Sleight of Hand

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For the last two weeks, I’ve been helping my partner prepare to interpret a stage performance (if I’ve failed to mention that both I and my partner are professional American Sign Language interpreters, well, now you know). Normally, he prefers not to do that type of work. But the performer is a good friend of ours, and given the content of the show, it really made sense for Stacy to do it. I could sit in the audience and support him as a team interpreter, as needed {for shows like this one, instead of switching interpreters at intervals [usual practice, in order to give breaks from the mental and physical fatigue of interpreting], it makes the most sense to maintain one interpreter, so that audience members using the interpreter get one “voice,” in the same way that hearing audience members get one voice from the performer (just as every speaker has their own style of expression, so does every interpreter, and switching interpreters while maintaining speakers can produce a jarring difference for the signing consumer, affecting their experience)]}.

Now that you’ve had a peek behind the curtain of ASL interpreting, let me get to what this post is really about: “trauma management,” or, the illusion of “trauma management,” possibly best noted as, trauma “management.”

When the event posting went out for our friend’s show, I knew right away that I would most likely not be able to attend, because of the venue. Stacy and I had been to that downtown nightclub before–it’s the upstairs to a storefront, what once would have been the living quarters for the family running the business below, now decorated to provide a dimly lit, sultry ambience (which it does, quite effectively). We were there for a date-night show, and before it began, I sipped my drink and perused the walls, which are dripping with art of multiple genres and media… until my eyes landed on the life-sized plaster cast of a woman’s breasts and extremely pregnant belly. The rest of the night was immersed in the specter of my infertility, which is the source of my most profound sadness, and tempers nearly every aspect of my life.

“I really want to support you by being there for you in the audience, but I don’t know if I can handle it,” I said to Stacy, sitting next to him on our couch, my pulse increasing at the memory of the bust on the wall.

“I know,” he said. “I already thought of that. I even thought of calling to ask them if they could take it down for the night, so you wouldn’t have to look at it,” acknowledging my unspoken reference.

Swoon. Yes, he really is that thoughtful and protective.

Trauma triggers are nasty things. Sometimes I know they are going to be there, and can attempt to prepare for them. Sometimes, I can avoid them. But more often than not, they pop up unexpectedly, catching me off guard, leaving me reeling.

It’s the plaster cast on the wall. It’s a friend’s pregnancy announcement on social media. It’s walking down the sidewalk and hearing a newborn crying as its mom tries to comfort it. It’s the commercial for a new, super-sized washer and dryer, where the father asks the mother, “Are we pregnant?!” It’s walking by a co-worker’s birth announcement, still posted, two months after the fact. It’s the radio commercial, declaring that “every day is Mother’s Day,” with Walmart online shopping and pick up. It’s the Facebook Memory of a friend’s sonogram photo from years ago.

As animals, we are programmed to avoid situations which are uncomfortable, which produce negative emotions, or which are physically harmful to us. The only way for me to be sure to not to be exposed to any such things is to permanently ditch social media. Television. Radio. Movies. Work. People. Society. Life.

It’s problematic.

There is bountiful information about PTSD and attempting to manage the symptoms surrounding reactions to trauma. There is scant information about reactions to chronic infertility framed as on-going traumatic stress.

It’s problematic.

I personally feel a great amount of anger, sadness, shame, and guilt over the isolation that my triggers lead me to seek. I remember when my life that was unencumbered by these bothersome thoughts and feelings, and I miss it. I rail against aspects of this unwanted life daily.

It’s problematic.

For me, triggers inflict varying levels of psychic and physical stress. Knowing something is not as difficult to handle as experiencing something firsthand. Experiencing something expected is not as difficult as experiencing something unexpected. Being able to leave a situation, hopefully gracefully, is not as difficult as not being able to leave a situation (because, say, I am working, or, because of social norms that make it inappropriate or rude to just jam out). Awareness of these factors for me is a critical tool in how I “manage” my exposure trauma triggers.

I would like to share a practical tip for supporting your friends who are living with trauma, of whatever stripe: ask them what makes them feel seen, heard, and honored (AKA, validated), and then try your best to do or not do what they say, without questioning or judging their requests.

If their requests make you uncomfortable for some reason, or you don’t think you can honor their requests, be honest about that. Honesty allows both of you to choose whether or not there is mutual desire and ability to continue the relationship/friendship. Those of us who know that relating to us is extra for people who don’t face the same challenges we face will not fault you for being honest about your limitations in maintaining a healthy and comfortable relationship with us. We will fault you for saying you are all in, and then ghosting us.

Bonus tip: keep trying. If you value your relationship with someone whose life is impacted by trauma, keep trying to be a part of their life and to include them in yours. There will be times when we will be strong enough to jump in, head-first, into an event–and we will(!)–and there will be times when we struggle just getting out of bed for the day. It is up to us to be aware of where the gauge is on our Tolerance Meter, and to communicate that to you. For me, the worst feeling is to not be invited to be involved (which I choose to view as a fear on the part of the inviter of making me uncomfortable, not as a preference that I not attend, though after a while, it can begin to feel like maybe they just don’t want you there).

“Managing” my trauma is something I practice every day. Some days, triggers are scarce, and I am able to float through life with relative ease. Some days, triggers abound, and about all I can do is hold fast to the idea that tomorrow could be better.

It’s your turn, Good Readers:

Do you live with mental health needs/trauma triggers that make it difficult for you to go about your day to day life?

What tips do you have for others who are new to your situation?

What tips do you have for friends or family members of people who are managing their triggers/traumas/mental health needs?

2 thoughts on “Sleight of Hand

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