The voice in my head, who I’ve named IO (pronounced ee-yo), doesn’t like the T-word. She says, “Don’t use that word to describe certain events in your life (such as being sexually assaulted by a tennis instructor). You’re going to get all fragile and breakable. All boohoo about shit. You’re a strong woman. I don’t want you to be defined by trauma. Also, nothing that’s happened to you begins to compare to what other people have experienced. What’s happened to you are only flesh wounds. Comparatively. Worse—they’re psychic wounds, which are literally not flesh wounds. Calling them wounds begins with the same letter of the alphabet as wallow.”
IO’s rough assessment is what led to a recent text-versation with a friend, in which she told me that she felt disconnected from me, “in the realm of trauma, because you have let me know that you don’t believe you are traumatized and find the word pathologizing.” She went on to say that she didn’t feel safe or free of my judgment in this context. Her words stung. I felt like a heartless ogre. The next morning, I woke tired, feeling fragile, questioning my relation to trauma—other people’s and my own, which is how I found myself thinking about my tennis instructor while riding my mountain bike.
I was riding up a trail I call True Grit 4. The trail has some steep bits and three short sections on which it’s always questionable whether I’ll make it or not (here making it equals staying on the bike). Questionable section one (QS1) went off without a hitch—smooth and still surprising each time I make it through the steep, sandy S-turn. QS2 was wonky. On a sharp left uphill littered with rocks, I rode up the wrong line, riding over rocks, instead of finessing between them, and almost abandoned hope. But I told myself I could still do it. And I did. A second surprise.
After two successes, I was feeling confident about QS3, so I let my mind wander to the tense text exchange from the night before with my friend. I started thinking about a pickle ball clinic I’d taken the week before. It was the first time I’d been on a tennis court since my long-ago lessons with that coercive instructor. Playing something similar to tennis. The first 15-minutes had brought back a rush of unease that swirled my stomach. IO was in top volume denial, telling me to get over it. As I pedaled, I thought about why I do not want to name that event as a trauma, even as my body was re-experiencing the self-disgust and shame.
And … I whiffed QS3. Normally, I’d just continue with my ride. But this day I was not going to accept the situation. I got off my bike. Hoisted it around on the narrow trail, walked it back 10 meters. Pointed it back up the trail. Gave myself a talking to. Gently. The voice of my centered, compassionate Self said, “You can ride this. Yes, you have every right to feel uneasy on a tennis court and we’ll talk about that. But this is not the moment to think about tennis.” This voice’s name is JG (yes, I name a lot of the voices in my head, because it helps create the distance that I need to get perspective on what they are saying).
I had barely enough time to clip back into my pedals before I was navigating between the rocks on the short steep turn that is QS3. I reassured myself it was okay if I didn’t clip back in. Lots of people ride mountain bikes now with flat pedals, not clipless. I was so focused on relaxing and not worrying about my pedals that I rode up with ease. I wasn’t thinking about tennis.
Later, I checked back in with IO. She told me that since the word trauma was on my mind she had been hitching on my shoulder for the ride. But when I got off my bike to try QS3 again and JG showed up, she went up the trail to watch my second try. IO said, “You looked great, by the way, relaxed and determined.” I was so surprised by her change in tone, I almost didn’t hear her.
On the mountain bike, in that moment on QS3, my psyche and body felt the difference between pushing away the name of trauma and accepting what is with empathy. Psychic or physical, our pain is real, not only a flesh wounds. Oh, and by the way, flesh wounds can be fatal. Why would I discount trauma? Life hurts. Life is not only a flesh wound. It’s a near fatal blow some of the time. Yes, I’ve been lucky, in the grand scheme. I won the lottery in my birth situation. But … my life hasn’t been a cakewalk either. When I insist on thinking of it as a cakewalk, I beat myself up about not being enough. Look at all those people who have overcome bigger obstacles than me to become great fill-in-the-blanks (artists, leaders, entrepreneurs). Why haven’t I done more with my life?!?!
JG says, “Compare and despair. Just stop. You are enough. Keep going, just as you are.”
JG says, “Yes, the tennis incident was hurtful and horrible AND you can keep going, not in denial or minimization, nor in wallowsomeness or exaggeration, but in acceptance and empathy, with confidence, with a spring in your step, with lightness and the grace of heated steel. You are under construction, not broken, and the scars not only make you stronger, they make you more beautiful. Wabi Sabi.”
That my traumas are not as big T as other people’s, does not relegate them to an offsite storage unit. The name of trauma is not in and of itself pathological. My wounds are part of me. Undeniable. Impactful. The key to flow in my life is finding the suppleness of empathic resilience. That’s what got me up QS3. And what got me home with joy and the zeal to write this. That’s what will open my heart to myself and other people. That’s what will get me up the mountain of life. Today and for the tomorrows.