Navigating trauma with friends

A revelation in therapy forced me to realize my lack of boundaries with friends and family. This idea that I have to be a punching bag for them, that the stories they create about situations we share, their perspectives of it will always matter more than my own, and the punishments they mete out for any transgressions I may or may not have done, I must bear the wounds and apologize regardless of whether it relates to me or not. That is my role, but is it? The revelation was to question if that role is true or if it is just more socialized conditioning from the trauma I’ve endured and from the toxicity within our white supremacist patriarchy imperalist colonialist society.

That biblical quote of “there is no greater love than to die for one’s friend” had defined most of my life, but yet, dying emotionally again and again for friends, some of whom dispose of me the moment they see a panic attack — is this emotional death actually love? Is love only something that is a award at the end of punishment, after we have beaten ourselves down as sinners who deserve nothing, and then we are reconciled with the true love — but that requires punishment. Self-abuse before we are awarded the love. That means tearing ourselves down because we do not deserve love unless we are bowed low.

Is that not a myth? Is not love something that is not a condition to achieve but something we all deserve? Something that is without qualifiers, without conditions? Something that requires a honest communication and commitment to honor the integrity, dignity, and personhood of that person we love?

I deactivated Facebook, probably for good, a few weeks ago. The decision had been weighing on me for months, perhaps even a year. The language used by specific people on that forum had turned into toxicity, a sharing of myths and memes and ideas that are then used to create policies that harm and destroy in our current political culture.

One particular incident haunts me due to its proximity in time and due to the panic attack that enveloped me afterward, and yet, I think of how many other threads on Facebook had also thrust me into the freeze/flight panic response. How words on that site had the power to heal as well as maim. Words have the power to create new realities, new policies, new modes of being, and yet those words and new modes of being and new realities can become oppressive horrors instead of liberating paradises.

I think of one myth in particular that related to my own identities and place in life. How many times have we heard folks accuse the poor of not working hard enough? That myth that us poor people are lazy, and the policies force those who need assistance to be constantly applying for jobs, constantly proving their worth despite an economy that hasn’t seen decent job growth in a long time. How the policies add so much red tape that it makes it near impossible to receive assistance, and how these policies impact primarily folks of color, immigrants, LGBTQIA folks, disabled folks, and those who live at the intersection of these identities. The myths people shared directly created those policies that cause harm, that deny assistance to those in need.

I chose to speak up in a conversation a friend of color was having with various folks of mixed races, because I was trans and poor, because I had friends who were poor and also of various racial and gender identities that were directly impacted by the myths this friend of color was sharing about poor people. This former friend claimed we are envious of the rich and that programs that assist the poor are just ‘sucking on the titties of the state.’ The language in the thread, because of my response, directly targeted me, despite me using I-statements and discussing only the impact and how it relates to the policies that are causing harm.

I had used up all my spoons in hopes of having a good faith discussion. Except this former friend didn’t see me as a person worthy of having a good faith discussion. Instead, she tried to twist my reality to force her perception onto me, to try to convince me my own mind was not “evolved” enough, that my mind and words were wrong. She had not read what I wrote or acknowledged that I was a person separate, that my experiences were just as valid. Her words of “I evolved beyond” hurt me to the core, and left me doubting my mind.

It’s a form of gaslighting — of dehumanization where one ignores the words written by that person and instead creates a straw figure to tear down, where they manipulate and try to convince us that our reality isn’t real that we cannot trust our own mind, that our perceptions and views are so wrong and we need them to help us be set right. It triggered emotional flashbacks of past abuse, triggered a cascade of catastrophizing where I feared I spoke out of turn, where I feared I couldn’t trust my own mind, where my words made no sense and I had failed, where I must stay in the conversation and be that punching bag for others so others don’t have to bear the weight of what was said by that former friend.

And in that moment of vulnerability, a different friend witnessed this cascade of catastrophizing. This friend, unrelated to the harmful thread that caused my panic, witnessed the start of a panic attack, where I fall into appeasing others, into being a punching bag, into fearing I can’t trust my own mind or that my words make no sense, or that I don’t deserve a voice, where I beg others to see if I am deserving of existing in time and space. This friend was uncomfortable, the boundary between us broken by my panic and confusion of words and lack of context, and their own trauma was triggered. Their words to me didn’t make sense, our communication between each other had failed in a collision of trauma.

My panic attack hit so hard I froze in place. For thirty minutes, for forty minutes, for an hour or more. Time had no meaning.

My cat meowed in my face three times and licked my nose. It startled me out of the frozen panic.

Two friendships had been lost that day. The stories they had created about me had been woven, and my trauma told me that I must appease them, I must be that punching bag. I must apologize for how they perceived my desperate plea for someone to recognize my words had merit, that my story deserved to be told. Are not both our perceptions valid? How do we navigate the damage wrought by our traumas colliding in real time? Had not my trauma caused this friend, unrelated to the Facebook thread, to be harmed by what happened? The collision of trauma had transformed us both into punching bags.

I wished for healing for all of us, because I never wanted to cause harm. I just wanted to be acknowledged, to have my story be recognized as having equal merit.

My story became a footnote as their perspective mattered more, how they perceived my panic mattered more.  I apologized again and again, my heart and soul dying in each word, for I wanted healing for us both. I took on full responsibility when not everything that happened was my role to bear. I desperately wanted to be better. To meet their expectations, to be worthy of their trust.

I also had been severely hurt, and the expectations of what I must be even during a panic attack was too much for me to bear. The expectations demanded of me something my brain cannot compute during a panic attack, as the panic spirals me in a mess of: “can I trust my own mind? does my story deserve to be told?”

Those terrifying questions then transform into a flood of fear and catastrophizing, which spirals my panic into whether I should be allowed to speak or even exist as a person at all: “Am I just a liability to all my friends, especially my friends of color? Should I stay in my lane and be their punching bag, so that they can process their pain, and I stay silent because their need to process is what matters most? Should I only uplift their words and never speak to the intersections their words may have with my own experiences? Is that the expectation for all my friends? Does my story deserve to even be heard? Do I deserve to even exist? Is my mind not to be trusted? Should I only trust what others say about me? Can I ever trust my own mind? Is there ever space for me to exist with any friend at all? Do I deserve to live at all?”

These thoughts are a tsunami that freezes me in place, barely able to breathe, shivering violently, and cold as ice. That was my panic in real-time.

Trauma plays mind tricks with us. It instills negative core beliefs that cause doubt, that make us feel less than, that make us wonder if we deserve love, if we deserve to be heard, if we are nothing but tools for others.

My apologies for the damage both of us had wrought on each other was not my apology to give. I can only apologize for my actions, and that is my apology — for my action of unleashing a tide of panic into their chat window, for the implications that catastrophizing and pain that caused. That is my apology.

Will it ever be enough? I feel like I am no longer in the “us” category, based on the texts this friend has sent me. It feels like I became a”them” to them.  The story they created about me wasn’t about me anymore — for now, the doors have shut and the friendship is nothing more than a mirage. We cannot heal without communication, but what else is there to say?

There is only space and time.

My own trauma tells me that I am a mirage of a human being. I am a punching bag. I am trapped in this core belief that the only love that is true is to die for one’s friend, no matter how much it destroys me.  Yet, destroying myself for friends is not love — that is the revelation in therapy that I finally had.

Love has no conditions. Love has no qualifiers. We are all deserving of love. We all deserve to be heard, to experience healing, to exist as we are without qualifiers or conditions, without having to prove anything or be a tool for others. We deserve to have space to exist. And the panic attacks we may face from the roots of our trauma, we deserve to have space for that too and for folks to understand that panic attacks are not us. Our panic attacks/ catastrophizing is our socialized conditioning and trauma punishing us for daring to exist, for daring to be better, for daring to speak at all to the intersections of who we are with the situations of our lives.

“Do not own their trauma. Do not own their stuff,” I am told, and yet I fear if I do not apologize, if I do not be that punching bag, then how can I show love? Is not the greatest love of all dying for one’s friends? If I do not die for them, even if it is an emotional or psychological death, will not that love be true? How can I not grieve and punish myself for the pain that they feel because of situation we both endured? Their pain and hurt is as valid and real as my own.

My hyper empathy leaves me in this endless spiral of apology, of trying to to help them heal, despite how hurt I am by their own words and actions. Do I deserve to be disposed of when I fail to meet their expectations of the boundaries of their friendship terms (even when I have no idea what those terms are)? Do I deserve to be thrown away if I speak or act in a way that falls prey to our social conditioning of our white supremacist patriarchy imperialist colonialist society? Do I deserve to die for them again and again until I reach a point of being allowed love?

I work and work at de-conditioning that socialized toxicity of our white supremacist patriarchal culture. It feels unsurmountable, as if any moment I will be torn to shreds by friends in our marginalized communities because I failed an expectation, failed to be better in a moment of weakness and panic, where my mind was a whirlwind of flashbacks and terror, where I couldn’t make sense of what is said to me. Where the remnants of our society’s insidious conditioning rears like a dragon as I fight it with my hands tied behind my back, unable to defend properly, unable to see what the threat actually is. The panic is overwhelming.

Do I deserve to be ostracized? Am I nothing but my panic?

What are the boundaries for this? How do we navigate this? How do we show love in a way that doesn’t continue the cycle of violence our society has done to us?

Can love be true on its own? Without that qualifier of dying for another? Without that condition that I must be their punching bag? Their canvas to paint the stories they need to hold onto in order to process their own trauma — trauma the world has done to them?

Am I a person distinct to them that is deserving of love separate from the qualifiers and conditions that our society tried to shove onto all of us? Is there space for me to exist even with panic attacks? Even when I catastrophize and beg another to see if I can trust my own mind, if my own words make sense, if I am worthy of being allowed to speak at all? I try so hard to manage my panic, to hide it so no one sees it, but if someone sees it, do I not deserve space for healing and for them to recognize that myself is not there in that panic? That this panic isn’t about them?

I try so hard to give other people that space for their own trauma, panic, and pain. I try so hard to listen, to take on their pain when they need space from it, but it hurts too much. I cannot bear this weight. I am exhausted. I have died so many times emotionally for my friends and family, that I do not know where I begin or end. I am a fractured mush of debris.

Am I deserving of love at all?

My online writing/gaming friend says I am.

My nurse friend says I am.

My therapist says I am.

My sisters say I am.

It is hard to believe them.

Where is the boundary? The dividing line between me and my friends and family? How do I navigate all of the above? How do I live a life of love where love is without the social conditioning of our toxic society? Where it is actual true love without qualifiers, without conditions, without shifting expectations of what I must be to deserve this love?

How do we love one another if we do not see each other?

How do we love one another if we cannot speak to each other and truly hear each other’s stories? To see each other’s stories as just as valid? To see each other’s hurts and to recognize them as valid, and be willing to love each other enough to navigate that space and boundaries necessary for healing?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I am still learning and healing. But I ask them because they are important. I am just as valid and important as they are. And the stories others create about me, the way they perceive me is valid in its own right. Yet my own story of what I experienced is just as valid and important. And my story still deserves to be told as well.

By Aibird

Open the door, step inside. Here you find a forest, teeming with animals and birds, which sweeps up the sides of snow-capped mountains. Here in the small pocket of beauty, one finds the essence of my soul. A writer at heart, I delve deep into the finer details of humanity's spirit, and seek to share with others what gems I uncover. I find life exciting and full of interesting surprises, and despite the great pain that often confronts me, I persevere with the joy in my heart still bubbling, and the light of my soul still aflame. There is a time and a place to introspect one's self, but often enough it is best to not look back in regret, but leap forward in the present toward the achievement of one's deepest dreams. I am a wanderer. An explorer. One place cannot contain me for long, but to my friends and family, I remain loyal, for love is not bound by time nor place. Once cultivated and nourished continuously, it binds people together on a journey through the unknown reaches of life.

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