Illness

Trauma, Associative Loss, and Harry Potter

Olivia Epley

Founder of Millennial Girl, Interrupted, a senior in a small Connecticut high school. I've been through many treatments and recoveries and am eager to share the lessons I've learned!

Latest posts by Olivia Epley (see all)

    Have you ever thrown some food up while sick and been, later in life, unable to stomach that food? Every time you are near that food, you feel nauseous. One pre-middle school summer, I ate hundreds of raspberries from the bushes around my local pool, and upon throwing them up one day, I was henceforth rendered unable to ever eat a raspberry again.

    This is also a common phenomenon with simple breakups. Songs that the two of you danced with can be painful. For example, “Born to Run” is hard to listen to because I requested it for my prom dance. However, it’s not traumatic. It’s just uncomfortable.

    Trauma can be the same way, but more extreme. I’ve lost a lot of things to PTSD.

    Some of the losses are more benign. For example, I can’t even hear a Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen song without feeling like I’m going to hurl. I associate those musicals with a traumatic period of my life, and I’m unable to stomach them.

    Over the summer, I set an alarm in the middle of the night to the tune of “Dear Theodosia” of Hamilton. I’ve never been able to afford tickets to the musical and likely never will, but it was my favorite melody. It was set in case someone I loved came back from a dangerous place. He never re-appeared, and whenever I set an alarm, it wakes me to that song. I don’t know how to turn it off and I’m rendered teary every. Single. Time. I don’t set alarms with my phone anymore.

    I’m an awful letter writer, now. When I was in freshman year, a girl in my grade sent me (by mail, no less) a list of things that were wrong with me. I was fat, I was ugly, I deserved to rot in a hospital for the rest of my life, no one would ever love me. I’d dated the wrong boy. That was all it took (this seems to be all it takes often, in my experience…). She had been my best friend prior to the letter and I never got an explanation or closure, beyond knowing that she was sent away. Since then, letter writing makes my stomach lurch, as does diary-ing. I had to do it this summer and cried.

    I have tried to end my life, but I’ve never even considered using bleach specifically (of everything I considered at the time), for similar reasons.

    I’m never, ever going to be able to even glance at pornography. I don’t know how normal this is otherwise, for women, but it can’t be for me. Not a huge loss…

    Even specific places can make me nervous and queasy. On my way from my old school to a Starbucks near it, I had to pass a restaurant in which something traumatic happened. For a while, I couldn’t do it. I could probably pass it now, but I have no reason to be down in Stamford anymore. There are many other places like this, I won’t make a list.

    The other day, my mom got a text and squinted to read it, her face contorting into what could have been mistaken for a frown. I felt a rush of adrenaline, then began crying profusely. This summer, my mother received several bits of terrible news on her phone. Now, every time she gets a text, I’m terrified that it’ll be more bad news. My body remembers.

    These are specific losses that are tangible, and therefore can be physically avoided. Sure, I feel trapped in my own head when “Dear Theodosia” is stuck in my head, but it goes away. The more long term associations are what I’m more worried about.

    I haven’t tried dating, per se, since everything interpersonally traumatizing has happened to me, but I’m scared witless. Will I be able to trust anything a future partner says to me? How do I know that someone is benign? How can I responsibly enter a relationship when I know worst of what can happen? Is my best course of action adopting kids and raising them on my own, on a secluded farm with lots of dogs?

    I don’t know how I’m going to hear the words I Love You, ever again, and think of anything but the specific pain that those words have brought me, the contradiction between those words and the actions that those saying them performed upon me. I don’t know how I’ll handle myself when asked to trust someone. And when someone else proves themselves untrustworthy or dangerous, as sometimes is human nature, how will I tame my reaction to reasonable levels, anymore?

    All I know is that there is hope. I know it because there is a specific example of persistence in my life, something that’s never been ripped from me.

    Harry Potter.

    Harry faces the Hungarian Horntail.

    Both of my partners whose association with me resulted in trauma loved Harry Potter. In fact, everyone I’ve ever dated, traumatic or benign, has. It’s something of a loose prerequisite. I’ve been formed so heavily on the basis of the series that anyone who can’t relate is at a disadvantage. It would have been easy, then, to lose my taste for the series.

    This summer was a trauma sh*t-fest. I was hospitalized in the middle of it, after an incident. When I was in the hospital, I got some awful news. The first thing I did, after all of the wailing subsided, was head down to a pool with my favorite Harry Potter book, the Goblet of Fire. I had to talk my doctors into letting me go alone, given my state, but they relented.

    It was a beautiful day outside and the glass dome that covered the pool was flooded with bouncing sunlight. I knew that if I was ever to read the series again, I’d have to read it on this day, when everything was falling apart. Harry Potter had pieced me back together so many times before. I’d be damned if I lost it to a couple of sick boys.

    I dipped my body, up to my shoulders, into the pool. The dome was empty apart from myself and my book. I lightly treaded water while my wrists, hands, and clutched hard-back rested on the edge of the water. I felt nauseous, I felt as if there was a black hole sucking my feet down, but there was Harry, facing the most ferocious dragon there was, and doing so trepidatiously but doing so, and so bravely, too. If Harry Potter could find the gumption to battle a dragon, surely I could summon enough to read about it.

    Harry Potter hasn’t been taken from me. There are some things that trauma can’t take, but it really can take a lot. As trauma is all stored in the body, reacting at unsuspected moments and in odd places, it follows naturally that the body would react to specific stimuli that reminds it of trauma with the good old fight-flight-freeze response. So every time I hear Dear Theodosia, every time I mutter a Harry Potter movie sound to myself (I haven’t reinstated the movies, unfortunately), every time I am tasked with writing a letter, every time my mom gets a text, and substitute in any trauma you or others may have, the body gets overwhelmed with adrenaline and reacts in one of those three ways. It feels as if it is fighting for survival, again.

    One of the keys to winning back what trauma has stolen from you is repeating mantras. My therapist and I have been floating the concept of recording her voice saying specific phrases and scripts. It’s an OCD treatment, but mantras work for PTSD thoughts as well. Here are some that are meaningful to me.

    You are safe. You are whole. Nothing bad is happening. You can’t know the future, and that’s okay. This feeling will pass. What’s yours is yours. And, as my dear therapist says, “the war is over.”

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