Sometimes you can’t see what you’re learning till you come out the other side…
We were never taught to navigate through sustained stress or how to overcome our instinctual response to trauma. 2020 impacted all of us, and as we emerge from the depths of all this change, I offer a different way to make sense of the jumble that trauma leaves in its wake. A compass to navigate with. In these articles, I draw on my own experiences putting myself back together: the importance of being seen and feeling understood, the power that comes with accepting my own individual uniqueness, and the bravery to be vulnerable enough to integrate all parts of my Self. I am able to emerge from feeling broken when I find the beauty amongst the chaos. We can all emerge from the breaking, leaving behind what once was, and become unbroken.
This series of articles is a compass for when we feel most lost.
Part Three: Mapping Your Course
When everything breaks, we rush to fix it — trying to put things back just as they once were. No one got through the past 12 months unscathed, but people have never been taught how to deal with sustained chaos. We need to learn how to organize the jumble that these events leave in their wake. Now, as the world opens back up, we can begin to see just how broken we were — broken in a way that can’t be fixed. What do we want to go back to? Let’s not rush to the way things were. Instead, let’s reassemble our brokenness with new pieces and in new ways.
I have dealt with trauma before. And so, I have mapped out how I found bravery, vulnerability, and resilience by choosing to see the beauty in the trauma.
The chaos of the global pandemic, lock-downs, Black Lives Matter, anti-racism protests, sedition, and political turmoil have riddled 2020 — a brutal and profoundly uncomfortable year — with compounding challenges. For a year, we all have been collectively holding our breaths. We have been forced into intense feelings of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — and as these emotions continue to stir as we’re physically disconnected from everyone we know, has pushed many of us to a breaking point. We all have been burying our emotions throughout this entire global trauma — not confronting or processing them.
Confronting withheld emotions is a choice. You always have a choice.
As we try to start breathing again in 2021, we must call on our ability to bounce back and recover in the face of these unrelenting challenges — developing our resilience and our nature of can-change.
Awareness of our emotions is part of resilience. There will be no pithy Meme or a flashy Instagram GIF to create the change we need, no matter how much time we spend doom scrolling. Healing after trauma comes from uncomfortable processing, churning through all those big emotions we have suppressed and not yet dealt with. ’Cause, we don’t know how to deal with them.
The process of resilience to trauma is both fast and slow. It takes stillness and time. You are learning something new, so you need to start exactly where you are and take the small steps, building new habits to support the new you.
It starts with the bravery to be vulnerable. Our brains seek ways to organize and simplify complicated information when no other pattern is available. When we bury difficult or traumatic events, we subconsciously add meanings — meanings we haven’t realized the impact of yet. But when you articulate those emotions in the space of vulnerability — write them, see them, speak them — you arrive at a place where the patterns start to make sense, and you can accept or reject those meanings as you see fit.
Now we need to understand the meanings we have subconsciously submerged our emotions in.
The chaos of trauma shapes you but needn’t dictate how you live. It gives you a broader empathy for others and a deeper acceptance of yourself. My Multiple Sclerosis means I have no control over my body — no clue when or what part of my nervous system will stop working next. Sometimes, I lose my balance and stumble around, or sometimes my hands go numb, and I lose my sense of touch. Or exhaustion sets in, and the world becomes a blur.
Now, a year into quarantine, individually and as a society, we have seen how little control we actually have. You can’t pop out to dinner on a whim. That vacation? — not gonna happen. You can’t even get married in front of all your friends and family. Or buried. The chaos of trauma forces us to accept our limitations and find new ways to be in the world.
Because change comes with no warning. The lightning bolt strikes: you miss the green light, you skip a coffee date, or are sent to work from home — you soon realize that your tomorrow is swiftly altered. You must be ready to leave what once was behind, even if you found the past safe, secure, or comforting. We strive to be comfortable, and when that comfort is broken, our insecurities are agitated. The accompanying uncertainty causes us to question even our simplest decisions: whether I’m deciding to cook, or order in, whether forgetting how I wanted to plan a project, or maybe not even knowing where to start — I wrestle with not knowing what questions to ask first.
So let’s start asking questions. What in our World, our Societies, our Communities, our Relationships, and what in our Selves do we want to leave behind? And what do we want to go back to?
The World is the easy part, really — there’s no going back from Covid, so everyone just needs to take the damn vaccines.
How about in our Societies? Do we necessarily go back to the commute? Actually, I do want that back. My commute was my transition time — the time I needed to shift between my different careers and family responsibilities.
Today, I might talk to someone in my community, and I may be the only person they’ll see. Or talk to someone who broke down and cried before getting onto a zoom meeting. There needs to be space with room to breathe for all of us — I give it to myself, first, then I hold that same space for others. We need to prioritize both of those in that order.
My relationship with my husband has always been close, but now I’ll freely turn to my husband and say, “I don’t want to exist anymore. I’m scared for my mental well-being.” And he’ll sit down at the kitchen counter next to me and ask, “What’s going on?”
Becoming the unique badass I know I am, is what actualizing my own identity means for my Self. I can’t share only certain parts of myself to the world, anymore — I can’t compartmentalize myself into the Work-me, which is separate from the Family-me, neither of which communicates with the Artist-me. It means I must share my emotions, opinions, and stories with others — not try to exude what other people might maybe accept about me most. If I’m not my full Self, I won’t make my impact on the world.
When I’m photographing underwater, I free-dive. There is an anxiousness at the start of each session because I can’t hold my breath for very long. An hour or two in, however, my lungs start expanding, and I can hold my breath longer and longer. The short breaths that you impulsively take under stress heighten your brain’s fear response. When you take slower, softer, deeper breaths, that fear response disengages. Mindful breathing interrupts the natural stress response, and higher brain functioning replaces it.
In the wreckages of sublime beauty, I found the bravery to become unbroken. The first time I took a photograph expressing everything I couldn’t find words for, I looked at it, and I knew that I couldn’t keep it to myself. I wanted to share my photographs with others, others who maybe were feeling broken like me. The power of human resilience is the undercurrent in my art.
Now, I want to show others how I have found my way out of that trauma. I found bravery, vulnerability, and resilience by choosing to find the beauty within the chaos — reassembling my broken part with new pieces and in new ways. My message from the other side is a map for becoming unbroken.
We will find ourselves doing most of the same things, but we will need to prioritize them all very differently. Our natural instincts aren’t going to help us, but we can choose how we want to respond to chaos by pausing and breathing. You must create that space to breathe — the space to be with another person, exactly where they are, right now.
Being vulnerable is a choice, one you can choose to make over and over and over. But you must make this choice if you want to overcome your buried feelings. It takes bravery to be the only person like you. Because this shit’s scary, vulnerability opens you to judgments — from everyone else, but also from yourself. You must be brave enough to bring your whole Self.
All of this change might take a while after so much trauma. There is a newness, here, that we need to give time to develop. You can change, you can be unbroken, and it will take time.
How to use the map
Start with identifying where you are. Which can be tricky during emotional chaotic times, as it can feel like you’re all over the map. To figure out where you are, you first have to give yourself space to reflect.
To create that space, I start with a few slow deep breaths to interrupt the natural stress response. Then I ask myself, “what is wrong, with this situation?” I’ll ask that question a few times over till I get to one single thing. Usually it’s something I didn’t realize — unmet expectations — or something I wanted to say, but didn’t — undelivered communications — or something I wanted to happen a particular way, but it didn’t — thwarted intentions. I often find myself in the debris of discomfort and from there, I have a choice. I can choose to stay denying my discomfort or if I’m ready, I can choose to build my resilience and my nature of can-change by being brave enough to be vulnerable feel all my emotions, to understand the meaning I added to them, and then show my full Self to you.
Remember change comes with no warning — choose to be vulnerable and find your beauty.
It’s a gift when creative synchronization brings everything and everyone together. These articles would not have been possible if not for the guidance and infinite encouragement from Neil Sawyer, Nada Kannan, Lisa Gironda, Stephanie Booth, Asma Chaudry, Dorothy Levin, and Alexis Mencin. The hours of creative collaboration with Paul-Newell Reaves, Kaitlyn Shinault, and Jen Vax. And to all those who inspire me greatly to be a unique unbroken badass — thank you all a million times over.