Trauma is one of the hardest things for people to understand because it comes not only from major events that directly impact a person but also from witnessing traumatic experiences. Trauma leaves an internal scar in a person’s mind that hinders their interpersonal relationships and sense of self. This is a struggle that I have battled with my whole life since I was a child. However, I pushed it to the back of my mind, throwing myself into my studies and the fantasy world of books and video games to escape the turbulence of my parents’ relationship. Growing up, my parents were never happy and it affected our family. There are some aspects about this that I cannot explain because they are not my story to tell, but when I was a child there were plenty of unstable things that led to trauma that I am just now working through. For the better part of almost a year and a half I have been in therapy and have begun writing about my feelings again in poetic form as a means of articulating the voice I lost many years ago.
When I was a child, I experienced and witnessed my father’s physical and emotional abuse of my older brother. Every aspect of my life was controlled mostly by my father. I was not allowed to have male friends or let my grades slip. As my brother’s grades slipped, I felt the pressure to have even better grades, “flipping a switch” inside me to live for survival rather than myself. I was considered my dad’s favorite, but he had this unhealthy fixation with controlling my brother and me. My sister did not feel these effects because we spared her from it. My older brother and I shouldered the trauma, dulling ourselves to protect her. To this day, the effects have caused me to lose my sense of self, and it is because of this trauma that I had lost sense of who I was as a person. I focused on meaningless things like grades because they did more to give me self worth than my own existence.
As a child, everything pivotal to my identity became related to numbers and quotas. I forced myself to do what I had to do in order to be the best at everything. I developed a habit of picking at the skin around my fingertips, called dermatillomania, whenever I had feelings of anxiety. It got worse when I was bullied for enjoying things like anime that were “for boys.” When I brought this up to my parents, my dad laughed at me, saying I was making it up, leaving me crying on the floor of our kitchen. When I would speak up against my dad’s treatment of my brother being excessive or my dad taking photos of my brother and me after making us cry he would lecture or punch the wall. When I said nothing when he spoke he would yell. When I had passions, he made sure to tell me that they meant nothing, and that I had to adhere to what he wanted. “Baby, you’re smart,” he said. “You could go into the Navy and make a decent living. And you wouldn’t have to go into the Army where they send all the stupid people to go off and die.” If it wasn’t comments like that it was criticism of everything I did when I was not feeling my best. As much as my dad argued that he was protecting me and setting me up for success, he was like Ursula taking away my voice and opportunity to prosper in a safe environment.
Parents are supposed to be your first line of protection from the dangers of the world. However, my dad was always the danger. When I was younger, I told myself that trauma was for people who experience loss. As much as I grew up in a traumatic household, I would tell myself that what I was going through was nothing compared to war veterans. I would see my father treating me like I was this trophy to brag about to his friends while simultaneously ignoring the things I liked and squashing any dreams I had. However, I thought that was what parents did. To me, parents were always right and that was a damaging mentality for me to have as a child. Was my dad always right when he punched the wall in anger? Or when he would make me eat cold food when I wasn’t hungry until I was almost on the verge of throwing up? Or when he pulled half eaten chicken out of the garbage and yelled at me to finish it until my mom intervened?
I denied this reality because I felt that what I was going through was normal. Didn’t all kids get in trouble with their parents for not doing what they ask? My father would lock my brother in the dark; he would say things to make me cry; he would never support the things I genuinely loved and was passionate about. To this day, he doesn’t remember the name of my best friend since fourth grade. My dad would lecture my brother and me so much about a single menial mistake we made, and we were supposed to respond to everything he asked. Last year, he gave me two panic attacks, and through those panic attacks, I was expected to respond. This is when I realized that things were not okay. I was denying that I had been living in a traumatic environment my whole life. I was living my life in constant survival mode.
Writing this piece was very cathartic for me as it allowed me to verbalize the feelings that I had internalized for most of my life. Trauma is one of those things that either weighs you down for the rest of your life or builds you up to be a stronger person. Sometimes, it’s when we get kicked down that we learn to stand up. For someone like me who has problems expressing emotion, it is easier to write how I feel. There is no one to judge me without my consent and I get to control and take back my power and narrative. Writing this piece helped me to let go of fifteen years of pent up frustration I had with my dad. It is cathartic to feel, instead of just concealing and not reacting to things. This piece was the equivalent of emptying the metaphorical bottle I believe everyone has inside of them. A bottle can only contain so much and when filled to the brim it builds up pressure until it explodes. This is what I had done all my life. I was just angry and letting that bottle explode instead of opening it up and releasing its contents little by little. Writing allows me to be loud with words that I cannot say out loud because I’m not ready to.
The poet Gabriel Ramirez writes that “some things cannot be forgiven and some things need to be addressed head on to heal,” which means a lot to me. I am not the most religious person, but I do believe that there are many forgivable things in life. However, this trauma is not one of those things. I currently attend a Christian non-denominational church as one of the lead singers for the worship band, and one of the hardest things for me to grasp was forgiveness. I am reminded of Paramore’s song, “Forgiveness,” touching on depression and anxiety: “And you, you want forgiveness; and I, I can’t do it yet.”
In my church there is a belief that you must forgive someone right away for hurting you, but I have a problem with that. Gabriel’s words, that “some things cannot be forgiven and some things need to be addressed head on to heal,” resonate with me because I believe it is important to understand that a person needs time to really feel everything before they can forgive. I need to feel and go through the pent up feelings of being traumatized to truly move past it, even if I will never be ready to forgive for it.
In a lot of cases of childhood trauma, children can grow up with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (c-PTSD) which comes from prolonged exposure to traumatic situations, usually in childhood. This differs from PTSD which can happen in any time limit or from a single event. When I was growing up and learning about mental illnesses, I was only told about PTSD, not c-PTSD. Prolonged childhood trauma can be just as damaging as trauma from a single violent event. It can also bring to light other underlying mental illnesses that a person may have been predisposed to. In my case, that is exactly what it did. Childhood trauma has caused me years of damage in friendships, familial relationships and even self worth. Childhood trauma has a delayed effect on a child growing up.
I cannot form healthy friendships to this day. I feel guilty when people find me to be a likable person, because I cannot see the same things they see. I feel guilty when they are social and want to hang out, but the thought of leaving my room makes me want to roll over and go back to sleep. I feel as if I cannot live up to people’s expectations. I have trouble leaving my house and going on trains with people because I feel like I am being watched or smothered. Childhood trauma has prevented me and many other people like me from growing up into healthy adults unburdened by the baggage of their past. I live my life as if everything has to be under control or things will become dangerous.
Healing from trauma takes a few things, and it took me years to understand this. I had doctors scolding me for not going to therapy because many of my physical health issues were related to undiagnosed anxiety disorders. In addition to the symptons of c-PTSD, I also have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I started taking medication this January, and admittedly the process is not easy. I grew up in a culture where we are not readily accepting or have an understanding of mental health and how it makes or breaks someone’s life. What has helped me heal was talking it out with people who understand trauma even if they have no idea how my culture affects it. However, having my friends’ support has helped me open a door to discussing trauma with my family, so that they can support me. This opening helped me use writing as an outlet for healing, one of my biggest passions that I refused to let my dad kill.
Ariel Vidal is a poet and writer from Bushwick, Brooklyn. She graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2019, earning a BA in Criminology.