On trauma aftermaths that don't advance the plot

The way TV shows trauma can lead people to expect every reference to trauma to be a plot point. This can be isolating to people coping with the aftermaths of trauma. Sometimes people treat us as stories rather than as people. Sometimes, instead of listening to us, they put a lot of pressure on us to advance the plot they’re expecting.

On TV, triggers tend to be full audiovisual flashbacks that add something to the story. You see a vivid window into the character’s past, and something changes. On TV, trauma aftermaths are usually fascinating. Real life trauma aftermaths are sometimes interesting, but also tend to be very boring to live with.

On TV, triggers tend to create insight. In real life, they’re often boring intrusions interfering with the things you’d rather be thinking about. Sometimes knowing darn well where they come from doesn’t make them go away. Sometimes it’s more like: Seriously? This again?

On TV, when trauma is mentioned, it’s usually a dramatic plot point that happens in a moment. In real life, trauma aftermaths are a mundane day-to-day reality that people live with. They’re a fact of life — and not necessarily the most important one at all times. People who have experienced trauma do other things too. They’re important, but not the one and only defining characteristic of who someone is. And things that happened stay important even when you’re ok. Recovery is not a reset. Mentioning the past doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in crisis.

On TV, when a character mentions trauma, or gets triggered in front of someone, it’s usually a dramatic moment. It changes their life, or their relationship with another character, or explains their backstory, or something. In real life, being triggered isn’t always a story, and telling isn’t always a turning point. Sometimes it’s just mentioning something that happened to be relevant. Sometimes it’s just a mundane instance of something that happens from time to time.

Most people can’t have a dramatic transformative experience every time it turns out that their trauma matters. Transformative experiences and moments of revelation exist, but they’re not the end all and be all of trauma aftermaths. Life goes on, and other things matter too. And understanding what a reaction means and where it came from doesn’t always make it go away. Sometimes, it takes longer and has more to do with skill-building than introspection. Sometimes it doesn’t go away.

On a day to day level, it’s often better to be matter-of-fact about aftermaths. It can be exhausting when people see you as a story and expect you to advance the plot whenever they notice some effect of trauma. Pressure to perform narratives about healing doesn’t often help people to make their lives better. Effect support involves respecting someone as a complex human, including the boring parts.

The aftermath of trauma is a day-to-day reality. It affects a lot of things, large and small. It can be things like being too tired to focus well in class because nightmares kept waking you up every night this week. TV wants that to be a dramatic moment where the character faces their past and gets better. In real life, it’s often a day where you just do your best to try and learn algebra anyway. Because survivors do things besides be traumatized and think about trauma. Sometimes it’s not a story. Sometimes it’s just getting through another day as well as possible.

A lot of triggers are things like being unable to concentrate on anything interesting because some kinds of background noises make you feel too unsafe to pay attention to anything else. For the zillionth time.  Even though you know rationally that they’re not dangerous. Even though you know where they come from, and have processed it over and over. Even if you’ve made a lot of progress in dealing with them, even if they’re no longer bothersome all the time. For most people, recovery involves a lot more than insight. The backstory might be interesting, but being tired and unable to concentrate is boring.

Triggers can also mean having to leave an event and walk home by yourself while other people are having fun, because it turns out that it hurts too much to be around pies and cakes. Or having trouble finding anything interesting to read that isn’t intolerably triggering. Or having trouble interacting with new people because you’re too scared or there are too many minefields. Or being so hypervigilant that it’s hard to focus on anything. No matter how interesting the backstory is, feeling disconnected and missing out on things you wanted to enjoy is usually boring.

When others want to see your trauma as a story, their expectations sometimes expand to fill all available space. Sometimes they seem to want everything to be therapy, or want everything to be about trauma and recovery.

When others want every reference to trauma to be the opening to a transformative experience, it can be really hard to talk about accommodations. For instance, it gets hard to say things like:

  • “I’m really tired because of nightmares” or 
  • “I would love to go to that event, but I might need to leave because of the ways in which that kind of thing can be triggering” or 
  • “I’m glad I came, but I can’t handle this right now” or
  • “I’m freaking out now, but I’ll be ok in a few minutes” or 
  • “I need to step out — can you text me when they stop playing this movie?”

It can also be hard to mention relevant experiences. There are a lot of reasons to mention experiences other than wanting to process, eg:

  • “Actually, I have experience dealing with that agency”
  • “That’s not what happens when people go to the police, in my experience, what happens when you need to make a police report is…”
  • “Please keep in mind that this isn’t hypothetical for me, and may not be for others in the room as well.”

Or any number of other things.

When people are expecting a certain kind of story, they sometimes look past the actual person. And when everyone is looking past you in search of a story, it can be very hard to make connections.

It helps to realize that no matter what others think, your story belongs to you. You don’t have to play out other people’s narrative expectations. It’s ok if your story isn’t what others want it to be. It’s ok not to be interesting. It’s ok to have trauma reactions that don’t advance the plot. And there are people who understand that, and even more people who can learn to understand that.

It’s possible to live a good life in the aftermath of trauma. It’s possible to relearn how to be interested in things. It’s possible to build space you can function in, and to build up your ability to function in more spaces. It’s often possible to get over triggers. All of this can take a lot of time and work, and can be a slow process. It doesn’t always make for a good story, and it doesn’t always play out the way others would like it to. And, it’s your own personal private business. Other people’s concern or curiosity does not obligate you to share details.

Survivors and victims have the right to be boring. We have the right to deal with trauma aftermaths in a matter-of-fact way, without indulging other people’s desires for plot twists. We have the right to own our own stories, and to keep things private. We have the right to have things in our lives that are not therapy; we have the right to needed accommodations without detailing what happened and what recovery looks like. Neither traumatic experiences nor trauma aftermaths erase our humanity.

We are not stories, and we have no obligation to advance an expected plot. We are people, and we have the right to be treated as people. Our lives, and our stories, are our own.