Highly F*cktioning in High Trauma Situations

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“I cried once, in front of everyone when things got really bad. But that’s when your Auntie told me that if I could hold it together then she knew that everything would be alright. So I hold it together,” my auntie, the eldest of five girls told me.

I wonder if this swallowed sorrow is the fate of the eldest daughter. I’ve seen this same emotional wall in Mama when she was faced with cancer and the breakdown of her body that led to her passing. I only saw her cry twice that excruciating year and a half – quietly, without sound. Mama was not the eldest daughter and I have also seen this impenetrable forcefield reflected in many of my aunties at different times.

I was raised by women who held their cries in to hold the family together. We are a family of hidden sacrifices. I am trying to unburden myself from the emotional secrets I have taken on.


Emotions were dangerous when I was growing up because I navigated so many highly traumatic situations. I learned to disassociate – to disconnect from my body and exist outside of myself. As I got older, I hid from memory through liquor, cocaine, and sex every time it threatened to resurface. When I got sober and emotions got real, I had this function that I called my “emergency shut off button”. If I was talking to someone I liked, and they even gave me a flash of being a threat I would hit the button. I could shut down emotional connections and mentally bury them in an instant. Someone seemed a little shady? Hit the button. You said something sideways in the heat of the moment? Press that button. Oh, you gunna apologize? The button can’t be undone. RIP FAM.

 I thought it was a superpower … but eventually therapy got the best of me, and I learned how to develop real feelings to have real connections. I sometimes miss the emergency shut off button, especially when I send a text to an ex that I shouldn’t have sent, but I wouldn’t trade the richness of life that I get to experience now for the button.

I learned how to cry. Let me clarify, I could cry before but it was for other people’s pain or for cinematic tragedies. I learned how to cry for myself and this was no easy task. Every time I cried I got angry with for not being able to hold it together. It took over two years of sobriety and outside help to feel comfortable crying without shaming myself. I’d start to sniffle, and the angry voice of the hardened version of me would chime in like, b*Tch why you so weak? Hold it together. It’s not even that bad.

I would take a deep breath and tell myself, it’s okay to cry. I have a right to my emotions.

So I learned how to cry and then I cried around. I cried with sound. I cried with snot. I cried on bathroom floors. I cried in cars. I cried in bathtubs. You get the point. I fuckin’ cried and made up for all those lost tears. I get so good at crying but I also get so good at laughing and loving too.

However, when traumatic situations enter the scene acting like we’re old buddies that learned how to play crib together in rehab – I revert back to the creed-of-no-crying. I am not ashamed of my tears when I tango with trauma but I do become like Mama and the Aunties.

When other people need tending to – I do not fall apart. I read the room and there is rarely the space for my own emotional release or collapse. Or maybe I just learned how to take up less space. Sometimes I think I am just scared that if I come undone in the moment I won’t be able to put myself back together – and then who would take care of all the people who need to be taken care of? Exactly.

I think sometimes this is interpreted by others that I don’t care or that I am untouched by what is happening. Matter of fact, I know it is seen like this.

“IT’S LIKE YOU DON’T EVEN FUCKING CARE,” my brother screamed in my face one night.

What he didn’t know is that when I feel myself on the verge of falling apart I mentally whisper to my emotions – not right now. I’ll deal with you later. I swallow the cries before they make it past my throat. I swallow so much of myself that I start to disappear so that he, and many others can have the space where my body used to be. I react to peoples needs. I grab hands. I tell people to breathe. I stroke hair and wipe tears. I calm down angry men who want to punch people in the face.

I have been changing a lot in the past year and have been learning to take up space but I still do not know what the right mix of emotions and holding it together is. In high trauma situations I become what everyone else needs me to be. Sometimes this is still called for (when I am further outside of the situation I can decenter myself) and necessary but there are times when I need to take up the damn space (when I am very directly impacted I can center myself).

What I Actually Have Learned and Yes I Am a Work In Progress:

  1. Trauma and memory live in the body. When I tell my emotions that I will deal with it later I must take the time to get quiet and try to locate where it lives in my body. I get quiet and will close my eyes and scan my body mentally/spiritually/emotionally/physically. Sometimes the answers come in the form of feelings, images, or physiological reactions – and I try to listen to what it’s saying and this means I get fucking curious. I am out here having whole conversations with my body. I ask what it needs, what is going on, and what it wants to tell me. I KNOW THAT IF I DO NOT MAKE THE TIME TO FEEL MY FEELINGS THEN THEY WILL FORM A POSSE AND RISE UP AND WHOOP MY ASS.
  2. When I cry, I cry with sound and I PULL the sound out of me. It gets loud. It gets messy. And it usually actually kind of hurts. I imagine that I am pulling a sickness out of me and the harder I pull the less I have to deal with later. Post-trauma work is WORK. I cannot emphasize how important it is to cry with sound.
  3. When I continually push things down during extended hard times it becomes harder and harder to locate my emotions to pull them out. I enter a phase of numbness and autopilot. I know that this is dangerous ground and I must exert EFFORT to release the emotional toxins because I do not want them building up in my body and creating illnesses or breakdowns.
  4. I do things that put me in my body. High trauma living means we are moving in a fast-paced way and to do some healing I need to slow it down and settle back in to taking up space for myself. I go for long walks, I sometimes do yoga (emphasis on sometimes), take long baths, and focus on my breathing. When I am in a post-trauma state I do not want to do any of these things but I force myself these days because I know what keeps me connected and I know that letting myself slip further into the abyss means I have to fight that much harder to get out of it.
  5. I only got four tips so help me out and let me know what’s up.

I also haven’t posted anything on here in ages so don’t judge me. Or judge me. Or judge yourself because you read till the end. IDC. But if you are like me – highly functioning in high trauma and trying to navigate the aftermath on your own – I FEEL FOR YOU. I believe there is another way. ‘Stoodis.

With love,

Helen K

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