I have been told by those who know me that I can be an a$$. That’s fair; I own that. It’s not my defining trait, but sometimes it’s true. Once I was happy and personable and eager to please. But a failed career, a bankruptcy, a divorce, and a dozen years of depression has dulled the light in my eyes. I’ll bet you can relate.
This piece is dedicated to you – the people who are broken.
Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes I get sad. Sometimes I struggle with thoughts of suicide. I live in a small town, hundreds of miles away from my family. I have friends here and there, but you know how it is when you’re past a certain age and still single. All the people you know are married, or they have kids, or they’re married and have kids. They only have time for themselves. Me, I have plenty of time for others. It’s just that nobody wants it.
I don’t smile as much as I used to. I am quick to anger. My sarcasm has an edge to it. I think a lot about getting even. I’ve lost my sense of humor — my old one, anyway. It’s darker now. Sometimes I can’t sleep. The weight of the world makes it difficult to breathe.
Over the past decade, I’ve seen some terrible things as a counselor and first responder. Movies get this job all wrong. Some folks do have cushy jobs in air-conditioned offices with comfortable couches. But most of us work in the trenches.
I worked with a 5-year-old girl one time who had been raped so bad by her family members that she couldn’t help but sh*t and pi$$ everywhere she went. I had a boy who would get so anxious that he would take a razor and slice up his thighs — the part that underwear usually hides. When he finally admitted to it and showed the doctor, the nurses gasped.
Years ago, at my very first meeting at a home with a troubled 14-year-old girl, she confessed at the end that she had planned on killing herself that night. She had a plan and had already written her note. She gave me the noose she had made and started crying. “Will you let me help you?” I asked her.
I’ve got dozens of stories like those. So many broken lives, so many bodies. I see their faces in my dreams. Bad things happen to people all the time. I can accept that. But it’s different when it’s a child. Nothing prepares you for it. Maybe it should all be the same. But it isn’t. Trauma, it seems, is communicable.
Have you ever been at the bottom of such a deep dark hole that you found yourself screaming for help, only to have your words come back at you as an echo? Have you ever felt so isolated and alone that it seemed like your friends had met behind your back and decided to shut you out of theirs?
I’ll bet you have.
After a certain age, we seem to collect tragedies. We carry them with us, these grotesque souvenirs of our various failures. I keep mine close to me. They keep me warm at night.
Maybe you’re young — under 30, say — and you haven’t had anything horrible happen to you yet. Don’t worry, you will. One day, maybe soon. It’s not like anyone expects terrible shit to happen. It’s not like people anticipate divorce, or miscarriages, or job losses or extended illnesses. It’s not like we plan for those things.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a man in his late twenties. He was a client once upon a time. He was telling me about how his relationship was failing. “We can’t get divorced right now,” he said. “Financially, it would devastate us.” As if most people save up for the experience. He was young, too. He’ll find out the hard way. We all do.
One day I came home to my four-bedroom waterfront home. I had been out of state visiting my parents. My fiancé and my six-year-old stepson had stayed home that weekend so she could work on school. Except that’s not what she had been doing.
I came home on a Sunday evening to find moving boxes. Clothes. The bed. Furniture. Everything in boxes. My dog met me at the door. Heidi — my dog — looked so embarrassed. Her tail was kind of cocked to one side and she approached me sheepishly, as if it were her fault that my fiancé had ended things without telling me. We must have sat on the living room floor for hours before either one of us moved.
In the morning, the movers knocked on the door, a full hour before the coward I had been engaged to arrived to greet them.
“Where do we start?” the mover asked me.
Our home backed up to a lake. “Just put it all in there,” I said.
What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. that’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.’ — J.D. Salinger
I have a tough time relating to people who have their sh*t together. I’m more comfortable with the broken. I understand where they are coming from. They’re also just so much more interesting than “normal” people. Normal people are alien to me. They talk about things that don’t hold my interest. Vacations and stock options and preschool shopping. I prefer to hear about conflict. I’d rather talk about loss.
Everyone deals with trauma. It’s just a matter of degree and duration and frequency. Some get more than their share, others less. It is the way of things.
Children tend to get the raw end of the deal in this regard. If their parents get divorced, they tend to blame themselves. If their parents die, they tend to blame themselves. If their parents beat them, they tend to blame themselves for that, too. So many broken adults got that way because of things that happened to them when they were children.
The funny thing about trauma is that it is selective in who it affects. This is why some men return from war and go onto lead productive lives, and others shoot themselves in the head. It’s all about perception. It’s not how we perceive the event so much as how we perceive our role in it. Trauma, like pressure, turns some into diamonds and others into dust. Our experiences can turn us into profoundly better people — if they don’t end up killing us in the process.
This essay originally appeared on Medium.
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