When Trauma Makes Me Want to Kick Someone’s Ass
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When Trauma Makes Me Want to Kick Someone’s Ass


This post was originally published on June 24, 2014.

Joan was my therapist for two years when I lived in Manhattan. Our hour-long weekly sessions took place in a cavernous basement tucked underneath a brownstone on the Upper West Side. The crooked antique frames on the walls of the hallway leading to her office were coated in a thick blanket of fuzzy gray dust. Inside her office were two plush chairs facing each other at a slight angle. Next to Joan’s chair was a small brown table on top of which was a lamp, a black leather address book, a box of tissues and an open bag of Ricola throat drops.

The chair on the right held two simple red pillows and directly in front of it was a scratchy tribal patterned rug that had long strips of fringe spastically poking out from its edges. Sometimes, when I would run out of things to say, I’d try to hide from the awkward silence by disappearing into the abstract patterns of the tribal rug beneath my feet.

But one day, I definitely had something to report. I sighed into the red pillow on my lap as I told her I’d gotten into a fight over the weekend. Joan, who’d popped a square Ricola lozenge into her mouth, perked up and tilted her head to the side.

“Tell me what happened,” she said, her voice suddenly softer than baby powder.

“It was really stupid,” I confessed. “My friends and I were at a diner and there was this drunk guy there who wouldn’t leave us alone.”

“What do you mean—he wouldn’t leave you alone?”

“Well, he was just acting like an aggressive, drunk asshole.” I said this into the soft white glow that emanated from the lamp next to Joan’s head. “He kept making nasty comments and stumbling into our table and no matter how many times I asked him to stop, he wouldn’t.”

“Sounds like a real jerk,”Joan agreed.

“I know,” I continued. “And I just got so angry that there was no way I was going to just sit there.” I paused and squeezed the red pillow on my lap between my hands. “So I stood up and told him to knock it the fuck off. And the next thing I knew, this guy who was twice my size was towering over me and threatening to bash my head through this huge glass window next to our table.” I spread my arms out to the sides like airplane wings to demonstrate the size of the window.

Joan leaned back in her chair and rolled the lozenge that had been marinating in her mouth against her teeth. “What did you do then?” she asked.

“Well, I looked right up into his beady eyes and without thinking I spit out, ‘Do it asshole. Go ahead and do it. I fucking dare you.’”

Joan and I sat there in silence as I buried my gaze into the floor. I wasn’t proud of the way I’d acted and I knew I couldn’t explain it.

“What are you thinking about?” Joan’s voice broke gently through the silence.

“I don’t know,” I said sheepishly. I could feel thin blisters of tears starting to form on my lower eyelids. I knew that if I looked up at her, the blisters would burst and tears would pour out of my face for weeks.

“All right.” Joan stood up and handed me a pale blue box of tissues. “Lean back in your chair, close your eyes, take a deep breath and tell me what comes to mind.”

I followed Joan’s lead and closed my eyes. As I did, an image of my childhood bedroom fell into place.

I can still hear the song “Break My Stride” blasting out of the speakers on top of the refrigerator whenever I think about that night. I remember how incredibly drunk my mom and stepfather Joe were. And I remember how Mom kept stumbling into the kitchen to crank the volume up on the stereo even though Joe had warned her several times not to. But she refused to listen and when Joe had finally had enough, he lunged at Mom, gripping the back of her head in a tight fist and dragging her like a disobedient dog upstairs to my bedroom. He threw her on the floor with so much force that the side of her face smacked into the sharp metal frame of my bed.

Mom tried to get up to defend herself but Joe, even when he was sloppy drunk, was always two steps ahead of her. As soon as she reached knee level, he swooped in with a right hook that landed on the corner of her mouth, dislodging her jaw and busting the side of her face wide open. Mom let out a horrendous moan and rolled over into my sheets, pulling fists of the delicate pink and blue eyelet flowers that adorned my bedspread around her mouth to catch the blood. I was shaking so hard that my teeth began to clatter, my eyes vibrating in their sockets and distorting my view. I ran towards mom in a frenzy but Joe cut me off. The next thing I knew, Joe was towering over me with a knuckled up fist that was quickly closing in on my face. And that’s when everything in my world slipped into black.

It wasn’t until I started working with Joan that I began to understand the aftermath and intricacies of trauma. As it turned out, the angry outbursts I had whenever I felt the slightest bit threatened—the paralyzing surges of adrenaline that would drag me to tears whenever I heard certain songs on the radio—were an unfortunate by-product of the chaos I experienced while living in a violent, alcoholic home. So was my inability to remember important pieces of my childhood. And even though I am in a safe place today, I would be lying if I said I’m completely trauma free. As an adult—even after all of the work I did with Joan—I still become incredibly anxious whenever I am within earshot of an argument and occasionally I’ll be ripped out of a peaceful night’s sleep by a sweat-inducing nightmare that takes place in the house I grew up in and stars my stepfather Joe.

I’ve learned that the best thing for me to do in these triggering situations is to talk to someone supportive about what’s going on inside my head so that I can stay in the present. If the feelings are too intense to deal with, then exercise helps me work through them. And the more I learn about trauma—from books, articles and blogs—the better I’m able to understand my behavior (and, perhaps more importantly, to see that I am not alone). While of course I still slip back into old, reactionary patterns, when I do, I remind myself that there is a legitimate reason for my behavior instead of beating myself up over whatever insane reaction I had. I’m no longer a helpless little girl trapped in an unpredictable, chaotic world but an adult who still, at times, temporarily thinks she is.

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About Author

Dawn Clancy is the creator of Growing Up Chaotic, a blog and radio program for those determined to survive and thrive despite growing up in toxicity. Her goal is to create a community hell bent on breaking, cracking and demolishing the cycle of dysfunction.