“Have you ever experienced any trauma?”
I was meeting with a new psychiatrist for the first time when she dropped that question on me.
I thought for a second. Well, I’ve never been raped or sexually assaulted. For some reason, that was the first thing that came to mind.
I’ve also never been in war. I’ve never lived through a natural disaster. I’ve never witnessed any horrific crimes or accidents or anything.
“Nope,” I replied confidently. “No trauma.”
Then she started asking about my upbringing. I told her about growing up with an alcoholic father, that it was tough but hey, whatcha gonna do. She pried for details. I told her that he passed away at the age of 51 from alcoholism, that when I was 20 I was planning his funeral, that it was a lot of years of shit but again, whatcha gonna do.
She cleared her throat.
“I won’t tell you how to perceive your own experiences,” she said slowly. “But I would say you’ve experienced a significant amount of trauma.”
I didn’t really know what to do with that.
Trauma? Me? My parents loved me dearly and took very good care of me (and my mom still does). Was it trauma if they still loved me? If I was never beaten?
I assumed everything I experienced was normal because to me, it was normal. Locking yourself in your room so you don’t have to deal with an alcoholic was normal. Worrying about where he went because he was probably driving drunk was normal. Wondering if he’d live was normal.
In hindsight, I guess none of that was normal.
“But I would say you’ve experienced a significant amount of trauma.”
My psychiatrist was the first person to give me ownership of the word “trauma.” Previously, I’d describe my experiences as “a tough time” or “challenging,” because so many people had traumas that were way worse. My experience growing up with an alcoholic felt like nothing compared to someone who survived combat or was physically violated.
But she was right. It’s all trauma — just with a different kind of “T.”
Big-T & Little-t Trauma
The concept of “trauma” isn’t so cut-and-dry, nor is it one big category that both my experiences and those of combat veterans have to fit into together.
Big-T trauma is for the extraordinary. These are major events such as war, natural disaster, assault, terrorist attacks, or accidents that leave a huge impression on someone all at once. It only takes one Big-T trauma to do some serious damage. These events create a huge degree of avoidance and distress that can impact every part of someone’s life, often leading to PTSD.
Little-t trauma, on the other hand, is distressing but not immediately life-threatening. Divorce. Infidelity. Loss of a pet. Financial insecurity. Growing up in a tumultuous household. These little-t traumas are so insidious because they compound on each other. One little-t trauma might be manageable; a bunch of little-t traumas can have a major impact on how someone functions. They’re easy to overlook and easy to rationalize; after all, someone else has it worse, right?
It turns out that my life was just a bunch of little-t traumas. Alcoholism: little-t. Financial insecurity: little-t. Parental separation: little-t.
After 20 years, those little-t’s really start adding up.
For years I’ve stuffed it under the rug. The past is in the past, I thought. But the past wasn’t in the past. It was here, now, with me always. It was in how I built relationships (or didn’t). How I did my job. How I lived my life with chronic anxiety, worried about everything, on edge about it all.
By accepting my experiences for what they are — trauma — I feel like I’m finally able to validate and work through them. I’m not pretending that the past doesn’t matter. I’m accepting that I’m the sum of everywhere I’ve been, and that I can’t run from that anymore.
I’m coming to accept that my trauma is trauma, even if it’s not as bad as someone else’s. Trauma isn’t a competition. You don’t win a prize for having the biggest, worst, or most amount of trauma.
There’s room under the umbrella for everyone who needs it.
If you’re dealing with trauma of your own, especially the little-t kind that others might not take seriously —
I see you. And I welcome you in.