top of page
  • Writer's picturewendybrd

Bending with the Storms by Wendy Peterman, PhD

Updated: May 31, 2021

Trees have thousands of adaptations, matching them to their environments with strategies to survive all kinds of conditions. Some have shallow roots to access water in arid landscapes, allowing them to grow in inhospitable soils and even on bare rocks. Others have long tap roots, penetrating deep into the earth and re-distributing water closer to the surface for more convenient access. Others intertwine their root systems to share stability, water, and nutrients within a community.

Weaknesses are often supported by the larger forest. Sometimes, however, vulnerabilities are made worse by environmental stressors or exploited by parasites. Trees usually survive these, growing scars and interesting twists and turns that give them character. Some cave under the pressure of long, intense droughts. Others crack from the rapid expansion of stem water in ice storms. Some come crashing to the ground in high wind events on rocky ridgelines. The sight of huge sections of forests killed by bugs and fungi, ice storms, or blow-downs is shocking. It has the ominous feeling of mortality we all dread. The intense power and vulnerability of nature out of control leaves us feeling stunned, despondent, hopeless.

Our own personal storms and traumas also leave scars, mental and physical. They shape us, give us character, and sometimes strengthen us through adaptations that help us survive. Sometimes, however, they leave us spinning through re-lived events that hold us in seemingly endless cycles of abuse, despair, or self-harm. Predators can glimpse these so-called weak spots and take advantage of our vulnerabilities, leaving us insecure, lonely, and bewildered that life has thrown yet another storm into our personal world. Like a forest, however, we can weather the storms, embrace our inner darkness and heal.

I have often heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which may be described as acute, complex, or prolonged. Symptoms involve panic attacks, avoidance of events, people, or other situations. We may have sensitivity to sounds or the inability to feel many of our feelings. I have also been assured that people can heal from Post Traumatic Stress. I have recently seen it re-named Post Traumatic Healing. I find that idea encouraging and even soothing, as I am what is referred to by therapists as a “high-trauma individual.” I won’t go into detail as that would leave me feeling overly vulnerable in a public venue.

Coming from a family inclined to “neuro-diversity,” I was inherently prone to heightened sensitivity, introversion, deep processing, naivete, and odd outbursts of brilliance. It’s hard to say whether I would have been the same or different without the trauma. When I thought I was having a great time at school, and getting along well with other children, my teachers were commenting in my report cards that they were distressed by my lack of ability to integrate socially. Often, they just gave me a pass to the library or sent me into a separate room with an advanced math book and told me to do my own thing.

In second grade, when we moved to West Sacramento, I apparently didn’t speak at school for six months. I have never remembered this. I thought I was happy and enjoying the other children. I was often placed next to children who were having a difficult time behaving in class. A teacher-friend calls this the “buffer child,” one who reduces the impacts of a “naughty” child on the rest of the class. Sometimes, I was given charge of a recently-immigrated refugee from Viet Nam or Cambodia. I wondered why they would ask me to take care of someone who didn’t speak any English, but now I can see that a sweet, accommodating child who didn’t speak at all would be useful in that situation. These days this behavior is referred to as “selective mutism.” I still find myself doing it in situations that feel non-conforming to the rules of conduct my parents or teachers labeled “nice.”

“Weak” was a word often used to describe me as a child. I was physically thin and frail, although unusually tall for a girl. I cried a lot and often couldn’t explain what was going on with me. I got sick with staph, strep, mystery viruses, and stomach ailments. I was bullied at school for having acne and insisting upon wearing my own homemade clothing designs, and I had asthma and migraines, starting at the age of twelve. Contrast this to my younger sister who was robust and strong, rarely ill, very opinionated and expressive of herself in multiple ways, super athletic, very sociable, adorable and always having some sort of wilderness adventure with my dad. She has her own stories and brilliant ways of telling them. This story is mine.

From my perspective, I was very wise and strong. From the age of three, I had stood up to child care providers who tried to hurt my sister. I had thrown a rock at a neighbor boy who threatened to blow up our trailer. I was really smart and did well in school. I walked at least a mile alone to and from the bus stop or school, starting at the age of five. I fished, climbed trees, wrestled boys, swam in lakes and rivers, river-rafted most weekends, skied the others, and even survived being lost alone in the snow once near Lake Tahoe.

Seventh grade was the final rough year. Suddenly, at the age of fourteen, after a near-death experience from a mystery illness akin to amoebic dysentery, I came into my own. I saw my place in the world. I became a distance runner and began to excel in soccer, which had always before been my sister’s territory for excellence. I rescued friends from abusive parents by taking them to stay at my house until their home life calmed down. I was often on the phone giving people advice about their studies, love, or family life.

We moved back from the city to our farmstead when I was fifteen. At that point, we had moved so many times, I had lost and made countless new friends. I mostly just attached to my sister, who was my constant anchor, my Douglas fir tree. I had never attended the same school for more than two years at a time. I was now in high school with people I hadn’t seen since first grade. I decided to face it with a big smile, a great attitude, and a sense of adventure. That worked well for me in a lot of ways. I was generally well-liked, especially by my teachers, did well in school, and was third on the cross-country team. Unfortunately, there were predators looking for weaknesses. We got badly hurt again and not supported or protected by either our family or our church community. I got sick, thin, weak, silent, and sad, although I covered it with a big smile, hard work, and a lot of focus on helping others. Secretly, I was pretty sure I was going to die this time. In my sister’s version of the story, I did die, or at least the fun, sweet, naive, romantic, magical version of me died.

An early professor once had me write a poem reflecting my worldview. I wrote a poem about a large vat of paint with beautiful swirling colors that ultimately went to black, regardless of what brightness was tossed in. My sister said the teacher told her I struck him as someone who was incredibly intelligent, yet struggling in life. Despite the fact that this was hardly complimentary, I felt oddly seen. People only ever said I was wise, sweet, kind, generous, pretty, positive, basically “sugar and spice and everything nice” girls are supposed to be. This was the first time someone honestly saw my darkness. He was one of the best teachers I ever had and a good friend until his early death a few years later. It would take many years and cycles of trauma for me to see and embrace this darkness within myself as something that shouldn’t be concealed as a “weakness” because it makes me strong, whole, and able to dance with the beauty of the night.

36 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page