Trauma is a weird thing

News today that the carnage that caused me to leave my last institution appears to have found yet another victim, someone I’d call an acquaintance rather than a friend, but still, someone whose office was on my hallway for a long time and who I saw every other day for several years. She’s not the first casualty since my departure nor, one suspects, will she be the last.


My mother took a picture of me toward the middle of graduate school. She showed it to me the last time I was home. I’d just ended my relationship with the physicist — the last year of it was brutal and emotionally scarring — and was headed to Germany in two weeks. In the photo, I’m sitting outside, eating a piece of cantaloupe and I have a sort of simultaneously flirtatious and delighted look in my eyes as I look at the melon. On the back, she wrote the date, and “Servetus smiles for the first time in a year.” (She didn’t ever like that boyfriend much.) Today I was holding my office hours at the campus S***b**** and was chatting with a student and had a really good feeling, and I realized when I said goodbye to him that I had a big smile on my face, a smile that felt like that one. I thought of that picture then, and thought, “I’m smiling again. I’m capable of smiling with my whole face, with eyes, and everything else in me.” כֹּ֣ל הַ֭נְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּ֥ל יָ֗הּ. It’s that kind of feeling. I’ve been having it off and on for a few weeks now.

I feel a little guilty when I smile like that, and sad that I haven’t done it for so long, but mostly I feel happy. That I can smile. That they didn’t kill that off, at least. What a relief. Servetus is still here. The more often I have that feeling, the more often I think that what I’m living through now could actually be real.


And yet — my physical visceral reaction when I hear the news also feels just as real.

Watching the continued train wreck from a distance might be interesting in the morbid way that disaster footage on the Weather Channel is, if it were buildings in the path of the juggernaut and not the careers of people I know well and care about. Presumably many of them — if they haven’t been so soured on everything by their time on the train as I was — will go on to other, equally good, even better things elsewhere. We are all are highly qualified people with significant achievements to our names.

Though I’m sympathetic, it would be presumptuous of me to assume that they have the same reaction to what’s happening as I did. And anyway, I think it’s not about them. It’s about me. When I see this same thing happening again, it’s like it’s happening to me all over again. I feel nauseated. I feel like the space right behind the root of my nose is going to explode. My major muscle groups seize up and I experience the simultaneous need to run away and the inability to move. My heart pounds and my face flushes. My jaw clenches even as my gorge rises.

I care about them. And yet I can’t. The father of a friend there died — a friend who stayed, and thinks what is happening is just — and I can’t bring myself even to call. I’d like to say I’m letting this train crash except that it feels like the trains are crashing without my initiative, as I continue to watch, bizarrely fascinated. Fascinated or paralyzed? I can’t say. The people at that institution are my friends. And they are also my destroyers. I have to know and don’t want to. I want to look away and can’t. And try as I might to keep my face empty and my eyes dead when I talk about this, as I did for an hour with Pesky this afternoon, my body betrays me. It doesn’t want this — it doesn’t want even the memory of it. Pesky notices and says, “Hey, it’s ok. You don’t have to talk about this. You are not required to relive it all the time.” Except I do. My body won’t stop reliving it. There’s been other evidence of this problem recently, most significantly odd, pointless crying, but this afternoon it becomes patently clear. This is not a full-fledged panic attack of the type I had when I was stuck back there. It’s not so bad as that. But it’s still extremely disturbing.

This is Servetus, post-trauma. Smiling and crying. Courageous and afraid. Coming and going.


Coming and going: but not immobile. I do dare disturb the universe. At least I can rock my own world.

My response this afternoon: at all costs, when this happens, I have to prevent my senses from closing down. I think that was part of what was happening during the bad time — I had shut down certain sensory receptors for a long time because the input was so painful, and then I couldn’t ever manage to get them open again. The only way to keep working there was to force myself to deny what I was actually experiencing, but that meant I to stop really experiencing most things except in the most superficial way. Somehow watching Richard Armitage reminded me how to feel. Or even just TO feel.

The solution, for now the right response to remembered pain, is not to suppress the pain. It has to be to intentionally overwhelm the receptors with positive inputs. The most cheerful, percussive music I can find, at the highest volume, to drown out the bad thoughts. As many clips of Richard Armitage as possible watched back-to-back until my muscles relax. An espresso drink steaming up, pressed right under my noise until my breathing is regular and “coffee!” is all my brain can think. Something really sweet or really sour in my mouth that keeps me swallowing and animates those pleasure centers. Shaking my head to the music till I’m good and dizzy.

It’s remembered pain, not pain per se, and certainly not feeling itself, that’s bad. I can’t let myself shut off. If I’m going to keep writing, I have to keep feeling.

~ by Servetus on October 29, 2011.

13 Responses to “Trauma is a weird thing”

  1. I am glad you are out of that situation, even though, in a sense, you are still there. Trauma leaves its mark on us, inevitably, whether it’s physical, emotional or psychological . . . in fact they often overlap, don’t they?

    Keep doing what you need to to do to stay sane and stay smiling. Even though I have never seen your face, I take a strange pleasure in imagining you with a total smile, eyes and all. 😀


  2. I’m so thankful that you are now able not only to talk about smiling, but to actually smile yourself and by the sound of it both inside and out. There is no doubt that are indeed able to feel even though some feelings may still be pretty raw which isn’t surprising considering what you must have gone through for years. We can’t shrug such trauma off lightly but reading some of the things you have written lately I’m convinced that you are on the mend. I like to think of you smiling even though I have no idea what you look like. Smiles can transform!! I can think of at least one example!! Can’t you? 😉


  3. Smiles are indeed transformative. This was a lesson I learned in a few contexts in my twenties — adapting a physical stance that relates to a certain emotion can give you the emotion. I need to keep practicing that. Thanks guys.


  4. Servetus, I´ve read your post with great interest. Because beeing so affected and responding to your words sometimes so intensely, always tells me something about myself as well.
    Reading your text makes me feel a bit “schwer”. This decidedly sounds like something, one (you) can´t push aside easily. Why do we expose us repeatedly to people that are definitely not good for us? What comes to my mind is, that we repeat our “faults”, our anguishes, our behaviour patterns as long as we need them to distract us from the underlying, even more painful experiences, anxieties, traumes that are accompanying us already for quite some time (lifelong?). And it´s a long way to realise, that they are there and that it takes a fierce battle to get rid of them. I´m sure some of our anxieties stay with us forever, but we hopefully can learn to handle them a bit better. You´ve come already a long way!! Congratulations! But still, ít´s interesting that you stayed at your former job for so long. Being myself in the same employment for decades now, I remember quite a lot of struggles too. But nothing felt in the slightest so devastating like your description.

    I wanted to write you for a while, how I had my first encounter with “Dr. Servetus” (after having a dashing acquaintance with JT the night before!), maybe that gives you a little smile.
    Quite accurate a year ago, I was gogg**ing RA, as an absolute newbie (“Frischling”) and I was so confused about all the stuff I found, especially your name, all the blogs, what´s are they anyway all about. (reading wiki about Dr. Servetus didn´t help a lot!!! 😉 (ok, beeing so untutored at that time, not even knowing about fake identities, wrong names etc wasn´t helpful..). I had never been on any blogs and the like before and I also had a bit of a hard time with the language and the understanding, with all the short cuts. I had to come back several days and weeks to figure it out slightly better. First I thought you were German (funny?), as I found some whatever German words, topics etc., then I had the impression of a religious thing (which puzzled me the most, what´s all this to do with RA???) Servetus, if you are interested I can tell you more.about this strange religious ideas I had.:-) Then of course I thought you`re British, because you kept mentioning that Cambridge Prof., (by then I hadn´t realised that there are so many Americans in Armitageworld). It took me really a while to find out you are living overseas!! Pretty far away, but not as far as Hobbit-land, where our beloved man of desire is recently hiding so efficiently.

    I like the idea of Angie and Teuchter, as we all do not know you, we can at least imagine you smiling 🙂


    • It was a really bizarre day, with big ups and downs.

      I tried to get out of that job for four years straight, but this is a weird profession with a very strange job market. At some point I realized there was no chance I could get hired in a different position unless I left that one — no one would believe i really wanted to quit that job, and I couldn’t state openly the reasons why. I do think a lot of what was going on toward the end involved the compulsive repetition of certain kinds of experiences as a way of avoiding others.

      I was amused by your description of “finding Servetus.” I feel a strong identification with the historical Servetus, and all the stuff you found is a little bit of the blogger “Servetus,” too. I think a big part of why I am blogging is that all of these things don’t fit together very well in my real life, but here on the blog they can all be part of me.

      I hope you have many occasions to smile this week.


  5. […] we were doing this week? Is it a dream about Judi and not about Armitage? Was it a response to this? GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]


  6. I am glad you found the feeling and the smiling again, Servetus!
    When I went through a similar experience, I closed myself completely down, I could not even cry. So your article vividly brought it all back. I am still trying to get the full feeling back, but even the hard trying sometimes feels like fighting off my senses, as I am sometimes trying too hard to let myself feel. My drug of choice to dull my senses mostly is work and that is not always rewarding, so I am very glad, that I found RA to see the richness and beauty of the world beyond work and that I found you and your blog in the process. Thank you for always reminding me of the good and beautiful side of the world, Servetus! ;o)


    • CDoart, work is the worst of all because if you do it too much you deaden yourself but you can always convince yourself it’s the right thing to do. I’m glad you found Armitage, too. Long may he reign!


      • What a great motto, Servetus! “Long may he reign!”
        I think I need to snuggle and smuggle that motto off to another place some time soon, if I may 😉

        With the work, you are, unfortunately for me, very right. I try to make it better, but it is so hard right now.


  7. *hugs*


  8. […] The physicist gave me his copies of LOTR to read when I had flu once in grad school. I still knew they were classics. I didn’t finish them but somehow the books stayed with me after our breakup and got stored in the part of my library that wasn’t stolen while I was in Germany. I didn’t look at them again, but a student of mine invited me to go see the first LOTR film in 2001, when it premiered, as a consequence of which I finally finished reading the books during a truly memorable case of flu in January 2002. I attribute my return to the books not just to Peter Jackson’s vision, but also to having been trapped in bed. […]


  9. […] although not unexpected, about something that’s happened to another friend at my last campus. The train wreck continues; luckily or unluckily, the number of people I care about who can be hit in the collision […]


  10. […] here, in this café, the morning before I went to new faculty orientation, the hopes I had, and the sometimes inexplicable tears back then, which were about the wake of the previous job. And here I sit, in this café, two days before my […]


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