Slice of Life: I Speak Trauma

slice of life

Trauma is the language I speak best. I didn’t know any of its vocabulary when my son came to me three and a half years ago. He spoke to me in his language, and I spoke to him in mine. His words sounded like the words of an Amharic native speaker learning English, but they were really the words of a child fluent in trauma. I spoke back to him in English, thinking my job was to teach him my language. But really, my job was to learn his.

We talked at cross purposes because I took his words at face value, thinking he meant what he said. But trauma is a language designed to deceive, to distract, to hide. He uses words to cover up the pain. There are no words for his kind of pain anyway.

Now that I’m fluent in trauma, I translate. All of the angry words that try to push me away tell me a very different story now. This is what I hear when my son talks to me: I’m scared. I hurt so much I want to die. I don’t know if I can trust again. I don’t know if I can let you love me. I don’t know if I can bear to love you.

He has never said any of these words to me. But these are the words I hear every day.

We sit together for long silent minutes as I translate and then translate again. He uses silence as a weapon, and he’s quick to suspect I’m using it too.

“Aren’t you going to say anything? You’re making me mad!”

My brain works slow, I tell him. He doesn’t understand that I’m translating his trauma into a language I can understand, and then I am translating my response back into a language he can understand.

I only get so many words with him. There are only so many he will listen to, only so many he can hear before the noise in his head gets too loud. I sometimes lose him before I’ve even gotten one sentence out of my mouth. He plugs his ears, he walks away. He refuses to hear me. And so I choose very carefully. I have to find the right words.

I’ve learned that silence is better than the wrong words.

The wrong words send him spiraling away from me. The right ones slowly bring him back to earth.

The right words aren’t always gentle or soothing. Sometimes they’re fierce and outrageous. Sometimes they’re sung at him in opera. Sometimes they’re whispered so softly I don’t know if he even hears them. Always, always, they are words of love.

He speaks trauma to me, and I speak healing back to him.


Slice of Life is a meme hosted at Two Writing Teachers. The inspiration for this post came from Kelly Wickham’s I Speak Girl. I discovered Kelly’s blog this morning when I was searching for something to slice about and reading a few slices to get inspired and maybe find a topic. Julianne wrote a great piece, 5 Things I Should Have Said at Work, partly inspired by Kelly’s Things I Said at Work Today. So thanks, Kelly and Julianne!


16 responses to “Slice of Life: I Speak Trauma”

  1. This is beautiful, Elisabeth. There are not many people in this world that understand, yet alone speak trauma. You are doing your best in learning, understanding, waiting, listening … speaking, not speaking. Trauma is life changing and it is heart breaking when one is fluent. Keep speaking healing.

    • There is so much interesting and important learning happening for me around trauma. And everything I learn with my son makes me a better parent, obviously, but also a better teacher and better person.

    • I do wonder what he will think if he ever reads what I write about him. He knows I write about him sometimes, but so far he seems quite incurious about what I might be saying. Maybe he’s scared to know, LOL.

  2. My brother has three adopted children, but two at an older age. We all learned to tread softly, to do things so differently than the usual expected things, but they, with lots of outside help too, have grown to wonderful adults with families. There is hope, & I hear your words of hope too, the ways you are with your son.

    • Treading softly–yes, we know all about that at our house! I have learned that whatever my first impulse as a parent is, I should do the opposite! That usually works better. So glad to hear that your brother’s children have grown up to be wonderful adults with families. Given where my son was three years ago and where he is today, I do have a lot of hope for him.

  3. This is an unbelievably touching and beautiful post Elisabeth. That last sentence is so perfect. How very fortunate he is to have a loving and patient mom to see past his anger to his hurting. Love this!

  4. Wow–this is a powerful post. What an incredible difference you are making in a life and what an important realization you have shared that there are some universal aspects of all languages. Thank you.

  5. Oh this is a beautiful post. So brilliant. So brave and painful. I know trauma is a language some of my students speak and in the span of 9 months I barely crack the code. It makes me think of the multitude of languages that we need to listen for and develop an ear for as teachers and parents.

    Love Kelly Wickham’s spirit mixed with your heartfelt words.

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