I think that one of the biggest things that I’ve questioned in the aftermath of the attack is who I am and what I’m working towards – apparently this is a normal process of trauma recovery and it’s because trauma completely shakes up everything that you thought you knew about yourself and turns it on its head. I can completely relate to this because things which used to be the norm for me have now been subjects of my anxiety and even panic attacks – from walking down dark streets alone, through to getting on a boat with a man that’s acting in a sleazy way towards me. Usually, I’d just suck it up and get on with whatever I’d put my mind too, but post trauma I question my ability to deal with such situations and consequently question my whole identity because I’ve changed from the fearless Shereen I was once so comfortable being.
This subject came up in conversation this week when Dr Jenn and I were made to feel quite unwelcome in a vegan cafe and I joked that it was because we weren’t wearing ‘hippy trousers’ and hair braids like everyone else in the cafe. Instead, we were wearing shorts and t-shirts that were either old work clothes or second-hand items, the fact that we’re both quite environment, health conscious and daily meditator’s was beside the point when it came down to receiving good customer service depending on your external image. Thus, we began to talk about what identity was and what it looked, felt, and appeared as, further to that was whether or not it mattered and why should we care anyway. This is a subject which I have questioned in my life before but after the attack it’s a subject which has been on my mind a lot as I explore what my post-trauma identity is, and what I am working to cultivate and take comfort in.
If I look back to my childhood I remember a particular event which might have made me question this for the first ever time – I was about 14 years old at the time and I had started listening to rock music. Naturally I’d assumed the identity of a ‘rocker’ which meant wearing mostly black, dying my hair a different colour each week (as outrageous as I could think of – red, blue, green, even silver at one point) and I also participated the kind of activities that other ‘rockers’ did like going to rock music festivals and hanging around a certain statue in Wolverhampton on Saturdays (the ‘Man on the Horse’… we were so cool). The thing is, I really enjoyed listening to rock music at the time; it was very expressive and there was a whole range which would suit whatever mood I was in – punk if I felt perky, harder rock if I felt frustrated and even some quite melodic music if I was feeling nostalgic. I’m sure it was actually therapeutic to me at that time in my adolescence too, because most of the time I just wanted to jump around and be silly which is what I loved so much about the all age venue concerts that I’d go to with my friends – getting in the mosh pits! However, there were some bits about being a rocker that I didn’t enjoy so much. I didn’t really like the clothes because black is quite a boring colour and my outfits mainly consisted of band t-shirts, hoodies and black trousers/jeans – there wasn’t much variety. I also wasn’t too fond of the behaviour that I felt was sometimes expected of me, as though I should be some manic depressive and act all dark and sad all the time because of the songs I listened to. Either way, I continued to conform to these things because I liked the music and wanted to fit in with the people who shared this interest. What made me finally snap out of it was when my Dad decided that he wouldn’t buy me any more black clothes, so if I wanted to have something new it would have to be a colour that he deemed appropriate (usually pink, purple or something pastel coloured). Seen as I was reliant on my Dad’s income to clothe myself, I didn’t have the option to disagree. I’m not sure if we actually had a conversation about why I had to conform to this image to listen to a certain music genre but I do remember thinking that it shouldn’t matter what clothes I wear or music that I listen to and that people should accept me for who I am.
Somewhere along the way though I seemed to have stopped developing this attitude and as I’ve tried out different careers, and lifestyles I’ve come to berate myself for being too many things at once and not fitting in the box of a person doing ‘x’ career/past time/activity because I enjoyed the variety of doing lots of things. To put it bluntly how many sailing, marketing consulting, project manager, beauticians are there out there, who are passionate about sustainability, travel, adventure, chemical free living, organics and wellbeing, who have recently written a book and are now blogging about trauma recovery and therapies research? If you know someone of this description please email me because I’d love to have a coffee with them!
I guess what this comes down to is that a core value of mine is integrity – that means that I say what I mean and I do what I say, but the problem with an overwhelming emotional experience is that I’m no longer able to control these emotions or predict when they’re going to overwhelm me. This affects my integrity because I don’t feel like I can commit to something because if I experience an unknown trigger or an emotion becomes too overwhelming then I simply want to run away from whatever I’ve committed myself too (although these days I’m trying to lean into those discomforts, it’s still a daily challenge to practice). This has ultimately affected how I live my life (especially my ability to work) because I don’t want to end up in a situation where my somewhat ‘irrational’ emotional response compromises my reputation as a <insert identity here>. What’s frustrating is that when it comes down to it, external identity means nothing because integrity will show if you are who you say you are. So, it doesn’t matter how much I dress, act or even swear like a sailor right now if I can’t deal with the somewhat testing situations that sailing a boat bring. At the moment, the reality of this is that I don’t know if I can deal with that kind of pressure so I’m not willing to take the risk. That’s not to say that I can’t pick this hobby and profession up again when I know I’ve faced all my PTSD triggers and learnt how to manage my emotions.
Luckily I’ve got the perspective to see that I won’t be stuck here forever and every day I continue to work towards my post trauma identity which I know will be stronger and wiser than ever before. I also know that the insecurities of ‘not fitting in’ will also vanish when I feel comfortable within my own skin and accept that I am all the great things that I am, no matter what anyone else thinks. Looking back at my professional and personal experiences, and knowing that I have the flexibility to adapt to different situations gives me the confidence that I need to start building this new identity, whatever that may be. It gives me the assurance that no matter how long I take out of the construction/sailing/marketing/beauty/sustainability World that I’ll be able to go back into these environments and pick up where I left off because if I did it once, I can do it again. I also know that if I branch off into something new that I can do, because I’ve done it before. What’s best to know is that all of this is regardless of external image because it comes from my personality and characteristics, which is great because however much I enjoy meditating, tie-dye just does not suit me.