Kathleen Murphy column: Trauma is hidden in the childhood closet
I had only a few minor traumatic events to store. I am one of the fortunate ones.
DULUTH — It all started with a dream. It was a dark and foreboding dream, the type where I knew I was running from something because I could hear my jagged breaths. The whole scene felt apocalyptic, and I instinctively knew I had to hide something that was very important to the survival of humankind.
Something that important can only be hidden in one spot. My childhood closet. Of course I would hide it in my childhood closet. It’s where we all hide the most important things. I remember the time when I was 7 or 8 and I broke one of my mom’s necklaces and was afraid to tell her, so I hid it under a pile of dirty clothes in my closet. I worried for weeks that she’d find it. She did, of course, because she was still collecting my laundry at that point. I remember the sense of relief I felt that the nervousness of being caught was finally over.
Another time, when I was older and entering the difficult years of puberty, I wrote a letter to a crush, including some rather adult thoughts — or so I thought at the time — then instantly packed it away in my closet drawer. Somewhere safer and deeper in the closet, where others would never go. These were personal thoughts. I did not want anyone to know I was having them.
I still remember feeling that deep sense of desperation that someone would find the things in my closet. Even the nontangible things. The time when I was 6 years old, for example, when I was walking the familiar road to school and a stranger approached me and asked me to follow him down an alley. I ran, but only after I followed him half way into the alley because I was afraid to tell an adult no. I was also afraid to tell my parents what I had done, so pushed the memory into my closet.
Do you remember feeling that way? We all had traumatic things happen to us as kids. Some of them were small deals, such as breaking the necklace or dredging up the nerve to write adult things down on paper, some were bigger deals, like a scary moment with a stranger. That panic was real. That panic formed us. We needed a place to package it and keep it tucked away for safekeeping.
But here’s the thing: That panic and desperate hiding can become trauma that clings to us forever. Even as I’m nearing 50, my closet is still there for me, in my dreams, storing my childhood trauma so I don’t have to cart the memories around and be aware of them all the time. I had only a few minor traumatic events to store. I am one of the fortunate ones.
Now imagine if that thing you were hiding never went away. It wasn’t a broken necklace or a single traumatic event. Imagine it was a friend or a family member who asked you to keep secrets, and suddenly you’re in your 20s and trying to figure out why you have an almost allergic reaction to this person who everyone thinks is great. Or that you desperately feel like you’re in the wrong body but were raised in a family that doesn’t approve of transgenderism, so you walk around all the time, always feeling wrong somehow.
That closet can become a crowded place very quickly. It can overflow. And dark closets can cause trauma. Some of us are lucky enough that our traumas are smaller, more easily manageable and able to be used as a learning experience. But other people’s closet trauma can take up the entire closet, so that the person who owns it feels constantly and desperately afraid that someone else will open it and their lives will spill out at their feet for everyone to see.
This exact thing happened to a friend recently. It answered a lot of questions as to why they had often reacted the way they did to what I thought were little things. Why they couldn’t handle life as effortlessly as I could. Why they always seemed on edge. Suddenly, I knew what traumas had been stored in their closet.
It offered me a new outlook. I don’t have to understand other people’s trauma, I don’t even have to ask them to share it with me. But I do have to realize that their childhood closet might be packed to the brim, and that absolutely forms their reaction to adulthood.