My Therapist Says There Are ‘Little T’ Traumas and ‘Big T’ Traumas
Excavating those ‘little t’ traumas has helped me chip away at the bigger ones
When I first started going to therapy at 19, I had a pretty good idea of the traumas I wanted to excavate: divorce, parental addiction, eviction — the “big T” traumas that are easy to define in a word.
I used to think the only reason to go to therapy was to talk about trauma like this. I sat in the offices of half a dozen therapists, balling wet Kleenex in my hand and sipping on lukewarm chamomile tea in paper cups, while trying to get them to talk about these big things and changing the subject whenever they wanted to talk about how these big things were affecting me now. But when I finally found a therapist I connected with, who wore a knit pink sweater with a heart on it and sat cross-legged in her chair, I started realizing there was a lot more to excavate than I thought (big surprise!). Instead of these big pillar traumas, there was more like an ant farm tunnel network of traumas, things I couldn’t easily define in a sentence, that felt really bad, but that I didn’t know I was allowed to call traumatic.
My therapist says we can have “small t” traumas and “big T” traumas; bad things that happen in our lives that we don’t always feel like we can claim ownership over, things that feel murky, or things we’re told aren’t “that bad.” She says we can have a backpack filled with “small t” traumas that eventually get so heavy, it turns into a “big T” trauma.
My therapist first told me this about a year ago when I started reading She Said by the reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein story. I have had nonconsensual sexual experiences, but don’t use the word “rape” to classify them, a classification a lot of people struggle with. I didn’t think I would be triggered reading a book about Weinstein, but I found myself feeling higher than normal levels of anxiety after reading only a few chapters. My chest was tight, I was afraid to be on a street alone with a man, and nervous to walk home from the subway after dark. A lot of women minimize sexual trauma, especially when sometimes it feels like being in a female body is an unending string of “little t” traumas…