘organization’ of things, I think of how that mess is like the brain of someone with mental illness. More specifically, my brain. That is how my brain felt before I started medication, stopped drinking, and engaged with therapy. It is also how I imagine my mother’s brain was and still is.
Those thoughts of my mother, and her inability to overcome her illnesses, and how sad, scary, and alone she must have felt and still feels. And that is when the tears begin. I thought, what a thing to be sitting here, doing such a mundane task, and crying. I imagine that so many women have sat in similar situations, not overwhelmed by what they are doing but overwhelmed with trauma memories.
Trauma Storm Builds
The memories of trauma that my cabinet, of all things, a silly cabinet, brings back to me is an interesting memory. It is the memory of being powerless and small. I am standing in the mudroom of the house I grew up in. There is a cupboard in the corner—that cupboard, like my cabinet, was a catch-all of many things that have no official place.
My mother is standing in front of that cupboard, and both doors are open. She is holding an electric pancake griddle in her hands. I walk in and stop in my tracks. I think my kid’s brain knew that there was a storm brewing. But I was rooted to that spot, staring at my mother, who was staring into that cupboard. I watch as her jaw tightens, and her grip begins to tighten on the griddle.
I watched the tension build, mesmerized, unable to move, much like one when faced with a tornado forming in the distance. You know that the tornado is heading your way; it is only a matter of time for it to envelope you. And then it happens so suddenly, almost like you didn’t know it was coming. That is how I felt when the tornado within my mother broke.
Trauma Storm Breaks
I wanted to run, but I was rooted to the spot, watching that tension reach the crescendo. There was only one way that tension would end, with an explosion. And then it happened. I jumped as if I could feel the power washing over me. She turned, raising the griddle above her head, a scream beginning to build.
That seemingly inhuman sound continued as my mother hurled the griddle to the floor. As soon as it hit the floor, she jumped on it and began jumping up and down. She continued to scream, taking many breaths to continue what I can only describe as an adult tantrum of epic proportions. The griddle did not survive the onslaught.
I stood there, still frozen, staring at the scene before me. I realized that I had started to cry at one point. I was unable to do anything. I was frozen in fear by my mother’s actions. I didn’t understand what had happened. Her reaction seemed out of proportion to a griddle not fitting into the cupboard. All she needed to do was move a few things out of the way to provide space for the griddle.
Memories Become Trauma
I think, even then, there was an inkling of understanding that it was about the griddle at all.
I now know that when my mother broke that griddle, her anger and frustration were not at the griddle. She stared into that cupboard, at her life, and it was a mess. It was that one last thing that didn’t work in her life, and she could not take one more thing, no matter how benign it was.
I saw my mother in my messy cabinet. That jumbly feeling of chaos that she was stuck. She felt trapped by the things that were out of place in her life. When she looked at her life, all she saw were mistakes. Those things in her current situation did not fit into what she envisioned her life would be.
That could be why, as I sit on my green step stool, that I am sad. I am sad for her most of all. How hard it must have been for her to rise above just enough to go to work. Hell, to even find a job, and to continue doing that, amidst the mess. It is no wonder that the smallest of things would send her into a rage. She had no way out. At least that is what she convinced herself.
Missing What was Never There
I miss my mom. I miss what she tried to be to me but was not able to. There were glimpses, and in those moments, I saw her as the person she wanted to be. No, I saw the person that she was. It was there, her true self, buried beneath the twisted, jumbled mess. She must have found a path through that mess and out of that dark place, and I would see her.
What I saw was a funny, smart, sharp-witted, and could she sing and play the violin like no one else. A classically trained opera singer, she used to wake us up as kids singing. There was no rolling over and ignoring that level of robust sound infiltrating my sleepy brain. The sound of her singing energized me. It also meant that she was in a good place that morning. A rarity even then, as she tried to keep herself from falling further into her darkness.
I don’t think I will ever get over what I lost all those years ago. I have an emptiness inside of me that I have tried to fill with other things, people, alcohol, self-harming behavior, etc. That hole that is there, I know now that it will remain with me always. There is no replacement for having a mom who was slowly being enveloped by darkness until she is no longer there.
I don’t have a magic wand that I can wave and make everyone feel better. I wish I did. The only things that I can provide are empathy and understanding in your journey. I do know that you have to make the decision to be the best version of yourself. Whatever that may look like to you. Here are some resources that I think can help.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 1-800-662-HELP (4357)