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Opinion / Staff Leadership and Management / Storytellers

When The Earthquake Hits…Navigating Personal Trauma

As professionals in the field of education and youth development, we are often faced monthly, weekly, and even daily, with helping support and manage other people’s trauma. We hear the horrible stories, watch in live-action the day to day responses and behaviors of kids who have been traumatized, and often spend our days and nights urging others to seek out guidance and help for managing these almost unimaginable experiences. But, what happens when the tables turn and that trauma is our own?

Three months ago, I became a survivor of my own trauma, one that I would not wish upon anyone, one I didn’t see coming, and one that I could not have navigated alone, even if I had tried. While I will not reveal the exact incident, believe me when I share that it was deeply painful and traumatizing. I had spent years hearing stories from others, empathizing, nurturing, and trying to help bring both parents and kids through multiple experiences that seemed to mount upon one another in unimaginable ways. I remember thinking, I don’t even know how they get up each morning and keep going. I remember thinking, thank God, this isn’t me. Then suddenly, it was. Has that ever happened to you?

It was enough to rock and unravel my world, my identity, my understanding of the people whom I had embraced and supported in the past, and my core belief in everything I had worked for and built for almost two decades. As I sat in the office of my therapist, he reminded me weekly that I was managing more grief in a few short months, than most people experience in their entire lifetime.

It was supposed to be one of the happiest times of my life. My husband and I were coming upon our first wedding anniversary, I was five months pregnant with our first child, both a miracle, as I had waited many years to meet my soul mate and become a mom, having sacrificed much for earlier dreams of creating change in this world and making a real impact.

It came at me suddenly, unexpectedly, and like a ton of bricks.

The morning the first “quake” hit, was not a dark day. Rather, it was sunny and warm. It was a carefree day and then it came crashing down. It was as if I was a joyful child, playing and laughing outside with my friends, and the earth around us started shaking violently, opened and swallowed us up. Much like an earthquake, the trauma wasn’t a singular event, but one that continued to reverberate with aftershocks, time and time again, reminding me each day I thought I could move past part of the pain, that another shock was yet to come. Just like an earthquake.

The aftershocks lasted two months. Each day I would wake up, uncertain of what I would have to face that day. At first, I managed it as I manage most things, I compartmentalized it. Placing it in a box, only opening it, when I was able to manage my feelings around it. However, as the pain and the traumatic experiences continued to compound on one another, the box overflowed, and the lid would no longer fit and then like a wave it overcame me, taking me down, unable to breathe, unable to get air. It simply consumed me.

I was drowning in pain and grief and I didn’t know what to do. The feelings were beyond overwhelming and it was painful to even function each day. Thankfully, my supportive husband pushed me to meet with a therapist quickly.

He went with me to the first appointment and sat beside me as I fell apart on the couch. We walked out of there learning that everything I was feeling and experiencing was completely normal. The nightmares that woke me up with cold sweats in the middle of the night, or the insomnia that kept me up in a sheer state of disorientation and numbness. The mornings I would wake up crying for no reason at all, other than simply feeling emotional pain that I couldn’t describe or explain. The post-traumatic stress responses, often anxiety or increased heart rate, to stimuli that I would associate to one or more of the experiences, the sheer anger and hatred that overcame me and feelings of wishing ill will to those who had in some way played a role in causing this pain. All of it… completely normal. The only determining factor to the future was how I managed it going forward.

One of the key things I learned from my therapist was that I had to let go of needing to manage this pain on my own and to lean on those around me to carry the weight for a while. This is hard for me, as I was used fixing things for everyone else. At first, I felt helpless, like a burden to those around me, but after a while, learning to let go, allowed me to cope in a way I didn’t know was possible.

My husband is the best around. His strength, vulnerability, willingness to carry the pain and burden with me, and his innate tendency to protect and shield me, was remarkable. I don’t think I would be where I am today without him. He pushed me when and where he needed to, but also knew to let me grieve when I needed to.  My family as a whole stepped in, managed things I simply couldn’t handle at that moment and provided support to my husband when he needed it and I couldn’t give it to him. My incredible friends. They say “You don’t know who your real friends are until things go awry”. I fully believe this to be true. As I said earlier, a few showed their true colors, but the ways in which my true, authentic friends stepped up and stepped in was truly unbelievable. I was fortunate to have an incredible network of support around me. People who knew and loved me, who not only felt the pain of the trauma I had endured but were willing to help me carry it, in a time, where I didn’t have enough strength to do so on my own.

In the past 41 years, I could have never imagined enduring what I went through over the past three months. It wasn’t expected, it wasn’t deserved, and it wasn’t something I had brought upon myself. It simply happened. It unraveled so much of my world and my life, yet, I work each day to ensure that it doesn’t define my future. I continue to work to forgive those who brought this pain into my life, and I believe that someday I will be stronger from all of this, but today, I am still learning to live with it day-to-day.

Last night, on a warm summer night, my husband, myself, and a few of our closest friends and their kids sat on our patio until the late hours of the evening. We told old stories of the years that had come to past, reliving our early 20’s, telling stories about the kids today, and receiving advice for what is to come in our near future, as we prepare to welcome our little boy into this world in just two months. Throughout the night I laughed and felt pure joy and happiness in ways that I haven’t felt in months. The simple joy of remembering what is most important, of being grateful for those things I still have in my life that matter the most, and the joyful gifts that are around the corner.

As you navigate life, know that no matter how hard you try to control your future, some things are simply unknown. We all must face pain in our lives, sometimes it is temporary and fleeting, and other times, like an earthquake, it is life-altering. You can’t navigate around it, you have to be willing to go through it. Lean on those around you, don’t be afraid to seek professional help, be gentle with yourself, and remember with time all things change.

For breakfast I had cookies – I am 7 ½ months pregnant… the baby wants a cookie every morning! And then, a scrambled egg burrito.

Author: @annemarieg

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