October 24

Magic: The Ecdysis

Today is the 17-year anniversary of a certain trauma-with-a-capital-T that I won’t rehash here but which I am compelled to conceptualize in terms of magic bugs. I’ve experienced plenty of other traumas before and after this one, and I’m not in the habit of ranking them or shoving pins through their thoraxes to categorically arrange them in a cleanly labeled shadow box. But something about October 24th, 2003, unlike any other traumatic day, burrowed itself into my brain like a grimy little grubworm. And every October, I’m presented with these commemorative scarabs of that day, emerging embellished with hieroglyphic underbelly inscriptions that I’ll spend my life trying to read. I’ll feel their weight in my hands as I flip them, edge over edge, and sometimes—for a moment—I’ll think they’re quite beautiful and ancient. But most of the time, they’ll look to me like fresh knock-offs of artifacts I’ve been swindled into carrying. They’ll confuse and frustrate the hell out of me and make me wonder if my whole life is just a counterfeit scam.

Why this one day stuck like that, I don’t know. My expertise in the neurobiology of trauma suggests that was the day in my 17-year-old life that I crossed the lifetime threshold of trauma my body could cumulatively handle, or that it happened during a sensitive neurodevelopmental period that disrupted the maturation of my brain. The answer is probably both, and also probably something a bit more magical.

So, October is hard for me. While everyone is excited about #fallcolors and #pumpkinspice, I’m bracing myself for an onslaught of invisible attacks. Although, I will say, the last few years have felt a lot less like a fighter jet fly-by and a lot more like an intense active listening session. This is healing, I suppose. I’m learning to read my trauma’s language and look it square in its beady eyes.

Now, in my 17th October of tumult, I’m drawn to write about it for the first time in years. I look for inspiration in those periodical cicadas that emerge after 17 years underground. I learn that, in some regions, cicada broods emerge after 13 years, and this is where I uncover a bit of magic. I’m reminded that the last time I’d written a Whole Thing about this particular trauma was on its 13th anniversary when I’d spontaneously remembered a significant detail of that day that had been buried in my mind for the past 13 years. And now here I am, emerging again after 17 years. I’m not interested in coincidences—I want to call this magic. It’s so much more fun to be a scientist who believes in magic. What if I also mentioned that the genus name of these cicadas is Magicicada (named as such by entomologist William T. Davis, as they seemed to magically appear every 13 and 17 years). Magic is all around us and within us if you keep all your eyes open.

The magic about these special periodical cicadas is how they developed this mathematically precise synchronized lifecycle timing. Every member of the entire population emerges as adults at the same time, and it happens at fascinating prime number intervals. Nobody knows exactly what controls the length of these cycles, but it’s likely genetic and it could have functioned as a survival mechanism to overcome cold spells during the Ice Age or to prevent hybridized breeding between broods or to reduce loss to predation by hiding out in mathematically elusive intervals that don’t line up with most predator life cycles. There is also magic in how the cicadas emerge in such huge numbers—millions per acre—that even if they encounter predators, the survival of their species will not be threatened because there are just too damn many of them to eat. These are all survival strategies, from hiding out underground to flooding the system with a sheer force of numbers.

I think about the ten years I spent underground in a haze of alcoholism and addiction, and I think about the seven years since then that I’ve spent cicada-screeching about trauma from the treetops. These are all survival strategies. A couple weeks ago, I pulled a tarot card in response to the prompt, “Where am I thriving?” I drew the seven of swords, and the image on the card was a raven all crumpled up with seven gigantic swords hurling down all around its body, and I thought that bird does not appear to be thriving. Most interpretations of this card revolve around being evasive and not facing situations head-on, framed with the negative connotation of deception. But as I looked at this raven, I thought about the fight-or-flight response and noticed that none of the swords had pierced the bird because it had flight-maneuvered around them. Being evasive and not facing this sword situation head-on saved its life. I held this as a reminder that I’m thriving today because of how I managed to survive, and I’m not ashamed of the times I ran or froze or forgot or went underground when I didn’t have the resources to face anything head-on. According to Brené Brown, shame depends on the belief that we’re alone, and the antidote for shame is empathy.

It’s no coincidence that my screeching-from-the-treetops years coincided with finding a brood of other recently-emerged survivors. I love this idea of us emerging in such huge numbers that our survival can’t be threatened by even the most powerful predators. I think of the #metoo movement and the collective strength we’ve gathered as survivors by showing up for one another, screaming for one another, and en masse displays of you can’t eat us all. And this, of course, also makes me think of the upcoming presidential election. Now is the time to emerge by the millions and fight.

The stage of my lifecycle that I’m in now has been laser-focused on learning the language of my body and on the necessity of my community for survival and healing. Not only my larger community of other survivors and queer folks and sober folks, but my intimate community of soulmates who are so deeply invested in the microcosm of one another’s survival and healing. This October, my therapist has been asking me to imagine what it would have been like for my 17-year-old self if I’d had the support I have today. I imagined three specific humans and one generic dog rushing to my side after the October 24th, 2003 trauma-with-a-capital-T and just sitting with me so I wasn’t alone. And asking me what I need. Asking if I want to be held. Holding space. Believing me. One person laid on the floor with me and the dog. Another made a kettle of hot tea. And the other put together a charcuterie board for our sap-sucking cicada mouthparts. And this time I knew, it’s over. I’m safe. 17 years ago, I didn’t have anything resembling that, but I do now. And I wish for us all to emerge together, a brood so powerful and fed and held and healed that our microcosm of safety radiates throughout our larger communities.

In 1998, the emergence of the largest broods of the 13- and 17-year cicadas coincided for the first time since 1777 in the region where I grew up. I was 12 years old, and what I remember most was the empty cicada shells everywhere. When periodical cicadas emerge from underground, they shed their nymph shells, leaving them behind like bottom-of-the-bag potato chip crumbs and begin their adult mating stage. As a kid, I hopscotch-jumped around to avoid crushing the shells on the ground and fixedly stared at the ones clinging at eye-level to the trees, wondering where their insides went and if they were coming back. This cuticle molting, necessary for growth when you’ve got a hard exoskeleton, is called ecdysis—from the Greek word ékdysis, meaning getting out or escape.

17 years ago, I felt like an empty shell of a person, and there was a part of me that lingered with what I’d shed, grieving its loss—trying to fit back into it—not realizing a newly-emerged adult-me was just going on with her life. And while a part of me was, in fact, left behind 17 years ago, it wasn’t a death. It was a getting out. An escape. And maybe there will be another part of me shed today. Leaving behind what doesn’t serve me, like the Death card in my tarot deck that shows a snake slithering out of its old skin, symbolizing transformation. The pieces I shed will be mourned but will not tether or transfix me.

I spent exactly 13 years in college trying to become an expert on trauma, and I emerged with a PhD in neuroscience just long enough to brave a divorce and leave behind that whole academic career path in exchange for a life more aligned with my own internal compass. And then I went underground again in a different way, burrowing into reflection and rest and listening. Now, 17 years later, this trauma that happened when I was 17 years old feels like a golden birthday of sorts. I had always thought of that day as the day I died, but today I see my reflection in a gold-plated scarab, and I realize that was the day my life—as it is today—began. I emerge now, 17 years later, as something more whole, more intentional, more formidable, and more held.

As for what’s ahead, when all those cicada carcasses decompose, they provide a supershot of nutrients to the ecosystem that promotes the growth and reproduction of forest plants. I hope to become something like a trauma ecdysiast leaving my sequin-clad gold-plated exoskeletons strewn around all over the place to feed the growth of my community long after I’m gone. We know that the effects of trauma are intergenerational, but so are the effects of healing—like glitter that you keep finding everywhere forever.

Acknowledgements: This reflection was brought to you today by the capital letter T and by the numbers 17 and 13. And bugs.