When Teen Trauma Comes Up In The Middle Of A Pandemic
Two very separate yet corresponding traumatic events I experienced as a teen that I've yet to fully process came out last night in therapy. When my therapist asked me how old I was at the time, I couldn’t even give my exact age—I had no memory of what year it happened. After a little bit of math and ordering of events, I realized I was 19. Not my “early 20s" like my brain had assigned. I’ve always seemed to lump a specific era of my young adult life into my “early 20s”. I thought about why this could be, and realized that it is likely because I found both of my biological families when I was 25. Life as I knew it suddenly felt obscure, and nothing was ever the same from that point on.
My teenage years have always been a blur, but I can summarize what navigating them as an adoptee was like with words: Heartbreak. Grief. Rage. Excruciating. Loneliness. Suicidal ideation. Dark. Depression. Numb. And one word for my only life saver: music.
Severely traumatic events don’t download into our brains the same way as other memories, and it's not uncommon for trauma survivors to block out these events or their details as a way to cope with what has happened. I can write that sentence and discern, yes, that’s what I’ve done for nearly two decades. Actually understanding what that means is something I’ve only now started to dig into. When this pandemic first began, I found myself grieving over my biological mother—a lot. There’s been a lot of discussion around grief coming up during this time, but I was not expecting 2002 to come sauntering in with everything else, too.
I was flatly reciting the sequence of events to my therapist and avoiding her eye contact on my laptop screen (sessions are via FaceTime nowadays) while maintaining complete composure. I felt like a ridiculous robot. It sounded like I was describing what I'd bought at the grocery store that day. Why is it so hard for me to talk about still—and why is it so hard for me to say the actual words? In some twisted sense, a part of me questioned if maybe what happened didn’t match the words. It's as if somehow, I'd managed to disconnect the event itself from any kind of description. If the event couldn't be named, I would never have to confront what happened to me that night.
Words hold a lot of power. They've mattered so much to me throughout life, almost obsessive-compulsively. When it comes to sexual trauma, I'd always thought that if it didn't play out a certain way, then it didn't fit the definition. Even with an incredibly skilled and trusted professional validating the fact that this perpetrator knew exactly what he was doing—I struggled with my own words and my own reality. Denial holds a lot of power, too.
Shame asks us questions like: What if you weren’t there at the time? Could you have avoided this situation altogether?
But, no one should be assaulted, no matter where they are.
Perhaps taking responsibility on some level was my idea of escape. As a teenager just trying to keep my head above water from day to day, pain often merged with numbness, and things often faded into my consciousness. Ultimately, things in need of our deepest healing don’t just simply disappear.
It may be a baby step, but writing this has brought me one step closer. Our hearts and brains are fascinating—somehow they know when we're ready to process deep trauma, and it all comes up for healing. It doesn’t care what year it happened, or whether we're in the middle of a pandemic. I would not have been able to do this work last year, and I’m honestly grateful to be at this place on my journey, albeit difficult. There's been a lot of reflecting lately. A lot of learning. It's a brand new chapter.
I was expressing my frustration to my husband earlier when all of a sudden, mid-sentence, the dam keeping 2002 on the other side of reality finally broke. I let the tears fall freely, and my heart filled with such love and compassion for that teenage girl.
I haven't forgotten about you.