When I was a senior in high school, I was at cheer practice one day. I was working on a particular tumbling pass that was a pretty big deal for me when I landed on my ankle wrong. Practically sidewise, in fact, and I remember hearing a really really loud “pop!” when it happened. I was certain that my ankle was broken…. mostly because I had never broken a bone before and I could only imagine that was what the pop was, right? The injury caused all kinds of blood to rush to that spot on my ankle and I remember that it felt incredibly hot. My teammates helped the hot mess that I had turned into to the trainer who promptly told me that I needed to see a doctor for an x-ray, you know just in case.
Well, as it turns out, the noise was not a broken bone, but rather the snap of a ligament. That is right, ladies and gentlemen, what I had actually done in that extraordinary flash of pain was sprain my ankle. It was a pretty severe sprain and one that kept me in a brace for what seemed like forever (but was probably only a few weeks), but a sprain none-the-less. No broken bones, nothing torn so severely that I required surgery or physical therapy and it was not long before I was walking normally again. What was interesting though, is that the experience seemed to have left my ankle just a little weaker than before it happened. Over the course of the last 20 years, I have done far less cheerleading, but have definitely rolled, popped and re-sprained that same ankle a handful of times. It kind of hurts when I run long distances and is always my indicator that rain is coming soon (hello monsoon season!). That instant has impacted my life forever. Nothing that I cannot live with, but something that definitely still comes up to this day.
I feel like this is a really good comparison to my opinion of trauma. All day long, I have people tell me “I don’t have any trauma, nothing bad has really ever happened to me.” What I think they are really saying is “I don’t believe that the things that have happened to me are bad enough to be called trauma.” Here is the reality, though. There are things that happen in this world that we can mostly agree are probably traumatic. A soldier going to fight on the front lines? Yea, traumatic. Someone was a victim of an assault? That one, too. A person was molested by someone they trusted. Makes sense that would be traumatic, right? Right. THAT DOES NOT MEAN THAT OTHER STUFF WAS NOT TRAUMATIC TO YOU. When something traumatizes us, what that means is that the stressful event creates a state of emotional shock. There is nothing that says that a trauma has to be anything in particular, it is simply the way your brain processes an emotional event or a physical event that evokes emotion.
Now, I don’t intend to minimize some of those experiences that I mentioned above, because they are intense. In fact, I would probably be willing to argue that there is a difference in how we experience trauma between the two types. My whole point is that I also don’t want to minimize the trauma version of a sprained ankle, either. Because the rest of that story was that I didn’t take care of that injury. I didn’t ice it like I was supposed to, I didn’t stay off of it for as long as I was supposed to and I kind of lied to the doctor when he was asking about pain in my follow ups so that he would clear me to participate in the state championship. I believe that not taking care of it, not addressing the needs of my sprained ankle and its recovery is why I rolled and popped and re sprained it, why it kind of still hurts when I run distance and why monsoon season brings a dull ache to that area. Because I brushed it off as “not that bad” and did not take care of myself.
What exactly qualifies as the sprained ankle version of trauma? Well, I think that depends on the person, but I believe it is safe to say that we sprain our emotional ankles in a moment. Like when I threw up in front of my whole class in the 5th grade while we were playing Heads Up 7 Up (I hated rainy day schedule after that). Or when I felt like my teacher was making fun of my answer and I stopped speaking up in class. Or when my 6th grade crush saw me in glasses for the first time and I ran the other way because I was so embarrassed. I think that our emotional sprained ankles are any time an experience has induced an intense emotion and it has an impact on how you see yourself, the world or other people. Is it the same experience as soldier in combat or a victim of abuse or assault? No. Does it still deserve some attention paid to the emotions that come up around it? Absolutely.
The most important part of these experiences is in the follow up care-kind of like my real sprained ankle. How we are affirmed and affirm ourselves and how we are nurtured and nurture ourselves. Allowing our feelings to occur, validate that they are there for a reason and being kind to ourselves are metaphorical rest, ice and elevation for the heart.