Trauma is such a misunderstood word.
Many of us envision that trauma has to be a particularly horrific or heinous act that has taken place in our lives. Incidents of abuse, accidents, or severe loss.
That isn’t all trauma is though. The definition of trauma is an individual, subjective response to any distressing or disturbing event that impedes that person’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, and diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.
No one else can define what trauma is because it is defined by our personal experience and the way we respond to it. While there are certainly experiences that we would say are almost universally traumatic, there are also countless other things that occur daily that qualify as trauma to the people experiencing them.
No one tells us that though. Instead, we’re told to just suck it up, tough it out. That’s just life, they say— deal with it!
So we do. In the ways we’ve been taught are acceptable. Toxic work environment? Destress with a few drinks after work. Relationship issues? A glass of wine can fix that. Overwhelmed with responsibilities? You need a drink.
Often, we fall into the trap of drinking to deal with trauma because we have no idea that what we are experiencing is even allowed to be defined as trauma. Yet, in almost every case, we can answer yes to those qualifying questions about trauma.
Impedes our ability to cope? Definitely.
Causes feelings of helplessness? Oh, yeah.
Diminishes sense of self? Check!
Diminishes ability to feel emotions and experiences – Yes again.
Trauma isn’t about what happens to us—it is about how we respond to the event. It is personal. Where things get dicey is when our coping mechanisms inadvertently create more trauma within our lives and within our very being.
I know because I lived that. Stressful job. Stressful life. Depression. Anxiety. I couldn’t complain. This wasn’t trauma. This was what I worked for. This was what I wanted. I asked for this life.
So, I did what was acceptable. I had a drink to relax. To forget. To deal.
A drink turned into two. A glass became a bottle. The bottle became a box.
My coping mechanism, triggered by my response to my life, became a trigger of its own.
Soon, that checklist also applied to my nightly wine habit:
Distressing? Yes—as the self-hate sessions that woke me up at 3 a.m. every night were telling me.
Impedes our ability to cope? Definitely—alcohol was my duct tape!
Causes feelings of helplessness? Ugh. It hurts just to think about how utterly powerless I felt due to my nightly drinking.
Diminishes sense of self? More intensely than anything I have ever experienced in life.
Diminishes ability to feel emotions and experiences? Amazingly well. I felt no pain and, in turn, I also felt no joy.
Soon, I couldn’t separate one trauma from the other. Was I feeling the way I was because of my job? Was it from trying to balance work and home life? When did my husband and I start fighting so much? Was it the wine? Why was I so unhappy? Where did the insomnia come from?
Why wasn’t my anxiety going away when I was on three different medications and drinking two bottles of wine!?
The cure became part of the curse. Yet no one ever said that I was allowed to call it trauma. That the things that were happening to me were painful and that they could paralyze me emotionally.
That it was okay to say this is all too much, and I need help dealing with it.
Society is partly to blame here. Everything is now a competition. A race to the top. We devalue our experiences and decide that they couldn’t possibly qualify as a “real” trauma. After all, someone else has had much worse happen to them.
That is true, but I wasn’t living someone else’s life. This was my life. My experiences. I finally came to the realization that I was entitled to feel it and process it however deeply and profoundly as I needed to.
Had that realization come sooner, I wouldn’t have needed to unravel the additional trauma that my drinking brought about. Here I was, 10 years later, and much more broken than I had been when it all started. Unraveling which issues came from my drinking and which issues I drank to avoid dealing with.
That incredibly messy and excruciatingly painful journey is the most beautiful thing I have ever experienced in my life. It changed me deeply and irreversibly. It made me more human.
I now know that trauma isn’t a competition. No one gets to determine the scale of someone’s pain. We are on this planet together but we’re living these journeys alone. I can’t tell you what you’re feeling, but I can tell you that choosing a response that can only bring you further down, one that only hurts and never helps, is not the way.
I can offer you compassion, love, empathy, and hope.
If drinking is no longer working for you, join me in The Alcohol Experiment. Over 230,000 people have joined to not only take a break from alcohol but to also see how self-compassion can change them. It is completely free at The Alcohol Experiment.