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Trauma robs you of your story

Updated: Feb 9

Collage of torn, wrinkled sayings that together make no sense, like an incoherent story

It’s February again. That means I’m closing in on four years since my major mental breakdown and the radical change that continues as I recover.


You’ll remember that February too. It probably marked the first time you heard of a coronavirus, or the first time you paid attention when the term came up. You probably remember the flu too – it was awful that year. But very few of us were worried yet, except if you worked in health care. We couldn’t even articulate the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic.


My quarantine started early. It began when I woke up to a what turned out to be a three-week leave of absence from work – a merciful, partially-paid window of time off during which I planned to heal, get myself in order, then report back to the office with my neural faculties restored. HA!


Four years on, I am still recovering. In the years since, I’ve been writing and rewriting my story of what happened, and I still can’t make sense of it. What I write fluctuates from microscopic details to vast generalizations. Grasping for anything between – insights, learnings, coherence – yields few successes.


I also lose time. I write thousands of words, but none of them amount to a story. And I can’t stop myself from switching into present tense.

Anyone familiar with trauma will recognize exactly what’s happening:


  • Trauma gets stuck in your nervous system as if you’re still living it.

    • When people slip into present tense, part of their nervous system is reliving the memory and associated sensations in the now.

  • A hallmark of PTSD is the flashback in which a survivor mentally returns to the site of their trauma even though it was years ago and miles away.

    • In this state, they are not conscious of their present surroundings nor in control of their behaviors.

    • They also lose time.

  • “Traumatic events are almost impossible to put into words.” This is a direct quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s magnificent book The Body Keeps the Score. 

    • Translating memories into words requires coordination from both hemispheres of the cognitive brain.

    • If sensations associated with the memories overwhelm the brain stem or limbic system, they will bypass the cognitive brain entirely.

    • The result is cognitive incoherence.


The truth is, I’ve wanted badly to believe that my breakdown wasn’t a real trauma.


  • I’ve blamed it on midlife crisis.

  • I’ve chalked it up to burnout.

  • And I’ve blamed it on earlier traumas that were easier to explain.


But it was a real trauma, and a big one too. It’s hard for me to admit it.

Let's talk about Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) for a minute.


There’s something important you need to know about recent neuroscience research: Emotional trauma has been proven to cause measurable changes in the brain on par with mild to moderate head trauma.


Let me say that a different way: Emotional trauma on its own, without physical impact to the skull, can cause a TBI.


I didn’t know any of this at the time. But I knew something awful was happening in my head when I sat down to talk to a crisis counselor on Feb 12, 2020. I told her it felt like my brain exploded, and no structure or form was left. She thought I was being metaphorical, but I was describing a real, felt sense unfurling within my skull.


Here’s what I know now: What happened to me that day was a fundamental realignment in my brain due to emotions so intense that they dealt a blow to my central nervous system – my brain.

It is no coincidence that sometimes, after trying to make sense of my memories, I get a headache exactly like the ones that followed my two probable concussions. The headache is a somatic flashback, a clear sign that the trauma is still alive in my body.


Four years on, I hoped I could talk openly about my experience, but I can’t. I also know better than to force it.

If you’d told me then that I’d still be recovering from the breakdown today, it might have killed me. But the person I’ve become knows this is how it is to heal from trauma. It takes time, growth, perspective and self-acceptance. There is no skipping steps to get ahead. There is only commitment to continue the work.

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