Sometimes it’s easy to forget how far I have come. Anyone with a history of trauma who is aware of its impact in their life might know what I mean. It’s like this: there are a lot of sounds, noises, smells and sights that I can enjoy with great relish and gusto—even those that used to cause me to hold my breath and freeze internally. I love the smell of a good fire (though I still have to remind myself that this is “now” and not then). When I hear sirens I can send up petitions for the safety of the people the first responders are going to care for. When I feel either knee buckle just a little I can lock it, and avoid the avalanche of images and internal howlings that used to come with every unannounced dislocation. When I need to visit an ailing friend or comfort someone in hospital, I can take a deep breath, center myself and be present for them instead of tremble and sweat and flee.
But not today. Today my housemate was sharpening the lawn mower blade, using a hand-held electric grinder, and the noise took me places I could not be, times I did not want to remember. The images were old and long gone, but were evoked by a noise so heinous I had to stop working on an overdue writing project and go to at least see what on earth was happening. And when I walked in the old, dusty, relic of a garage and saw sparks flying amidst the old paper, dust, and other flammables, my housemate with his earbuds in, I really struggled. I was, for a moment, in the fire. Only for a moment, but there nonetheless.
Thank goodness I know how to breathe, self-soothe, and put the essential nanosecond of distance between stimulus and response. Thank goodness I have been practicing a long time, working to make sure there is that distance between old primitive lizard-brain responses and what I know is more effective, more helpful, and preserving of relationship. The sound of the grinder had me wound up like a Chihuahua on go juice and without hard-won unlinking of traumatic stimulus and response, I would have been Pavlov’s poor dog, drooling itself into dehydration.
My housemate didn’t realize sparks can linger, catch fire hours later, lie waiting for enough air and fuel to fulfill their destiny of making fire. Like a lot of young men, he’s used grinders in places like that a lot, without incident. And he meant only good: to care for the ailing mower so he could make the yard beautiful. It was my stuff, old terror, reminders of sounds that had nothing to do with him. He has his own sounds and smells and sights to wrangle, and these were mine – mine that caused my eyeballs to pop out on springs and my eyebrows to crawl up my grizzled head, and the veins in my neck to bulge like garden hoses in that moment.
It was my stuff that gave me an opportunity to do everything I have practiced: slow down my pace, stretch my breathing, smile and unpucker.
He’s fine. The garage is fine (the mower is still ailing, we are both sad to say). Sparks did not fulfill their destiny this day. He now has my portable bench to use outside the garage when he needs to grind things. And I am grateful for his care and respect of our tools and our space. That means a lot to me. Seldom do you find a housemate of enough valor and compassion to be able to say to them, honestly, “I am frightened by this. It is dangerous to do this inside. I have been in fires. I have had people I love deeply die in fires. And I can barely tolerate the noise of grinding because of it. It reminds me of things I cannot speak of. “
Even better, when they can say, “I am sorry. I did not mean to frighten you. How can I help you feel happy again?”
Communities of care—your house, caring people, a neighborhood, even the self which, believe me, can be a community: these systems are either informed about or ignorant to the impact of traumatic events. We talk about how big things scare us so badly we can’t sleep. We talk about how good it is to have each other in this house. How we know the other’s footfall coming in the door. We have even changed, temporarily, which door we use to come and go to accommodate a robin who has built her nest now full of eggs atop the light fixture on the back door. The front door has no tinkly bell on it, and I sleep with one ear awake, listening for when he comes in. I know when he leaves early each day to go to work.
In a house whose occupants, neighbors, neighborhood is more trauma-responsive than some, peace returns more quickly and there are no leftovers, no saved stamps, no additional burdens added to anyone’s life.
By living held in this trauma-responsive system, our lives and the lives of those around us are lifted. These ways of responding are vital, viral, and impact everything around us from far-flung people to the mirror neurons in our brains.
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Elizabeth Power, M.Ed., CEO of EPower & Associates, Inc. is a sought-after speaker, facilitator, teacher, and consultant. Her firm's specialty is helping organizations make and manage change through learning and doing. Her mastery of diverse interests and innovation has been recognized worldwide through awards and publications across a wide spectrum of disciplines. Her firm provides services in the mental health and disability communities and to early childhood educators, families, parents and teachers.Like this author?