The trees have never hurt me.
A year ago, I was leaving my Team Manager job at an IT consulting firm to attend an annual therapeutic retreat. This would be the last retreat I would attend, after 11 consecutive years where a group of 30 or so would camp for two weeks, attend therapy groups, exercise together, make communal meals, hang out with kids of the adult members, sit by the pool, and attempt to rebuild trust and invest in deep relationships. Shortly after this retreat, I went to Yosemite National Park to spend 3 weeks mostly alone on a solo backpacking trip that I had dreamed of for over a decade.
This would be my transition trip. My transition from the tech field back to social justice and anti-trafficking work, from professional to PhD student, from the US to the UK, and from what I saw as a life focused on dealing with my past to a life focused on pursuing my dreams. My dreams, which are informed and sometimes hindered by my past trauma, are more than to cope successfully with my trauma. My dreams are probably like your dreams…to do what fuels my heart and spirit. It’s not that I hadn’t been pursuing my dreams up until that point. It’s that it was time to take another big leap – a leap that would require me to leave certainty, familiarity, and a whole lot of false beliefs that helped me survive as a kid and were still keeping my psyche together.
Today, I sit at one of my favorite coffee shops in Nottingham, England. The kind that I got used to in the San Francisco Bay area – artisan coffee, people working on laptops all day long, vegan and gluten free options. In three days, I will head out to a National Forest in the UK and spend 4-6 days with other outdoorsy, nature types, eating sustainable, likely vegetarian, food, listening to music, and enjoying the current heat wave. But what I really want is to be back in Yosemite. What I really want is the feeling I was able to have the day before I took the picture above. The feeling was pure bliss. Never before in my life had I felt so genuinely happy, at home, comfortable in my body, and peace with who I am and what I’m doing in the world, the unknown of my future, and at peace with my trauma.
“The woods have never hurt me.”
These words came to me on the third day of my hike when I was reflecting on the question: why am I taking this trip?
“The trees and mountains have never hurt me. People hurt me. The woods give me the courage to go back into the world.”
I stopped on the trail, amidst the spring wildflowers that lingered well into summer, and I sobbed. I sobbed and sobbed about how much hurt I have suffered at the hands of people. So many people. I sobbed because I felt grateful for the time, money, and capacity to spend this time in the woods. I sobbed because my happiest moments have rarely been with people.
As I sit in this café, transitioning into my vacation/holiday, I can feel my body yearning for that peace. I feel it started to release its tensions, causing me to shake and cry as I become aware of how much I hold all the time. My body lives in a relative state of hyperarousal all the time – a memory of existing in constant danger for nearly 21 years. A defense mechanism – my body is prepared to react at any time. In order to live my daily life in urban living, I hold these tensions. This is as much of a choice as anyone has choice…as I do not want to live alone in the woods my whole life. I want to be in the world with people.
My dreams are to live in the world, as my whole self, with people who also get to live in the world with their whole self.
My time in the UK, and arguably my life since I went to do my undergraduate, has been about living in the world. I remember applying to the University of California (UC) schools with the conscious desire to “explain my life and explain humanity.” I was seeking to understand, why were my parents abusing me and enslaving me, and why couldn’t I leave? Why did I feel so awful about myself while many people would tell me I was great? Some of these questions remain. They have also expanded to include: why do people enslave others, and what cumulative factors lead a person to turn to dehumanizing others? In what ways are we all capable of evil? In what ways are we all capable of generosity? For people who are able to exit trauma, what sustains us? What destroys us? How should we construct and change social relationships so that they nurture life and life-giving in all humans? Is “rehabilitation” possible for the people who commit extremely violent crimes like slavery?
These questions plague me because dealing with them is one of the ways I channel my courage to be with people. These questions allow me to funnel my anxiety and hyperarousal into a live-giving and self-healing purpose.
But these are not without its costs and pains.
One of the costs is the struggle and effort of trying to put into words the unspeakable. Most people who have heard me speak, know that one my well used quotes this one by Judith Lewis Herman in Trauma and Recovery:
“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud. This is the meaning of the world unspeakable.”
I suffered atrocities that are too terrible to utter aloud. I have had people tell me that what I went through is not possible and that I am lying. (Oh, how I wish that was the case.) These people do not understand that just as they wish to banish the atrocity from their consciousness, my own consciousness had to do that same for much of my trauma. Repressed memories resurfaced as I could finally feel safe enough to do so. However, the pain and terror that led to my banishment of trauma from recall memory, is the pain I must tolerate when these memories come to consciousness and when I try to put them into words.
Atrocities are unspeakable both because they are often un-hearable for the listener, and because the would-be speaker, struggles to find words. Either, there are no words to explain the atrocity, or my sentences with those words will still never communicate the true nature of the atrocity to another person.
And yet, I must. I must at least try. For me, I must try to communicate the experience of the atrocity of enslavement because this may be the only way for others to get closer and closer to empathizing with me. This may be the only way for me to feel understood, and to have the trauma witnessed, even if only after the fact and years later.
Cathy Caruth talks about how there is no true witness to traumas because people must dissociate from themselves and perpetrators must deny the personhood of their prey. Thus, people who hear the stories of atrocities after the fact, including the survivor hearing herself, are the closest witnesses there can be.
Can I witness my trauma on my own? Or must I have an-other witness it with me? Since we are social beings, is it not true that we only exist in so far as we are recognized by an-other? If no one every hears or learns of my story, then I only exist in society through the not-hearing of my story. I exist as a person whose story society has either implicitly or explicitly deemed worthy of banishment.
For my fellow survivors of slavery and me, this is untenable. It is untenable to live in a society that is either denying our existence, or maybe worse yet, aware of our existence but often complacent with relegating us to crevices of its psyche, only hoping that we will go away and not require you to face grave injustices and your own humanity and fragility.
This is what the black community, indigenous people, people who are poor, disabled, etc. have felt and fought against for years.
We all need to live in a society that can witness our humanity.
Maybe then, I will feel less of a need to escape to the woods to regain my courage. Maybe then, I can look into the eyes of an-other and know that they can hear me speak the unspeakable. Or, maybe then, I won’t need to speak, because the unspoken will have been heard. Maybe then, someone will see me sobbing in the middle of the woods, come up to me, hold me like the mountains do, and cry with me.
Maybe then, I can feel bliss and peace more often.
Maybe then, I, and hopefully we, can just be.