I became what I am today at the age of twenty-two. Through my hospital window, I watched clouds float across a summer sky. I saw a group of people laugh together as they walked across the parking lot, flowers in hand. A lawnmower buzzed in the distance. Like it was any other day.
I’ve looked out that window in my dreams for the past sixteen years. And just like it happened in real life, I dream of how I look down to see my swaddled son in my arms, his eyes studying the nuances of my face. That night I was back in my own bed, my son three hundred miles away in his new crib, his adoptive parents most likely hesitant, not sure if they should celebrate or wait to see what would happen. They already had one baby snatched from them before the papers were signed. I did sign the papers – in a morose, mesmerized state, I left the courthouse, the trauma of losing my son building as I faced years of reminders: framed pictures, judgment, screaming family members. I still cry to think of that time.
Let’s talk about surviving your trauma. Perhaps you’ve dealing with it on your own. Perhaps you’ve finally enlisted a shrink. Maybe it goes deeper than that and you need intensive therapy.
Or maybe – happy day- you’ve been given a clean bill of health. Cured. Over It. Go Home and Get On With the Rest of Your Life. You’re mentally well. You’re healthy. Like a cancer survivor or a transplant recipient with a second lease on life.
But guess what? Here’s a mistake a lot of us make. Even when you’ve received the help you need, when you’re fit as a fiddle once again, you need to recognize what it takes to be the new you –because it’s not over. Survival is a process, not an end.
Cancer survivors live through years of ‘foggy brain’ and weakened teeth and bones after chemo. They live through people ignoring what happened now that it’s over. They survive hurtful comments about physical differences like scars or muscular weakness. They are still surviving even if they’re cancer free.
For mental illness, the process of survival is as real. Listening to others deny the trauma – especially as you seem to be so happy; offensive jokes about mental illness minimize a lingering, painful period of your life, and surviving years of explaining your scars and ignoring the judgment in people’s eyes.
This idea of applying survivorship to trauma stems from a post I read by Lacuna Loft’s founder Mallory. Even as we move beyond a trauma, remnants remain. In your peripheral vision, the new you catches glimpses of trauma’s shadow hanging out on foggy outer banks. There’s no going back to the way it was before a traumatic event.
I met Cathy through my latest book project Who I Am: American Scar Stories. Writing Cathy’s story, explaining her scars, her childhood, her passion for Christ, taught me once again how everyone has a story. Many of those stories are quiet ones, ones of the process of survivorship.
For me, it’s hearing a negative comment about birth mothers by people who don’t know any better and slipping into a slump or the anxiety of thinking about my biological son never contacting me when he moves onto college and has children of his own. Sometimes I get shaky when I think about losing my other son and my daughter. But letting go of what-ifs outside of my control is one thing I’m learning about my process of survivorship.
The process became easier for me over the past year because of the twelve people in my book.
Because writing makes me feel better. And because each person taught me something even if they don’t all call themselves survivors.
Methods of survivorship by those in Who I Am: American Scar Stories:
1. Take whatever makes you want to curl up and hide. Take it to a stage and teach other people about your experiences. Talk to kids about it so they don’t feel alone
2. Engage in the impossible: learn to walk again and become a world champion athlete. Raise money along the way to support all the other people suffering from the same
3. Start a blog, raise awareness for others through your writing and money to find healing
4. Change one thing in your life that makes a positive impact every day. For Omar that means trying one new thing a day and capturing it with a photo. For me it means getting outside for 20 minutes and being present. For Cathy that meant reading one bible passage a day.
5. Start a business that builds on your past experiences. Help others with whatever you’re
6. Travel. See the world.
7. Show gratitude. Show gratitude. Show gratitude.
To hear more from Jenny or find out about her latest book:
Join her community @ www.jennycutlerlopez.com
Find quotes, portraits, and scar info at the book’s official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/americanscarstories
Semi-humorous tweets @jcutlerlopez