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The treasures trauma took from me and how I am taking them back

Anita Cassidy

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Written for my children

I noticed that the the losses I feel the most from my childhood and adolescent traumas aren’t the relationships I could, and should have had, with my parents or the loss of secure adult relationships but something else.

The trauma of being raised by both an alcohol dependent (and, later, an alcoholic) parent as well as an anxious one caused me to have limited access to playfulness, presence and poetry. These may sound like abstractions but I feel these losses keenly.

This writing is about the points of the compass that have helped me find these lost treasures. These are words, humour, music/art and play.

Reading has always been one landscape for exploration and freedom from challenging feelings. But it was also a place that I often explored whilst blindfolded: silenced and switched off from truly understanding by the disassociated part of my trauma. Reading was an occupation that was permitted and encouraged by parents who were desperate to see me succeed academically.  But, the trauma turned reading into an escape, an off switch more than something that lit me up. I hid from my present amongst the pages. I unconsciously relived my trauma through endlessly reading about horror and terror. Noticing this, I’m now working on reconnecting with words in a different way. I’m trying to be present to my reading, to connect with the page and truly hear it, taste it, smell it and touch it as well as see it.

I’m able to access joy by reading the poetic writing of Marcel Proust and David Foster Wallace, Stanislav Lem and Edward St Aubyn, Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel, Virginia Woolf and Octavia Butler. I revel in the light comedic genius of Connie Willis. I delve deep into the queer words of Whitman. Song of Myself is one of my most beloved pieces of poetry.

My writing has always been very practical, pragmatic. It tends to be focused on concrete issues, messages and advice, on tools and skills and values and communicates about these in a heavier way than I’d often like. I am wondering whether I can access the lightness that I crave by playing with words more, by experimenting and being silly with words and writing rather than always writing intense pieces about people and feelings. I will give it a try.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself – Whitman

Music meets my visceral need for presence as well as poetry. Live music is one of my greatest physical and emotional pleasures. My few lightheaded moments of pure presence have come at gigs or festivals. The heady sense of being utterly in the moment, full of light and sparks of joy, voice raised up to the sky, singing along with the voices of tens of thousands of others.

Music transforms and transports me both to the here and now but also to all the other points in time that these words and sounds recall. For music is as much about memories as the present. The feelings and experiences that songs and sounds evoke are so powerful. One note and we are transported to another time, like Proust and his mouthful of madeleine dipped in tea. The evocation of so many moments crystallised into this moment that is also a memory in becoming is so powerful, it is felt in every cell of my blood and bone / body.

By tuning into all of my senses, by focussing on touch, smell, taste and touch as well as sounds I have begun to reclaim some of what was taken by trauma.

Art also fills me up. I gorge myself on Van Gogh at the National Gallery – sitting in front of his paintings and breathing in his intensity so I can allow it to fuel my own. I feel him there in every brush stroke and in his utter commitment to capturing the truth of everything he saw, whether it be grass, a wicker chair or a peasant woman. I love to explore and discover new work as well as revisit favourites. I love the Arnolfini portrait at the National Gallery as well as Cupid complains to Venus. I love Bacon’s triptych at the Tate and Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. I have been thrilled and delighted to discover Tacita Dean, Alma Thomas, James Ensor and Artemisia Gentileschi in recent years.

Playfulness is less easy, especially in the current pandemic. I play with my cats, I try to play and be silly with my young teenagers though they are not the ideal audience. I love memes though and we often share laughter and joy over vibing cat, a Rick-roll or a crazy TikTok of a floating crocodile or a silly snake. I love to send them what makes me laugh and to see what sparks theirs. There are jokes I still share with my ex husband, the shared exasperations from knowing each other’s families inside out and from having shared a life together for so long even when we no longer do. I wish I had known what I know now about myself when my children were younger. I would have worked harder to be present, to be playful. I make amends, in the now, for that lack of knowing by doing what I can to fully reconnect with these parts of myself. And through truly seeing them. The creativity, energy and enthusiasm they have for their own hobbies and interests is an inspiration to me.

Humour, intimacy, words and music are the four points on a compass that are guiding my way back to myself.

I love to flirt and get to know people. I love the playfulness of early dates as well as the more mature intimacy built over time. I love sexual play and physical sensation – the tracing of a finger upon an ear that you never forget, a linked pair of hands as you skip though the park, a playful kiss on the nose, a tender kiss on the pair of freckles on their cheekbone that you call yours. I love the way kink allows for playfulness and experimenting, for lightness as well as seriousness. BDSM can be silly and light, it isn’t all black leather and pain (though that is fun too).

These are all the ways in which I’m rediscovering the treasures that trauma took from me. Treasures that I am digging for in the soil of my heart, mind and body, tenderly uncovering from where they lie hidden and polishing until they begin to shine.

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