Lately, I haven’t been able to breathe in my apartment, my nervous system has been too overwhelmed by resurfacing material about the recent loss of my friend. I often need to dedicate time solely to unapologetic grief, sobbing into gallons of coffee before “getting on” with my day. I’m sitting in a coffee shop clutching a mediocre mug of the stuff like it could save me from drowning on dry land. “Bare My Soul” by Empathy Test (2017) blares on repeat from mostly-broken earbuds. There are entire weeks where, in spite of this job I love that empowers me to forge new ground in the world of trans and non-binary survivorship, I still feel entirely alone in my experience of traumatic intrusions. I know I’m not the only one and that’s the only reason I can still write this piece for all of those who still feel entirely alone in their traumatic intrusions. I write in hope that we continue to pull the sinew of nightmares from our memory boxes with faith in finding wishbones, because I do believe hope wins, and I know that healing is possible.
What continually surprises, challenges, and inspires me about being dedicated to deep trauma healing personally and professionally simultaneously is that the same material that rabidly gnaws away hours of sleep at night and restricts my breathing is also magnificently metabolized to become dreams for radically different futures through engaging in community and storytelling. I think that’s what all trans and nonbinary survivors do in and through our survivorship, regardless of if we work with other survivors or not: It’s those metabolic processes that turn grief or shame into resilience in communally that keeps storytelling central to my creative imagination and work ethic, even if the storytelling is hard because it means naming that it feels like I’m drowning in the grief of a recently lost friend. I have learned that it’s worth it to tell the stories that scare us. Otherwise, the traumatic material stays stuck in feedback loops that continuously isolate, disrupt, and trigger our bodymind. Joy becomes possible when survivors break these feedback loops every time they share the traumatic intrusions that feel impossible to name. Storytelling in community is the healing magic that keeps survivors like me alive.
Between gasps in my apartment, I’ve been wrestling with intrusions about the traumatic passing of someone I deeply loved before love was a word I knew any of the letters to. I vaguely name what the intrusions are about here intentionally: As trans and nonbinary survivors, I know in a very real way how statistically probable it is that, like in all my feelings so far, I am not alone in losing someone in tragic ways and to not have the resources (be they practical or emotional) to bury our dead with all the dignity, recognition, and support they deserve. Honoring grief, practicing compassionate storytelling, and choosing life and hope are all ways that survivors can be blessed by the memories of the people they have lost and treat them at last with the dignity they deserve through the actions survivors choose now.
Much of this grief and healing work can be done around traumatic intrusions, and the information that follows will be helpful to trans and nonbinary survivors regardless of if they’ve lost loved ones or not. Traumatic intrusions like can feel like they’re going to break someone’s heart. But, in unforeseen, pulsing ways, they are actually what help heal it after trauma, too. My therapist told me this week that intrusions, like Rumi’s wound where the light gets enters, are our brains’ highly intelligent way of letting us know what is ready to be processed and metabolized. Rather than constituting disruptive post-traumatic symptomatology that must be skillfully “contained” or pushed aside in favor of the present moment — which is how I’ve always thought of them — intrusions are vital messengers about which memories or fragments are ready to be brought forward and examined. This is often best done in trusting relationship – FORGE has an excellent guide for trans and nonbinary survivors who are interested in accessing therapy as part of their healing work; it may be helpful when deciding which relationships are best to do intrusion work in. Giving ourselves compassionate attunement to our traumatic intrusions and experiencing that compassion reflected in someone else is its own tool for healing.
It’s important to remember that, contrary to how it may feel, the brain will not give survivors intrusions that they are not ready to handle. It makes sense, then, that trans and nonbinary survivors will be more overwhelmed by traumatic material in times when they have more housing, health, firmer gender identity, financial, and/or relationship security than before. This has certainly been true for me in how I’ve experienced a surge of grief intrusions about my recently lost friend. Experiencing an increase of intrusive traumatic material and emotionality can feel awful and be judged negatively by others, but that judgment is misplaced. This uptick is actually confirmation of just how well the survivor is doing because it means their brain feels safe and secure enough to remember and process. So, while intrusions about my lost friend may have left me with a grief that fills quiet mornings with barely controlled sobbing, I am far from alone or lost at sea. These very intrusions, painful beyond measure that they may be, are exactly what let us know as survivors that we’re on the solid ground that was denied to us for so long. They are tools to guide us into deeper healing, through storytelling in compassionate community, than was previously possible.