Self

I’m Not Brave, I’m Human

Photo: Juergen Bauer / Shutterstock
woman looking at sunset

Thank you for your courage to be honest.

How brave, thank you, Nikki.

You're so brave.

Brave.

Brave. 

On May 2, 2019, I published my first ever personal essay. I’d been writing full-time for a year, but most of my work was fiction, and nothing I’d written had seen the light of day.

But I was ready for something more, something deeply personal.

My entrée into the world of the essay was all planned out. The outlines and drafts were ready. I’d been lurking in online writing groups. My writing calendar was set up. I’d created a publication to house my work.

Yet, still, my finger hovered over the Publish button. Did I really want to put my words out there? My innermost thoughts, my deepest secrets?

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Screw it, I said to myself. What are you waiting for?

A single click was the first step to establishing a new identity for myself. I am a writer. I am a personal essayist. I am the intersection of the two: a mental health blogger.

After that, the most amazing thing happened: People started reading my work.

I know, I know. What did I expect? I put the work out there for people to read. I shouldn’t be surprised people were reading it. But every time someone highlighted my words, applauded a piece, or followed my writing, I couldn’t — still can’t — stop the flutter in my heart. See? This is what you are supposed to be doing.

Being familiar with the internet at large, I was quite nervous when the comments started coming in. I braced myself for the responses to be a cesspool of victim-blaming, misogyny and trolling. I tensed my shoulders, squeezed my eyes closed, and clicked on the first one.

I read that one tentatively, word by word, but I relaxed a little more with each subsequent entry. My eyes grew blurry as they moved over the lines of text.

Thank you for sharing your story, some of you said. I felt like I could have written this, said others.

Keep writing, said almost all of you. With one or two exceptions, all the hundreds of comments I’ve received since I published that first essay have been supportive, and the connections I’ve made with readers are more energizing and validating than I’d ever imagined.

But one word from those first comments — a word that continues to come up nearly two and a half years later — gives me pause.

Brave.

I was alone in my suffering

I’ve noticed a phenomenon with people who have been through trauma, where we tend to downplay our experiences and their effects on us. We find ways to excuse the people and environments that caused us pain: They had a rough childhood. They didn’t know any better. They were struggling with their own demons. They didn’t know how to take proper care of themselves, much less a little kid.

We point to more extreme cases to minimize what we went through: Those kids who were chained to their beds? They were the abused ones. Not me. The person who was assaulted during a home invasion? That was rape. Not what I went through.

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We seem to have this picture of abuse and trauma in our minds, and if the events in our lives don’t fit inside that box of a very specific size and shape, we convince ourselves we weren’t traumatized or abused. What ends up happening, then, is that we internalize our response. If the events weren’t that bad, the response that happened in our mind and body must be an "us" problem.

If I just had more willpower, I would be able to stop binge-eating.

If I hadn’t said the wrong thing, my mother wouldn’t have turned on me and called me all those names.

If I were smarter, I would know the trustworthy boys from the rats.

If I were prettier, I would find the right guy.

If I weren’t such a slut, people would like me more.

We’re all alone in our suffering, and because we’ve been gaslit into blaming ourselves, we don’t talk about it to anyone else. Surely, if we do, we’ll be ridiculed or shut out of our already tiny and tenuous circle of friends.

Tenuous, because these friends are usually not the kind of ride-or-dies who will let us use their hoodie as a hankie as they help us hash out our feelings and vow to cut whatever person did this to us. We haven’t yet discovered our worth, and so we’ve settled for the kind of friends who would weaponize our fear, anger, sadness, and confusion against us.

It’s a vicious cycle of silence.

Reading, talking, listening, and writing helped me find my people

A few years ago, I found this Brain Pickings article about Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score. It’s been open on a tab in my phone for five years now, and from time to time I go back to it because there are passages that just scream out at me. For example:

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It is especially challenging for traumatized people to discern when they are actually safe and to be able to activate their defenses when they are in danger. -van der Kolk

I look at this and think, Whoa. This dude just summarized me in one sentence.

And he’s not the only one. Though I wasn’t ready to admit it at the age of 24, Richard, the therapist who introduced me to the idea of being an Adult Child of Alcoholics, was able to profile me pretty closely within about a half-hour of meeting me.

I’ve seen parts of myself described in snippets over the years — checklists during child abuse prevention training, descriptions of different kinds of eating disorders, podcast interviews — and it never gets any less jarring.

But these realizations also come with a certain comfort. Because the fact that the checklist exists means someone else has been through something very similar. Enough someone elses, in fact, to allow the people who study this kind of thing to create a checklist for me to identify with.

When I started paying more attention, I began making connections with others who have lived this strange reality in one way or another. And realizing I wasn’t alone made all the lies I’d always believed about how my trauma Wasn’t That Bad, or how I’d Turned Out Just Fine, begin to dissolve.

Reading Shannon Ashley’s work on fatness, overcoming trauma, and parenting gave me the initial boost I needed to share my voice with the world. In her words I saw a slice of myself, along with an accessible way to share my stories.

After so much introspection, I was primed to connect with Tara Westover when I read (scratch that: devoured) her memoir, Educated. Her early life was entirely different from mine, but our trauma responses share so many parallels I can’t help feeling a surreal kinship toward her.

I’ve never met Tara, but I have spent hours talking with Paul Fjelrad and Nat Fjelrad, a father and daughter who reached out for permission to quote some of my work in their heartbreaking and beautiful memoir, The Struggle Continues, about Paul’s experience with c-PTSD, how it affected Natasha, and how it still touches both their lives. Their inquiry stated they “found [my] work extremely valuable,” which, over a year later, makes me well up a bit.

The idea that my work speak to even one person the way Shannon, Tara and countless others’ work has spoken to me is humbling.

But is sharing my stories brave?

So, back to the word that started this story.

Brave.

What is it about this word and its variations that makes me so uncomfortable?

I suppose it’s best to start at the beginning.

I think of a little girl, wide-eyed and innocent with chunky plastic glasses and crimped blonde hair, holding back tears because she’s sitting alone at recess again. That little girl was scared. She was lonely. She was lost. She was doing what she thought she had to.

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But she wasn’t brave.

I think of a girl, three days shy of her fifteenth birthday, opening the hospital gown and turning away so she didn’t have to see the image on the ultrasound screen. She was angry and confused and horribly sad. She was out of options.

But she wasn’t brave.

As I sit here, fingers gliding over the keyboard of my laptop, dry-heaving all the ugliness inside me onto the screen, re-reading the same sentence 14 times, replacing “just” with “only” and then back again, only to end up just deleting it completely, I wade through a mud pit of emotions. Critical. Resentful. Sorrowful. Freaking exhausted from re-breaking these old bones and setting them in a way that honors and heals the little girl that never got to be.

But brave? I don’t think so.

Yes, I say things with the keyboard that I can’t yet say out loud. But I challenge the idea that doing so makes me brave.

Bravery is not what keeps me pressing the Publish button, at any rate.

What compels me to share these stories is the memory of who I was before I met you. The loneliness I carried around before I had you to show me my experiences were real, my feelings were valid, and I wasn’t alone.

I don’t write these words because I’m brave. I write them because I know how it feels to be seen. Because I’ve felt the comfort of connecting with a stranger who is at the same time so familiar.

We all have a need to connect with others, to see ourselves — even, or maybe especially, the parts we consider shameful — represented somewhere other than our own minds.

At the heart of my writing is this understanding. As I saw myself in Tara, in Shannon, in Paul and Natasha, as I see myself in the good friends with whom I chat every day, I want to provide a place for you to be yourself and to be seen.

I don’t consider my writing to be an act of bravery. Rather, it is an act of communion — an act in which anyone can partake.

This means you. If you’ve struggled with something, I can offer a one-hundred-percent guarantee that there’s a community out there of people who have struggled, too.

Committing your experiences to paper (digital or otherwise) can help you tease apart your thoughts and feelings about them, and sharing that writing is an amazing way to find those people.

Your people.

Nikki Kay is a writer, educator, and mental health advocate from New England. She writes about the intersection of mental health and parenting with an emphasis on trauma recovery. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook: @NikkiKayAuthor.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.