I’ve been presented with this idea lately that we shouldn’t let our trauma define us. At first I thought it sounded good, the side effects of trauma shouldn’t be a dark cloud looming over every part of our life. It shouldn’t be what our identity is rooted in or even what we are known for. That was my initial reaction to the idea at least. However, I have been thinking about it more lately and unless someone can present an extremely compelling reason why these are words to live by, I’m going to boldly say that I disagree. I disagree because I think traumatic pasts, situations or events will define us, despite our best efforts to push it down or hide it or dress it up to mascaraed as something else. Until the day that we took our twins to the hospital and the 96 days following I never experienced real trauma. There were challenges, situations that were devastating and long periods of time where I really struggled. But trauma? No. Trauma is an event or experience that is deeply distressing or life threatening. Trauma causes an exuberant amount of stress and pain that we have no ability to cope with. Trauma causes deep physiological, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual pain. It can trigger anxiety, depression, guilt and a whole spectrum of emotional damage. Trauma is different from a hard time or a difficult experience or a sad event. It is dark, all encompassing and deeply hurtful. It comes to us and never leaves, unlike that challenging situation that is now resolved, that hard time that you pulled yourself out of or that struggle that you came out on the other side of. It’s life altering and inserts itself into every single area of your life, weaving itself through ever fiber of your being regardless of how hard you fight to keep it out. It creates a new identity for us, it births a new human that is a dim reflection of the life that existed before it was sabotaged by trauma. This is why I believe that saying “trauma shouldn’t define us” is a lie, I don't think we have a choice.
I do however think we choose how it defines us. I know this might be an unpopular opinion because if you google “letting trauma define you” you will find tons of guides, steps, articles and resources about how to not let trauma define you. So let me just say this, I am not a therapist, counselor or physiologist of any kind. I don’t know about other traumatic situations. I have never been to war or witnessed a school shooting or been the subject of abuse in any way. My thoughts could be totally wrong and unhelpful to others working through their own trauma. My idea of what the word “define” entails may be completely different from what it means to you. Please feel free to not consider my viewpoint and go find a qualified professional to talk to. All I can offer is personal experience and specifically the only spaces I can talk out of are those of almost losing a child and losing a child. I’m not into the game of comparing hardship, but I think mostly anyone will agree that child loss is among the most devastating of all human experiences. Having a sick child and enduring an extended stay in the hospital with that child has to be up there as well. I will never be the same person I was before I gave birth to our twins. It’s not possible. The trauma of the whole situation and the single event of holding Will as he took his last breath will define me forever. Whether it should or shouldn’t, whether other people like it or not or think it’s healthy or unhealthy, I will never exist without that person being a part of me. Letting it define my life or not is honestly out of my control, it’s going to no matter what I do or don’t do. What is in my control is how I let it define me. That is a choice. I can choose to let the trauma produce something positive, honest and helpful or I can choose to let it create a negative, self-centered and sad existence. Honestly, I think the latter would be easier. I could easy decide to wallow in my sorrow, make excuses and let others continually take pity on me to get what I wanted. I could take pity on myself and decide to just stop trying because really what is the point anymore? I could spend my days hiding alone in my house, not connecting with anyone or making any effort to be a productive member of my family or community. Honestly, that sounds appealing sometimes and definitely takes way less effort than the other option. However I have never been one to choose the easier option because I believe more often than not easy is not necessarily best.
I’m a perfectionist, so I like to strive for the best all the time. For me, the best option is to let the trauma I have experienced drive me to be productive and intentional with my time, energy and resources. This plays out first and most importantly in my family. What if I just decided that I was going to be sad and withdrawn all the time and give up on life? How would that affect my husband? My children? My friends? My community? I cannot fathom a situation where that behavior produces anything positive or good. In fact, all I can imagine is how much more harm it would inflict on everyone around me as well as myself. What a difficult life my children would have if their mother was constantly disconnected, unresponsive and angry. What an unfulfilling relationship I would have with my husband if I choose to be disengaged and uncommunicative all the time. Instead, I think the trauma should be used as fuel to drive me not just to be good or great but exceptional. Exceptional marriage, exceptional mother, exceptional friend. This also affects my relationship to the world around me. The reason why I share Will's story and strive to make this foundation a success is because I have chosen to use the experience to help others. Again, it is not the easy choice for me. I am not entirely comfortable with sharing such personal details of Will's life and death with the world. It is hard for me to visit sick children, in fact I have not been to the hospital to visit any of the children we have sponsored because I cannot step foot in the place where Will last was. But I will continue to make good come out of our tragedy, even if it is the more difficult option, because I refuse to let Will's legacy be filled with anything else.
Because of what we have experienced I have a very real and deep understand of how fleeting life is. You always hear the notion that “it could all be over in a second” and I’m here to tell you that it really could. One second we were taking our babies to a well check appointment and the next second we were on our way to the ER. One second we thought Caroline was getting better and the next second she was throwing up blood, barely breathing and in a life-threatening situation. One second we held Will in our arms and the next second there was a flat line on his monitor. One second. Why would I waste any of those precious seconds doing anything else beside creating something positive, helpful and exceptional with my time here on Earth? Some of us get 96 days, some of use get 96 years, either way we all have the choice to make an impact with what we are given.
I challenge those of you who have experienced real, true, life altering trauma to let it define you but don't let it control you. Let it define you in the best possible way, allowing it to drive you to do something that inspires you, blesses others and brings joy to you, your family and your community. Let it propel you to gratitude, not bitterness or entitlement. I will never claim that this will be easy and I will always admit to failing at it continually. I may be a perfectionist but I am no where close to perfect. I will be sad, heartbroken and withdrawn at times. I will snap at my husband and get frustrated with my children. I will have moments of struggle, negativity and complaining. I will want to give up, I will lose my motivation and fail to focus. I will let the trauma I have experienced take over and I will have pity on myself and wish others would do the same. But I will always choose to try again. I will always choose to let Will inspire me to be exceptional because I think he deserves to have the best mommy who represents his life and legacy well. I will choose to let this trauma shape me because that means Will helps define who I am today and I want the person who cared for, fought for, sacrificed and loves that sweet baby boy to always be a part of me. He will always be the best in me and I will always strive to do my best for him.
Sweet Will in mid-January. Helplessly watching this baby and his sister get sick, staying in the PICU for three months and holding Will in my arms as he took his last breath will always define me. But I refuse to let it reduce me into a negative, self-centered, hateful person. Instead I will strive to make Will the best of me, letting his courage, strength, perseverance and joy define me as long as I live.
Our mission is to support international children receiving heart treatment in Jacksonville, FL.
My name is Courtney Hughes and I am Will's mommy. I am happy that you are here to read Will's story and make a difference with us!