How a missed trash can led to Formation Tortue, but learning languages may help…

This is a slightly edited re-posting, to finish the theme of how childhood trauma informs and affects our adult lives, that has been going this past few weeks of Some Tours being Worth Marching, and then Some Beatings being Worth Taking, after Floating on the ceiling as Punishment for hitting your elders in the Jaw, and learning that I Shouldn’t Exist?

Why did that paper ball flying over my head make me dive for the floor?

Shortly after I turned 51 years of age, a young coworker launched a simple balled up bit of paper at the trash can in front of me. It missed. What I saw was not a mere bit of paper becoming litter, however. Out of the corner of my eye, something came flying at me from behind. I reacted instinctively: by ducking. Since this was not the normally appropriate behavior for a 51 year old woman in an office environment, you can well imagine my embarrassment. My coworker apologized profusely: the poor thing had simply missed a trash can with a tiny bit of paper. What he saw was a reaction out of a Roman Turtle formation . I also apologized profusely, but the damage was already done. For the rest of the day, coworkers eyed me suspiciously and slowly walked over to place their trash in the bin. The awkwardness was palpable, and I was grateful when some of my Mexican coworkers began talking and joking in Spanish, drawing attention away from the incident.

As I sat on my afternoon break with a cup of hot water, I suddenly recalled a time I haven’t thought of in over 40 years. Another object was flying over my head from behind me, but it was not a simple bit of paper.

It was a belt buckle.

Pandemonium had broken loose as an old man bellowed his wrath, and swung his belt. I was the only person in the room not running away. For some reason, I could see the old man, the belt, and the other kids in the room. All looked either furious or frightened. But it all seemed to be happening somewhere else, with me simply frozen in place. The sounds were there, but muted as if in an old fashioned film.

It suddenly hit me that this event was from a time that I had worked very hard to forget. I’d been 9 years old, in the house overnight of a babysitter who was rather negligent. I told my mother, yet she did nothing. So, I forgot. But I never knew why objects flying over my head made me panic; until today.

Spanish, in particular Mexican Spanish, has always been my favorite language to switch into when I need to move my thoughts out of English. As a child, I’d always wished that I had magical powers to allow me to fight, or that I had a fairy sister to defend me, but the reality was that I was thrown back upon my own resources, so hiding or being ready to run usually seemed to be my best option. Hiding from my own thoughts was fairly easily accomplished, even in my dreams at times, by singing or thinking in Spanish.

It turned out that I could not hide from myself indefinitely. Things we’d rather not remember have a way of springing up, in the end. As I began to get therapy for events from my childhood it turned out that hiding and forgetting was not an effective way of dealing with those events. I had to relive them, again. This was probably more frustrating for my therapists than it even was for me, as I was told again and again that pushing away the memories would only make my #C-PTSD worse. But the focus on just being functional made it easy to ignore, once I was back in a job where I could pour my time and attention into something complex. (This 13-26 week cap that Medicaid puts on the number of sessions is yet another reason that we need full #UniversalHealthCare for everyone. Complex cases of many illnesses require long-term therapy that, when covered, will make for a healthier work force and population, not just the functional-to-panic-back-to-functionality roller coaster that kills so much time and so many people, in the end…)

The final straw arrived when the regional economy took a dive, sending myself and the vast majority of people I knew out of work. Some went to California, and I went overseas for work. In a new country and environment, stress flared up, and so did my panic anxiety. But this time I had to talk to a therapist in a language I was only just beginning to learn. As it turned out, I was finally able to access a good bit of the emotional content, while remaining present and able to stem the tide of anxiety during each session. As we began to unpack more of the childhood memories I’d been avoiding, being forced to express myself in a language I was still learning appeared to keep me emotionally distanced enough to prevent being pulled completely into the pain of the original event. When I came back to the USA, I found in California that having a Mexican therapist allowed us to switch from my native English, which was required to access the full emotion of the memory, into Spanish. So when she needed to lower the intensity level of the session, but keep me in the memory, she would switch into Spanish, distancing me just enough from the experience to process it. Who would have thought that #learning a #language could help in this case? But, it did.

So, what would Astérix do? He’d ask the Druid Panoramix, who would say: Il faut #ArreterdeFumer tout de suite !!

originally posted in  April, 12020 HE

Action Prompts:

1.) Share your thoughts on how this story may encourage empathy-building cooperation, and might help, or hinder, inclusive thinking.

2.) Write a story, post or tweet that uses those thoughts.


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31 thoughts on “How a missed trash can led to Formation Tortue, but learning languages may help…

    1. Thank you, Dolly, and I am glad you’re back, too! I look forward to your thoughts!
      I wonder, btw, if teachers wouldn’t also benefit from some form of the information distilled in this story: when I taught in the classroom, I often found the ability to switch into Spanish to be quite helpful with my students from Spanish-speaking countries (and even from Puerto Rico), but in explaining the mathematics, and also in handling discipline issues, which were far fewer with my Latino and Black students, which was apparently the reverse of most teachers experience, from what they told me in break rooms. I suspect that the ‘code switching’ is another thing that could be taught about, even if not all teachers can actually do it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I am very happy to be back, dear Shira! I have been on vacation since this morning, and I am looking forward to three weeks of cooking, writing, reading, and commenting.
        As to code switching, I suspect you are right, but here the school district has a bilingual department that employs “traveling tutors” in 165 languages who go to different schools, pull out kids and explain material in their languages. I have a friend there who teaches high school math and science in Russian and Ukrainian. It’s a great system that also promotes learning English faster.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Sounds like a good start, anyway. The code switch of cultural details may not be possible for those from a very different cultural millieu, as I’ve found with people who grew up well-off being unable to understand food-rationing or hyper-vigilance, or even the idea of “safe” hugs, but teaching teachers the fact that such cultural differences are as important as obvious linguistic differences can also help, if received well by those teachers, that is.

          Liked by 3 people

          1. We have a graduate course in Cultural Orientation mandatory in Florida for Teacher Certification. I used to teach that. Without all these measures, we would’ve had a tower of Babel in South Florida, and you know what happened to that one!

            Liked by 2 people

            1. Reminds me of a (terrible!) story I wrote based on it, which got a reply from a friend of mine who worked in HR, saying that she’d never considered that story from the Workers’ point of view! I didn’t mention that that is not surprising, considering that Christians are not generally taught the Rabbinical story of tears shed for bricks rather than dead workers in the unsafe conditions…

              Liked by 3 people

  1. The use of language when helping someone with a troubling memory is very interesting. Words are very powerful, either for hurting or for healing. So articles like this can help to enhance our appreciation for how we can use language to heal. Thank you, Shira.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I had to untrain some nasty habits thanks to past trauma, like not forcing my elbow into someone’s stomach when they approach too closely behind me. My spouse still instinctively holds my elbow as if to say, “It’s me, you’re not being attacked” every time he comes up behind me. I haven’t accidentally elbowed anyone since our second date 21 years ago, but we don’t forget the past, we just silo it. Switching languages as a way to work through trauma is an interesting idea. I can see how it would work, but wouldn’t you have to fairly fluent in the second language? I’m glad you found something that works for you. I stay prescient in the here and now, because I don’t live in the past anymore. It is behind me. I move forward through the here and now.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah, I have had to work to untrain some habits, but when they started before I could talk, it’s a little more complicated. The body really does silo trauma, as you say. Personally, I’ve found a way of dealing with the past that seems to work for me. And yes, I was already fluent in Spanish before I moved to France, and had to do therapy in French. I’d lived there for about a year or so when I finally started the therapy, and yes, I was pretty fluent, for a beginner (everyone was astonished, but when it is your 4th foreign language, you know how to learn a language, and it’s much easier). But yes, I suspect that I probably couldn’t have done that in French, because Spanish has always been so comfortable for me, it’s almost native fluency, but it is still a circuit switch, if that makes sense?

      Liked by 4 people

        1. “Interesting,” like the Chinese curse, but thank you, Melanie! I decided long ago that whatever life threw at me, I was not going to sit still for it.

          So, I have become quite adept at ducking!


          Thank you for being here, beside me, Melanie, for this ride. I just hope that I can contribute something, be it my crazy ideas for world peace, or my stories of women running to freedom, or even just a new way of looking at teaching, that will make a lasting difference for others.

          Thank you, and safe air hugs if wanted, Melanie.

          Liked by 2 people

        2. I’ve also noticed that most people seem to feel hemmed in by conventional ideas, like staying in the same town or state, even when that location is clearly not working well for them. For me, learning a new language was a new possibility of finding a place that might work better for me, and a new tool with which to duck life’s curve balls. I hope that language learning becomes understood more, for many benefits including empathy-building, here in the US.

          Liked by 2 people

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