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Lesson 2 from a Flipped Kayak

(And why we can't just 'get over it')

Last month I wrote a story about resilience and shared a moment from vacationing with my teenage son in which he got stuck on a rock in the rapids while we were kayaking. Stuck that is until I t-boned him with my own kayak, flipping him into the rushing water.

Since it happened, I’ve told the story frequently in front of conference groups, on podcasts, and for summits. It ended up being a great true-to-life illustration of trauma, resilience, and growth and it increases the understanding of those concepts (if you missed it, you can read that story here: for my listeners and readers.

But today I’m going to share with you that it isn’t actually a very easy story for me to tell. The fact that my actions are a key causation in the event is hard for me to process and handle well. Even though everything ended up okay – he was ultimately safe, and we learned, we grew, we developed new skills – and even though I had no intention of rolling my son off the kayak to begin with, I still feel terrible about it.

I still see the panicked look in his eyes as he realized I was going to hit him. I still hear the hollow sound of the heavy, plastic boat meeting the other heavy, plastic boat. I still see him stunned and struggling in the water for those handful of seconds that felt like they could be measured in hours, as he worked to get to his bearings and get to his feet. It was scary. For both of us.

I’d file this one under ‘small t, trauma’.

The event itself was brief. It didn’t repeat itself, and the outcome was ultimately positive.

So why am I struggling with it, still? Do you ever wonder why you don’t just ‘get over it’?

This answer is both simple, and not-so-simple. You are carrying the culmination of your life experiences, including your traumas and fears as well as your strengths and gifts with you every day. For me, one of the things I carry is a fear of not being able to protect my children that is deeply rooted in the time, years ago, when my abuse occurred. In response to that situation, I developed a ‘fight’ trauma response. This made me a ferocious parent in many ways and served to benefit my family during that time because I was determined not to let anything happen to my children almost no matter what it would take to keep them safe. [Sidebar: Yes, trauma responses can be positive]. My primary, personal trauma-response isn’t fight at all. In fact, it’s freeze – but where my children are concerned, I will override that response and move to fight without hesitation.

However, this setting didn’t allow that to happen.

There was no amount of ‘fight’ I could leverage that would correct the issue. My son had to do the work while I sat helplessly in my own kayak yelling instructions, knowing that if I moved from where I was, I ran the risk of sending another heavy object careening toward him. I was left without my typical response tools. And later, I was left to unpack that the event had happened due in part to my error [I was following too close behind him to get out the current].

Small ‘t’, trauma equaled a trigger for me. I did something and couldn’t keep my child safe. And like my son in the water, the tools I had to respond with were no longer something that could help.

And that’s why I’m still struggling with it. That could be why you’re still struggling with some of your things. There’s been a trigger and you may not be able to access your trauma response tools or they may no longer be applicable or useful to the situation.

Good news, bad news here. You can’t just ‘get over’ your traumas, or your triggers. And, said without criticism, the people who deliver that message to you are more-often-than-not ill-equipped to help or support you. So, they look to diminish and dismiss your feelings. Know you both need and deserve a circle who can honor where you are and let you process and release emotions in your own time and your own way. For me, I already feel better than I did but it is a process. One that has required use of my resilience tools, some self-care, and more growth and self-awareness about the ways in which I use my own responses to navigate current situations. That’s really the beautiful thing about having post-traumatic growth skills in my pocket: I can accept where I am and keep going on the journey. I can even look forward to the next kayak adventure in our future, knowing I’ll be different when we get there.

I am healing – not healed.

And that is absolutely okay.

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