To Thrive and Not Just Survive
What America Owes Us All
***content warning: this essay discusses child sexual assault and PTSD
When I was a senior in college, I spent some time living in a town in the center of France known as Tours. I had gone there because I was running from trauma.
Sure, it was a study abroad program, and one of my majors was in French, but really, I was running away.
A few months before my departure, I had finally told my father that I had been molested by our family therapist as a kid.
Beginning at the age of twelve and continuing until I was sixteen, that family therapist groomed me (that word is used so much these days for things it does not mean) and then molested me during counseling sessions, sometimes as often as three times a week.
The first time he ever hugged me at the end of a session, he had an erection. I was twelve and didn’t know what was going on. But he was patient, as most predators are— pushing a boundary and then waiting to see if there was a consequence, and then pushing a little farther, and a little farther, and so on— and with gaslighting and manipulation of counseling sessions to tell me that he loved me and no one else loved me and that if I wanted to be a woman I had to do certain things, his abuse eventually escalated into full blown sexual assaults.
When my father learned what had happened to me as a child, he quelled his rage and advised me to hire a lawyer. I did. I learned that unfortunately the statute of limitations on the therapist’s crimes had expired, but there were civil options, including a private lawsuit and pursuit of his therapy license. I chose both options.
But I waited until I was in France to have my attorneys file the lawsuits, in part because I didn’t want to be around when the media picked up the story, and I didn’t want to deal with how other members of my family who loved the man who molested me, just loved him, and considered him the best of family friends, would react.
And the media did in fact do what I suspected it would. Local papers ran long stories of what had happened to me with blazingly large headlines, and despite the fact that I had filed using a pseudonym for privacy protection, the facts of what he had done to me were there for all to see.
It was not the first time he had been accused of this conduct. It would not be the last.
And there I was in France in the fall of 1991 as all this broke wide open, and I was having, to put it kindly, a mental breakdown.
My father came to see me in France about a month after the case was filed. Looking back now, it’s plain that I was in a full-blown PTSD event. I wasn’t sleeping, and when I did sleep I had nightmares of being chased and attacked by my abuser. I found it hard to eat, and I’d lost a lot of weight on an already small frame. My grades were suffering. I’d slept through one of my exams, something I had never done before in my life. I looked like trash. And when my dad took me out to dinner the night he arrived, I cried through the entire meal, unable to stop.
The following morning, my father took me for a walk in the local park near the university. We sat down on a bench, and he asked me a series of questions: was I pregnant, was I addicted to something, what was wrong and how had I become this person before him when a few weeks before, I had seemed to be ok. I couldn’t answer, couldn’t tell him I was disassociating from my body regularly due to the trauma, that I couldn’t swallow food without feeling immediately nauseous, that I couldn’t really function.
I didn’t know how to explain it, but I knew that it could get worse. I was well aware that my brain could actually break into pieces from what I had lived through, already, at twenty, and that it just might.
My father told me he wanted to put me on a plane and bring me home to the U.S., and check me into a facility to get me help.
I sat on that bench crying. I knew that I was not well.
And then arrived a defining moment of my life.
I knew that if I went home with my father, my life would be over. I would be capitulating to the man who had molested me and to what he had done, and that despite my father’s best intentions, I would never be the same again.
I realized as I sat there that I could not let the man who had done this to me win. I could not let him win. At that moment, I knew that there was only one real option, and that option was to pull myself up, on my own, and figure out how to survive.
And that is what I did. I stayed in France, and with some cash from my dad, I hired a very very French Freudian therapist who let me smoke in his office. I returned from that semester abroad to finish college with a triple major and a forty page honors thesis, and I graduated at the top of my class.
That is not to say that PTSD was done with me, though. Not even close.
Trauma is a funny thing. It circulates back in on itself over time. Recently, when I returned to therapy at the ripe old age of 51, this time with a therapist who specializes in treating trauma, I realized that while I have been very, very good at running away and stuffing my trauma, it has continued to eat me alive for my entire adult life.
And more than that, it had been compounded by new trauma– by a couple of sexual assaults at the hands of a much older boyfriend, by domestic violence, by so much more, and despite the fact that I became exponentially better at hiding it.
Now, I have a C-PTSD diagnosis. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder, because the plain old post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t enough.
I have managed to survive. The external capitalist markers of success and the function of privilege would seem to indicate that I did more than that, but I can tell you that I did not.
Here, now, for the first time in my life, I am realizing that surviving is not the same thing as thriving, and that I deserve the latter as well as the former.
Because scraping by from moment to moment and day to day through the veil of the trauma that abuses of power wreak on a person and, just to extrapolate for a minute, through the trauma that living through capitalism and white supremacy and patriarchy and all its attendant American violence wreaks on a person, well, that’s not a life.
And for some of us far more than others, that has been the case for as long as this nation has been here, and we have never truly reckoned with that trauma, not once.
I have thought a lot about the trauma of living in America this week– of what is to come when Roe is finally overturned and that draft Dobbs opinion becomes the law of the land and our rights are just snatched away in an instant, about the abhorrent white supremacist violence in Buffalo that took so many Black lives and yet again, yet again, traumatized all of Black America with the terroristic threat of violence, of the trauma of having to sell your body and your time and your labor just to be able to eat and go to the doctor and have shelter because that’s what America deems civilized.
We are a nation that traumatizes its own citizens in furtherance of ideology and profit, and does it daily.
And what’s insane, what’s legitimately crazy, is that those in power decided, and have continued to decide, that this is how it should be, even though they too are victimized by what we are.
We could be a society that chooses otherwise.
We could instead decide that everyone is worthy of survival, and that our survival (in the words of the great Dayna Lynn Nuckolls) is a shared burden, not an individual responsibility.
We could finally decolonize ourselves of the abusive, violent ideology of white supremacy.
We could provide for the common good of our citizens through universal basic income and universal healthcare and universal shelter (for starters), instead of, say, funding the Pentagon.
We could decide that we all, every one of us, deserve to thrive.
When I pause to consider what we could be, what I could be and what every individual could be and what we all could be as a nation collectively, were our aim not to make everyone fight for their own survival but rather to cultivate the ability of every one of us to truly and completely thrive– well, honestly, it’s gut-wrenching.
Add to that the incredible debts America owes to the ongoing intergenerational trauma experienced by Black Americans, by indigenous Americans, by Japanese Americans placed in camps during World War II, by the Chinese Americans who built our railroads with slave labor– I mean the loss alone is staggering in scope and the shame of it, the remainder of it that has never been redressed, is what allows eighteen year old young men to murder Black elders in cold blood with a weapon of war acquired and then labeled with the worst racial slurs before driving to a Black neighborhood and opening fire in a supermarket, just after publishing a treatise as to how that murderous violence is justified.
America made him, and it made this trauma.
And our failure to address it means that we will never thrive, despite so much American myth-making to the contrary, unless and until we do.
We will never be a nation of joy, a nation of hope, a nation where all of us have the chance to live free and to cultivate our gifts for the betterment of our whole society and culture.
We will prune those possibilities with still more trauma, and then we will run away from it with speeches and empty promises, rather than policy and change and healing.
We all deserve something better.
We all deserve to be whole.
We all deserve to thrive.
The question is whether America will ever do that work, ever engage in her own redress and reparation and healing and recognition, ever feel it all so it can heal it all, or if we will just continue to pretend that all this ongoing traumatization is ok, and thereby guarantee that it continues, ad nauseum, into the future.
In the middle of the night last night, as I was turning over and over in bed as I often do these days, and thinking through how I wanted to write this essay, I did the thing I’m not supposed to do and I turned on my phone.
There, in the dark, like a beacon, was a quote, tweeted out by someone I didn’t know, from the great Audre Lorde, as follows:
I think despair is an endemic part of revolution. No revolution happens within one lifetime so we work to capacity, we believe in what we are doing knowing full well we won’t see the fruits of our labor. It is a hard place to hold.
I am in despair a lot these days. I survive, but I am in despair.
Maybe the hope is that in our despair lies the seeds of our revolution.
It is a hard place to hold.