Trauma Treatment, Cicadas and the Emerging Buzz of Hope
by Lily Tecklher
*TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains an account of child assault. Please practice self-care when reading and step away if you become triggered.
In 1987, when I was thirteen years old, the Cicadas were emerging during one of their seventeen-year cycles. They were everywhere that summer; in trees, along walkways, and flying into the big hairstyles that we teenage girls spent hours on. The whole world seemed to be rippling along with their black exoskeletons as their beady red eyes watched us. The noise the periodical bugs made was so loud, the news claimed it could actually cause hearing loss. I remember that sound muffling my name, which was being called out by my two friends, as an attacker lifted me off my feet from behind. I remember reaching back and feeling the stubble of his beard and how the air itself seemed to be vibrating with the deafening drone of insect noise. At times, I can still feel the sense of my body being suspended in midair for unregistered moments before the shattering reality of it abruptly meeting concrete.
I had no visual memory of the assault afterward. My brain has filed the experience into some remote corner of my being which I seem to have little conscious access to. It’s like the events haven’t been stored in my mind at all. I feel like they are stuck in my body. Even after years of therapy, I am missing the narrative account of what took place after I hit the ground. It’s almost as if that thirteen-year-old girl I was, melted down into it. There are no sequential images stored in my brain that pertain to these moments. Instead, I experience the strong emotions, auditory sounds, and tactile sensations from those missing scenes. They involuntarily replay inside my body like a scratched record caught in a groove. I have no way of knowing when they will start up again. Nor, once activated, how long they will continue to play before they stop. This distressing phenomenon is what led me to first seek therapy when I was in my early twenties. Little did I know that unearthing the one trauma would reveal a long string of childhood abuse that lay unacknowledged beside it.
Like Cicadas, my CPTSD symptoms seem to exist in vast underground networks. They can crawl up from nowhere. They can swarm in uninvited from some dark recess and disappear again quickly as if denying the cacophony their presence has wrought upon my life. My symptoms can feel at times, so absurd, that they leave me wondering if I’m just crazy and imagining things. Swarms of locusts have been used as a metaphor in countless old stories and mythological tales for exactly this reason. They delineate a time that exists almost out of time, in a space that exists almost outside of space. They are individual but also collective, they travel in a sheet of winged bodies. They move like a living, breathing, ever-changing outline of something so amorphous that no permeant shape could possibly contain it.
From that place where definition is so lacking, with my narrative memory oddly absent, my symptoms were nearly impossible to get proper treatment for. I searched within the swirling darkness for clues, for still points and solid places I could name with words. I needed the words to be able to explain to therapists what was happening inside of me. They didn’t know either. That’s why I wasn’t diagnosed with CPTSD until I re-entered therapy at forty years old to cope with a divorce that I thought was unrelated. Until I landed on the doorstep of a therapist who had been specifically trained to understand CPTSD, my symptoms multiplied and endangered me. They cut me off from the world as I retreated into a shrinking oasis of imaginary safety, watching helplessly while something I could not understand, voraciously consumed huge pieces of my life like so many half-eaten leaves.
I searched within the swirling darkness for clues, for still points and solid places I could name with words. I needed the words to be able to explain to my therapists what was happening inside me. They didn’t know either.
The thirteen-year-old girl I was, focused on the less threatening details at her trauma scene, as many survivors do. She found a way to psychologically endure the situation by cultivating an ally outside of the disappointing human world. She hyperfocused on the sound of Cicada, allowing it to carry her to another place as the worst aspects of the assault unfolded. It is sad and strangely beautiful that Cicada has been holding onto that trauma for all these years. It’s been a difficult but beneficial alliance. Occasionally, the buzzing still fills my head uncomfortably and takes me back into the sensations of trauma. Still, for as long as it takes to be able to fully integrate the trauma, this is the safety valve. Cicada has become the emblem of the trauma, simultaneously containing its utter devastation, and safeguarding the promise that there can still be a vibrant life afterward. Its role in all this is as complicated as my own. Can one be trauma bonded to an insect I wonder?
Cicada has been the harbinger of my worst nightmares, while also being the presence that sang me through the darkest moments of the assault. Cicada’s voice has warned me of danger and held space for me to continue to exist. Its piercing refrain built an island of sound that lent me refuge while I laid on the concrete needing somewhere else to be. It was Cicada that trilled countless protests on my behalf, as my friends and I lost our voices to terror. It’s the sound of Cicada that acts as a placeholder for the details that are too much for my psyche to bear.
It is Cicada’s voice I find, where I desperately wish my own voice had been. Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I tell someone? I’m still working through my silence. My voice comes in stops and starts that can stick in my throat when I have something to say. A part of me still worries that my words won’t make any difference at all. I’ve healed enough to understand that none of us are immune to shutting down in fear and going mute at times when our voices are needed. If ever one understood the ins and outs of this, it’s Cicada. I humbly sit at the many feet of my childhood ally, armed only with my hopes and prayers, trying to articulate life’s inherent beauty alongside its undeniable despair.
As I write this, the first of the 2021 Brood X Cicadas are beginning to emerge in another one of their 17-year cycles. The thirteen-year-old part of me has been waiting a very long time for this. She’s been underground keeping herself safe, dreaming, healing, and integrating what she could. She knows it’s time for her to awaken, she senses the vibration inside her body, rousing her from a slumber like some fairy princess whose curse is ending. I feel her, this sweet young part of myself, pushing upward as she makes her way through the shifting soils.
I finally get to watch her in real-time as she breaks from solid ground. I grieve for the jagged nails on her mud-encrusted hands and for the patriarchal lies, she was told about princes who turned out to be predators. She has dug her own way to freedom, handful of dirt after another handful of dirt, and she has learned about her own strength in that process. Much has changed since she was last topside, her clothes no longer fit, she has a woman’s body now. Her timing is spot-on, the world itself is moving out of isolation alongside her. Come out, come out, wherever you are!
My inner thirteen-year-old isn’t the only muddy, unsteady, awkward person standing at the crossroads. Everyone seems to be instinctively drawn there as we attempt to stitch our own unique notes into the changing tapestry of tunes that document our collective pandemic tragedy. The old songs just won’t do anymore and honestly, we find ourselves forgetting their lines. There is comfort in this thought, that most people in the world now understand some part of the reality that trauma survivors are living on a daily basis. We are all emerging shell-shocked from the pandemic together. I find myself feeling unexpectedly validated now that the whole song of life as we know it, has changed. Suddenly, my isolating sense of being different from other people seems to exist more subtly by mere degrees of timbre and pitch. While trauma is a personal experience and its specifics are unique to each individual’s situation, they are resonant.
For so long, I have felt that I could never belong to a world that would not defend a thirteen-year-old girl who was assaulted in the street. A world where people watched her through their apartment windows, doing nothing, while it happened. My inner thirteen-year-old didn’t want to belong to that world. Still, she was angrier about the people who knew her and should have cared about her but didn’t. Those who knew about the child abuse happening under her own roof, in a place she should have been able to call a home.
That thirteen-year-old girl didn’t tell anyone what happened because nobody in her life felt safe enough to tell. The people at home would not have comforted her, they would have blamed her, and so she remained silent. Her silence was the likely reason she was targeted and attacked two more times that same summer, in that same apartment complex. Why do survivors go back into places that are dangerous? For some, it’s because the danger they live in at home keeps them from believing that there are safe places they could seek outside of it. For many others, there really are no safe places they have access to at all.
If there is an upside to the horrific pandemic circumstances, it is that very few people believe that trauma can’t happen to them anymore. The last year’s events have shown everyone what it is like to be held hostage by multiple traumatic events playing out all around them. As a nation, we are starting to hear and see victim-blaming for what it is. There is no safe world without trauma anymore, those who have had no common experience by which to care about or understand trauma survivors, now have some context.
That looming fear, the crushing immobility, those nightmares, that feeling of perpetual uncertainty about the world and other people is a form of PTSD. The kind I suffer from, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is caused by repeated relational trauma. CPTSD is still not recognized in the American DSM. This worldwide tragedy, with its focus on the many different faces and types of trauma, is changing that. The collective conversation about trauma with all its lineages, histories, disguises, colors, and forms has finally made it onto the table.
CPTSD is still not recognized in the American DSM. This worldwide tragedy, with its focus on the many different faces and types of trauma, is changing that.
The voices of many working within the psychological community are asking that CPTSD be recognized as a real condition and that it be given a diagnostic code that is billable through medical insurance. Therapists themselves are weighing in and many are suggesting that they should receive comprehensive training about complex forms of trauma while they are still in graduate school. This discussion is hitting center stage now that our mental health care system is being forced to identify and offer treatment for pandemic trauma. People who are experiencing trauma symptoms are not going to get better on their own. We who were already living with CPTSD symptoms prior to the pandemic, understand well, that survivors deteriorate without support and proper treatment. We also know that using the general label of PTSD fails to recognize the interpersonal repeated aspects and attachment ruptures specific to our form of trauma.
Those of us who have been fighting for CPTSD visibility, understand that pandemic forms of trauma may well need to have their own unique approaches in therapy. The trauma of our first responders will need to be treated differently from the trauma of the person who was hooked up to oxygen and almost died from Covid. The person of color, who is holding layer upon layer of intergenerational traumas in addition to their pandemic ones, needs an approach that recognizes that fact. The nuances of people’s trauma experiences being understood well enough, that they feel seen and heard within the larger society, is the most powerful medicine we have to help them. It’s an approach that mends broken hearts naturally. It (re)members trauma survivors into the collective tribe, without erasing their experiences, or asking them to conform to the same blind system that abandoned them to trauma in the first place.
The nuances of people’s trauma experiences being understood well enough, that they feel seen and heard within the larger society, is the most powerful medicine we have to help them.
Do you hear that my traumatized friends? That emerging buzz of hope? The world is squinting in your direction. The ability to find therapists that have been trained about your specific kind of trauma is manifesting. My inner thirteen-year-old insists that I tell you that. It’s why she is allowing me to share her story with you, after all these years of silence, and add her voice to the many others that are calling for mental health care reform. If you’re like me, you’re feeling exhausted with the ridiculously slow process of getting CPTSD acknowledged here in the United States but the odds of getting trauma-informed care are starting to look much better. Now if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going outside to brood. Cicada and I welcome your voices into our chorus. We are going to keep making a racket until those changes finally and fully arrive.
***************Lily is a CPTSD survivor and a writer who recently graduated with a degree in psychology. Her goal is to empower survivors of assault, attachment trauma, childhood neglect, trafficking, dissociation, eating disorders, gaslighting, and narcissistic abuse. She strongly believes that recovery from CPTSD takes more than talk therapy alone. She champions co-occurring psycho-education, community engagement, mindfulness practices, and body-based approaches. Lily has served her community as a trauma-sensitive yoga instructor, massage therapy teacher, and community herbalist. She has a deep love for nature spirituality, permaculture, intentional living, and tiny homes.****************