“What is the thing you are lucky to have survived? I want you to turn to the members of your small group and share with them, and later you’ll be writing a paper on the same topic.”
I felt nervous as I turned to the other three members of my group, already feeling like I didn’t fit in. I was 23 years old and, as far as I knew, the only Mormon kid in my college cohort of social work undergraduates. I was here at Boise State University in a room full of mostly white students, but there were only a handful of men. After high school, I had spent two years on a Mormon mission, and then another two years at a Mormon university. Now I was here among students who called themselves feminists and who sometimes drank alcohol and I didn’t know at all where to fit in. I felt constantly judged for being religious, and many of them felt constantly judged by me because I was religious, and both of those things were probably true. On top of it all, I was hiding the fact that I was gay, way deep down inside, not daring to tell anyone about my terrible shame.
I boldly agreed to go first, keeping eye contact with my group, hoping to find acceptance there.
“I, uh, went through some pretty tough things as a kid and teenager,” I said, sounding confident even though I wasn’t. I chose not to speak about growing up gay, or about my dad leaving, or about the sexual abuse, and instead focused on more recent events. “Um, when I was 16, I remember coming home one day and finding my 6-lb puppy, just this little black scruffy thing named Sammy, literally broken and lying on the floor in the frozen garage. During the day, my stepfather Kent said she had been causing trouble so he tried to toss her outside in the slow and then he slammed the sliding glass door closed on her on accident. He basically just put her down in the garage to freeze to death. I picked her up and could feel her ribs were broken and I cuddled her underneath the blankets in my bed. Kent came down angry and told me to put her back in the garage and I refused and for some reason he left us alone. He was violent and angry a lot during those years, but somehow that was the worst thing he had done.”
The other students in the group had pained looks on their faces, and they shared in this sadness with me for a moment, then took their turns in sharing their stories. One of the students shared a history of being sexually assaulted and then struggling with eating disorders and suicide attempts afterwards. Another student talked about being in the room when her own mother was murdered. The third talked about a horrific car accident that killed three other people and put her in the hospital, one she nearly didn’t survive.
A moment later, we opened the discussion up to the wider classroom and a handful of people shared their stories. One man had lost friends in combat only to be sent home when he was caught in an explosion, one woman had lost her entire home and everything she owned in a house fire, one had been married to a police officer killed in the line of duty.
I remember sitting there with a sense of emptiness and awe as I looked around this room of brave and incredible people. The only thing we had in common was being here in school at the same time, students in a university program. The professor talked about how humans are powerful and resilient and incredible, how we survive some of the worst things in the world and come out stronger on the other side, although we are forever changed. He talked about how, as social workers, we would be sitting with people in their most vulnerable and tragic spaces and helping them find their strength and their truth. And he talked about how even though we survive painful things, we likely have other painful things to survive in the future.
In many ways, this college experience launched my career in trauma work. Over the following years, I have sat with people in their greatest moments of pain, some of it unfathomable. I’ve sat with the woman who had a gun pointed into her open mouth during a bank robbery, the woman who watched her husband commit suicide with a shotgun right in front of her, the man who found his husband hanging over the breakfast table, the mother who woke up from a coma only to learn her entire family had been killed by a drunk driver, the man who lost his entire family during his 25 years in prison, the man who learned of his sister’s death at the hands of a serial killer, the woman whose husband came out of the closet after 40 years of marriage, the athlete who lost his job and scholarship because of one night of careless drinking, and the mother whose son took his own life because he felt rejected by a church for being gay.
If I were to sit in a group now and talk about what I survived, my answer would be much more recent. I would tell about being a home owner with a child, a pregnant spouse, a business, and major religious responsibilities when I came out of the closet and had to start my life over, rebuilding every relationship and learning how to live.
After I’ve worked in trauma several days in a row, I look at the world differently. I see people as survivors, and there is a weight to my eyes. A few days off with sunshine and fresh air, hugs from my children, laughter with friends, savory food, sweat, sleep, sex, wine, inspiration from history, and chocolate in some form or combination is needed to return the optimism.
It is at times a dark and difficult world. And it is a bright and beautiful one.
And we survive both.