Room - Ruminations on Trauma, Survival, and Living

A few days ago, I watched the 2015 film Room, with Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Without trying to give too much away, Brie Larson plays a young woman who was kidnapped and forced to live in a confined room for 7 years, with a son fathered by her captor. The first part of the film is about their daily lives in confinement, and the second and third parts about their escape and subsequent reintegration in society.

As someone who works as a therapist, I was really drawn to the portrayal of their characters post-escape. And they are very two different portrayals, due to their very different realities. Whilst both characters lived in confinement together, their reaction to the outside world was very different. For the young boy Jack, it was the first time he had left the room. He didn’t know anything else, and so everything was new. For his mother Joy, however, it was a very different story. She had lived in the world for many years prior to her kidnapping. And then she was taken and kept captive for 7 years. Whilst he was gaining something completely new, she was about to be confronted by her unimaginable loss and trauma. At one point in the film, Joy screams in despair “I should be feeling happy!” Which is understandable. Anyone who has gone through something difficult and comes out of it, feels the pressure to be happy and to show it to the world. After all, the danger has passed, and they are now free. Why doesn’t happiness stick around after we experience freedom?

However, when we jump from traumatic/difficult experiences to happiness and positivity, what we’re really doing is bypassing a very important step. The acknowledgement of the trauma. This comes with many uncomfortable feelings. Loss, grief, sadness, sorrow, anger, rage. This might be directed at others, at oneself, or both. None of it will be rational, but all of it will be deeply felt, and needs to be deeply felt before moving forward. At one point in the movie, Joy blames her mother for raising her to be nice, because it was by being nice to a stranger that she was eventually taken away. The connection between those two things makes perfect sense to someone who is in the midst of very uncomfortable feelings. They make sense to me! She was free, and finally safe and being taken care of, but she couldn’t feel happy. In fact, she was probably feeling worse than she had felt, even in comparison to captivity. Why? She had been surviving, and now she was living.

Have you ever come across one of those quotes that says something about living your life, rather than surviving it? Can you relate to that? Do you, perhaps, know what it means, deep inside? The concept of living rather than surviving may appear straightforward, but it’s one of the most difficult things to find balance for sometimes. When you think of survival, what comes to mind? For me, it conjures up images of running away from something, of being on edge, of hypervigilance, of heightened states. But it also conjures up images of vast plateaus, going as far as the eye can see, where everything, including myself is exposed. The plateau might feel calm, but it isn’t. There’s no clear path or direction to take, no variety, just sameness. Day in and day out. My own survival mode oscillates between heightened states of imminent danger and the numbness of the plateau. Over the years, I’ve discovered that my survival mechanisms are very much trapped in flight or freeze. No fight.

Anyone who has been through a “Room” situation, whether it was a one-off traumatic event, or a succession of several events, knows what survival mode feels like. I recently gained a really nice insight about my own traumatic experiences and survival mode. It’s funny how it’s been there all along, staring me right in the face, but I’d never really noticed the power of survival mode: survival. The fact that there is a survival mode, means that we’re alive. We weren’t destroyed by the experience. We are here. Survival means that we didn’t die. It means that our organisms saved themselves, and us, along the way. In each of our very own “Room” situations, our bodies, brains, and nervous systems, gathered together and kept us alive. They helped us survive. Coping mechanisms are created to facilitate our survival and they ensure that every bit of energy goes towards survival mode. Everything else becomes secondary. Human brains developed over millennia, through various evolutionary jumps, but they’ve retained the very essential tools that we need to survive. Fight. Flight. Freeze. If you think about it, none of the survival mechanisms have a direct relation to what we might call happiness, or even sadness. Survival is basic, and simple. We don’t even need to tell ourselves: “I need to survive this, do whatever you need to do!” We just do it.

Living, however, is different. It’s more complex. It involves many different types of thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It involves consciousness, focus, decision-making, motivation, desire, love. If survival is flight, fight, or freeze, then living is everything else. And when we choose to bypass certain parts of this “everything else”, what we are really doing is bypassing parts of living. We are employing survival mechanisms. We are surviving situations, rather than living them. As we leave our very own “Room” situations, we need to experience the many feelings that come with it, because what ultimately happens to us is change. Trauma, difficulties, chaos, change us. And we don’t even need to think of traumas, to be honest. Any life event can change us. Anything that happens to us or in our lives, which includes a very clear before and after, will require some processing. Processing requires time, patience, focus, love, support. And rushing through it, whilst potentially efficient and quicker, will ultimately lead to certain forms of imbalance in our lives.

One of the main problems with the world today is our impatience. We want everything now. We want results now. We want to heal now. We want to feel better now. We want to fix everything now. Now. Now. Now. Look around. Does nature process everything “now”? Do the seasons change in one day? Neither do we. Living is a continuous process. It never stops. We don’t get better once, and then that’s it. We need to constantly do something in order to be or get better. Living is conscious action. It’s proactive. It’s forward motion. It’s many things, all at once. Don’t deny some of those things, as you will eventually deny yourself of the other things you’re trying to keep and have in your life. Living is always a process: it’s giving and taking, light and dark, up and down, in and out. Be in the process.