In 2018, five years after my last shoulder surgery, I was walking up a set of stairs for a work event. I reached up for the handrail and my right shoulder dislocated. In that absolutely unanticipated moment, my biggest fear became a reality. With support from the couple on the staircase behind me as I tried not to pass out, I popped my right shoulder back into place. In shock, physically hurting and mentally collapsing, I put my hand in my pocket for support and carried on with the event like nothing happened. Old habits die hard.
I drifted through life during the following weeks. Attending appointments, getting pushed headfirst into an MRI tube, and scheduling yet another shoulder surgery — all while in disbelief and dissociated from reality. My fifth shoulder surgery, the first on my right shoulder, was more than just simply reattaching the labrum — the surgeon performed a SLAP tear procedure, including a capsular shift surgery, to tighten my shoulder capsule and ligaments to best limit the possibility of future dislocations. Eager for this ordeal to end, I did what I’d always done afterward: put my head down, committed to physical therapy, and focused on my physical recovery.
But my emotional recovery went unaddressed, and the unprocessed trauma that I’d tucked away over the past twelve years came surging back to the forefront of my life, more aggressive than ever. The mirror became an enemy, reflecting a struggle I had yet to acknowledge. It was impossible to avoid fixating on the matching scars on my shoulders. Tracing them with my finger, I could feel them tingle as they reverberated my injuries and reinforced my limitations, confining who I was. The spark was fading from my eyes, I could see it, and the adventure in my tilted smile was replaced with hollow fear.
Without confidence in the stability of my shoulders, I lost confidence in myself. My shoulders weren’t good enough, I wasn’t good enough. My self worth all but disappeared, and I assumed the role of my own worst enemy. Cursing any minor mistake and chastising myself over any imperfection, I abused myself and became more accepting of abuse in my relationships.
Science has shown that trauma has the power to alter how our brain functions. The physical and sensory experiences of trauma are imprinted into our nervous system. As such, our bodies carry physical memories of our trauma. Retrieving a jar off the top shelf may mean little to most, but having dislocated my shoulder reaching for a jar on the top shelf, that physical motion bore significant weight in my brain. Unfortunately, I had dislocated my shoulders with a wide variety of basic movements, and now each of these incidents were seared into my nervous system and bookmarked in my brain.
Regularly, I would execute a motion or task without second thought, only to be forcefully interrupted by my nervous system, which knew from past experience that what I was doing could end in pain. In response, I would freeze, clutch my arm to my chest, and be thankful that it wasn’t dislocated — despite the fact that my muscles and nerves were briefly screaming that it was. The physical memories stopped me in my tracks and became increasingly difficult to bounce back from. I was haunted by the shoulder dislocations of my past. I was living in fear.
Recurring nightmares were another manifestation of my unprocessed trauma, and though they were not new — over the course of a decade I’d had many — their intensity and frequency had severely ramped up. The dream where I would dislocate my shoulder in my sleep, struggle to relocate it, and scream out for help in an empty world was the most common one, but other vivid incidents occupied my brain at night, with surgery scenes and doctors reducing my shoulders making regular appearances. Waking up in cold sweats and talking myself down from what felt like another very real dislocation or surgery; it seemed cruel and was certainly taxing.
Most unsettling of all, the nightmares were not limited to when I was sleeping. They began visiting me while I was wide awake, which simultaneously confused the hell out of me and scared me shitless.
In sedentary moments of the day when life slowed down, I could be violently thrown back into the past. These flashbacks sometimes occurred unprovoked, but reading — and especially movies and tv shows — were sure triggers. Scenes featuring physical injury or hospital visits, particularly surgery scenes or shoulder injuries, would completely shut me down. (And it turns out, Hollywood loves a good shoulder dislocation.)