Trauma Doesn't Know Time

When I was 27 years old, I booked a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. I had grown tired of what I’d felt was the perfect, predictable yogi’s life in California. I became set on living abroad.

Three years in Hong Kong were followed by five years in London and I’m now heading into my fourth year as a New Yorker (which regularly boggles my mind…how did I, a self-professed California girl for life, ever end up living in NYC?).

Revisiting any of these onetime hometowns can feel like opening a time capsule.

You know — that feeling when you go back to the neighborhood you grew up in or sleep in your childhood bed in your parents’ house? It’s as if the energy of YOU from the past still flows there.

We have just returned to New York after spending a couple weeks in the UK. We go back once a year to visit family. It’s wonderful but also exhausting. Any parent of a young child knows that a “vacation” is never really a vacation. Everything is just that little bit harder outside of your own home and usual routine.

Over the course of our trip, we packed and unpacked five times as we bounced around to see as many of our loved ones as possible. We sat in bumper to bumper traffic for nearly an hour to go two miles. We battled jet lag and a bored four-year-old who suddenly decided that it was hilarious to shout everything as loudly as possible when we were out in restaurants.

The hardest part of it all for me, though, was simply being back in the place where I became a mother and started the darkest period of my life.

Shoreditch, East London

I would see a street that I had frequently walked down with my son when he was a baby and my breath would catch as I felt instantly transported back to that time. It was alarming and disorienting how immediately the emotions would bubble up, like they are always right there, just under the surface, waiting to be remembered and relived… like London will always hold a historical imprint of my postpartum depression and traumatic foray into motherhood.

I remembered walking around with R in a baby carrier, feeling the rawness of my c-section scar but more potently feeling the rawness and heaviness of my heart. I remembered trying so hard to look the part: new mother, so strong, so happy, and so in love with her baby. I remembered knowing how untrue that was and the guilt and shame that came with that knowing. I remembered feeling scared, overwhelmed, angry. I remembered the self-loathing, the grief.

Being physically back where it all started was an overwhelmingly visceral reminder of my inner landscape at the time. I felt sad for my son that he had to start his life with a mother who was so deeply unhappy. Did he feel that? Did he feel unloved? Unsafe?

One evening during this visit, R fell asleep on a cab ride back to our hotel. We had gone to look at the famous holiday windows of Harrods and Harvey Nichols. (By the way, did you know Christmas starts in August in England?) I was sure he would wake up in “the transfer” out of the car, especially because I was simultaneously carrying our coats and bags, but he stayed asleep. I set him down on the sofa in the lobby of our hotel, again expecting him to wake up with all the bustling around. Not only did he stay asleep, but he was so hilariously, comfortably sprawled out that I sent a picture of him to my friend, who happens to be his Godmother.

She responded, “That’s a serious gift being able to get cosy anywhere. Well done Mommy, means he inherently feels safe.”

It meant the world to me to read this message. I had been mentally and in actuality re-walking the steps I’d taken while in the throes of postpartum depression, feeling heavy, worried, and regretful. And in this one text, I was reassured that no, I had not made my child feel unloved or unsafe; in fact, I had managed to love him so much that here he was in a busy, noisy hotel lobby, sleeping away, completely at ease.

I realized: I had managed to love him through my suffering. Through feeling anxious, afraid, and inept. Through not yet understanding or accepting who I was becoming.

But still, I cried for the new mom I had been, those four and a half years ago. The new mom who didn’t recognize herself and didn’t have the language to express her feelings or to ask for help. The new mom who constantly felt shaky, who dreaded the start of every morning because she wasn’t sure if she would make it through the day and equally dreaded every evening because she wasn’t sure if she would make it through the night. The new mom who felt like a failure from the moment she realized she wasn’t going to have a natural labor and delivery. The new mom whose heart closed when she was told something could be very wrong with her not even one day old baby, as he was whisked away to the NICU.

Being back where it all started felt like an oppressive punch in my gut but it also gave me the opportunity to consider how far I have come. How far we as a family have come.

I am amazed by our capacity as humans for resilience and for healing.

Strolling around with R, I pointed out various cafes and neighborhoods. My eyes filled with tears, my heart with mixed emotions, as I said, “Look! We used to go there all the time when you were a baby. Do you remember?”

And with the help of my little guy, our history — my memory of becoming a mother— is being given a footnote, a chance to be reframed.

“Wow!” he responded, “It’s SO beautiful! London is SO beautiful. This is where you took care of me when I was a baby.”

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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