Processing Trauma, And Why We Should Share Our Deepest, Darkest Moments Out Loud

Photo by Lisa Field

By Samantha Paige

At 2:47 am on January 9, I awoke to a text message that indicated the predicted heavy rains had arrived and the feared mudslides were in fact happening in my town of Montecito, California. The power was already out in my home. While still waking from a deep, flu induced sleep, I hurried in the dark to find my extra cell battery charger and decipher the exact instructions of the emergency message I had received. I tried to text my best friends to ask for guidance, but there was no cell service.

The words, “Do I need to leave now?” vibrated in my head. Shortly thereafter, the sky turned orange, and having recently lived through the wrath of the Thomas Fire in our area, I knew the glow I saw was that of fire. Then, quickly, the sound of heavy rain took on a new tone. What I heard can only be described as an unfortunate collision of a train flying off its tracks, metal against metal, rushing water and anxious screams. The sound was that of disaster. I knew something was not right.

I had gathered the most basic essentials in a bag and put my dog’s bed and leash by the door. The darkness was so opaque from the rain and the power outage that I could not see anything, but noticed an increase in the frenetic movement of headlights on the street. There was no way to know the destruction that had befallen our town in such a short amount of time.

I was still on the phone with my friends when I looked into the car that was pulling up next to me. I saw the beautiful, kind face of my dear friend, Colleen. I had an ally. We were soon told that we were essentially on an island. All roads were either blocked or destroyed [due to fallen trees, debris and the swift moving mudslides], any movement in or out reserved for first responders with adequate equipment in the terrible conditions.  For the next 10 hours, Colleen and I, together with a couple other friends, navigated the unknown that continued to unfold before us.

For the first few hours, we sat by candlelight in the Parish cottage, waiting for more news. The chapel soon thereafter became a triage center for burn and flood victims that could not be taken out of the area yet due to the roads. Once the light of day came, we walked to a friend’s home for tea and then decided to walk back over to my neighborhood to see the damage. We had contemplated the possibility of walking out of the destruction until we heard there were bodies being found around the corner.

As we walked down my street, I realized how close the powerful and destructive mudslide had come to me and my home. Homes within feet of mine were filled with mud and unsalvageable. The worst of the freeway destruction is what saved my home by dispersing the power of the flow. The rain began to fall in sheets again. We made our way back to the high ground. There was safety in numbers there.

When we returned I saw a group of firefighters and first responders gathering with evacuees. I got out of my car and went to inquire about what was happening. A firefighter shared that the National Guard would be arriving soon to evacuate people from the area. He asked if I wanted to leave. I immediately said, “Yes. My dog and I are ready to go.” Within the hour, we were climbing the ladder to the National Guard truck. I sat down next to Colleen and across from a beautiful woman with a baby in a car seat – she and her sister, who soon climbed up as well with her husband and child, looked familiar.

An older couple next to me shared how they had gotten out with mud above their waists; the woman’s legs baring cuts all over. The sister’s family had been separated when their house was torn apart by the mud. Husband and wife each thought the other dead for hours. I heard story after story on my journey out of my neighborhood that made my own seem like a walk in the park. Yet, I felt traumatized. I spent the next days simultaneously in a constant state of gratitude for my life and with an awareness that my life would never be the same.

Photo by Lisa Field

After the mudslides tore through Montecito, and ironically just after receiving the aforementioned parking ticket, I was informed that an interview I had done with Jonathan Fields for his The Good Life Project podcast had gone live. I listened to our talk on my first drive down to LA since that tragic day and subsequent freeway repair. The timing of having our conversation reflected back to me was nothing short of perfection. A running thread in our episode were the effects of unprocessed trauma. What happens when we deny the painful and traumatic in life?

My own history has shown me that there are detrimental effects, both physically and psycho-emotionally, when we ignore our pain. I had unprocessed trauma from a cancer diagnosis at age 21 that was not unraveled until I had a preventive double mastectomy at age 32. Reaching out for help at that point, I was finally diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (which was the term used at the time). Nearly ten years after my own cancer trauma, and decades after earlier life traumas related to divorce, my mother’s cancer bout and the deaths of loved ones, I learned what happens when we address what hurts straight on and work through it. We find ourselves, more often than not, the better for the process of thorough feeling.

As I drove to LA and listened to my conversation with Jonathan, the parallels between past and present trauma were many. When I had thyroid cancer, I was told how lucky I was that I had not been diagnosed with a terminal cancer, forcing me to believe I should skip straight to the gratitude and relief. I attempted to live in that place of positivity for years, but the unprocessed hurt and pain haunted me indirectly. I suffered from chronic panic attacks, debilitating migraines, anxiety and depression until I addressed the underlying and untouched feelings.

Photo by Lisa Field

When the mudslides hit my town of Montecito, I was fortunate to get out alive. There was a tremendous amount of good fortune, but in recognizing all the positive, I know too well the importance of acknowledging the pain, hurt and trauma as well. As humans, we are full spectrum beings who experience a broad range of emotions. Denying the heavier ones does not do us any service.

Additionally, in processing our own personal trauma, we are more equipped to participate in the healing of collective trauma. There is no hierarchy of pain and suffering. We must not live with the false belief that our pain is less or worse than another’s or that our wellbeing is somehow isolated or disconnected from another’s. The key is to process our own individual experience, so as to allow us to participate in the collective one as well.

When we process our own pain, we are able to bring the lessons, gifts and deepened compassion for what it means to be human to our community and to the world. The processing of our own experience and bravely sharing it with others opens up pathways to connection, but when we rank our stories in relation to another’s, we create distance and separation. When we recognize we are all human and going through something profound, albeit different and individual, then there is an inherent connection found through our humanity.

While there are layers of living that must be done within and individually, pretending that one’s experience is more important than another’s or, perhaps even immune to or in isolation from a collective experience, is an old story, crumbling as the mountains did in our town.

Photo by Lisa Field

 

Samantha Paige was originally diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 21, spending the majority of her 20s in and out of emergency rooms, facing crippling PTSD, chronic migraines and debilitating panic attacks. After finally finding out she was in remission, Samantha began to take forward steps in her life – until she was faced with yet another major question mark: whether or not to remove the silicone implants she had elected with a preventive double mastectomy after being diagnosed with the BRCA 1 genetic mutation. Desiring to feel like herself, regardless of the aesthetic outcome, Samantha elected to “go flat” and remove her implants, and since has been speaking publicly about that choice and on navigating life’s inevitable challenges and opportunities. 

Now, her life’s work is to shatter stereotypes and create a new paradigm for our individual potential, guided by the map we all carry inside. She created Last Cut Project to help establish a community and a movement dedicated to inspiring individuals to become more open, connected, risk-taking, inclusive beings that vision a brighter future for themselves and others. Samantha advocates for this conversation through the multimedia documentary Last Cut Project and in her podcast: Last Cut Conversations.

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