It’s complicated, but maybe my experience will help shed some light on this question.
The title of this article is a question I’ve been asking myself more and more. Recent experiences in my personal life have left me rather baffled, and I have no doubt that many can relate.
Obviously, every case is different. I can only shed some light on my own situation (and that light even is quite limited). But if you as a trauma survivor have found yourself asking this same question, maybe there will be some information in this article that gives you a few points to consider.
Trauma is complex, messy, and while it has direct victims, all of the people we love in our lives become indirect victims in a lot of ways. The closer a person is to us, and the more they let us in, the more of an indirect victim they become.
My husband is the person in my life who is most affected by the realities and complexities of my trauma, outside of myself.
There are many other people I love who could have been affected, and yet the effects are quite nonexistent. So nonexistent, in fact, that they’d swear my trauma doesn’t even exist.
And that is exactly how I found myself here.
In a lot of ways, we may live a double life.
If you’ve read my work online before, you are no stranger to my trauma and the struggles I deal with on a regular basis, as any survivor of sexual assault does.
I am very candid and transparent about my recovery journey, as well as the messiness of healing. I write about it multiple times a week. I engage with stories from other survivors and go deep into their trauma with them.
In a lot of ways, navigating trauma is a full-time job for me, between juggling my own healing and managing the Fearless She Wrote community. I live and breathe this stuff. Trauma is everywhere for me. It swims in my veins, it lives in the energy around me, it is what I read, write, and think about almost the entirety of every workday, Monday to Friday.
And it’s also there on the days I spend evenings in self-guided therapy, or when I’m dealing with a significant triggering, or when a fellow survivor reaches out in distress.
With this as my daily reality, it’s hard to imagine anyone doubting the existence and severity of my trauma, but it happens, and on a fairly regular basis with some of my loved ones.
Here’s the reality — we only have so much energy in our day-to-day life. With that energy source, trauma healing and recovery takes a massive toll on that energy source. So, when I’ve spent hours upon hours each day delving into my own healing, as well as the healing of the Fearless community, I’ve reached my limit for what I can give and invest into acknowledging and processing my trauma.
Because this is my job, and my full-time work, by the time I clock out of work I have no more energy to give to this subject for the day.
The result of this has been loved ones in my life only seeing a happy, smiling, and joyful me. A me who doesn’t speak openly about trauma, because I’ve already spent hours that day doing so, and to avoid burnout I have to file that portion of my day away.
I am living a double life, where half of my day is spent putting a magnifying glass on my trauma online and with this community, and the other half I avoid bringing it up because I’m just too drained.
This has resulted in people in my life believing (and expressing to me) that my PTSD and trauma “can’t be that bad”. That it isn’t “that severe”, because I’m “doing great”. Those same people do not take the time to read my written work online.
They do not believe my trauma to be prominent, because they don’t see its effects first-hand. They don’t see my investment of hours per week in therapy, they don’t see the processing I do online, they don’t see my deepest, darkest, and most vulnerable writings about my trauma struggles.
Does this sound familiar?
Is it possible you’re living a double life, one where you’re doing the work in private, and around others you’ve perfected that “I’m okay” face that makes everything seem normal?
This separation was likely a saving grace in the beginning, but now it feels a little like you’ve shot yourself in the foot.
I’ll be honest, several years ago when I was drowning in my PTSD, I needed that separation to survive. I needed that double life, because it meant that I could spill my guts and grievances, only to then close my laptop and “go on with life as normal”.
I needed to be able to walk through my parent’s front door and have them look at me like their precious daughter, not as a survivor of violation. Not someone being suffocated by trauma every waking moment of my life.
I needed that small relief now and again — for everything to seem “normal”, even though it wasn’t. A person cannot survive living in their trauma 100% of their waking moments. It would quite literally kill them.
Because navigating my own trauma as a writer, and running the Fearless She Wrote community (which if you’re here, you know is a community that suffers from a great deal of trauma), that leaves the only space for ‘normality’ in my life to be when I step outside my front door and meet other people who knew me before the trauma sunk its talons in.
I reveled in people knowing me beyond my trauma. I needed to be looked at as a person who is more than a broken, struggling vessel of a being.
That said, the unintended side effect of this reality is that anyone who knows me in real life, and not online, doesn’t understand or recognize the severity of what I deal with. Which at times just results in cluelessness, and other times results in straight-out dismissal of my PTSD.
This is not my fault. And for the most part, I wouldn’t say it’s the fault of my loved ones either. If you don’t see smoke, you’re not going to assume there’s a fire, right?
But the real problem I’m grappling with is wondering whether or not I’ve done myself more harm than good by keeping my trauma journey a secret from my loved ones.
At the same time, I can’t be too hard on myself. I’m doing the best I can. You are too. We only have so much energy in us to navigate our own healing journey, and then process it all over again with our loved ones.
Most of the time, just navigating our trauma can feel like a task that is too heavy to take on every single day. Where are we supposed to find the energy to educate the people in our lives about the severity of what we deal with?
I’m not sure I have a solid answer to that question, because every person and recovery journey is different, but consider the following:
This is exactly why supportive, online communities are so important in a survivor’s recovery.
When a loved one dismisses your trauma, or insinuates it’s simply not as bad as you’re making it out to be when you finally find the courage and energy to talk about it openly, you will likely suffer a severe triggering.
And how could we not be triggered in those cases, when society's overall disbelief and shaming of survivors is already so hostile, making disbelief a sore spot for us all?
Not to mention that this sore spot is one that our trauma loves to latch onto and exploit freely, whenever it gets the chance. Being disbelieved as a survivor, after putting together the courage to finally say something, can be retraumatizing in many ways.
So, where is the balance between telling people in our lives about what we’re going through, and keeping our recovery journey to ourselves?
The fact of the matter is that you don’t owe anyone an explanation for what you’re going through. It’s not your job to educate everyone in your life on just how much you’re struggling. That’s no one else’s business other than your own, and you should only be sharing that information with someone you trust and feel safe with.
Support systems are important — which is exactly why the Fearless She Wrote community blew up as soon as we launched this publication. Many of us cannot find the same support and understanding from those in our lives, and so we come to this online space to resonate with others, be heard and be believed, no questions asked.
And of course, we yearn for those in our lives to also understand and be as supportive as other survivors we know, but to some degree, that expectation might not be realistic.
Yes, you deserve to be believed. Yes, you deserve to be received with empathy. You do not deserve to be dismissed by anyone when you express what you’re struggling with. Your trauma, and the pain it causes in your life, is valid.
That said, no one will ever be able to understand the true brutality of trauma like a fellow trauma survivor. Most of us didn’t even fathom that this sort of hell was possible to experience and survive until we found ourselves in the depths of it.
For many, the trauma left behind by sexual assault or abuse or domestic violence might not even be something they consider — the event is over, and thus a survivor should just be able to move on with their lives.
But of course, as we know, the aftermath of the traumatic event is often much longer, far more damaging, and stocked full of emotionally devastating mental torment.
I have many loved ones who have been lucky enough to not experience trauma or severe mental health difficulties. And with that in mind, I have started coming to terms with the painful reality that they will never truly understand the full depths of me as a writer, advocate, and human being.
As someone who builds close, and intimate relationships with other people, that’s a bitter pill for me to swallow.
But that's exactly why I lean on the Fearless She Wrote community so strongly in my own healing journey. If it weren’t for you, fellow readers and writers, I would not have achieved the recovery that I have today.
I’m doing my best to make a concerted effort to communicate my mental health realities more clearly, especially with the loved ones in my life who have been dismissive of the extent of my trauma.
I don’t go into too many details, but if they want to spend time with me on a weeknight or weekend and my trauma is acting up, I am now saying,
“I suffered a pretty bad triggering the other day, so my mental health isn’t too hot. I’m going to spend the next few days in therapy sessions and recovering. I’ll have to pass on hanging out this time.”
This is the first step for me in sharing a snapshot of my trauma with loved ones, all while protecting myself and being unapologetic about my boundaries.
I didn’t receive any dismissiveness when I communicated these realities bluntly. Instead, I got, “I hope you feel better”, and “I’ll check in later to see how you’re doing”. Communicating the reality of what I was going through, and doing so bluntly without trying to convince anyone of how bad my trauma was, seemed to shock the receivers of this message.
This is the next step for me in merging my two worlds of trauma advocacy, and the Gillian that so many have known for close to three decades.
If this situation is one that you resonate with, starting to unapologetically offer a clear statement of the fact that you’re struggling, and what you’re currently doing to recovery, will remove a large amount of question of how bad your trauma is.
It’s not your job to convince people to believe you when you say you’re struggling… but all I can say is that evidence is pretty damn effective at shutting up the naysayers.