written by AMANDA K GROSS
I started making Trauma Containers soon after purchasing a home in a city still new to me. I wasn’t actually residing in my relatively new home at the moment of their first construction. Instead, I was taking my first Restorative Justice course at my undergraduate alma mater and was feeling overwhelmed by the stories of violence that had led the family members of murdered loved ones to sit down with those who had committed the violent acts in an effort to reconcile, possibly forgive, and restore — or maybe more accurately, transform — what had become harmful relationship.
But this post is more about divergence than conjoinment. And at the time, I was motivated by my own personal overwhelm from hearing other people’s traumas, not from experiencing my own.
I needed a way to hold their stories respectfully, but I also wanted a container external to myself, with a lid so I could write down the bits and images of their stories, which kept following me across wakefulness into my dreams.
My first Trauma Container was small and soft and green with a button and string. She fit cozily in the palm of my hand. After a heavy case study was shared, I would write the stickiest of details down, whisper a prayer for the people involved, and neatly roll up their traumas so I wouldn’t internalize stuff that wasn’t mine.
Thus began a decade of me and Trauma Containers. They took on many forms over the years and evolved as gifts for friends embarking on hard journeys, as a collective activity for White Women’s Group in initiation of our anti-racist family history projects, as a personal tool for processing my internalized dualism, and as a vessel for healing intentions. My most profound experience with Trauma Containers has been in using them to acknowledge, process, and (usually) release specific relationships… with myself, with other people, with communities, and with places. These relational Trauma Containers eventually leave me. (Maybe you’ve had a glimpse of one at a public park or found one alongside the road.)
Last year I turned thirty six and decided it was time to uproot and leave the City of Gray. This was a decision I might have made sooner, which, in retrospect, I probably should have realized sooner, but I was comfortable (enough) in my solitary space, distracted by a self-imposed excessive workload of VERY IMPORTANT and PURPOSEFUL anti-racist lifework, and affixed by something I’ve now come to understand as depression. (Seasonal Affective Disorder is real, folks.) In fact, I only came to clarity and commitment around leaving due to some major disruptions and upheaval in my home, work, and social life.
But even after I knew I was ready to leave, knew I wanted to leave (for my mental health, I may have even needed to leave), I still spent most of the last year holding on, weighing myself down by obligation, a sense of responsibility, and a fear that the deepest desires of Amanda Katherine’s heart would reveal themselves to be racist, individualized actions driven by access to privilege and not-at-all in alignment with collective liberation. Most of all, I feared repeating a multi-generational trauma pattern of fleeing, which both historically reinforced my ancestors contributions to white settler colonialism and, in return, enabled them to repeat it.
Instead, I chose another family-iar pattern (so many patterns to choose from!). From the dropdown virtual menu of inherited multigenerational coping mechanisms, I went with the classic martyr-freeze response. I chose in my daily routines and in my relationships mostly not to fight for myself. I chose mostly to endure. I chose mostly to follow the lead of a handful of Black women and repress/suppress/ignore the discomfort in my gut and tightness in my right rhomboid.
This time around, the depth of my perfectionism has surprised me. There are layers there that I didn’t notice before: a whole driving-force layer of perfectionism, which has been steering a lot of my work with Mistress Syndrome over the past six years. I have preached that there is no one right way, but I have been practicing a few hard-and-fast rules. For example, I have been so committed to the idea that the right way to do anti-racism work for a white person is to have accountability to and follow the lead of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color that I have created an unhealthy (and unsustainable) power dynamic in some of my closest relationships. I have nurtured distrust of my ability to see, know, and understand my own whiteness — especially to know which is my Self and which is my very sneaky false white self. I have been at times very confused about which parts of me are ME and not just white violence in disguise to the point of shutting myself down and limiting a full range of self-expression.
I feel angry at the way these anti-racist rules for white people were taught to me and at how I chose to learn them. I feel hurt by how I feel harmed within these relationships. I struggle to direct my hurt and rage at the abstracted systems and cultures which led to the interconnected playing out of our harmful coping mechanisms and not attribute my pain exclusively to the individuals with whom I have shared such intimate spaces. But mostly, I feel angry at myself for not fighting harder for me in those moments when I invoked self-sacrifice instead.
Leaving town, as I have come to accept, is, of course, like my ancestors, facilitated by my privilege. Not staying to fight the local fight alongside my Pittsburgh community is, in many ways, a manifestation of individualism. And, also I am increasingly okay with that.
Leaving, is the most compassionate act I have done for myself in a long long while. I am finding joy and agency and energy and excitement in this liberating practice of self-compassion. It does not necessarily surprise me that in selling my home, scaling down my work responsibilities, and letting go of relationships, I feel freer. What is currently a most delightful surprise, is that through accepting it all, I am experiencing a deep and buoyant joy.
I am also experiencing a paradigm shift. Some of the rules I attached to are getting transformed in surprising ways; where once there were pedestals (for myself and others) now there are only bubbly, hot tubs.* A healing container of a different sort.
In the month leading up to my departure, I began an outdoor installation of Trauma Containers, to honor the joys, triumphs, challenges, failures, and growth which have marked my time here and also as a parting gift to the land, creatures, and people.
Maybe you’ll notice them when you’re out for a walk some day.