5 Steps Forward

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were inaugurated Wednesday. In the weeks leading up to that day, I thought about what that might feel like.

Would it feel like instant release? Would it be like a drink of water when you are really thirsty or like finally finding a bathroom after 4 hours in the car on a road trip? Or would things still feel numb and vaguely menacing, the same feelings I have carried for 4 years?

It mostly feels somewhere in between, and changes from moment to moment. Trauma changes the way we relate to reality. It warps our sense of place and time. It challenges the very notion of proportionality. Everything just feels…. off.

And let’s make no mistake about it. We have been through a trauma over the last 5 years as a country. We have lived through the rise of a man manifestly unequipped to lead this country through even the best of times, much less a time when the challenges that face us nationally and globally are so great. Trump failed at running a casino, where the house always wins. And he was “leading” the charge against a virus. It was never a fair fight.

Now he is finally and mercifully on his way out. We will have a chance to finally start to make sense of the wreckage he has caused and start the delicate work of picking up the pieces. 

But how? How do we move on after all we have seen, all we have felt, and all we have lost? Answering these questions is the task that faces us now.

If there is one thing that I am familiar with, it has how to move on from trauma. I have had lots of practice. I have survived war, a suicide attempt, raising 5 kids AND being a PTA president. I have had to end relationships with people I loved when those relationships turned toxic. Even the one with my mother. None of these things were simple or easy.

And moving on after the last four years of kids in cages and the return of Federal executions and the lies and racism and the constant war on reality won’t be easy either. We will have to recover in real time, even as we face all of the challenges that are here, and those that may come. 

For this week’s 5 Things, I will be sharing 5 Steps Forward. 5 ways to take the next step, then the next. You don’t recover from trauma all at once. It takes time. These are the steps I have taken, and the things I wish I had known when I started. I hope that they will resonate for you as well.

First Step Forward

Call it what it is.

The first step to recover from trauma is to name it and claim it. You have to be willing to look at what you have been through and say “this was traumatic. This was abusive. This hurt me.”

Maybe it is a toxic situation. Maybe you are in a bad job or have a friend that is constantly taking advantage of you. In order to be free of the situation you first have to be able to see what is happening and call it what it is. You have to be able to say, “this is not useful for me.” You have to be able to identify the source of your pain.

It may be that the source of your pain and struggle is internal. It may be something you are doing to yourself. The first of the famous 12 steps is to admit that you are powerless over your addiction. And it is the one that most addicts struggle with. God knows I did. I wanted to blame my substance use on anything and anyone other than myself. In order to get sober, I had to be able to say that I was an alcoholic. I had to take that responsibility.

In order to move on, in order to find healing, you have to first identify and proclaim the source of the trauma. As a country, we must first be able to say that we have been through a trauma. Covid has killed 400,000 of our fellow Americans. Most didn’t need to die. With real leadership, many would have survived. Our lives would look vastly different now. The needless loss of life is a trauma. A trauma attributable to the actions of one man, and the inaction of all those who were complicit in allowing those actions. And we have to call it that.

By calling things what they are we can start to have an honest conversation about causes and solutions. It is the hardest step. And it is one we must take. Without it there is no healing.

Second Step Forward

Re-set your boundaries.

Boundaries are important. So important that I have written about them before. Boundaries are a sign of good health. They are an indicator of wellness. And they are the first thing to go when things get toxic.

My mom - like many narcissists - was a master manipulator. She always wanted to make sure that the conversation was about her, and that she was the center of our thoughts. She did this by violating boundaries. If I asked her politely to not talk about something, it was the first thing she would bring up. When I called her on it, she would either gaslight me and tell me that I had never asked her not to talk about it, or she would just ignore me and push on. She would say and do things to deliberately push buttons, just so she could stay at the center of everyone’s attention.

For the last 4 years, we have had our boundaries violated. Be honest. How many of you have had a random thought about Trump (or some Trump adjacent policy or phenomena) at a time when you didn’t want to? How many nights of sleep have been disrupted because of fear or heartbreak or outrage? How many times have you cringed when you heard his voice, or shuddered when your phone showed another news alert? I know I sure have.

A certain amount of this is inevitable. We had to pay attention to him. He was the president, for good or ill. And it was mostly ill - literally and metaphorically. 

But y’all. After Wednesday he isn’t president anymore. And we don’t have to pay him any attention at all. No matter how outrageous his behavior or terrible his rhetoric. And his behavior will most assuredly be outrageous and his rhetoric terrible because Donald Trump needs attention like most of us need oxygen.

We have ceded much of our headspace to worry and fear. And it is not okay. It is time to redraw and re-set our boundaries. WE get to decide what we will accept from ourselves and the people around us, not the other way around. Boundaries are not about controlling, limiting or even changing the behavior of others. They are about reinforcing our sense of self. Boundaries remind us that we are in control of our emotions, and we get to choose how to respond to the poor behavior of others.

Think about the things that are important to you. Give thought to your red lines, your fences. The things that you find unacceptable. And then pay attention to who violates those boundaries and why. 

Then adjust your relationships accordingly.

Third Step Forward

Find support.

When you are ready to move on from something difficult, the first thing that you have to contend with is that it will not be easy. And as much as you might want to, you cannot do it alone. I have a few things that I say a lot. One of the big ones is that life is a team sport. And recovery is definitely a team sport.

One of the things that makes trauma so challenging is that it is isolating. We feel alone in our struggles. When I came back from Iraq and really started to struggle with PTSD, I was reluctant to get help - and resistant to treatment when I finally did go - because I felt like no one would really understand the things I had been through. There was no one who had to deal with all I had to. What could anyone possibly do to help?

That was trauma talking. Trauma and struggle feel so unique to us. Everyone has had a different impact from the coronavirus, from Trump, from climate change, and from the general state of the world. And we are all carrying something. And our particular weight feels so unique, we think that no one will get it.

And you know what? You’re right. No one will ever understand exactly what you have been through or what you are carrying because you are the only one who has had to carry those weights and bear those burdens. 

You are the only person who knows what you have been through the last four years.

That doesn’t mean that you are the only person who knows what it means to struggle. It doesn’t mean that no one can help carry your weight or bear your burden. And if you don’t find people to help you carry your shit then eventually you will become overwhelmed. Trust me on this one. I know what I am talking about. At least when it comes to this stuff.

In order to take the next step after difficulty and challenge we have to find support. We need people, activities, and institutions in our life that will help us find our footing. Had it not been for the leaders and the people of United Church of Chapel Hill, I wouldn’t be here today. And that is not hyperbole. The love and affirmation I got from those people helped save my life. Literally.

We can all get through all of this - and it is a whole lot - IF we look to one another and support one another. People may not know exactly what you have been through, or what you are carrying. But I promise people will help you carry it. All you have to do is ask.

Find support. Take the next step.

Fourth Step Forward

Shift your attention.

One of my very favorite quotes of all time comes from the American psychologist and philosopher William James, who said that “(m)y experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.” It is one of the truest things I have ever read.

Our attention drives our experience. One of the things that makes trauma and challenge so difficult is that they demand every ounce of our attention. We spend all our time focused on the struggle, and we miss the beauty and the joy that is all around us.

Difficult times demand attention. Difficult people damn sure demand attention. And in order to keep ourselves safe, we must give attention to the things that hurt and threaten us. It is how we protect ourselves and the people we care about. 

And trauma and difficulty are not all there is. There is light and there is joy and there is hope. Trauma tells us that they aren’t there. Because trauma wants all of our attention all the time.

The good news is that WE decide what we pay attention to. Not trauma. Not hard times. Not challenging people or challenging situations. The things that vex us may want our attention, they may want to define our experience, but they don’t get that power. WE do. We decide what we pay attention to.

The next step forward after trauma is to shift our attention. Shift it away from trauma. This doesn’t mean ignoring it. It doesn’t mean forgetting or pretending like it didn’t happen. It simply means not paying it every last bit of our attention. We have to save some for ourselves. And for the things that would seek to build us up, not tear us down.

Be mindful of your attention. It is your greatest resource. It may be the only thing in the world that is truly your own. YOU get to decide where you spend it. You get to decide where it goes. So, choose mindfully. 

Shift your attention to something that fills your soul. Challenge and difficulty and trauma will get by without your attention. They will always be there. And you can give yourself a break from them.

Fifth Step Forward

Tell a new story.

One of my favorite writers is Harry Crews, whose stories of people on the margins of the rough south helped me make sense of the challenges of my childhood and adolescence long before I had the spiritual or psychological vocabulary to describe them myself. He helped me understand the world better.

One of my favorite Crews quotes, however, comes not from his literary work, but from his appearance in a documentary about the “white trash” south called “Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus.” While the documentary itself is woefully uneven (I am not sure how you have any conversation about the American South not firmly rooted in racial dynamics and history, but the soundtrack is unbelievably good), the best part of the film is Harry talking. About all kinds of things. But especially stories.

Stories was everything and everything was stories. We know the world by the stories we tell. We know ourselves by the stories we tell. The reality we see starts as a story. Story is how we make sense of everything. It is how human brains work. It is how we connect to one another and the world.

The stories we tell ourselves have power. They have the power to heal us, to bind us one to another. And they have the power to destroy us - individually and collectively. The stories we tell create our world. 

When you have done everything else to recover from trauma, when you have named it, reset your boundaries, found support, and shifted your attention away from trauma, when you have done all these things, then you are ready for the final and most critical step. 

Tell yourself a new story.

Tell yourself a new story about your trauma. I stopped telling myself that I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, instead that I was a survivor. I stopped thinking of my alcoholism as a weakness or a moral failure that I was powerless against, and instead as simply an ineffective coping mechanism that I had the power to change. I stopped focusing on moral injury and started focusing on moral healing and integration. The new stories I tell help guide my life in a new direction, full of new choices and new possibilities.

Stories define us. They can change us, and we can change the world. 

It starts with a story.

Whatever you are telling yourself today about your struggles and your challenges, take a moment. Listen to your story. Is it true? Is it useful? Is it kind? If it is, awesome. If it isn’t, think of a new story. And tell yourself that one.

You are the author of your destiny. YOU are the writer of your story.

Tell the story that you choose to tell. 

Today, and all days. Forever and ever.