An autumn wind blew dry leaves across the old Victorian tombstones. A hundred-year-old oak shaded the resting places of people long dead, from another time, another place, another century. The funerary art was interesting, but it was the inscriptions that intrigued me most. “Beloved sister,” “He was the light of our home,” “Ever faithful,” the sentiments were quaint and at times inspiring. The dead had served in civil wars and world wars. Died in the hometown where they were born and on battlefields across the sea. They were young and old, newborn and in the prime of life. 

It was a sad old cemetery nestled at the edge of a small town in Southside Virginia. It also happened to be right across the street from my house. I would often retreat to the peace and quiet, the silence and solitude. It was more than the seclusion that attracted me. The shadow of death rested over my life in the same way it rested across those tombstones. I was oblivious to the gentle creek that gurgled next to the pasture. I did not appreciate the smell of earth and sky mixed with fresh-cut grass or the wind that crested over the hilltop. The cemetery was surrounded by life, but I kept walking among death.

My perception of everything was tainted by trauma. It was as if I lived two lives at the same time. Psychologists have a word for this—dissociation. Outwardly, I could schmooze with the best of them. I knew all the right things to say in social situations. Held down a job and functioned on a daily basis, but it was all surface deep.

Underneath, a roiling torrent of terror, fear, dread, and threat ran my life. It was like living in a nightmare I could not wake up from. I remember driving to school to meet my first class of the day. The feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach grew with every passing mile. Oh, I was prepared for class. I had done all the lesson planning. I knew all the parts as a choral music teacher, but the dread would not leave me alone.

What if I proved to be inadequate? What if one of the kids misbehaved and I did not know what to do? What if the concert I was preparing for fell apart? The threat of being found out holding hands with “the dread.” I would get through the day, do a great job, get accolades from my principal, and win awards at competitions—but it was never enough. Nothing was ever enough to make “the dread” and “the threat” go away. If I describe these two evil twins as life-like entities, it’s because that’s exactly how it felt.

I would get home after work, go through the motions of family life, fix dinner, talk to the kids and make sure the homework was done. But I would not connect and I could not wait for the day to be over. Searching, always searching for a place to finally feel at rest. It was then I would withdraw to the tombstones. Longing for the day when life would be over, I would not have to expend so much energy coping just to get through the normal everyday events of life.

Until I came to the realization that these perceptions were the result of trauma, I could not be resurrected. I wasn’t crazy. I was not flawed. I was not bad. I wasn’t wrong. I was suffering from the results of brainwashing and abuse. A wholesale assault on my personhood had taken place. Trauma changes the way you look at life. When we understand that, we can work to change the perception. Plink, plink, plink. I chipped away. Over time, I began to smell the blossoms in springtime to connect with healthy relationships and let the toxic ones go. I became aware of beauty and goodness and most especially, I stopped walking among the tombstones and came back to life. It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t change overnight, but it can be done, and believe me—to defy trauma and embrace joy is worth whatever it takes to get there.

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