Beyond Our Recall: The Effect of Time and Context on Trauma

02 Mar 2020

Photo by Silvestri Matteo on Unsplash

Trigger Warning: Childhood abuse both physical, sexual, and psychological; anorexia and disordered eating; one small Jojo Rabbit spoiler.

Go to the Limits of Your Longing

By Rainer Maria Rilke

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,\ then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,\ go to the limits of your longing.\ Embody me.

Flare up like a flame\ and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.\ Just keep going. No feeling is final

Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.\ You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.


I recently saw Jojo Rabbit and at the very end of the movie (here’s the small spoiler) an excerpt from the above Rilke poem appears in white text 8 feet high on an otherwise black screen. And when I saw that I started crying and couldn’t stop until after I’d walked about a mile around the theater in a daze.

I’d never seen childhood trauma depicted so perfectly well from the point of view of the child and when the movie was over I felt like I had been given new tools with which to examine my own trauma.

When you’re a child, and you’re experiencing trauma you don’t think “this is my trauma.” You think a lot of things. Sometimes you even think it’s fun. A lot of times you think it’s fun. Children learn through play, it’s not actually weird to have a fun time being traumatized. Which is the thing a lot of movies about trauma get wrong. They look back at trauma with an adult’s eye, but when you’re a child, you simply expereince and you react and you keep going. Everything happens to you whether you let it or not because you don’t have the coping skills to escape these kinds of things yet.

A few weeks after I saw the movie, I had a really intense dream about my grandmother. In the dream we were talking on the phone and I was standing in a bombed-out version of my childhood home with only two or three complete walls. It was covered in bugs and I was spraying bug poison all over everything: our dining table, the pet’s food dishes, the couch, the computer. There was poison everywhere but it was doing nothing to kill the bugs.

In the dream, my grandmother was on the phone and while I was spraying poison all over the ruins of my old house, she was calmly and clearly taking responsibility for everything that happened in my childhood. She spoke specifically about the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse she ignored, encouraged, and/or perpetuated herself as well as the fact that she kicked me out of the house at 13 rather than acknowledge or deal with her husband’s pedophelia.

These are all things that, until this dream, I didn’t know I needed in order to make me more complete. And even though they were only in a dream it feels like something inside me has been made whole for having heard this from her.

But my dream self was livid about this. In the dream, I yelled that I loved her, and that because I loved her I couldn’t hear this kind of talk from her. Dream me told her that I was alone before she adopted me and that her love made me real in this plane of existance because she treated me like a precious child. Dream me stalked out of the house and into a barren field covered in locust and looked out to the distance where a stormcloud of ash was being chased towards me across the wastes by a wildfire red sun and I told her that I loved her through all time and space because she called me into being and that I wouldn’t have anything without her and then I woke up crying.

I immediately realized two things. First, that she had never treated me like a precious child. She never actually legally adopted me and, in fact, held “temporary custody” over me from babyhood to adulthood. At the time, it might have seemed like she treated me well because she was one of the least bad of a horrible bunch, but that’s not how you treat someone precious and I know that very well now. Second, I did and do love her through all time and space.

A past therapist once told me this about my abusive addict mother: We are made to love each other. The unhealthy thing about loving an abusive person isn’t your love, it’s the actions you take around the faulty assumption that your capacity to love has any bearing on their abusive behavior.

I can love my grandmother and also know that she was an abusive parent who not only turned a blind eye towards, but encouraged and participated in my abuse as a child. For years I told myself that because she wasn’t the primary perpetrator and the physical aspects of her abuse were far more random and spread out from my grandfather’s near-constant and consitent behavior and because she did defend me sometimes, that she was not responsible for what happened. But the truth is that she was an adult in that house, and the closer I get to having children of my own, the more children come into my life the more horrified I am at how hard she worked to normalize the violence and convince me that it was all my fault.

My current therapist suggested that maybe the person who loved me into reality and treated me like a precious child was not my grandmother but is in fact myself. In dreams, all the characters are aspects of ourselves anyway. And wasn’t it my own unconscious mind that played me every healing thing I needed to hear in my grandmother’s voice? And wasn’t it my own unconscious mind that showed me the kind of world I was living in when I minimized her abuse? The person living in denial was trapped in the wreckage of a dead childhood, poisioning everything in an already barren landscape while pretending it was a gift because I couldn’t accept that I deserved better and I didn’t get it.

Out of all the things I learned when I first went to recovery for my trauma, the one that baffles me to this day is the concept that I deserved better. I used to say that I obviously didn’t because if I had, I would have gotten better. It’s taken a lot of hard years to look at my past self and acknowledge that this child deserved to be loved and nurtured and instead they were beaten, humiliated, demoralized, and violated.

Being able to acknowledge the fact that just because it was the reality of the situation doesn’t mean that it was right or fair has also allowed me to acknowledge that just because I can endure something doesn’t mean I have to or even should. Which is very relevant to my life today.

Part of growing up in a world where I knew that it’s not okay to hurt people, but where people hurt me all the time without consequence is that I came to the conclusion that I must not be a real person.

People need sleep, they need food, they need compassion and community. They need love and kind touch and they need to be safe. People need to make a living wage, people need to be creatively stimulated. People need the things that bring them joy and they need trust and validation from their peers.

But I am not a person. Because you’re not supposed to hurt people but for as long as I can remember my grandmother, my most trusted, deepest connection to this earth has told me that I’m supposed to be hurt. That I’m fine, I can take it, and that really I should take it because it’s my fault this is happening to me after all.

My child’s brain never had the context to realize that she was an adult who had a legal and moral obligation to protect me. It’s only with my adult context that I can look back and truly see a 57 year old woman picking a four or five year old child off the hallway floor, telling her she’s fine and admonishing her for crying because “you shouldn’t have upset him like that, you know how he gets.”

As a child, I only knew that after he beat me into the ground she would come and rub my back and help me to my bed and tell me I should know better and pet my hair while I cried myself to sleep. As a child I knew that she would moniter my eating so I didn’t take too much and she would teach me to wak silently and breathe silently. In that place where I had no control, I mistakenly assumed that the same was true for her.

My grandmother kicked me out at 13 because she found my grandfather trying to tongue kiss me in my bed. At the time I was so surprised he wasn’t punching me that I stayed as still as possible just so he wouldn’t notice me. This is one of the reasons I don’t like to go to sleep at night. All these years later in my own bed, in my own house I’m still so scared of what might happen if I do.

So I was never taught how to sleep and I was never taught how to eat but I know how to take shit and I know how to power through the pain and I know how to go without. Which is why I’ve never been unemployed even when I maybe should have been and it’s how I was able to get so much shit done in my teens and 20s because I wasn’t a real person. I was something else.

I’ve been seeing a therapist and a nutritionist to help me recover from anorexia for almost three years now. Once the nutritionist complimented me on the variety of foods I was willing to eat. (Anorexics often have a long list of foods they compulsively avoid.) I told her that the type of food wasn’t important since it was all just dead plant and animal matter I was shoving into my corpse body. She grimaced and told me she’d literally never heard anything like that before. I went to work and told one of my co-workers this and they knew exactly what I was talking about.

When you’re rejecting your own humanity, it’s important to work for (or date, I chose work for) abusive people who will treat you like shit. This is essential to keep you distracted from the fact that you’re really a human being in disguise as a punching bag. The drama from being re-traumatized on a near-daily basis will go a long way to fuel your insomnia and anorexia because you’re too busy being shit on to sleep or eat properly. And when the boss sees you ruining your life and health in persuit of their unrealistic expectations and ever-moving goal-posts because you can’t do anthing but try and apease yet another malignant narcissist, they will congratulate you on how well you make yourself disappear in service to the mission and you will feel just like you did when grandma rubbed your back and told you not to cry because you did this to yourself. Comforted and seen and completely unaware of every other thing.

Every other thing being the people you lose along the way, how your body reacts to years of constant horrible mistreatment, and the opportunities you didn’t even know were there because you were too busy distracting yourself from the fact that you skipped breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. And sleep. And definately too busy to check in with your gut and examine why some people make you feel uncomfortable and sad every single time you talk to them. Because you haven’t felt uncomfortable in years. At least a long as you remember to run yourself so ragged that you fail to recognize the reality of the situation. Which is that you’ve never felt comfortable anywhere and if you ever did for even one second, you’d quit this job and tell a fairly heafty list of people to get fucking fucked.

When one is being traumatized, one doesn’t think “this is my trauma.” You think this is fun, or this is scary; this hurts, or this can’t be happening. You think only of the seconds and the minutes that it takes to get to the other side. And then, if you lived you spend the rest of your life thinking that if it really was actually that bad, it would have killed you.

And if you’re lucky like I have been, you get the resources and the capacity to get recovery and at some point your adult mind engages and you think “this is my trauma” when you remember the context you were in and not just how it felt in the moment.

You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in.

My grandmother tried to be the person who made me, but she wasn’t. I’m the person who made me. And for better or worse, I made her too. Because when I was young and dependent on my abusers, the prospect that I was surrouned by people who could not love me in any sane capacity was worse than the prospect that I was made to be harmed. I internalized my own neglect and grew into a person who refused to even feed themselves lest the reality of my humanity force me to accept that what happened to me is wrong and there is no justice for that child. Starving and abusing your adult self in order to affirm the starvation and abuse of your child self doesn’t actually balance the scales. But it feels balanced when you’re doing it if you have no other way.

I minimized the role my grandma had in my abuse because I needed someone to love me when it was still too painful to face the reality that no one would love me correctly until I grew up enough to developed the skills to do it for myself.

I am the person who’s love makes me real and I am learning to love myself through all time and space. Rather than replicating my abuse in this time, I’m sending my love and care back to my child self so that I will have the resources to see myself as I truly am. A real human being who deserves kind treatment and dignity. Who deserves not to be hurt, to be paid a living wage, to have things that bring me joy and the ability to be creative. The kind of real human who needs sleep, food, compassion, and community.

Someday soon and for the first time in a long time I hope to fully and unapologetically inhabit the country they call life.


God speaks to each of us as he makes us,\ then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,\ go to the limits of your longing.\ Embody me.

Flare up like a flame\ and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.\ Just keep going. No feeling is final

Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.\ You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.