I wish it was as easy as it looks in Taylor Swift’s 2019 video “You Need to Calm Down,” but it just isn’t for me, or for many of us. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching some of my favorite LGBTQ+ entertainers both literally and figuratively serving tea (or “T” for truth) while angry protestors with misspelled signs march around in a huff, but when encountering real protestors in the street during my city’s annual Pride events, I still feel a panic attack rise up inside of me.
Part of me, the rational side, realizes that these people touting their megaphones and signs pose no real threat. A very real part of me however cannot listen to the rational voice in my head telling me to calm down and enjoy myself. That little boy part is scared sh*tless, feeling like he’s back in his conservative Christian Sunday school classroom, his strict Baptist grade school, or at the dinner table listening to his father reading the Bible before he can eat.
It’s easier for me now than it was when I came out almost 15 years ago. At Pride, I can find many friends among the crowd, find allies who will confront the protesters, feel empowered. But, there are also times when those monsters from beneath my childhood bed pop out into my present life when there aren’t any allies around. Facing the scary monsters is harder then but this is getting easier too— I’ve learned how to serve stronger “T” and invite my monsters to the table. Many aren’t yet able to do this on their own. Some are still imprisoned by what I was able to escape or far worse than I experienced. These people are in even greater need of allies.
Six months ago, I created this blog in order to help people who, like me, are desperately trying to escape their traumatic past. When I’m talking about finding your way to a trauma-informed life, I’m not just talking about “T” trauma. While some of us have unfortunately been through incredibly traumatic events, many of us have endured what are commonly called small-t traumas on a repeated basis—growing up in a home with domestic violence, being raised by a caregiver with mental illness or substance use struggles, being diagnosed with a serious illness or even going through a difficult break-up. Trauma-informed living, in its simplest form means you recognize you have been through some tough stuff in your past (trauma) and this stuff continues to influence how you see yourself and the world around you.
Trauma, whether big T or small t, can rewire your brain to be hyper-sensitive to your environment. When something reminds us of a past traumatic experience, it triggers our brain to relive those moments. Sometimes the trigger is as simple as a sideways glance, a whiff of cologne, or the sound of someone’s footsteps down a hallway. Then, instead of being present, we are suddenly catapulted back to the original traumatic experience.
When we are triggered, we stop responding to the present situation and react to what happened to us in the past as if it is happening again right here and now. Our brains don’t know the difference, so someone observing from the outside thinks we are overreacting. In a sense, we are, but it’s because our brains are reliving the past, not here in the present. In times like this, we may need an ally to help bring us back.
As I’ve been preparing to share with a group of people in their Sunday school class, I’ve realized this is perhaps the main message I want to convey—an ally needs to be able to reach me when I’m stuck in the past and lead me back to the present. I do need to calm down, but sometimes I can’t do it on my own.
I’ve had many encounters with allies in the past several weeks. The Benedictine sisters were allies when they embraced me after I walked through their sanctuary (That Old Familiar Feeling), my friend Jodi was an ally when I sat next to her during the offering collection at Chautauqua (Change Takes Time), and my friend Marilee was an ally when she offered mom hugs during Pride this year (After the Rainbows Fade). It’s probably impossible to communicate what an ally does for you in those times of need, but perhaps Jodi said it best when she summed up what being an ally is in one word “presence.”
I invite you to connect with me at: WillKoehlerLCSW@aTraumaInformedLife.com or find me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.