Healing Our Communities: Could Sharing Our Trauma Boxes Be the Key to Reconciliation and Healing
*originally posted to elainealec.com
I grew up watching Disney's Snow White, and always laughed when I saw the squirrels sweeping dirt under the rug while they "cleaned" the Seven Dwarves' cottage with Snow White. Even by the young age of four, I knew that pushing my mess under the bed or into the closet wasn't actually cleaning my room or dealing with my tangle of toys and teddies on the floor. My cleaning routine was meticulous, and everyone commented on how spotless my room was. What they didn't know, however, was that at the same time my teddies lined up neatly in their allotted spots on the bed in my room, I was mercilessly shoving heartache, stress and pain into an overflowing closet deep within my mind. As the grief piled higher and higher, I slammed the door and threw all my weight against it to hold it shut. And so began my journey with a trauma box...
In counselling and in trauma response training, there is a technique called containment, which is essentially a skill that allows an individual to put a memory, a feeling, a thought, etc. away in a mental container to be revisited when the person is ready or feels safe to do so. For many people, this skill allows them to work through painful memories at a pace that they personally dictate they can process, but the mind also has the ability to do containment without our knowledge. We pile up memory after memory and feeling after feeling into containers and bury them deep within ourselves to protect our hearts and our minds from trauma and stress. For many of us, it's a matter of survival and a matter of being able to move forward with our lives. At the time of our trauma, some of us were so young that we didn't possess the skills or capability to process the feelings or situations we were presented with, so the only way to survive was to store them for later. Unfortunately, many of us continue to store them well into adulthood with the container's lid bursting at the seams, waiting for the right moment to explode.
For me, that moment came recently when a seemingly benign incident instantly transported me back to that young child in my mind pressed up against the closet door with all her might. The time finally came when her tiny body just couldn't hold it closed anymore. Every feeling of fear, loneliness, heartache and shame I had hidden inside as a child came tumbling out on top of me, and I didn't imagine that I could have ever felt that small in my adult life. It was as if I was a child again, and all I could do was hide because I knew I was going to hurt again.
The emotional load of a trauma box exploding is unlike anything I can explain. It feels as if the world that you're living in now isn't real because your body knows something you don't. No matter how many times I attempt to tell my body that we're safe, it doesn't believe me and I find myself in a near-constant state of anxiety, sometimes even panic. To put it lightly, it's scary; it's embarrassing; it's exhausting.
I can hear it now, "Well, you've got a closet, why not put it all back in and contain it as the therapists recommend, then deal with it when you're ready"? Perhaps containment might work now that I'm aware of the problem. However, while counsellors and therapists recommend containment as a technique for putting away traumatic feelings, memories, etc. until you're ready to deal with them, my personal experience has led me to the opinion that nurturing avoidance behaviours that you've already shown a reliance upon might not be a healthy option for all of us. At least very least, I don't think it's a healthy option for me.
Hiding my feelings and pretending I was healthy and doing fine was what got me into the place that I was earlier, crying on the bathroom floor because I couldn't handle the explosion of my trauma box. Maybe that scenario sounds familiar to you, and you're all too aware of what it feels like to pack away feelings until they decide you're no longer in control...The colonial mindset has taught us to be ashamed of our mental health and to keep it to ourselves when we're suffering in order to uphold a model citizen appearance for the rest of the community to look up to. We're taught to compete with each other and any sign of weakness gives the others a chance to pounce or look down on us, right? Wrong.
In Indigenous cultures, mental health was never something to be ashamed of but rather something that was actively taken care of as part of the whole person. We understand that in order to be healthy community members, we need to take care of our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits. There isn't any room for judgement when you're busy taking care of yourself and others in order to build up the community. We didn't hide our trauma in boxes; we brought trauma out into the light and let the community heal us. Our pain was something of which everyone was willing to carry the weight.
Admitting you need help, and admitting you need healing, is part of the Indigenous experience just as it always has been. Only now, we share a collective trauma with many facets, so we have to be willing to use more techniques than just containment to help us get through the healing process. This is especially true when long-term containment in trauma boxes has led to multiple community health issues in Indigenous and low-income communities. During our journey to self-determination and reconciliation, one of the core aspects of our process must be healing, and true, deep healing can only take place when communities discard colonial teachings of mental health and medicine, especially the imported stigmas and shame.
No, I realized that repacking my trauma box without addressing its contents with proper ceremony will only repack my problem for later. I hold no understanding and no power to heal what I can heal when I choose immediately hiding my mess just as those silly squirrels did from Snow White. Not only that, but showing your willingness to unpack trauma, sit with pain, and heal while being vulnerable gives permission to others who are watching to do it as well. When we honour our spirit and its needs, we openly allow other spirits to step into the space and express their own needs, which has been how we traditionally kept our communities strong all along.
We have within our communities so much potent medicine, and we know how to heal together. Western psychologists rightfully search for treatments to things like PTSD and trauma boxes, but that usually negate Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous ways of healing from their repertoire. Maybe we don't yet remember how to fully heal a trauma box, but I know one thing is for certain: relying on long-term containment and hiding our feelings of negative emotions like pain, shame, fear and vulnerability from our community in order to appear stronger to each other only weakened us as a whole. Our strength always lied in that we respected the experience of all Beings in every realm, and we held each other's pain and trauma with them. We tied ourselves and our success to each other through love, support and connectedness, stepping in and stepping up when the others had to step back.
And perhaps that's the cure for the trauma box. Perhaps it's not something that was ever meant to go away, but rather something that was used to connect us all further because we allowed our community to hold us and to heal us. Perhaps all along it's been the tool that drove us closer to each other and taught us to trust each other with our spirits.
I dare say that the task for Indigenous and Settler folx now — and it's a big one — is to discard colonial mental health shame, open up our hearts to each other and learn how to hold gently and protect each other's spirits. It might be hard to believe, but reconciliation conversations and deep healing across this land could all come back to being willing to hold your neighbour's trauma box.
We just need to share the weight.
Further Reading and Resources
Mental Health Resources for Indigenous Peoples
The Circle of Healing by Jean Stevenson, M.S.W.
Between Therapy Sessions: 3 Handy Coping Skills for Trauma