Home > Love, Reflections, Safety, Social Justice > Beyond fight or flight

Beyond fight or flight

I recently wrote on a now-lost scrap of paper that trauma is a grenade, not a bullet. It breaks into splinters, lodging bits and pieces of itself along and through every inch of you. You can remove dozens of pieces of shrapnel and still have hundreds or thousands left over.

Over time, you get used to the remaining splinters. You adjust your stride to minimize the pain they cause and sometimes even forget they’re there … until.

Until something rubs up against one of them, and you’re reminded not only of the pain now but the explosion then. Triggered.

Hamilton has recently opened my heart to the wonder of musicals.

Thanks to Hamilton, I was excited to watch the Tony Awards for the first time ever this year.

I settled onto my couch to watch them with my husband and our friend Ra. All was well until an innocuous exchange between them rubbed up against jagged shards within me, adding raw new pain to old entry sites.

“These were my favorite musicals growing up,” one said. “These were mine,” said the other.

My sense of hearing briefly faded out as they traded notes about their whys.

For them, the conversation was an affirmation of something they enjoy;
for me, a haunting reminder of everything I couldn’t enjoy
while simply trying to survive.

What musicals, I wondered, might I have loved if I hadn’t been so busy trying to avoid grenades in my childhood home?

If I hadn’t been trying to find the words and acts that would help ensure my parents wouldn’t beat me?

What might my life have been if I hadn’t had to focus my everything on not getting even more hurt?

young xmas

Anthony dropped off Ra at the end of the evening.

I went to bed tired and sad, wondering if either had seen the depths of my hurt. Wondering why I hadn’t said more than a couple of vague words about my discomfort.

That’s always how it is when some little thing rubs up against the shrapnel, though. After I feel the pulse of blood against old wounds far less healed than I remembered, it can take me days or weeks to gently walk myself away from the initial, overwhelming physiological imperative to choose between fight or flight.

Sometimes, I choose fight. Most times, I choose flight; flight inside, while my body stays still.

There on the couch during the Tony Awards, I chose flight,

into myself, as I did so oft in childhood.

“Oh, but you’re so put together!” people say when I talk about trauma in real life. “I’d never have guessed any of this!”

What do I say to that? How do I explain that so many people walk around with wounds no less real because they’re not visible to others’ eyes? That the visibility of wounds is not synonymous with their depth or power? That wounds need not be visible at all to hurt for decades, no matter how hard you work to heal?

How do I explain that, while you can work diligently to surround yourself with people who would never knowingly lift a finger or voice to hurt you, you will never forget what it was like to choose every step, every word, every look carefully in the hopes today might be the day there’d be no screaming, no wooden spoons, no wire hangers, no pans, no heads against walls, no throwing, no pushing, no threatening?

How do I explain what it’s like to know your young body can be violated not only by your parents, but by family friends? By strangers? To know that the worst, the most heinous violence of all that you experience, will be worked by the machinations of the justice system?

How do I explain that I have had most of four decades to learn to conceal
all the shrapnel I haven’t yet been able to extract?

Or that I had to,
just to survive?

Yesterday, briefly, I chose fight.

With so many wounds ragged and raw from the renewed revelation
how many people cannot expect their bodily sanctity to be honored by government actors, that
my husband cannot expect the sanctity of his body to be honored if he is pulled over
at the wrong time and wrong place and happens to
twitch or look or speak not-quite-as expected, that
my young sons might someday expect the same
if the (white) U.S. populace continues to treat as
unquestionably acceptable violence from its purported peacekeepers,
I checked Twitter and saw that someone I love had posted something that devastated me:
a post about how social media had killed five cops, a position only tenable
when you discount that protesters
actually have anything
to protest.

I began shivering as I read the post my friend had linked. That’s a fun feature of my PTSD: fine tremors escalate to whole-body trembling as my body wars between twin desires to fight and flee.

Oh my god, my senses screamed,
Oh my god oh my god oh my god, if even he believes
that the act of questioning state-inflicted violence is not okay,
that protesters are culpable because they protested,
what hope do I have my sons could possibly
ever see a world where they don’t
have to fear such

I could barely hold my phone as I chose fight, but with hands spasming, I tapped out several messages all the same.

It took me days to internalize that neither Anthony nor Ra were actually trying to hurt me when they mused over long beloved musicals. They weren’t potentially hostile passersby using different words to say, “Nyah, nyah, sucks to be you!”

They were people I love talking about something they love.

There was no actual threat, though I am–by life training–quick to perceive threat, even among friends.

Today it took me only minutes to realize I couldn’t actually tell what my friend believed based on a tweet containing only a post title and link.

He was people I love reflecting on something worth reflecting on.

There was no actual threat, though I am–by life training–quick to perceive threat, even among friends.

That’s a similarity between me and each of the more than 500 U.S. police officers who have fatally pulled a firearm trigger this year, failing to see from a state of panic the whole range of available options.

A critical difference is that none of my “fight” options involve firing taxpayer-provided firearms. I believe that when we as taxpayers provide some citizens with firearms, we must also provide such citizens solid grounding in recognizing and responding such that a perceived threat is not the same as an actual threat.

That is training for which I’d happily pay higher taxes.

Somewhere out beyond fight or flight,
there is a better way, and I am committed to seeking it,
that someday–some sweet, blessed day–far fewer people all around will have to live day to day
with the enduring, devastating costs of trauma, and wondering what might have been
if they didn’t have to work so hard just to survive its aftermath.

I walk around with shrapnel embedded so deep in me you can’t see it.

Some days, that shrapnel feels like a liability. If I will always bear these wounds and recoil even from words of love, what’s the point of carrying on?

Most days, though, that shrapnel is a powerful reminder that I have survived. I have chosen between fight, flight, and “other” well enough to stand here today. I will never know what opportunities violence in my youth cost me, but I do know that I have seized–and made–countless opportunities since.

In some alternate reality, 17-year-old Deborah might be writing her fifth acclaimed musical, having never had to divert so many resources to simply trying not to get killed. In this actual reality, 37-year-old Deborah Bryan is writing a musical certain to receive no acclaim, ever.

Hey, that’s okay. The next one will be better.

The work’s a start … and a joy.

To less trauma,
and more joy;

to life


  1. July 9, 2016 at 4:25 am

    To life and joy! I really get this post, thank you.

  2. July 9, 2016 at 5:30 am

    I love this post so much.

    • July 9, 2016 at 8:11 am

      I’m glad you read it, and said so. ♥ I know I should’ve been sleeping, but sometimes it’s impossible to sleep when all these not-yet-words are jumbled in my heart. I hope you have a wonderful weekend.

  3. July 9, 2016 at 5:32 am

    “…somewhere beyond flight or fight…” I’ll raise my cup of tea to that.

  4. July 9, 2016 at 7:38 am

    Great post Deborah. There’s much wisdom and a lot of heart in this post. Thank you.

  5. July 9, 2016 at 8:00 am

    I detest that these things have happened to you, but I love that you embrace joy. ❤

    (I'm also irrationally pleased that we were apparently reading each other's posts at the same time. How delightfully connecting!) 🙂

    • July 9, 2016 at 8:07 am

      LOL! Indeed! As you left this comment, I was leaving a much longer than intended comment on your blog, which has made my heart smile this morning. ♥

  6. July 9, 2016 at 8:07 am

    What a sad , beautiful post

  7. July 9, 2016 at 8:20 am

    i believe
    the universe
    hears your
    every note 🙂

  8. July 9, 2016 at 8:30 am

    You are amazing. You are loved.
    I’m glad we’ve met on this path of joy, of life.

  9. July 9, 2016 at 10:47 am

    We hear you Deborah. You will not go unheard. Those sorts of wounds never fully heal and it is amazing what can cause the bleeding again. Scars are a sign of survival and living as well as the pain that caused them if that makes any sense.

  10. July 9, 2016 at 11:24 am

    I know this may come off as insensitive, but knowing I was raised the same way-hands across face, little love if any, gives me hope that my world then isn’t a freak of nature but one that someone else can relate to in my world now.
    This post, as all of yours do, resonates deep within my tired, child like heart. It also gives me strength.
    Beautiful you, and that sweet boy…smiles and love on this beautiful day Deb. Joy in any form is so healing.💜

    • July 9, 2016 at 1:19 pm

      I’ve been thinking a lot the last week or so about the ways in which I was unlucky and the ways in which I was very lucky. Though the unluck was profound, so, too, was some of the luck (for lack of a better way of saying it).

      My first few years, my mom was … man, she shone so bright, despite the ways my dad worked to dull that light. Those years, I feared one parent but found absolute shelter in the other. Then, when I was in first grade, we moved away from my mom’s support network. My mom had all of the pain without the comfort of those who tended to her wounds. That’s when it became more precarious for me and my siblings, when my mom no longer had enough positive resources to counter all the profound negative in her world. Her losing her safety made her less safe to us.

      She fought against it. Her light still shone. It just flickered more.

      She apologized like mad in lucid moments in later years. It’s so easy to love and forgive her, but that doesn’t negate the trauma.

      On the other hand, I fully and firmly believe the fierceness of which she protected me those first five years or so were essential to shielding me from some of what came later. Rache got some of that, too. It was still there, of course, in bits and pieces afterward, but my younger siblings didn’t get as much of it.

      When one of my mom’s friends was dying, she asked how I’d made it through losing my mom (to mental illness, at that point, not cancer). I said the strength she’d imparted before I lost her was a huge part of that. This all is what I thought of when I typed in “Dear Mom“:
      I wish I’d written more about you in your life, so you could have seen how greatly your loving acts overshadowed your lost and tired ones.

      One thing that’s helped these last few weeks of asking those might-have-been questions I don’t usually ask (since the past can’t be changed) is knowing through folks’ words that some of what I have written has occasionally helped ease loads on some hearts. That means that, though I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, I am glad that reason–as in purpose, or connection–can be found in sad things.

      You are beautiful. You are loved. I am so, so glad our paths crossed, that we can lift each other. ♥

  11. July 9, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    Beautifully written, poignant, and hopeful. I love this post

  12. July 9, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Heartfelt hugs and oceans of caring.

  13. July 9, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    OMG! How similar our stories are… I too, have PTSD. I can’t write about it. There are still days when I wonder if I can keep forcing air in and out of my lungs. I wish I could reach out as well as you do. This week has been especially bad — like there’s no where that’s safe, no where that’s “right.” Just a huge “wrongness” everywhere. Keep writing. Always keep writing. Believe me when I say what you say matters! Big hugs, and some hope. And prayers.

    • July 23, 2016 at 7:49 am

      I’ve thought of your comment so many times the last couple of weeks. I meant to respond sooner and feel so remiss to only be writing now.

      Thank you so much for your kind words. They help reorient me when I’m angry and frustrated, so that I remember my purpose is not to fan flames … but to let others know they’re not alone, and that we can be a support to each other no matter how many or few words we ever exchange on the source of our hurt.

      Big, big hugs and lots of hope to you. May this week be kinder to you.

  14. July 9, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    I love everything about this post…your honest and heart felt emotions all are written with an unwavering passion. It’s in a steadfast manner and shows you are not only a survivor but stronger because of it. Please keep writing, for we need this blog!❤️

    • July 23, 2016 at 7:51 am

      Thank you so, so much. ♥ Someone told me a few days ago that I’m brave. I thought about that for a little before thinking how lucky I am to have my siblings. With my siblings and that support we’ve shared for each other (after the early squabbles, that is!), I’ve known the hardship but also the bonds that grow from it when struggles are shared. I think that’s part of what compels me: that everyone might know what it’s like to have that feeling of siblings out there, thinking of you with love and standing by in heart even when far apart in space.

  15. July 10, 2016 at 10:44 pm

    Beautifully written post, Deborah. Your comparison of trauma to a grenade is so spot on.

    • July 23, 2016 at 7:52 am

      Thank you!

      I spent days trying to figure out how to explain trauma to any of the folks who’ve asked me, “Still?!” The fact they ask the question reflects a luck profounder than they can conceive.

  16. July 11, 2016 at 11:18 am

    I couldn’t finish this when you first posted it. The details of our early lives are very different, but the ptsd that can so adversely affect innocuous moments, even these many years after, I recognize like the back of my hand. I’m tired of being a work in progress, but one of the things you’re saying here is that it’s a good thing to be. Because moving forward with awareness is what makes us better. I know that in my heart even when my brain forgets, but I’m still tired. I’m sending you a virtual hug for writing this out and sharing it. Thank you.

    • July 23, 2016 at 7:56 am

      It is a beautiful thing to be a work in progress! It is both harder and more loving than giving up, which can seem so tempting sometimes … but deprives the world of the ripples of love that come from becoming something better informed by past hurt. Big, big hugs. ♥

  17. July 14, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    “To less trauma,
    and more joy” — AMEN

  1. July 12, 2016 at 5:58 am
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