Reorientation is author JS Lee’s monthly column about reclamation & actualization as an unwilling Korean import to the US.
I’ve spent much of life feeling as if drifting from shore in a deflating raft and waving with a careless smile. Many have said that I was too proud and should’ve signaled for help. Others insisted that it doesn’t matter because I survived.
Why do we do this to people when they share their suffering? Maybe it’s the American bootstrap mentality. Or perhaps it’s the fear of discomfort that breeds the instinct to blame and shame.
We’re often taught not to be a bother—by our families, leaders, and peers. When our pain is met with prescriptive gratitude, it conditions us into silence. It tells us our feelings are unimportant. We stop trusting when our bodies and minds show signs of distress. Our feelings of helplessness increase, and we become further detached from reality and ourselves.
Contrary to popular belief, gratitude—while important—does not heal. It may offer perspective if needed, but it’s often used to deflect and invalidate. This can leave us feeling guilty for our negative emotions and ashamed of our unmet needs. If those we depend on for care neglect us, it can train us to police our emotions. We may feel we are faulty and unworthy of help.
I’m not a psychologist. I’m someone who was diagnosed late in life with C-PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). I don’t recall a time before violent nightmares or feeling responsible for saving those who were said to save me. I was found outside in the cold at around two weeks old. I passed through several hands before being dropped into a White family and town. Despite appearances, my home life was highly dysfunctional. We had surveillance cameras in bedrooms. A lot of ugly things went on in that house. Yet, to this day, I’m told that I’m lucky. No wonder it took as long as it did to recognize that my normal wasn’t healthy.
Living in a prolonged toxic environment can create a slew of mental and emotional struggles. Once we’re out and aware, it can be painful looking through the past with our new lens. Setbacks are common. There’s often a pull to revert. Unsure how to function without, our bodies might seek similar situations or stimulation. We may think we’re living the dream. In the meanwhile, we’re trapped in a familiar nightmare.
Marginalized people are more susceptible to complex and compounded trauma.
I understand now that being raised in an unstable, narcissistic home led me to volatile and manipulative partners. I was conditioned to think those were traits of passion and love. After I left my physically abusive husband at 24, I ran immediately into the arms of an emotional abuser, followed by others with high levels of narcissism. Chances of repeated and additional traumas multiply when we haven’t yet found awareness or support. We may even cause similar harm to others. If our bodies and/or minds can’t reconcile the severity of what we’ve endured, it’s harder to learn what to avoid and what’s not serving us.
I’ve been open about the rape I lived through in my teens. I wrote a memoir about how my lack of support, validation, or processing led to hypersexuality. In my novel KeuriumI revealed how childhood and sexual trauma can result in subconscious behaviors and aversions. In my latest novel Everyone Was FallingI explore how additional trauma compounds prior unresolved trauma. None of which are about victimization, but the journey to self-empowerment. Because while I still struggle with C-PTSD, I believe—with proper tools and support—we can build lives that feel worth living.
As I continue to speak with other trauma survivors and read the works of feminist revolutionaries (such as Angela Davis, Yuri Kochiyama, bell hooks, Assata Shakur, and Audre Lorde), I’ve come to believe that marginalized people are more susceptible to complex and compounded trauma.
Racial trauma itself can cause PTSD. Black, Indigenous, and children of color are taught revisionist history that paints their violent oppressors as heroes. Daily "microaggressions" add up, as does witnessing society’s response (or lack thereof) to the relentless violence and oppression of your people. White supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative and ableist policies create increased: family separation; poverty and homelessness; imprisonment/slavery; sexual and domestic violence; and displacement and immigration due to imperialist destruction. All of these things create trauma and exposure to more.
That said, I don’t think multiple traumas are necessarily any worse than a singular trauma. There’s no measuring the current, prolonged, or intergenerational effect. Each trauma is different and each response will vary by person, past experience, and support.
These days, much of my daily self-work resides in managing triggers. Sadly, the words “trigger” and “gaslighting” are overused these days. A traumatic trigger can cause the mind or body to enter freeze, fight or flight mode. Gaslighting is when someone causes you to doubt your own mind and perspective over a period of time. For someone who experienced childhood gaslighting, doubt can be a trigger. Other triggers of mine stem from sounds, tones, words, songs, books, films, and situations. Triggers can propel me out of my present reality, cause dissociation, or recreate the mind/body sensation that I had during a specific trauma. For instance, when I’m feeling especially vulnerable, my body goes cold. It may even shake as the physical sensation of being abandoned outside as an infant returns. That may never end but now that I understand it, how I cope can.
I used to constantly encounter unmanageable triggers and turn to unhealthy devices to numb them. But through awareness and prolonged, consistent effort, I’ll often challenge myself to work through triggering situations rather than avoid them completely. Each time I succeed helps recondition my nervous system and strengthens my ability to ride out future events. This is similar to the foundation of EMDR—which I’d love to resume someday.
We are not our traumas and we’re more than our resilience. The goal isn’t perfection but to not be ruled by our triggers; to find balance amidst the world’s chaos.
If someone I care about inadvertently causes a trigger, I find a way to express it once it has passed. When it’s heard rather than debated for legitimacy, I feel safer around them during subsequent unintentional hurt. I’ve also learned it’s not only okay but wise to distance myself from those who can’t honor my feelings or boundaries.
Getting support can prove more difficult for the multiply marginalized. Therapy might be avoided for reasons involving: finances; cultural or generational beliefs; a lack of trust, racial mirroring, or practitioner’s lived experience. I’ve learned that no single therapist has the background and skills for all of my needs. When I have the means, I work on the most pressing area at the time and choose accordingly.
While I do believe the right therapists can help, there are other options to either supplement or assist. Once again, I’m not a therapist but a survivor. Here are some steps I suggest:
Gather your support network. This can consist of a therapist, coach, family member, trusting friend or two, in-person or online support groups.
- Support groups can be incredibly helpful. They’re at times overwhelming, so you may need to moderate exposure. If there’s no support group that fits, consider creating a space.
- Distance yourself from those unsupportive of your healing. This may temporarily include those unready to work on their own healing. While it may seem isolating at first, you’ll make room for those your new life will provide.
- Cultivate friendships with other survivors who are consistently investing in their own wellbeing. This can be incredibly inspiring and keep you on track.
- Utilize your support network to discover healing methods.
Find time to acknowledge and name your traumas. This can be done via journaling or talking it out. Be mindful that as you work through one, you might uncover more. This is why establishing support first is key.
- Research books and films that may help you develop a deeper understanding and put to words how you’ve been harmed. As someone who’s struggled with self-compassion, it’s been easier to grasp what I’ve endured through empathy for others’ stories.
- Pinpoint areas of your life that are most affected.
- Make a list and prioritize one at a time so it’s less overwhelming.
- There are a variety of therapies, treatments, and alternative journeywork.
Somatic work can help relieve anxiety and renew a feeling of safety and trust in your body.
- Breathing exercises can calm the nerves. There are apps and many free/cheap online tools.
- Choose a healing modality or two.
- Consider lifestyle changes that may be needed: dietary, substance use, routines, and behaviors.
- Expect setbacks. Be patient with yourself as you work to retrain your body and mind.
When the urge to get down on yourself arises for not doing this work sooner, remember why you weren’t ready then, and that you’re doing it now. Allow yourself room for anger, grief, and whatever you’re feeling.
As you progress, add more healing methods. Understand there’s no destination and that each person’s path will differ. Healing from trauma is often a nonlinear, lifelong practice.
We are not our traumas and we’re more than our resilience. Living Your Best Life isn’t one-dimensional and it sure as hell isn’t just for White folks. The goal isn’t perfection but to not be ruled by our triggers; to find balance amidst the world’s chaos.
I believe that when we don’t work through our trauma, its trapped energy continues to move through us. When we’re able to hear our distress signals, we empower ourselves to learn coping skills. So, gather your support network. Dig in. You’ll never be the person you might’ve been without trauma, but life can someday be better than you could currently imagine.