I was standing there in Girdwood, Alaska, freshly fallen snow all the way up to my knees. The expansive, looming mountain tops boasted a fresh white blanket, covering their trees and rocky faces. I wiggled my toes to feel them again. My breath was an endless reappearing and disappearing cloud until I tugged my snowboarding scarf up over my nose. And for a brief moment, I entertained the thought that somewhere in the world there was a beach. A warm, tropical, sun-soaked beach. It wasn’t that I wanted to be there, I just wanted to be able to embrace that complexity. I wanted to be able to stand in that snow and know, like actually know with every fiber of my being, somewhere a beach existed in that very same moment. But I couldn’t. Because even though my mind could know that, my heart was still in the snow.
Compartmentalizing would be the fancy, clinical term for it. Us mental health therapists have lots of those kind of words. Enough of them to start sounding unintentionally pretentious pretty quickly once someone asks you to talk about what you do for a living.
It’s when you put things in boxes with labels, only opening one at a time. It’s when your mind shuts doors and refuses to accept the complexities and expansiveness of life. It serves to protect you, but it actually limits your understanding and perspectives at any given moment.
I do it a lot.
Not just when I’m in Alaska either. I go to work everyday where I am honored to hold the most vulnerable parts of people’s lives. I hold the trauma, I hold the space for their healing and then I go home and open some other box of who I am. Or perhaps, what I do more often is, constantly leave the “work related trauma” box open, even when I go home.
Someone can tell me they got engaged and I can smile but really I may think, “Wonder how much the wedding will cost… wonder how many impoverished kids that would feed over the summer when school’s out… wonder if any of the kids or teens I work with will have the luxury or opportunity for something like a wedding.”
That’s because if you’re not careful, trauma changes you. Even realist, already semi-cynical, not-very-emotional, me. I mean I was the kid who drew cheetahs running around with bloody gazelles hanging out of their mouths. I saw the world the way it was, even in its messiness and wasn’t afraid of it. I never tried to run from it. Often, I ran right to it.
Maybe that’s why I ended up in social work.
My first gig in the field was in residential treatment for teen males. Every soul that entered that building had a rap sheet like you wouldn’t believe, and a childhood trauma history like you really wouldn’t believe. I remember thinking, “How is it that you are even here breathing, still going through the motions in a world that has been so cruel to you?” It gave me some empathy. I’d often also think, “Damn I’d probably done all the same things if I had had your life.”
I really thought I could handle it. I was praised and pointed out for my calmness, my ability to navigate crises seemingly unnerved. My ability to walk up to the same kid who may have called me a bitch 53 times the day before (yes I’d count) with a fresh, unrattled attitude and a smile. But thinking your invincible is sometimes the worst thing you can do for yourself. Refusing to accept your vulnerabilities just causes the pain to become like a creeping mold, consuming you slowly from the inside out.
And when I used to walk to my car at the end of the day, and reach for the door handle, I couldn’t keep my hand steady. I would shake. And I hated myself for that. I wanted to be as strong as everyone thought I was, as strong as I felt I was supposed to be. I would go to happy hours, laughing the loudest, swirling my big glasses of wine like I was the most careless person in the world, but really, I hurt like hell.
One day after navigating some suicidal threats, attempting to break up several fights, and listening to a horrific sexual abuse story, I was called down the hall to assist my coworkers in a restraint of an older teen. I remember helping to hold him down, he’s screaming at me, trying to spit on me, calling me every name in the book, but his eyes, they just looked sad.
And it was then that I could literally feel it. The pain took a life of its own and I could feel the trauma and suffering flooding from him into me.
Afterwards, my supervisor sung my praises for another day well done. He said something along the lines of, “Your calm leadership is so appreciated here,” I smiled and nodded but my body reverbated with something ugly, something so much bigger than me. I held my arms out in front of me, turning them and scanning them with my eyes. I wasn’t bleeding or bruised but I wanted to be. I wanted some physical ramifications of my experience, but it was invisible.
I went to the car at the end of my shift that day and held my hand out in front of me. I watched myself shake. Instead of brushing it off, I just allowed myself to watch that. And for the first time in probably years, I cried. I sat in my car shaking and crying and just accepting it. Accepting all of my vulnerabilities, all of my humanity, and most terrifying to me, all of my limits.
That was years ago.
But I still have moments where I have to remind myself I’m human. I still have moments where I have to say, “It’s okay, Kristina. It’s okay that you feel that way, it makes sense that you feel that way.”
I have to start allowing the same acceptance and nonjudgmental curiosity I allow for my clients, for myself. I have to allow myself to have an unsteady hand at times and then ask myself what I need to heal from all the pain I am holding. I have to continue to give myself those opportunities. And you, whoever you are who is reading this, I think you should too.
It’s so important.
Sometimes I think if I go back to Alaska in the winter, maybe I’ll be able to do it. Maybe I’ll be able to stand in the snow and know there’s a beach somewhere.
Because after all, that whole compartmentalizing thing, it’s something I’ve been working on.