When I tell people that I am in the process of recovering from physical and mental trauma that I got while in a domestic violence situation, they usually have some variation of the same response: “I’m so sorry. You are so much stronger for having gone through that.” While I appreciate the sentiment, the trauma I experienced did not give me strength.
My trauma made me isolated. I stopped talking to people in my support system. When they would call I would either ignore them, or exchange pleasantries quickly, to prevent them from feeling the need to call me again. I would lash out at people who suggested that something was wrong, and ultimately pushed everyone away.
My trauma made me feel like I had to lie. I hid the truth of what was happening from everyone who loved me. Even when they asked what was wrong, or how I was getting so many injuries, I said I was clumsy and laughed it off. I lied to myself, convincing myself that I was the problem, and that it wasn’t a big deal. I compulsively started lying about every little thing: where I was, who I was with, what I was doing.
My trauma made me scared. I still jump at the littlest noises and any sign of conflict makes me shake. I have panic attacks with no apparent cause. I’m scared of people, of noises, of big objects. I have a hypervigilance that never seems to turn off.
My trauma made my self-esteem and confidence plummet. I don’t trust myself to make decisions, and everything I do I instantly judge myself for. I apologize for existing to my friends, and I don’t believe I belong anywhere. I can’t look people in the eye.
My trauma left me with long-term mental and physical issues. I’m still having neurological complications that doctors are having trouble figuring out. I still struggle with depression and anxiety. I became numb to everything around me, and was filled with dark thoughts that never seemed to end. I would struggle to get out of bed to even shower, and I would sleep for days on end. I didn’t find enjoyment in anything, and felt hopeless. While that has luckily ended, I still can’t make eye contact with people that make me even the slightest bit nervous. I have intense nightmares, and I still shake if there are loud noises.
Strength is defined as “the capacity to withstand great force or pressure,” with “withstand” meaning “remaining undamaged or unaffected by.” So you see, I was not strong for simply surviving my trauma. And when I am told some variation of “you are so strong,” when I feel anything but, it serves as a reminder that I was not able to “withstand” my trauma.
Strength comes in recovery. From withstanding the pressure to not heal yourself. From learning how to break bad behavior patterns that developed so that you could survive. From sticking up for yourself when you normally would have stayed silent. From choosing to prioritize yourself over other people. Recovery is where that ability to withstand force or pressure is tested.
I will heal, and I will find my strength again. But for now, I am shaken and sensitive, and that is OK. Strength does not come from surviving trauma, it comes from rebuilding one’s self. From withstanding all of the things that make it difficult to get back up again. From getting out of learned behavior patterns that were needed to simply survive. I am not “so strong” right now. But I will be.