Reclamation Is A Part of Healing
When I was 9 years old, my comfy world imploded. The car I was riding in with my Mother, my Grandmother, and my brother exploded after being rear-ended by a drunk driver. In addition to my physical scars, I acquired a bunch of emotional scars which I’m still dealing with 40 years later. I divide my life into Before The Accident and After The Accident.
I feel like I'm really clear how The Accident led to "more opportunities" that I might not have otherwise experienced. Mostly in terms of money (from the settled lawsuit) & what doors that opened: changing to a prep school & rubbing shoulders with wealthy kids with upperclass aspirations & worldviews. But beyond the physical losses of my brother & Big Mama, I had not spent a lot of time cataloging all of what I feel I lost as a result of the accident.
One of my duties in my current part-time job is Standardized Patient work. This means that in some instances I play a role for 15 minutes while an individual medical student performs an interview and either a pretend or real pelvic exam, and in some instances I play a role for 15 minutes while a group of medical students work together to conduct a sexual history interview. After the roleplay we have 10 minutes where I give them feedback about what they did well, what they could have done better, and what they should never do with an actual patient. I've been doing this for almost 10 years & I love it. Love it. We get a script beforehand with the patient's presenting complaint & their medical history, and when applicable their results for specific lab tests that the students are supposed to request. The point is not really for us to be Academy Award-winning actors, but believable enough with our answers and our body language so that the student can logically put them together with any test results & come to an accurate diagnosis and/or management plan. One day recently as I was in a new role pretending to be a young mother anxious about a lump I found on my breast, my biggest self-critique was about whether or not I was believable in the role: was I adequately "wringing my hands" (the stated stage direction) to show my anxiety? Was I conveying how much our family had gone through when my sister was diagnosed with ductal cancer 3 years ago? And I remembered...
I really, really, really wanted to be an actress growing up. I was in two plays in middle school (one school play, one community theatre production), but I wanted Broadway, I wanted Hollywood, and I believed that my burns prevented me from even trying to follow that dream. I had the minimal amount of plastic surgery—skin grafts—during my summer-long hospital stay. My plastic surgeon (who me & Mama called "God"—not as a compliment) told me that I had until I was 18 to have more surgery & that if I didn't have more surgery by then I was stuck with my scars. I decided I'd rather have the scars than more surgery. Even though strangers stared at me and/or asked invasive questions about my scars; even though my new classmates made fun of my scars until I cried almost every day for a year. I was hyperconscious of my scars & believed that I was “disfigured”. Just now I asked myself if I still believed I am disfigured & I didn't have an answer. I turned to my old friend Google:
disfigure: “spoil the attractiveness of”
As much as I consider my burn scars Badges Of Courage, I don’t think it’s a lie to say they spoil the attractiveness of my skin. To see my skin as beautiful is a reclamation I've not yet been able to make.
(I had a lover who compared my burns to close-ups of dragonfly wings and satellite photos of the Egyptian Delta, and sent me photos of each. I looked at the photos & could see the similarity she saw, but could not somatically relate it to my actual body. One day I might, or I might never, and I'm ok with where I am now.)
I have always been hyperaware of actors who have some sort of facial or physical oddity (there are a couple of famous actors whose faces are severely asymmetrical to the point that their eyes are out of alignment). Not as a put down of them, but out of a "Maybe I could've been an actress even with my scars" jealousy. Especially since my burn scars are more or less hidden if I wear long sleeves & pants (the burn on my left hand cannot really be covered up unless I'm getting my inner Michael Jackson on).
Back to my day of pretending. I started realizing that part of the personal satisfaction that I get out of my job is I get to reclaim this one thing that The Accident took from me. I'm not on stage & my audience is extremely small, but I am acting THE FUCK out of my role. When I'm pretending to have an ectopic pregnancy sometimes I even cry (I can actually do the "one dramatic tear trailing down my face" or the "eyes welling up but I'm too stoic to let the tears fall"). When I’m nervously but determinedly telling someone young enough to be my offspring that I might be interested in anal sex, I "struggle with eye contact" & sometimes look at the floor or over their shoulder. Oftentimes the students comment on how believable I am. I make sure that I don't focus on my acting skills to the detriment of the students' learning. But here's one place I get back a tiny piece of something Ford took from me (I target Ford specifically because having an actual target for my rage & grief allows me to get a handle on it. "American Capitalism & Greed" is too big of a target & just makes me feel overwhelmed by my rage).
There are many ways to reclaim what was taken away from you by trauma & every attempt at reclamation does not have to end in a permanently changed behavior.
I have amazing hair. I don't believe in false modesty: my hair is AMAZING. Strangers routinely stop me to pay compliments or to ask about it. Acquaintances & friends recognize me in a crowd or from the back with just one glimpse of my hair. I routinely take selfies when I'm having a good hair day & post them to my social media platforms. Once after moving to a new city, I sent out a whole email to my friends just about my hair (the neutralizer & relaxer clashed & I needed to share the pain of the outcome). My hair is my one true vanity, and I'm not ashamed of that. But my hair being amazing is not a reclamation. I had pretty awesome hair before the accident as well. I indulge myself in my hair vanity as a way to hang on to the one thing I know about me is beautiful in the face of my "disfigurement". But even that is not a reclamation.
As I've been consciously working on "resolving my trauma"* it came up again that part of the way I choose to wear my hair is in reaction to The Accident. Prior to the accident, my mother did my hair & I wore it in two plaits or two Afro Puffs until I got it permed at 8 (the story of what White Supremacy takes from little Black girls in a world where the people that love them allow lye mixtures to be put on their scalp is another workshop), so I had a permanent center part. Once taking care of my hair became my responsibility, I promptly switched to a right side part. I can't remember whether it was unconscious or conscious, but a right side part allowed the bulk of my hair to cover the burn scars on the left side of my face & on my left ear.**
As part of my current healing journey, I recently decided to start wearing my hair parted in the middle again. As it was my mother's choice and not my own to wear my hair parted in the middle, it wasn't exactly a reclamation. But I felt a sense of reclamation by choosing to let go of a coping mechanism. I wore it that way for a little while and even recorded a video with my hair in that style. I ultimately decided I didn't find the style to be that flattering, because of my ginormous forehead, and went back to wearing it parted on the side. But I count it as a win that I was able to wear it parted in the middle for as long as I did without being self-conscious (and after choosing Janet Mock as my new hair icon, I might revisit the decision during my next Deva Cut).
I count it as a win because I regained my option to choose, rather than acting subconsciously.
Healing From Trauma is about regaining access to those parts of you that shut down in order to cope, and/or the things that trauma took away from you. Sometimes the reclaiming doesn't work for you, but even the attempt can be empowering. What are the things that your trauma(s) took from you? Are you perhaps unconsciously already reclaiming them? If not, what are small things that you could reclaim?
* I can't emphasize enough that "resolving" trauma is not pretending it never happened, or going back to the way of life you had before the traumatic incidents(s). Resolving trauma is becoming aware of your coping mechanisms & triggers, and acting from conscious choice rather than automatic reactions.
** The burn scars on my face & ear are much larger in my imagination than they are in reality. I can't even see them anymore when I look in the mirror. I don't know at what age they "disappeared", but the ones on my face came to resemble acne scars in my late teens & the crinkling of my ear stretched out as the my actual ear became bigger.