Sean Swaby tells his story of trauma and healing.
Ask a man if he has experienced any trauma and he will probably just shrug his shoulders. He will tell you he’s never faced any of it, so go ask the next guy.
The reality is that most men have experienced some level of psychological trauma.
What is trauma?
Trauma can be defined as situational or chronic.
- Situational trauma is a car accident, one incident of harm or an overwhelming experience (such as witnessing someone being hurt, shot, or murdered).
- Chronic trauma is where a person experiences ongoing traumas that include (and are not limited to): emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and even spiritual abuse. For a more exhaustive list, click here.
According to PTSD United, 70% of us have experienced at least one trauma. If you dig into the statistics, you soon realize that trauma is not without its impacts. According to the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study, trauma is compounded. If you experience more than one trauma, then you experience greater impacts:
- Weakened immune system
- Greater susceptibility to stress
- Increased risk of mental health issues, addiction, aggression and family violence
- Increased stress in your approach to parenting, and as a result…
- Potentially passing on unhealthy coping strategies to your own children
My story of trauma
The research only tells part of the story. Your body will tell the real story.
Growing up, I faced both physical and psychological traumas.
Before I was five years old, I had several near fatal accidents. First, I found a bottle of children’s aspirin and swallowed the entire bottle. It was not a suicide attempt, just a persistent child in search of candy. Later, I attempted to create an aquarium using a glass jar and some marbles. As I was filling the jar with water in our cast iron sink, the jar slipped from my hand and shattered, sending a piece of glass into my left arm, only millimeters from the vein in my wrist. And later, I was riding on a Skidoo with my father and for some reason, he had me driving the beast. I under-steered and ended up driving us straight into a barbed wire fence. I can still recall the rose-colored blood dripping onto the snow. My cheek, eyebrow, and forehead still bear the jagged scars from the incident.
My father was an alcoholic and emotionally abusive/distant. He and my mother frequently argued and I witnessed their anger. Growing up, he was emotionally and physically abusive. As a young adult, my parent’s marriage ended in divorce.
Writing about my story brings up little conscious emotion for me. It is as if I am describing someone else’s life. But right there, you see the Ground Zero of trauma. Trauma removes you from your own story. Psychologists call this dissociation. Growing up, it was a way of surviving.
But as an adult, a pattern of dissociation created an unhealthy pattern of avoidance and tuning out of important relationships.
Men do that: we tune out rather than talk about our pain or our trauma. (That is to say, not all men who tune out have been traumatized, and not all tuning out is a result of trauma. Sometimes I just daydream and that is all that it is.)
When men feel pain
Men everywhere are in pain. I recently attended a men’s group and was reassured that I am not alone. I sat night after night with a group of the bravest men I know, telling stories of their pain. Most men have faced trauma, but we just hold it in and say very little about it.
By holding our pain close to our chest, is that a way for us to try and to hug away our pain? No, that is too unmanly… but it happens all of the time. Don’t tell, just hold on…
Instead, we watch UFC. We drink. We sit and we stare out the window. We get angry at traffic. But Lord have mercy, we don’t talk about it because men don’t experience trauma.
Researchers have found that you may psychologically dissociate or block out your memories of an event. Your body, however, never forgets. This is called tissue memory. Experiences that are not dealt with consciously have a way of seeping out. Our bodies speak for us (to borrow a phrase coined by trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk).
When our bodies talk, it speaks the language of:
- Chronic pain
- Chronic unhappiness
- Self protection and vigilance
I know that I am not unusual. My story is not unique. I believe that when we share our stories, a little bit of healing light is shed in minds. Light seeps in and we are no longer walking in darkness.
To heal, men need other men
I have shared my story with men and women, but there is a special connection when men share their stories with other men. Guys get the pain that comes from holding it all in. But not everyone is ready to hear what you have to say. You will probably need professional help and good, trusted friends. What we know about healing involves three things:
- You need to feel safe and be away from the source of trauma.
- You need to know how to cope with at least some of the pain. Professionals can help with this, but you need to know how to breathe, express your pain in words (written, spoken, through symbol, through song or otherwise). Breathing, mindfulness, spiritual practice, exercise and other calm routines can help.
- You need to connect your mind to your body. This can be as simple as a body scan, or breathing and being in the moment. Again, this is something that a good trauma professional can help with.
For me, having a group of men hear my story without judgment has been significant. I write as a way to understand and express my pain. I exercise and I move. Today I am better at understanding what I need and knowing when to listen to my body. But I won’t lie to you, healing is difficult. It is a process and it does not come smoothly.
Sometimes healing feels more like an earthquake, but that is why you need to be prepared. What healing does is it pulls you into the present and makes you feel more alive, more grateful and more human. You are more available to the people you love and to yourself.
And you are better able to draw on, and share, your strengths with other people.
Good men face trauma, and Good men heal.
Keep it Real
Photo by Artur Potosi.