Boy there are days I miss my superhero.
All of us have different aspects of ourselves. We have our ‘work’ selves and our ‘home’ selves. The self we share in public and the self we share with our closest friends or family. These are the normal, even sometimes necessary splits in our persona that we use to navigate the world. They help us both sort our behavior and protect the parts of ourselves that are, or need to be, more vulnerable. They help us ‘show up’ in the world and be effective.
Trauma makes these splits even more pronounced. There is such a need with trauma to have some part of yourself protected from the trauma—removed from the feelings of helplessness that comes with the experience of trauma. Protected from the fear and the memories. We put up dividers inside our heads and our hearts so that the trauma can sit behind some wall or stay encased in some lead box so that we can still stay part of the world. With the trauma safely stowed somewhere else in our persona, we have freedom of movement again. We have hope. We have energy. There is just no better antidote to helplessness than the superhero. And the beauty of it is—there are so many superheroes.
Me? I miss the feeling of the cape blowing in the breeze. Especially during weeks like this where I am really aware of how it now hangs, dusty, on its hook. And anyhow, if you really look at it, the cape is child sized.
I called her ‘Wondergirl.’ She was my private superhero. You might have called yours something else. You might have been Superboy, or the Hulk or Tron. But mine was Wondergirl. She could do anything. She could tackle any problem, study for any test, do any project, take on any real-life dilemma. She was the most undaunted person I have ever met. Okay, she was frenzied and somewhat manic about how she went about things—but she got things done and she never gave up—just like any good superhero. Leaping tall problems in a single bound. She not only got things done—she went looking for things to do. She volunteered for everything. She made everything from scratch. She got another job, and then another. There were still hours in the day left, right?
The thing about trauma is that you are always trying to protect yourself from two main things: Getting caught off-guard, and feeling helpless. Wondergirl is the genius answer to both problems. Wondergirl is a workaholic control freak. You can’t get caught off-guard if you are busy controlling all of your time, and often, the time of those around you. Yes, you may be exhausted, but your life feels predictable. You have the illusion that you always know what is going to happen next because you are wildly orchestrating everything and everyone. And you don’t feel helpless when you are in constant achievement mode. Me? Helpless? I just made 4 batches of strawberry jam and wrote six reports. Take that Helpless!
As far as survival strategies go, Wondergirl is great. But she is just that. She is what you use to survive something. To get through something. I mean, even Superman didn’t stay Superman all the time. He shifted back to Clark Kent when the crisis was over. The problem with trauma, though, is that it can leave you in a perpetual state of crisis—of believing that the past crisis is always about to start again. So you need to be ready, need to have your cape on, need to be in control.
And not everyone uses Wondergirl or Superboy. Some of the superheroes are less into saving lives and more into destruction. I worked with one teenage boy on a hospital unit who came in to the unit after tearing the door off the refrigerator at home. When he felt out of control, he became larger than life. He created control by totally losing it—His wild "Incredible Hulk" behavior would bring in a whole system to help him and his family. The key is that your superhero comes in to protect you from feeling what you hate the most. Your superhero is the self you can rely on. It becomes habit.
My friend Jane once summed up the problem of Wondergirl perfectly by stating, “Wondergirl ages badly.” You see, once you are aware of her. Once you catch yourself relying on her, you realize that a well-meaning, terrified, manic sixteen year old is running your life. A sixteen year old moving at a rapid pace so no one will realize that she’s sixteen, notice that she’s wearing knee socks, notice she’s not a grown-up. You catch yourself because it’s past midnight and you are baking carrot cake cupcakes for work the next day. You catch yourself because you are overbooked and behind on the work you have and you just volunteered for another committee. You catch yourself because you have offered to help again—when what you really needed to do was ask for help.
And when you do catch yourself, you understand you don’t really want a sixteen year old running your life. But the problem is, she’s been running your life for so long that you don’t know how to do it without her. And you aren’t sure you want to.
It takes a lot of patience to unhook from Wondergirl. She hates losing control and you hate taking it. It’s a real tug-of-war to get her to let go and for you to take the rope. It’s mostly a long process of catching yourself suddenly in your cape, and turning around and sending Wondergirl back inside to hang up the cape, telling her that you are going to take care of it, whatever it is, that it’s not her job anymore. It is recognizing that you, as an adult, are the one who is going to say yes, or no, and tolerate the feelings of helplessness that come with regular life—of not actually knowing the next move. Of tolerating feeling awkward or clumsy or inelegant as you learn to do things. Wondergirl flies, and you, as a human walk, and this is just a hard adjustment. It sucks losing your superpowers.
I have said before that repeated trauma is really three forms of trauma: what did happen, what didn’t happen and what you did to protect yourself from the trauma. This is why it can be a long process to untangle it all. Getting to know Wondergirl, getting to know whatever superhero you used, is way to understand how you protected yourself. In fact, you can’t really heal from trauma until you really get acquainted with your superhero, until you understand her or him. And until you take over their role—in a new and more reasonable way. The role of our superheroes was one above all: Keep us away from our trauma and ever experiencing it again. They work so hard to keep you from feeling bad, but their hard work keeps you from getting well, from getting whole.
We need to see our trauma to heal from it. Not all at once. But we need to know it, and we need to feel it and we need to be able to move with it and talk about it. We need it to become a whole story so that it can move it to the past. And Wondergirl is designed to keep you away from it—Wondergirl lives in an ever-present-past.
Basically, you fire Wondergirl. You tell her that her job is no longer necessary. You thank her for her long years of service and you metaphorically send her back to the life of a sixteen year old. Then you take over the job of getting things done. Over and over. Under stress she can show back up again. And with discipline you send her back in again. It takes a lot of repetition. A lot catching yourself in the act.
And then one day you notice that she’s gone. That it is a particularly stressful week, or stressful day and you miss that turbo-charged gear that she had. You realize that she’s no longer part of your system. You aren’t protecting yourself from an old crisis—you are just living through the everyday ups and downs that we all live through. Some days more up and some days more down.
And on those days I miss her. I don’t want her running my life, but I miss her as the loyal and somewhat annoying friend and superhero that she was. She was a constant companion for so long but we grew apart—as friends can. I miss the bright and shiny feeling that you can have, flying with your cape on. I miss her ‘I can do anything’ attitude. I miss her endless energy. Life is quieter without her. She kind of leaves a hole behind when she goes.
But in return for the loss of her I have gotten to know parts of myself that had been hidden away—the parts she worked so hard to protect. Yes, I can miss feeling bright and shiny, but I have come to appreciate a steadfastness and calm I never knew. And yes, I miss the endless energy, but I now operate within an energy budget that has me feeling like I can give so much more than I could before—to myself and others. And mostly I am struck for Wondergirl, like all superheroes, that they never really get to hear how much they are appreciated. They are always gone before everyone realizes what has happened. How they saved the day. The citizens all stand around thanking Superman and he is already back in the Office of the Daily Planet, typing. And so it is for Wondergirl. She’s gone and I am left in gratitude for the hard work and protection that she offered me. I hope she knows.
© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD