Language and trauma

/*this is a mild article on trauma related to cultural alienation from the perspective of someone whose migration experiences weren’t dramatic or violent thank God, so no trigger warnings. Brief and non-graphic mention of a friend’s refugee camp story*/

This morning found myself looking at the signup information for a professional course in trauma therapy in Berlin, then realised with a slight bitter spasm of disappointment and perhaps self-blame that – funny – right – I won’t actually be able to take that course because of – funny – my own trauma attached to the language it’s taught in.

I saw the humour and the sadness and annoyance and disappointment and insecurity (why am I still not over it?), too, in the situation. I thought then, perhaps it makes sense to write an article on how trauma attaches to language for some people.


“A language is just a tool”

Hearing a particular language can trigger me to the point where I visited a particular country only equipped in noise-isolating earphones. I’d put them on when walking in the streets. I’d speak English to people, even if their English was bad and it obviously took them a great deal of effort to speak it, even though I knew the local language probably better than most natives (used to get prizes in writing contests and such).

That was my little, tiny sweet bit of revenge for having grown up without a mother tongue. Revenge on random civilians, probably causing more irritation to myself than to them. But yes, the thought – now you make the effort to communicate in a language and code that’s not yours, for a change. I’m just gonna sit here and pretend I don’t know yours. Cause I don’t think you ever bothered to ask about mine.

Of course random citizens of Germany didn’t collectively injure me.

They did and are doing a very decent job accepting migrants, comparatively. Certainly they were and are still doing a far better job at it than my country of origin, in which racism largely isn’t known as racism but as common sense (same for sexism).

(Sorry Poland but … am I that wrong?)

That’s a long story and it’s not the point here to tell it. The point I want to make here is that apparently nobody (a bunch of psychotherapists included) got how I can be so allergic to a language.

How I can avoid it going to such impractical pains, and why I end up distressed, exhausted and confused when I don’t manage to avoid hearing or God forbid using it. After all, “language is just a tool” used to communicate content – say people who perhaps don’t understand the emotional valence a language can carry.


Bones and body

The fact that it can live in your bones and body (sometimes I wonder if that’s what writers that I never understood, such as Hélène Cixous, are talking about in code in some way); in a way it becomes your body … that happens at the moment when words start to bubble up as spontaneously and organically as movements do, as gestures do, as the breath.

When you’ve reached that stage, you can’t really substitute a word for it’s translation.

Because it’s not about semantics anymore (the particular object or idea the word denotes) – it’s about sound, about the colours of sound (perhaps that resonates more strongly for those among us with synaesthetic inclinations), about the way it feels in the mouth, about its tonality – heaviness, lightness, gravity, dark, playfulness, the number of syllables, rhythm – it’s like a dance gesture.

You can get from point A to point B on a stage in a few steps, whether you do that by steps in the spirit of tango, contemporary, or ballet – but sure it won’t feel the same.

It’s not just about sound. Though that matters to me. The other layer is roots. Which, I’d say, is basically in-built etymological associations: the subliminal feeling that this word is similar, resonates with others that share the same root in past linguistic forms. It takes part of its meaning, but also its connotations, its weight and colour and tone, from those roots … and perhaps also other words it sounds similar to or contrasts with.

There’s much more to say about this. But the point is that when a language is learned intimately, through the senses, through situations, images, emotions (not through a dictionary, at least not only or mainly) – through being there and immersion, and perhaps above all – through relationships; it becomes irreplaceable in a sense.

Stopping to speak it means cutting off, muting a part of your body language. Or comes close to losing part of your emotional and aesthetic and synaesthetic repertoire perhaps – losing certain avenues for feeling and dancing and perhaps thinking.

This is subtle, and people who are sensitive to undertones, overtones, resonances probably suffer far more from this.

In that sense, the loss of that language has hurt me.

It has also hurt me that I’ve never learnt the language of my parents, the language of the first 4 years of my life, to that same literary depth. I speak like a native and copy-edit books in Polish, even though I’ve been out of the country for 20 years – people don’t believe I’ve left when I was 4.

But I still feel the difference – Polish is in my heart, because it’s the language of my family. My mother, my grandmother. But I’ve never written anything decent in it – it’s in the heart, in the emotions and childhood memories more than in the bones, in thought, in my aesthetic sense. It didn’t get there because I was exposed to a different culture and language growing up.


Swallowing your tongue

I finished school and moved out of Germany (not really caring where to, I’ve lived in about 6 different contries since, moving every 3, 6, 12 months or so).

And I started to avoid speaking that language. Haven’t used it except in emergencies (like getting a German passport to facilitate my immigration attempt to Canada, what won’t I do for love when it bedazzles me?) … I guess since 2006.

I don’t really know why.

It made my life difficult, because I couldn’t accept job offers from Germany, freaked out when visiting family or friends in Germany, couldn’t get German social security when it would have been wise to do so, etc. Didn’t move to a city I love for someone I loved – I’d move to Canada or Israel, sure, even got the papers for Indonesia, but so yes, apparently there is a limit to what I’d do for love. Seems like the limit is this weird language trauma.

I figured at one point in my 20’s that this is weird.

I felt something is wrong, but I didn’t have words for it. I just knew I was confused, my life was very intense, I felt lost, my relationships were crazily intense and confused and painful, and I kept moving from country to country for whatever reason.

I also lied about / hid my past.

Not something I usually do, e.g. I don’t even lie about being queer when it would be better to. Or about various other things that aren’t nice to say to people.

After many years (in 2013?) a girlfriend organised super cheap psychotherapy for me, with a therapist who didn’t seem impressed by the language thing. In fact, nobody got it. And I didn’t know anyone who was going through something similar. Or so I thought.


Paul Celan and the Iran-Iraq war

The only vague connection I’d read was that the Jewish Romanian-German poet Paul Celan had stopped using German after the Holocaust (and he also killed himself at a point).

I hadn’t seen the Holocaust (except on TV, endless times, and in books, and on school trips to Auschwitz – with both German and Polish school excursions). Extensive exposure to that stuff is fairly unremarkable when growing up in either Poland or Germany.

Then, a second mention was from a friend I made at an old-style university town up north close to Scotland. She was from Iraq and her family had fled the regime when her mother was pregnant with her, or even before her birth (I don’t remember). She was born somewhere in an improvised accommodation in Lebanon. For some reason during the Iran-Iraq war, they ended up in a refugee camp in Iran (the enemy). She learnt Farsi there as a child. But when we had an Iranian housemate in the UK, she understood all he said, pretending she didn’t.

That struck me, first time I saw this identical behaviour in someone else. Again, it struck me that – heck – with her experience it’s totally understandable; with mine, it’s puzzling. Temporary asylum seeker accommodation, yes, but not a refugee camp in a war.


Pretending to be Romanian

This made me think a lot.

It made me think, yes, emotions attach to language for people – perhaps more so in childhood. They can go deep. And sometimes people sacrifice a language – and they are fine (like my friend) … perhaps if you’re a poet and it’s the language you grew up in (like Celan), that is a far harder strike to take.

A third story – and the last one – that I encountered in this context was a friend of a friend in Bucharest. A brief visit with a woman who grew up in Syria (in peaceful times) but whose mother was Romanian. The family then migrated to Romania, and for whatever reason – I regret that we did not get to talk during this short and awkward visit – the daughter decided to get every fibre of the Arab culture she had absorbed out of herself. That included the language – no Arabic TV or other media. That included the apartment – decorated with Romanian icons, not the Hand of Fatima. That included food and spices (what a loss). It lasted years.

She said jokingly that she was trying to be more Romanian than the Romanians. Until at a point, she stopped and embraced the double heritage, somehow, and her small apartment in a derelict Ceausescu-era high rise at the outskirts of Bucharest’s concrete deserts was now a pleasant melange of Middle Eastern and Balkan influences.

I would have liked to ask her why.

Why she couldn’t stand to watch Arab news anymore. Why she then started to serve food in Syrian dishes again.


Will I ever grow moderate and … eat German sweets for Christmas? Have a conversation with a German in their language which is in part mine despite the inner split it caused me? Can I ever do that without feeling my identity and the Earth itself slipping away from underneath my feet and wanting to either panic or lash out?



Considering moving to Berlin, since Fate threw me that ball, I’ve been looking at “things to do” there. After a looong period in the countryside, where the “things to do” are a) walking in the forest b) cycling c) doing creative stuff at home, I figure that if I’m going to live in a place with (moderate) crowds, smog and noise for a while, I’ll take advantage of what this city specifically offers to funny people like me: a lot of alternative, green, “holistic”, somatic etc. learning opportunities.

So yes, a trauma therapy course – something I’ve been interested in for a long time, ever since I figured that for some reason, even without wars thank God what I’ve been dealing with over the years is some sort of improvised trauma therapy, puzzled together across many countries many people many strange relationships, perhaps leading to a partial integration or reintegration.

But the characteristic push-pull relationship with the inner emigration fracture persists. Why am I getting a chance to live in Berlin? Why is it that I can’t get away fully from the wound, hooked strangely to spirals and circles, always coming back for one love or other, one opportunity or other, and not taking hold anywhere.

Perhaps seriously, psychic wounds refusing to not have a resolution; nature calling to complete some of its cycles, or what has been torn apart calling for integration.


Collective history

Another puzzle piece of this story that comes to mind is, how much of my personal life drama is actually collective history? Would I have this pain if it were not for the pain of previous generations, their historical entanglements, and the collective burdens of denigration and prejudice on both sides? I didn’t make that up; I just soaked it up as a child and transformed it into a drama that is acted out again as a shadow, an echo of a past that I didn’t even understand. Ideas, views and projections I never consented to carrying.


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