At a new moon ceremony this weekend, my friend and spiritual leader Kelly made the astute observation that while trauma will shape our lives in large and small ways, it doesn’t have to define who we are. While I have whole-heartedly agreed with this sentiment for years now, there is a third step to this process of identifying with trauma—one that I didn’t see clearly until yesterday. What is the third step, you ask? Let’s start with steps one and two…
Trauma—be it trauma with a lowercase-t or a capital-T—does indeed shape our lives. Acute, single-event trauma affects the neuropathways in our brains and shapes how we react in certain situations or to particular triggers. This can be a big reaction, a small one, or anything in between. Maybe your ex’s favorite song makes you cringe, or maybe you shut down emotionally anytime someone raises their voice. Trauma affects us in so many ways that we recognize or ignore. And repeated trauma, or complex trauma, especially in early childhood, can go so far as to change the shape and size of various parts of the brain.
In my experience in dealing with the aftermath of acute and complex trauma, I’ve noticed a pattern that has developed over the past 15 years during the healing process. This pattern has to do with how I identify or label myself in connection with that trauma. At first, I ignored it. I acted like everything was fine and I wasn’t affected until I my ideations were so violent that I could no longer ignore them. That led to what I now see as the first step in this identity pattern.
I identified as a victim. Yes, this may sound strange, especially if, like me, you grew up consistently being told to never play the victim. I remember authority and parenting figures telling me to stop being a “tattle-tale” as a kid when I tried to speak up for myself. As a young adult, people I looked up to criticized the “victim” culture they perceived from Millennials, so I fought hard against being a victim for many, many years.
But, it can be healing to identify as the victim, especially immediately post-trauma. Even years after it occurred, for example, seeing myself as the victim of sexual assault helped me to start the healing process from that particular trauma. As the victim, I was no longer able to see myself as the person to blame for what happened to me. It couldn’t be my fault anymore because I was the victim, not the perpetrator. That helped me finally let go of the shame and guilt I’d carried for years.
Similarly, when I finally stopped blaming myself for the medical trauma I endured in 2008 as part of a severe allergic reaction called toxic epidermal necrolysis, I was able to start emotionally healing from that experience. Others prefer the term “survivor” because its connotation is far more empowering than “victim,” but for me the term victim was more helpful. When I finally allowed myself to see myself as a victim, it was a true revelation. Being a victim meant I could stop believing the traumatic events that happened to me were in any way my fault. Letting go of that blame was amazing and truly freeing.
Wearing this label of “victim” or “survivor,” though, can be detrimental if you hold onto it for too long. While there’s no set timeline for any healing process, this beautiful anchor of identification can turn into something that holds you underwater. While the label of victim can uplift you out of self-blame, identifying as a victim can also hold you in a place of disempowerment. Being a victim becomes a liability when keeps you in a stagnant place of always looking for a perpetrator. Being a survivor is empowering and highlights the strength and resilience of the person who survived against great odds. However, keeping this label as a primary identifier can also place a higher priority on what happened to you than on who you are at your core.
There are so many beautiful lessons I’ve learned from my journey since my hospitalization in 2008. I have found such depths of strength and resilience that I never would have dreamed possible. I have learned how to appreciate and savor the many joys of every day, be they major achievements or the mundane. What I have endured is very much a part of me, but I no longer hold onto to the traumatic experience itself as part of my identity. I am strong. I am resilient. I live in gratitude and awe of the beauty in this world. But, I am no longer a victim of medical trauma. Unlike taking on the label, however, this second step of shifting away from identifying as a victim of trauma was a slower process for me. It wasn’t until long after I’d ceased to associate myself with the label that I even realized I was no longer in a place of victimhood.
The third step was a similar slow process, and I’ve only just now recognized the shift. In shying away from the label of “victim,” at some point I also stopped identifying as disabled, neurodivergent, and living with chronic illness. For a few years, these labels also felt disempowering and limiting, and I did a great deal to separate myself from them. After years of denying and then sitting in trauma victimhood, I spent several years disassociating from it all. I graduated with a PhD, my vision stabilized (albeit impaired), and my arthritis went into remission. For the first time in 14 years, I was able to live in the world like I was functionally normal. And, I took great advantage of that! I went on dates, I ate what I wanted, and I avoided my coping tools like daily exercise and meditation because I could.
I’ll admit, It’s been pretty fantastic. But, it hasn’t been fully me. The truth is, I do have a disability. I do have a history of mental illness and neurodivergence. I do live with the knowledge that my autoimmune disorders could flare at any time and knock me right back down to square one. Ignoring these aspects of my life is, oddly enough, just as detrimental as ignoring the trauma or stewing in victimhood. In denying that I live with this history, I also deny the courage and resilience that lives within me, just like denying the trauma that once victimized me also denied the strength and blameless grace that it took to survive.
Trauma does shape us. It does not define us. But, the beautiful person who emerges in the face of great adversity does define us. I am not a Victim. I am also not without trauma. Today, I proudly identify as someone who has endured more than I thought possible, and I am so much more me because of that.
How do you identify?