Smells Like Trauma

When I was 15, I lied to my parents about going to the movies, and instead climbed in a two seater truck with my friend and two boys I had never met. We drove to a field in Rosenberg to hang out with a cooler full of Bud Light. I had never tasted beer before, and because I didn't feel confident saying no to the boy who kept trying to kiss me, I drank that beer instead. 

We drove into a telephone pole soon after that. My hand went into the windshield, and my face hit the rear view mirror, leaving me with a blood-slippery gash that required thirteen stitches.

A broken nose is a stinky thing. If you've ever broken your nose, you know what I mean. It's a strange mix of snot, blood and trauma that only the owner of the broken nose can smell. I smelled it for weeks. 

The next time I smelled it, I was on an island off the coast of Belize. I had no physical injury, yet the smell showed up just as distinct as it did when I was 15.  Two friends and I had traveled to Mexico, then to Belize to study healing plants of the rainforest. When we finally arrived at our destination, it was nothing like what I had pictured in my mind.  Civil unrest had suddenly erupted over the declining financial climate, a nationwide strike had ensued and water service for much of Belize was shut off. I was terrified. After one sleepless night and lots prayer, two of us decided we were going to take our chances and travel back to Mexico. Our other friend had traveled extensively in Mexico and South America and did not feel the same threat to her safety, but she was understanding about our decision to head out. 

We took a bus out of the rainforest town and up to Belize City where we boarded a little boat headed toward a small, quiet island. There we gathered our thoughts and tried to discern a new direction. That's when I noticed the smell.

It's a strange thing when you notice a smell coming from inside your body. No one else can smell it, and it's difficult to accurately describe. Like pain, it is a subjective and very personal experience. 

The neuroscience of odor and trauma has been researched and documented, although it's typically a smell that triggers a memory, not other way around. The amygdala, hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex are involved in memory and emotional processing, which could be the reason why the smell of baked banana bread reminds you of your grandmother, or the fragrance of flowers can elicit the feeling of lying in the sun on a warm day.

So when that trauma smell showed up last week, as my hometown of Houston was drowning in over 50 inches of rain from Hurricane Harvey, I knew exactly why. Although my husband and I and our two young girls live in the highest neighborhood in our city of Sugar Land, we were experiencing a trauma. Constant tornado warnings, friends fleeing their homes with infants on roads that became impassable just 10 minutes later, and voluntary evacuations turned mandatory in a matter of hours were happening all around us.  I didn't need to watch the news to see the terror that was unfolding in Houston. I was obsessively checking the Moms & Ladies of Southwest Houston Facebook group, our former neighborhood and the neighborhood of my childhood, and watching as people commented on each other's posts about going on the roof, not the attic, unless you have an ax to get yourself out.  People furiously posted about not being able to get through on 911, followed by comments with phone numbers for the National Guard, both correct and incorrect and corrected again.

"Keep calling," they said. "Climb to your roof and keep calling." 

"Can anyone get to my elderly mother at this address?"  

"How do I climb on my roof with an infant?"

It was horrifying and like so many, I felt helpless. But unlike the sudden impact accident that gave me my trauma smell, this trauma was drawn out over many days and nights. We all lost track of time as our city came to grips with the enormity of what was unfolding.

As a Registered Nurse and Massage Therapist, I help my clients process their experiences and reconnect with their bodies. I support them in tuning in to their body's messages- the pain, the tension, the trauma- to be with the discomfort, breathe into it, experience relief and healing, and to discover their inner resilience. 

Even if you didn't flood or lose power or water in Hurricane Harvey, you witnessed a trauma, and it is worthwhile to listen to your body as we all navigate our way in recovery. What we feel, we can heal, as the saying goes. There is a lot of healing and resilience to be discovered in the midst of this catastrophe. 

Like all traumas, this is not the end of our story. And although I have wondered how many of my fellow Houstonians will have stinky-sewage-mixed-with-mold-and-mildew as their trauma smell, I know that healing and restoration is already happening as we come together and step even more fully into our strengths and gifts as individuals and as a community.  One breath at a time. 

Photo credit: ABC News