When Life Hands You Lemons, Write a Journal Article: An Exploration into Navigating Trauma as a Academic

In this post, a researcher studying the experiences of, reactions to, and management of trauma reflects on the ways these topics intertwine in their life and work over time. 

 

It was my turn to visit you. I canceled the day before and said finals were killing me. You said you would see me next time. Finals didn’t kill me. I made the Dean’s list that semester.

Finals didn’t kill me. I made the Dean’s list that semester.

Finals didn’t kill me. I made the Dean’s list that semester.

Finals didn’t kill me. I made the Dean’s list that semester.

This phrase rang through my head abruptly at 4:21 a.m. on a breezy, Wednesday morning in April. I can’t sleep. I can’t hold down my food. My thoughts are scattered. I need to sleep. I have a paper – which I haven’t started yet – and a presentation I have to finish by tomorrow. I have to maintain the “front stage” I cultivated over the years. It’s the role I feel like I have to play. Good thing I am comparing Goffman’s “presentation of the self” to other theoretical concepts in this paper – that I haven’t started on. Why can’t I sleep? Why can’t I shut everything off? Unfortunately, trauma management and recovery both fail to function in that regard.

They said your death was a freak accident. It was raining. There was ice. You all were in a hurry to go shopping. I would have taken my time. I drive so slow now that everyone passes me. I recently went shopping like we used to. I didn’t buy anything. Only watched the people there. I haven’t done that in years since you dragged me in that fancy Macy’s.

There is no on or off switch for trauma. Just flickering lights. The kind you see at an abandoned warehouse filled with empty crates. I am feeling like an empty crate. I do have the capability to hold heavy cargo, but my trauma memories stop the assembly line of my mind from growing and thriving as full human feelings. For me, it always starts at the end of a semester. The sharp pain in my stomach. The cold, night sweats. The high-pitched screaming. The flashbacks. Seeing your hands reaching out for help in my dreams. For some reason, I was pushing away from you. I can’t count the number of people I pushed away since your death. Your face covered in blood. It’s not every day your best friend passes away, days before you were supposed to visit. It’s not every day you get a phone call with that horrific news, while you are sobbing for hours late at night along a surprisingly calm river outside of a run-down apartment.

I recently went back to that river to reprocess my trauma with the support of a close friend. I stood in the exact same spot for 20 minutes on the dot. I couldn’t cry at first. Frustrated, I went back into the car where my friend was staring at me. Just watching me. Like they had the nerve to stare at me after all that effort I put into processing trauma. All of sudden, the floodgates opened in my eyes and I found myself sobbing in their lap while drowning in their t-shirt with my salty tears. That trigger unexpectedly became the beginning point of my trauma recovery.

We always took the back roads because you knew all the shortcuts. I heard later that your driver was going 80 mph. There are tons of potholes I recall. I almost killed myself and someone else while driving on those back roads. You told me not to scare you again. I apologized. Every day, I wish I would have driven that night.  

Trauma recovery is brutally and painfully messy. There is no one-size-fits-all framework in managing trauma or even studying trauma. Literature on trauma is limited, especially trauma research aside from PTSD treatment and veterans. I remember one week where I spent 15 hours in the library trying to educate myself on trauma management and recovery. I quickly became frustrated with the substantial gaps in the literature, so I attempted to find trauma researchers other disciplines. I only found one university with a doctoral program that had two faculty members who were considered to be trauma researchers. Since we all seem to have some variation of big ‘T’ and little ‘t’ traumas, how is this possible? Trauma has been normalized throughout American media and culture from the trauma of gun violence to the trauma of rape and sexual assault. However, the literature is limited. So how can we grow the body of trauma research and scholarship?

Everyone apparently asked you where I was the night before you died. You told them not to worry and that I was coming home soon.

We start by studying vulnerable populations that have been previously ignored in trauma research, alongside researched populations. For example, we could study the experiences of transgender and non-binary folks. Specifically, what about the issues transwomen and transwomen of color face managing trauma? We could also study other populations who consistently face traumatic events, like racial and ethnic minority populations, sexual minority populations, people of low socioeconomic status, rape survivors, people with chronic illnesses, and people with disabilities. By expanding our array of knowledge on diverse populations outside of traditional trauma narratives, such as veterans and military personnel with PTSD, we can then start to understand how trauma operates on a broader level.

The definition of trauma also must be unrestrained and inclusive, since individuals have a wide range of responses to traumatic experiences. Less noticeable responses do not equate to a given circumstance being less traumatic. We all develop and process trauma in very distinctive ways. Researchers must capture the full fluidity of trauma by understanding trauma survivors through their experiences and daily management.

Strangers kept hugging me at your funeral and told me how great you were. I already knew this.

I am not a trauma expert by any means. But I am a trauma survivor. Much like others before me. I have heard numerous stories of students, faculty, and other academics over the years discuss how their trauma has influenced their research and careers. To my understanding, this desire to fully understand one’s self through emotionally-based research can be both healing and therapeutic throughout the trauma recovery process.

I started writing and opening myself up again. I am now forming intimate and meaningful relationships with those who are supportive in my healing. I began to see my passion for this limited area of literature blossom and flourish. Walls keep crashing down around me as I recover. Somehow, I managed to finish that paper on time, while rocking my presentation. Researching trauma is weirdly comforting for me. I actually decided that night when I broke down, if life hands me lemons, then I will write a journal article. I know I won’t get any sleep tonight. I know today will be hard. But I now know I’m not alone anymore through research and sharing experiences with others.

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