The Thing About Trauma & Pain - This Is Us, episode 3
I just don’t understand the writers for This Is Us. How do they do this to us every week? I promise I thought something was wrong with my DVR when this week’s episode ended. I didn’t get enough. I was so emotionally invested in each scene, I actually said “Wait!” to my TV when the episode ended! There was such intensity! Those durn writers… Now I have to wait all the way until next Tuesday. That’s a whole week. Like, seven full days. How will I EVER survive that long?! #dramatic
One major takeaway for me this episode was the pain. So much pain. Deeply rooted and intense pain. We got to see what humans can do with pain – become overwhelmed by it like Jack, where even alcohol couldn’t control it’s intensity, lock it away like a monster in a closet and never allow it to escape as Kevin tries to do, or have it hit so hard it envelops us like a fog and impacts our ability to feel and be present in the world like we see with Deja, the new foster child.
I thought it would be worth talking more about one aspect of pain, especially with the way the writers (Dan Fogelman, Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger) and directors (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) so brilliantly aided our understanding. Let’s touch on trauma.
Pain from Emotional Trauma
We get to meet Deja this week – the young girl that Randall and Beth are considering adopting out of the foster care system. This super duo of a couple has no idea what they are getting into when Deja arrives, but bless them for being willing and ready for anything. Deja has been in and out of foster care because her mother has gone back and forth to jail. While we don’t know much about her story yet, we know that she has been through a lot.
Deja certainly has experienced multiple traumatic events – including possible physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, exposure to intimate partner violence, community violence and more. On top of that, she has been removed from her home again to go and live with a new family of strangers for an unspecified about of time. This is traumatic in and of itself because she has left not just her mother, but also her neighborhood, her home, her school, her friends and every part of her daily routine. She arrives at the Pearson home in a state of shock.
From a recent report there were an estimated 427,910 children in foster care in the US in 2015. About 50-65% of kids not in foster care have experienced at least one traumatic event in their life, but for kids in foster care the number jumps to 90%. On top of that, kids in foster care are much more likely to have experienced a traumatic event involving violence directed at them. We certainly are led to think this when Randall comes to check on the argument Deja and Beth have, but Deja immediately stops talking when she sees Randall, closes her eyes and puts her hands up in defense instead. It is a heavy moment when Randall and Beth begin to consider all that their new family member may have actually been through.
But one thing stands out to me about our introduction to Deja this episode – her point of view. We get a window into the traumatic experience of being taken to a new home and away from all you know. As Deja enters the family and the home, things go hazy and fuzzy. We can no longer make out the faces of Randall, Beth, Tess and Annie. We cannot see details in the home. We cannot understand the conversation or know when people are talking to us. Things feel slower as if we are wading through water. There is a different, slower music playing, mixed with a sort of ringing in the ears. This is how the world feels to Deja while the rest of the family is chatty and smiley. This is what it can be like to experience trauma and dissociation. We see Deja’s response fits the experience of derealization – which is a common symptom of trauma and dissociation. A person can feel like the world is not real, very foggy or like they’re watching their life on a movie screen. When we experience trauma, this kicks in our body’s response to threat. We feel unsafe or overwhelmed and the thinking, rational part of our brain loses much of its activity. Our fear processing goes into overdrive because the part of our brain helping us regulate emotion is also low in activity. One of many things can happen, including feeling frozen or numb - and we can look shut down. This is self protective. But if this is misunderstood, the child can be perceived as cold, indifferent, mean or rude. Deja would certainly seem to be rude when she interrupts the happy family trying to welcome her by saying “I wanna go to bed.” Deja is overwhelmed and made the safest choice for herself at that time – to get away from all this information she is being asked to process and get some rest. We see that she is still trying to manage her fear later that night when she wakes the girls up. She was able to use more of her rational thinking to really assess what she should or should not be afraid of – a way of “casing the joint” to know where the threats really are in the home. She cannot just trust she is safe. We are treated to a truly beautiful moment where little sister Annie Pearson uses her innocence, empathy and budding wisdom to sense that Deja was afraid and build some trust. Who wouldn’t bare their soul to this face?
Keeping Pain Locked Away
Speaking of traumatic events, we could list one more - experiencing the violent death of a loved one. This is what Kevin, Randall and Kate have experienced (although we still don’t know exact details) and we know they would all develop ways to manage that trauma. We see that Kevin has worked very hard to keep his pain from this traumatic loss locked away. Unfortunately, we also see that in doing this, Kevin has never given himself a chance to process this immense amount of pain or heal from it. Emotional pain is like any other wound, if we ignore that bloody open sore it will only get worse. The only way to get rid of the emotional pain is address it head on - feeling leads to healing. #feelingishealing
I hope we see Kevin taking a chance to do this in future episodes. I can’t help but think that his taking pain medication for his knee pain is foreshadowing for how he might try to deal with his emotional pain. We know Jack struggled with alcoholism, so we have to wonder if Kevin’s poor emotional coping skills will lead him to numb the pain and become addicted like his father. I sure hope not, but as Kate gets off the phone with Kevin she looks at the urn with her father’s ashes and says “He’s just like you.”
What do you think will happen with Kevin?
Do you think Deja will begin to trust the Pearsons?
By the way, what kind of pain should we call it when I see Susan Kelechi-Watson’s custom poncho from Mali but I don’t know where to find it??