Trauma Doesn’t Follow a Linear Narrative

Trauma changed my relationship with language.

In 2015 I gave a TED talk about my mom. She had a borderline personality disorder. A disorder that involved my life in a tremendous way. After the death of my father in 1985 she became more ill. She died in 1997 of cancer. I was 29 years old.

Trauma can happen to all of us. And the bad thing is that it leaves traces that can leave a mark on our lives, our families, and sometimes it is passed on from generation to generation.

Trauma also affects the people around you: anger outbursts, emotional absence, depressive periods.

Being confronted with trauma at a very young age presents significant challenges for your adult life. What is safe, what is trust, on who can you rely?


Trauma is unbearably lonely and even intimate. Learning to deal with trauma is often literally survival. Don’t think about it, don’t look up things, don’t name names, don’t celebrate holidays. It takes a lot of energy to stay upright and carry on with life.

And yet the fear is always your companion, but also the vulnerability.


When I think back to my childhood, it is a time of interruptions from manipulation, fear, pain and lots and lots of lies. And every time, there were periods when I tried to start over.

These interruptions of fear, pain, and sadness characterize the story of trauma. Something interrupts it; someone interrupts it, an event, a sentence, an action. You are thrown back on yourself, and no one tells you how to deal with it.

The war is over

I lived my teenage and young adult life with chronic vigilance. But most of all, I lived with the wish that things would get better, that she would one day play the role of mother. I hid my pain with a smile and wishful thinking. Now, so many years later, you can say that I survived because of my own lie: “it will be better.”

It worked out, in a way, when she passed away. She did not undergo treatment for cancer. The sentence I said to her mother, my grandmother, says everything: ‘Grandma, the war is almost over.’ When she died, six weeks later, my grandmother said to me: “Now the war IS over.”

And yet I still don’t have the language to describe the narrative surrounding my mother. More and more, but not everything. And if there is language, it is not linear. They are fragments, flashbacks, incoherent and chaotic. Telling the story of my mom is not the solution for me either. I get disturbed by it. So I’m drawing, listening to music, looking at art. That helps me teach my body that there is no danger.

How can anyone help?

For me, it is not helpful to ask questions about the past.

The trauma is mine. History belongs to me. If I want to tell something, I tell it in my way and at my time. That’s difficult for those around me, but that’s what’s necessary for me.
I feel safe and secure in the hearts of the people who love me and don’t ask, but leave room for who I am and I am very grateful to them for that!

I experience that listening WITH me, instead of to me, helps me to bring order to the chaos and to acknowledge, experience, and accept what I feel, to be honest with myself in my narrative of my life that will never become linear when it comes to my past, often told in the third person with distance and with a business intonation and often without words because the trauma has taken me away from my words, but has also given love for language.