The taboo of trauma

Men can be reluctant to show vulnerability

A few months ago, in the fog of overwhelming grief, I attended a Woman’s Moon Circle at my local yoga studio. I went on a whim, with few expectations other than that it might be a dark, quiet space to curl up in for an hour and still feel like I was around other people. Most likely, I figured, there’d be some candles and ambient music and perhaps the sort of deep breathing that I’d come to depend on as I struggled to make sense of my recent loss.

And that’s what it appeared to be: twenty or so women of various ages, races, and backgrounds sitting in a circle, breathing together and being guided to meditate on aspects of our lives. Then came the announcement: the purpose of this gathering was to purge ourselves of negative emotions by sharing and bearing witness to whatever we felt called to express about what was taking place in our lives.

What we can’t or won’t express will find an outlet, usually in ways that are destructive to ourselves or others

Initially, I panicked. I could barely acknowledge my feelings to myself, let alone out loud to people I didn’t know. Yet, around me, other women were sharing their stories of shame, doubt and failed relationships. What began slowly, hesitantly, with one woman and then another, soon became a rapid flow of expression; eventually I found myself caught in the current. The words fell out of my mouth: “My husband Janan took his own life six months ago. I don’t know why I wasn’t enough. I don’t understand why I couldn’t help him more. I have no idea who I am now.”

Although I had said these words, and more, to the people I was closest to, it was the first time I had publicly bared my wounds. It felt momentous – and defiant.

I’ve revisited this moment in my mind many times, not only because of what it helped me to observe about my own grief, but also because of the questions it raised for me about the ways in which society conditions all of us – but particularly men – to disown our trauma.

The truth about grief is that you’re not supposed to tell the truth about grief. How chaotic and non-linear it is. How debilitating and long-lasting it is. How vulnerable and alien it makes you feel as you attempt to navigate the insufferable cheerfulness of consumer society.

Although we’ve come a long way in being able to talk openly about mental health, it still feels like something meant to be dealt with by a licensed professional behind closed doors, something that isn’t supposed to bleed into our public personas. At the secondary school where I teach in California, my colleagues and I sit through numerous presentations on the worrying trends in young people’s emotional health, and then quietly use our “sick days” to tend to our own.

Acknowledging trauma is even more problematic. Our modern industrial world is premised around the myth that we are in control of our lives: with enough health, wealth, youth, guns (if you live in the United States), or technology, surely, it is possible to insulate ourselves against the terrible things that happen only to others far away. Given this, it’s no wonder that many trauma survivors struggle with feelings of shame and self-blame. Even though I recognise logically that I could not control Janan’s actions, somehow I still feel I should have been able to prevent him from doing what he did.

That I was able to express these painful and confusing emotions to a group of strangers shocked me. Certainly, the fact that these women had all self-selected to be in this “moon circle” – held in a yoga studio in the San Francisco Bay Area, no less – meant we likely had a good few things in common even if we didn’t know each other’s names. Still, I was curious as to whether a group of men would have been equally vulnerable and forthcoming.

On a recent return to the UK, I brought it up with a friend of Janan’s. As a kind and doting father who also happens to work in a male-dominated occupation routinely criticised for its sexism, he seemed like he would offer an interesting point of view. Could he see the people he worked with being this vulnerable with each other? Unexpectedly, he deflected.

“We talked all the time, you know,” he said, (“we” meaning he, Janan and their boyhood friends). This I knew to be true. In fact, all of my husband’s friends – and certainly Janan himself – I knew to be “sensitive” men who could have conversations about arts and culture and were respectful and considerate to their partners.

When I pressed my friend about what they talked about, the topics were quite wide-ranging: from social justice issues to careers to relationships with their partners, even – he stressed – to concerns about bringing up a daughter in the current world environment. These were men far removed from the misogynist louts we picture in discourses about toxic masculinity. These were strong men, but soft, too.

And yet, I asked him, did you talk about your pain?

For in listening to the list of things they would talk about, I had noticed that they still related to the traditional role of a “man”: to be a partner, yes, but still a provider and a protector. Someone who was more or less in control of his life, whose expressed “vulnerability” was simply concern for looking after those who were more vulnerable than himself.

What about feelings of insecurity? I wondered. Worthlessness? The fear that you don’t deserve to be loved? The terror of abandonment? These weren’t necessarily things they had delved into – and yet, I know from conversations I’d had with Janan, that these feelings had existed within him, embedded from the traumas of his boyhood.

“Woman,” Janan used to croon along with John Lennon, “I know you understand / the little child inside the man.” But why couldn’t that scared child inside be shared with other men – even other “sensitive” men?

In our discussions of toxic masculinity, we often focus on male violence, aggression, and misogyny: ways in which learned machismo manifests in the need to dominate others, particularly women. If we pull back further, we might comment on how bullying begets bullying, pain begets pain, that men learn these negative attitudes and behaviours from other men. Yet I’d argue we need an even wider deconstruction of masculinity to support all men in processing and healing from the griefs and traumas that are unfortunately a part of life. For me, the word “toxic” conjures a sort of quiet carcinogen, a noxious substance that enters and builds up in the bloodstream over time, appearing to lie latent until it crosses a certain threshold – not unlike what happens with unprocessed trauma.

As I work through my own grief, I have learned to think of trauma as something that shatters the very foundation of your being, obliterating whomever you were previously. Processing or moving through that trauma means allowing yourself to experience – and voice – the wide range of thoughts and emotions that come flooding into the void where your old self used to be. The goal is eventually to be able to re-assemble yourself, piece by piece, in a way that will never be the same, but that you may possibly learn to live with.

It’s the antithesis of control, and it’s terrifying, not least because the very act of attempting to heal from it requires you to accept your own naked vulnerability. While the instinct may be to deny or push our trauma away, what we can’t or won’t express will find an outlet, usually in ways that are destructive to ourselves or others.

To be clear, sharing my trauma with a group of strangers, while it was a momentary release, didn’t cause my complex constellation of emotions to disappear. However, looking around at that group of women – some tear-streaked, others composed, everyone intently listening, and all of us vulnerable – was to recognise not only how pervasive pain is, but also how strong we were to be living with it. How strong we were to be living despite it.

Colette Yousif is a writer and educator based in Alameda, California. Yousif is her married name

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August / September 2023, Life

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