As I try to build resiliency in my life, an important element I’ve put into place this past year is reaching out to like-minded individuals—people who embody qualities I admire, and asking them to mentor me. I must admit that asking for advice is the easy part—taking the time to critically and honestly evaluate the advice, and ultimately adopt it—that’s the challenging part. In the midst of a soul-searching discussion yesterday, one of my mentors provided a succinct metaphor for me to consider taking on as a mantra while I work through this issue. “How can I extract life giving oxygen from the weight of the water trying to drown me?" In other words, how can I continue to be an effective advocate for survivors of childhood trauma, yet not “drown” under the weight of all of their pain and my own memories?
I write openly about my being a survivor of child sexual abuse and how the trauma has reverberated through my life in the form of addiction, battles with mental health, and relationship issues. I have been candid about how the disclosure process has had a substantive impact on my relationship with my wife of 27 years. Much of what is written about trauma, of any form be it physical, psychological, and even political, involves its effect on the individual directly touched by the trauma. But what is often neglected, and something that I am passionate about bringing attention to, is the impact of vicarious trauma on the lives of those individuals who come into direct contact with the primary survivor of trauma. These individuals are by no means "peripheral", as they too internalize much pain, watching a loved one working through post-trauma recovery. This vicarious trauma is often compounded by an immense feeling of guilt because they are reluctant to express their own anxieties and expectations, for fear that they will only exacerbate their loved one’s burden.
I was reminded of this again earlier this week when my wife and I had another authentic, yet difficult, conversation about the importance of not allowing my passion to help others to come at the cost of my own wellbeing and our desire to keep the communication open between us. The fact that we are able to engage in these challenging discussions is not only a testament to our commitment to each other but also the stark reality we face maintaining a relationship after one partner discloses that he/she is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
I’ve always been attracted to people’s rough edges—the part they are most uncomfortable with. For years, I assumed this was a consequence of my having to keep what happened to me as a child buried deep inside, and from my feelings of shame that manifest in addiction and mental health issues. The more I think about it though, the more I realize most of us are fascinated by the “contradictions” in people—the beautiful celebrity who struggles with an eating disorder, or a powerful politician risking losing it all over an infidelity.
When it comes right down to it, the discomfort I’m sitting with originates in my reluctance to “surrender” to life on life’s terms, or as Brene Brown would say—embracing the uncertainty. It’s a constant struggle wrapping your head around the fact that positive growth can materialize out of suffering, or that being hurt by a person does not mean that you are not loved by that person, or that the thing that nourishes your soul can also drain you and confound you. I came across this great quote by St. Francis de Sales that sums up exactly what I’m trying to get across here. "When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time."