Taking things back

There are many things about being a survivor of childhood trauma that make my life smaller, more complicated, and difficult. Things that are easy for many people without childhood trauma are sometimes beyond my reach. For example, yesterday I had a yogurt as a snack. This happens to be a very scrumptious black cherry Greek style yogurt. The yogurt is tart, the cherries are sweet and still have just a little of the snap left in their skin and flesh that is part of their magic for me. I love cherries. I’ve loved them since I was a child. Loved them in so many ways – fresh, in pie, as a compote, preserves, dried, in yogurt… it’s almost an endless list.

There is one problem with cherries. They can be a massive trigger for me. Even though I enjoyed that yogurt just a few minutes ago, writing this is reminding me too much of what they are connected to in my distant past. I’m hyper aware that a bowl of fresh cherries can leave me reeling for days with anxiety and flashbacks. So I have to limit how often and in what ways I can cherries. It hurts to have to give up something I love because of my trauma, to see my life get a little bit smaller.

I’ve lost something important to me. My life is littered with losses big and small just like the cherries I can so rarely enjoy and even then in such limited ways. It can be a hard and lonely way to live. Sometimes I feel I’ve lost so much, too many things to be able to have a life that’s worth living. Hobbies, family, foods, sounds, childhood memories, smells, and even TV shows have overwhelmed me, and so fallen out of my life because they trigger painful reactions. Each loss making my life a little bit smaller.

One hobby in particular I’ve missed was photography. I had been an avid photographer as a child. I caught the picture bug from my father who was constantly taking photographs in my childhood. He taught me how to use a SLR camera not long after my 8th birthday. After saving from Christmas and my birthday I managed to buy a Minolta SRT201 at the scratch-n-dent outlet of a local discount chain. I experimented and then took a couple of photography classes at a children’s science center in the city. A couple of Christmases later I got a nice telephoto lens. I learned to develop film and make enlargements. I had found a way to capture things in the world that gave me joy. I even took a couple of hundred photos on a trip to Alaska.

I became less serious over time. Going off to college I sold my cherished Minolta and got a pocket automatic camera. Then after starting a family I moved to a slightly better telephoto automatic. Having a child absorbed time and money but I made a switch to a digital automatic. Pictures were a pleasant way to capture the passage of time with a family, they became utilitarian. Cell phone snaps became common, and I took countless pictures of everything.

Then I started to remember. Like the tell-tale heart of Poe, my father’s Nikon I’d inherited when he died tormented me from its drawer in the basement. Instead of being a source of pride that I still knew how to work magic with a manual 35mm camera — not just any camera, but my father’s prized Nikon — it became a source of fear and anxiety. I couldn’t look at it, much less pick it up without a sinking in the stomach, tingling anxiety, and fleeting flashback images at the corners of my mind.

I’d lost real photography. Felt as though it was lost forever to me. My life would get smaller by that bit too. Yet another thing I’d loved was taken from me forever. I was struggling with losing so much of my life to the after effects of trauma.

Then Maxine Waters uttered her now famous phrase “Reclaiming my time!” It spread through memes and popular culture. When it got to my ears, I started to wonder if I could reclaim *my* time, *my* life in some way. Could I take back the things that had been stolen from me so long ago? Was it possible? Did I have to lose these things forever? Could I take back my whole life? Not all at once, but piece by piece?

I was going to try, but where to start? A friend at work and his wife were avid photographers who replaced cameras like the rest of us replace cell phones. He mentioned they had just upgraded, and were going to sell their old DSLRs. It clicked, I’d try to take back photography. It was small enough and peripheral enough to my daily life that it could be consumed in small pieces as I was ready. So I bought one of their cameras at the friend rate, and got a couple of refurbished lenses plus some accessories. I had a kit, I was going to take back photography.

I took a few pictures. It was too much. Back into the closet it went for a while. High on the shelf, packed away for another time. It would come down when it snowed or when there were birds on the feeder. Then back it would go, banished until a holiday, an event, or a particularly gorgeous sunset. Out for a day or two one holiday, it cluttered the coffee table. After clearing the table a week or so later, it ended up in a basket on the shelf beneath that coffee table. It stayed there for months, used occasionally, yet sparingly now that it was more accessible. I was getting used to the sight of it being around. Comfort was growing with its presence.

I needed a headshot for a work event, so I showed my son how to use my camera, in the process rewriting part of my story. I passed down to him something which he would only know as a positive. It would never be fraught and anxiety ridden for him. He snapped a couple of dozen pictures of me and absentmindedly went back to whatever teenagers do with their free time. One of his shots was good enough for my headshot. So, back on the table shelf in the basket went the camera.

Over time, I got desensitized to the metallic click of the shutter, to the look and feel of the camera, to its weight. I no longer had flashbacks when I looked into the lens or felt it in my hand. I found myself looking forward to an opportunity that called for my “real” camera. Now it sits in its bag next to my desk. The flap open and ready to be used on a moments notice, or to be slung over the shoulder for an outing that might yield potential material.

I’ve taken it back. For me. Photography is no longer a negative, but a positive in my life again. I wonder how I can do the same with cherries.

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