How To Deal With Trauma When It Strikes From Nowhere

Em Unravelling

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It was a perfectly innocuous TV show that did it for me. A random tired choice, on a rainy and very ordinary Monday night, and the show was the new BBC adaptation of David Nicholls’ 2014 novel, Us.

The first episode begins — spoiler alert! — with a middle-aged woman, late at night, turning to her husband in bed and quietly explaining that she believes their marriage has come to an end and that they should part. Their son is leaving home in a few weeks and, as she calmly and gently explains, she does not think their marriage has a future. Not without the shared task of parenting to link them.

She still loves her husband — she makes that very clear. “But we don’t talk,” she murmurs, in a cracked voice. “Of course, we talk about renewing the car insurance and who’s put the bin out. But we don’t talk about the important things. It’s not enough.”

Her husband is blindsided. “I do think it’s enough,” he responds, panicking. “I don’t think it’s run its course at all. I love you. I think I imagined us using the future to maybe travel a bit more, spend our evenings together on weekdays, work a bit, and then we’d get much older and we’d look after each other as we got frailer and, well, I guess, then one of us would die!”

I watched this scene play out and I felt my breathing get shallow. Soon, I was sobbing openly. I could suddenly remember all the details of the book from when I’d read it, years before.

I remembered how well it conveyed the way I had been starting to feel myself at the time I read it. That panicky sense of time running out and “is this it?” that built within me as my children grew up and the future loomed with a new urgency.

I also remembered how keen I had been for my husband to read the book when I finished it. I had told him that I believed the couple in the book could be us in ten or fifteen years’ time. I had hoped as he read it that it would lead to some kind of understanding from him, or at least to more conversations about how I felt.

So many times in those years, I had tried to start this same conversation about the desperate panic I was starting to feel. So many times, he listened but with a slight smile on his face; or he told me with confidence that he was sure I would feel differently when my nest actually emptied; or he predicted that I would have changed my perspective by the time I actually reached forty.

He was trying to reassure me, but I just felt that I was not being heard. It added to the desperation and compounded my sense of disconnection. Watching the TV adaptation of the story, I remembered all of this, and I couldn’t stop crying.

The pain behind my tears was complicated. I was crying for so many reasons.

I was crying for my early-thirties self, my confusion about my complicated feelings. I was crying for my inability to communicate properly with my husband in those years, and for the fact that I dealt with everything so badly as a result.

I was crying for the bare truth played out in the scenes on the TV and for the stark portrayal, right there on the screen, of my own genuine belief that the second half of life matters, that things like real conversations and exciting travel still matter in a long marriage.

I was crying, too, for the memory of the way I had felt back when I believed my husband didn’t truly see me. I was crying because I could remember how viscerally lonely I had felt then.

I was also crying with relief, because I don’t feel that way anymore, and because we had found a way back to each other, even after I behaved so badly.

Of course, my husband could see how upset I was. I was sobbing right next to him on the sofa. And he’s not stupid: the conversation we were watching on screen could have been lifted from the conversations we had had during that dark time in our marriage and life together (although I had never gone so far as to propose we should separate). I could see that my reaction was adding extra layers to what he already understood.

He said, “Will we be able to watch this, do you think?” I said that I thought we could if he was OK with it; he agreed that he was. We carried on watching and my tears dried.

Later, lying in bed, we talked about the program. And again on a long walk with the dog the following evening, across fields under a pink sky in the heat of an unexpectedly warm day: we talked and talked. We were talking about the characters in the book, and how they were portrayed on screen, and how their experiences could have been narrated differently, and whether their reactions were believable; but we were also talking about our own marriage and our own life together.

Now, a few days on, I am strangely grateful to that unexpected surge of sofa-based emotion that knocked me sideways out of nowhere.

I was blindsided in the immediate moment by the way it seemed to jump at me as I watched the scene play out on screen. I felt caught out and angry with my brain for the way that it could return me so intensely to moments of trauma from several years ago. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go over those feelings again or that my husband should have to do so with me. I felt betrayed by my brain.

I felt that I was being forced, by the strength of my reaction, to confront feelings that I had forgotten having, and that I was glad to have forgotten.

What I didn’t realize, though, was how much better I would feel when the crying was done. When I was able to think calmly and talk calmly with my husband, and have a sense of re-packing old pain away in a lighter, somehow more final way.

Now, I think that sitting with these triggers when they randomly surface can be more healing than any real-time processing in the heat of the moment that the trauma first occurs.

When you’re at a distance from events that hurt you (and others) badly, being reminded of the way that you once felt can, I believe, be no bad thing.

If you are able to sit with the traumatic memories as they surface, there’s a catharsis to be found in being able to share the emotion more calmly, more articulately, than you ever could at the time when it was vivid and immediate and raw.

Or, if sharing isn’t appropriate, then letting the emotion percolate through your brain when it is no longer urgent and desperate can lead to a clarity of mind that was never possible at the time. And your own past behavior can make more sense when it’s viewed in retrospect. You might even be able to forgive yourself or to begin the process of doing so.

When I think about it, I compare it the way it feels when a love song comes on the car radio, one that you shared with a long-ago ex.

You might remember, suddenly, all the things you felt when that relationship ended; you might feel angry with yourself or with your ex, but without the pain of the breakup being so fresh, there’s solace to be found in the memory of the way that song once hurt but doesn’t anymore.

Our memories, sometimes, can feel treacherous, but they’re also useful tools to have on our side.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.

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