08/25/2014 11:15 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Suffering Is the Easy Part

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In its longest silence, trauma is even more present. Trauma is the unsaid, the uncertain, that prolongs feelings of loss. How do we define this notion of presence and absence? What is the paradigm? Poet Li-Young Lee offers an analogy regarding presence and absence: He equates them to inhaling and exhaling breath. Our presence is marked by the inhalation. Oxygen spreads into our lungs and bloodstream, nourishing our bones, our cells, and our skin. Breath is life. The exhalation manifests an absence or a silence, but still there is life. When we inhale, speech terminates; communication is stunted. As we exhale speech is regained, but nutrients exit the body; the organs weaken; the lungs lessen in size. Lee describes this as "dying breath." ** When we speak we use dying breath. Meaning grows in "opposite ratio to presence and vitality." ** He suggests a kind of paradigm for life, especially in the case of trauma in that as we die meaning is declared. The "less vitality we have the more the meaning of our lives gets disclosed" (Lee qtd in Chang 19). That absence in our bodies translates as presence. Trauma narrative is born out of this relationship.

Thinking about trauma narrative, its types of witness and psychoanalytic process, I imagine my own trauma memory. It is often hard for me to separate myself from the research, and even harder to write about personal trauma in such an objective manner. My personal encounter with trauma began on May 28, 2004, when I was forced into an empty bathroom and raped by the doorman at a nightclub. I remember him following me around the dance floor. I couldn't get away. My friend had left me to go to another club, and I was alone. The days following the assault are something I can't even begin to imagine how I survived. Like most survivors of trauma, I was living my life under a siege of silence, with the hope that someone would eventually hear me. For me, silence equated to a type of guilt: Somehow, I must have done something wrong to deserve this. Who would believe me if I spoke? Who would help me? This experience altered the way in which I lived my life, and for seven months I suffered from severe anxiety attacks, nightmares that replayed the rape, paranoia (e.g., the fear that it would happen again), health-related problems, flashbacks, and depression. I remember one repeated nightmare:

I am waking up alone in the bathroom stall of the nightclub, and all I can see underneath the space between the stall door and the floor are my rapist's bare feet. He doesn't move, just waits for me to come out. My mother is at home, I call to her. My father is at home, and I call to him. My sister is at home, and I call to her. No one can hear. I sit on the toilet seat and wait for him to go away, but I just wait. I don't say anything. All I can see and hear through a crack in the door is my doctor's face. He is yelling at me and holding a vaginal clamp.

A large percentage of raped women I met with during my recovery mentioned similar feelings of absence and presence. I remember trying to explain what had happened to me to my mother, and her reply was: You just have to move on. Get over it. I didn't want to hear that, I wanted her to just listen and not judge the progress or lack of progress I was making. I wanted her to hold my hand and tell me everything would be all right. But my mother is also an alcoholic. Sick in her own skin, she couldn't have helped if she wanted to. (I forgive you, Mom.) I realized as the months went on that my only salvation was my art; my art was the one place I could go to, that if no one listened, the page would -- it had no choice.

During my recovery, I became obsessed with other people's trauma. Not only was I obsessed, but also I became completely empathetic with their situations. It was depressing and sad, and I felt like my recovery was going backward at times. My own trauma connected me so profoundly with the world around me that at times I felt I would break. I cared so deeply about every tragedy in the world, whether true or imagined, and it was breaking.

I felt overwhelming guilt that I survived. What about the girls who committed suicide because such a violation was too much to handle? What about those girls who were raped and then dumped in a desert somewhere? What about the families that sit alone in the darkness of their daughters' rooms? I made it. I'm here to talk and blog and write about it. (This doesn't make me special. It doesn't make me stronger.)

My recovery became a full-time job. It consumed me. Every day I thought: Why? Why does this world turn in on itself? I was really saying: Why did this happen to me? I knew inside that it wasn't my fault; however, I still felt an overwhelming guilt. My coping mechanism became my writing. I felt compelled to tell my story. Like Roland Barthes' discourse on love, this was my discourse too. The love I had for myself pushed me to understand my trauma and forced me to break silence.

Even if no one cares to listen, you're remaking your place in the world; you're retaliating against the boundary your suffering has imposed on you. ***


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.


*Larkin, Philip. "Deceptions." Collected Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 2003. (pp 67).

**Chang, Tina. "The Totality of Causes: Interview With Li-Young Lee," in AmericanPoet: The Journal of American Poets. Vol. 26, Spring 2004. (pp 16-21)

***Fridman, Lea. Words and Witness: Narrative and Aesthetic Strategies in the Representation of the Holocaust. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.