Surviving and Thriving

“What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.”
-Brené Brown

Part of what makes us human is our ability to think and feel. Our thoughts and feelings can either be good or bad, and our body automatically responds to that stress. We all experience trauma at some point in our lives. Here’s my story…

At the ripe age of 18, I was involved in a serious car accident totaling 3 vehicles and sending 5 people to the hospital. The drunk driver who caused the accident was caught fleeing the scene.

The next 3 years of my life was consumed with court, lawyers, interrogations, depositions, doctors, and physical therapy… all while beginning my first semester at college.

So yeah, I was in a constant panic, but I dismissed my experience. I didn’t have time to deal with it.

Flash forward several years and my health declined to a point that impacted my everyday life… everyday felt like the worst. Ironically, everyone kept telling me “You survived! It could have been worse!” I heard that so many times that I continued to minimize my experience and kept moving forward. I thought that I had made peace, but my body was fighting me.

In fact, according to countless studies reviewing the Adverse Childhood Experiences test, your body doesn’t forget and your muscles actually have a memory of their own (see Figure 1). While you might move on in life, your body never realized the threat was gone because you never dealt with it internally.

Dr. Sarah Scarbrough taught a trauma intensive class for the Quick Start to Construction program and explained it best: Our brain has two sides, the left side (your thoughts) and the right side (your feelings). Each side is connected to the other so that you can function every day. When you experience trauma, your left and right brain disconnect so you can quickly respond to survive the stress. This is supposed to be temporary, but with prolonged stress we can become stuck in survival mode.

The point of me sharing all this is to encourage others to look back in life and validate your trauma experience. You are stuck if you’re trying to cope by numbing yourself with drugs, alcohol, money, sex, or whatever else does it for you. You’re digging an unnecessarily deep grave by suppressing your trauma, and it will keep coming back to haunt you until you face it and lay it to rest.

These realizations have forced me to recognize additional trauma throughout my life. I was only able to do that by becoming aware and allowing myself to feel my feelings. I’m working on the forgiving myself for living in survival mode for almost a decade, but it was the only way I knew how to continue.

I stopped telling myself “it could have been worse; it wasn’t that bad,” when I noticed I’ve been telling myself that my entire life. It doesn’t matter if it was not the worst thing ever, because it was bad enough for me.

Clearly, trauma PROVES that mental health is NOT separate from physical health. Chances are, if you’re stuck in life and struggling on multiple levels… it’s time to call out your trauma. There’s so much more to life once you break those chains. And, yes, it’s scary to go back there.

Believe it or not, we are all in this together. Our experiences may be different, but our thoughts and feelings are similar. You can overcome trauma by talking about it through connecting and redirecting with others. This means connecting by listening and using empathy, and redirecting with reason, but without judgement (to yourself and others).

There’s also this term, resiliency, which is your ability to “bounce back” and recover from difficult situations. Thing is that resilience is not something we are born with—it’s a skill developed over time. You build your resilience through finding strong social support, talking about it, and learning coping skills like positive reframing or problem solving.

In 2015, the drunk driver who caused the accident that wrecked my life (sorry, easy pun), passed away at the age of 34. I can’t help but wonder what trauma he experienced in life and whether or not he ever had the chance to heal and recover… and I pray his death was not the result thereof. I would have loved to see him years later, thriving and helping others through his story.

I know I’ll spend the rest of my life looking to thrive on behalf of those that never had the chance. I beg you, do something and be someone different. Face your fears and rescue yourself out of survival mode… it’s your time to thrive and shine!

As Teddy Kane (REAL Grad and in 16 Bars the film) says, “I wrote this to inspire. I pray that it do.”

Written by Alison, REAL LIFE Intern and VCU Social Work Student