A doctor explains to you in very large words the effect of trauma, of traumatization. You want to tell him you don’t know what he means by that, what he means by “Those who have experienced trauma.” Doesn’t that mean everyone? You want to ask. Isn’t the world just one big scar? But you don’t ask him that, it might only be more evidence of your traumatized mind.
“We define trauma,” he says, “as an experience that impairs the person’s proper functioning of their stress-response system, making it more reactive or sensitive.” He also says, “An infant who is neglected or abused develops a different neural framework. They might begin to dissociate and withdraw from everyday life. Because they are outwardly quiet and compliant they are often seen as okay and ignored…” You wonder why he says “they” when what he really means is “you.”
This whole thing happened because of one “triggering event.” You’d been quietly managing through everyday life. Wake up. Bed check. Try to get the last of the Fruit Loops. Walk to school. Sit in school. Walk around. Back to the group house. Eat. Bed check. Sleep. Sure, sometimes you lost whole days, sometimes it turned out to be Friday when it was supposed to be Wednesday, but didn’t that happen to everyone? Teachers ignored you, students (mostly) ignored you, you never caused problems. While the other kids at the group home smashed things and got in fights and stole alcohol or pills, you just sat there. So why are you here?
They say they found you in the middle of the street, they say you were trying to kill yourself, but it didn’t happen that way. You just happened to stop walking, to stop, to stay still, like they were always telling you to do, be a good little girl, don’t make noise. You didn’t make noise, you were silent, still. So what’s the problem? You closed your eyes, and felt the wind of the cars fly by you. And then there was the screeching of tires, and horns and yelling. You covered your ears with your hands, because it was too much noise. You heard the sirens, but there were often sirens. Later you felt the air of someone speaking to you, close to your face, but you didn’t open your eyes. He started to shake you but you kept your hands up against your ears, kept your eyes closed. They must have pulled you away, must have put you in handcuffs (for your safety), must have covered your head as they pushed you, gently, into the back of the car.
In a room at the station it was quiet, so you opened your eyes. There was a woman sitting there. “Why’d you try to kill yourself?” she asked. You didn’t answer because she wasn’t talking to you. She got frustrated, you saw it in her face, and closed your eyes again.
Eventually, they brought you back to the group home but they didn’t make you go to school the next day. And then finally someone brought you here, to this man with the gray beard and glasses, and corduroy pants. He is sitting on the ground, which seems very strange for a grown-up to do, but you try not to think about it because you don’t like strange.
He’s still talking. “People who have experienced trauma, especially children, need to be able to control how and when they tell their stories. Only the child knows what the proper time and method of revisiting trauma is.” You think he’s talking about you again but he’s using all the wrong words. He calls you a child, but you figure you probably haven’t been a child for fifteen years. Although you also know they’ll call you that for the next three, when you turn from “child” to “no one.” He also tells you, “You can control when and how to tell your story,” but what he really means is “tell me now.” And he waits.
You know what he wants you to say. You know he’s read your chart, he knows your story, and he is almost whispering the words, willing you to say them because that will prove that he is right and you are “traumatized” but he can and will fix you. Triumph. He wants you to say it so bad and you don’t want to disappoint him so you begin to speak.
“Dawn Almarez died during childbirth. She was only 14 and didn’t go to the hospital. Her mother lived with a boyfriend, he bred pitbulls to fight. The grandmother was 30 years old. She was addicted to methamphetamines. The grandmother’s boyfriend was arrested for abusing his dogs in public. They found drugs on him. They raided the house and found a two year old infant in a dog kennel in an empty room. They took the infant to CPS and it was placed in a foster home.”
You stop speaking because the man is looking at you in a strange way.
He speaks. “You were the infant.” You feel guilty, like he’s caught you in some way, like you told the story all wrong, and he’s disappointed anyway.
Obediently you say, “Yes, I was the infant.” You feel your heart begin to race you don’t want to be in this room anymore.
“You weren’t even crying,” he says. “But that’s not unusual. You had evidence of abuse. Infants can not fight or flee from a perceived threat. Their impulse is to cry for an adult. However, most likely whenever you cried for an adult, you were abused. So you stopped crying.”
He is proud of this understanding, and you nod because you don’t want to take that from him.
That was the story he wants you to tell, so you tell it, you have it memorized, but none of it is from your memory. It is only words on a page, a history that may or may not have existed. Everyone has sad stories.
“What about growing up?” he asks you.
You don’t answer him, even though you want to, because you don’t know what he means. Growing up. You did grow, up- once you were small, now you are five feet two inches. You wonder if that’s what he means, if he wants you to tell your height but you doubt that he does. And the doctors tell you you’re too small anyway, only 95 pounds they say, always disappointed, so you don’t want to bring that up, he’s already disappointed in you.
“Foster care? The group homes?” He is trying to prompt you, like you’ve forgotten your lines and he wants you to remember.
You remember being five years old and climbing onto the kitchen counter in the middle of the night. You remember finding a can of tuna and stabbing it with scissors until it opened enough to eat it. They had forgotten to feed you again. When the teacher asked about the cuts on your hands, you just shrugged, you’d never noticed them before.
You wondered if that’s the kind of story he’d like to hear, but you don’t have the energy to tell it.
You stay silent and he continues to watch you, waiting. Your heart beats faster and you begin to sweat. It’s hard to breathe.
He looks away. He sighs. “A traumatized child can recover. But it takes time. And patience. The most important thing is to get the child connected to something- family, community, friends, school….” You want to ask him how you can connect to something you don’t have.
He smiles and puts a hand on your shoulder that feels like it’s a million pounds and burns like fire. You close your eyes and tell yourself not to flinch, you tell your lungs not to close.
As he says goodbye to you in the doorway, he gives a smile like he is full of hope for you. You want to cry, because you know he’s wrong, and there is no hope for you. But you don’t cry, because good little girls don’t cry.
So you turn from the door although turning feels like it takes all of the energy you have. You tell your feet to move.
You walk into the street.
KRISTEN POITRAS is a graduate of San Francisco State University with a BA in Creative Writing. She has had a lifelong love of writing and working with/helping others. She currently lives in the Napa Valley in Northern California enjoying the grapes and working as an education coordinator at an alternative middle and high school. She previously worked for two years as a high school English teacher at a traditional school combining her love of literature and working with youth. She plans to attend graduate school for a Masters in School Psychology Counseling and Education. In the future, she will continue writing while also devoting her time and effort to youth in need.
ALLEN FORREST has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books, is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University’s Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection. Forrest’s expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements, creating emotion on canvas.