Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Garden-variety Survivor

Before you get your knickers in a twist, let me be clear: I mean myself. And anyone. Or everyone. I've written about this before, but here I go again.

I'm a little too fond of sweeping generalizations. A recent conversation made that plain and made me think hard. I referred to a stereotype this way and got a well-deserved earful, or eyeful, online.

Afterward, my daughter was appalled: "Mom! No one wants to be called garden-variety!"

Good point. I turned it around onto myself to see where it took me. Along the way, I accidentally found a piece I'd been looking for to describe the universal nature of trauma, yours, mine & ours.

Mine is glaringly visible in the form of the prosthetic leg I cinch onto the stump of my left thigh every morning. It's a shocking enough sight to stop traffic (and catch a cab in New York City!). Before my amputation, I limped on a bent leg that fused itself when I was a teen. These are my souvenirs of having been treated with prayer and faith-healing instead of medicine when I was a child. 

Emotional damage is a-whole-nother dimension. I was going to say it's always worse, or usually worse, since psychological pain doesn't hinge on bodily harm. But trauma is its own separate layer even when it's connected to a physical event. I define the event as being the realization of our human vulnerability, i.e. No one gets out of this life alive.

Being told at thirteen I could pray my way out of pain and disease through Christian Science prayer amounted to torture: You have the power to end this condition if you say/do/understand these words. I was wracked with shame that I was incapable or undeserving of healing. My limp was the proof of my failure. I staggered on that weird limb without physical pain for years--but when anyone asked about it, I mumbled about infections and stiffness. Sometimes I literally wanted to die. My gait shrieked SOMETHING HAPPENED TO ME! But emotionally I hurt too much to talk about it.

There is no official standard of emotional pain. Trauma can't be quantified. Any situation that bends consciousness beyond the breaking point leaves scars. They can't be dissected like bone fractures. Trauma morphs humans from predators to prey animals, turns us into terrified rabbits left to react in panicked zigzags rather than reasoned discussions. It can be a different number on a personal Richter scale from time to time, a faint tremor instead of a chasm opening underfoot, but even that comparison bothers me. I hate those pain charts on hospital walls with smiley faces frowning into weeping and agony. It's near impossible for me to choose a number.

I've worn my Trauma/Leg Outfit (or Silly Walk, if you don't mind) most of my life. Now I'm finally able to explain about it. And yet because I can speak about it--because I had a leg severed above the knee--because my body, my stride, my mechanical limb and my voice all agree that SOMETHING HAPPENED TO ME, people feel the need to begin their own stories of survival with, It's not as bad as what happened to you, but---

And I say STOP!  It can't be compared that way. Too much is when your trust in normal life is breached.This leg-story of mine is only my piece in our narrative as humans.

Feeling someone has suffered more or less and is therefore more or less deserving of  compassion only divides us.

I suffered agonies of shame believing I was pitied and pathetic. I believed I deserved my anguish. I thought I was incapable, incompetent and at fault. I felt judged for both not being healed AND not seeking medical attention on my own. Get this: I was furiously jealous of the war vets who were hailed in their hospital beds as champions. I watched them overcoming injuries cheered on by medical teams and family members. And I felt small. What was my story compared to theirs??

No. Any unbearable pain is exactly that. Human trauma is too common an experience for us to allow it to wrench us apart. Emotional damage comes from endless scenarios and it is not for us to judge which is highest on the horror-scale. We're an intelligent and sensitive species. I don't think we're wussier than we were hundreds or thousands of years ago. New dangers appear along with every advance we make.

I'm not going to stop saying this: we're all in this together. No one gets out of this garden unscathed. Compassion, empathy and connection are all we've got.


  1. I am a former Scientist who has a very deformed and disfigured leg, as a result of something that happened to me when I was a toddler,that obviously went untreated. I just stumbled onto your blog, along with other former CSists blogs, and I can't put the iPad down. I've never read anything or spoken to anyone who gets it. I am at a loss for words now but will keep reading and will definitely have more questions and comments when I'm able to process everything.

    1. Thanks so much for reading & commenting. I got your email & will contact you soon (I've been traveling lately). I'm honored/sobered to be part of your joining our human survivor-herd. It's a long tough road, but it gets better, and there are so many supportive people to meet along the way. I've had those breakthrough moments when someone looked me in the eye and I knew they understood and the recognition was shocking and wonderful simultaneously. It's a privilege to be part of this & I thank you.