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On Kyle Lewis and writing your own story

SB Nation logo SB Nation 11/12/2020 Kate Preusser
a man wearing a baseball uniform © Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The word “trauma” comes from the Greek, meaning “wound”; it’s related to tetrainein, meaning “to pierce.” In Biblical Greek the word is τραῦμα, related to a word also meaning “to break in pieces, shatter, smite through.”

These etymological origins hint at what separates a traumatic injury from the regular slings and arrows of life. Trauma isn’t just surface-level damage, but a wound that pierces through, that breaks what was once whole into pieces. These surface-level wounds, while excruciatingly painful in the moment, ultimately show themselves to be mere setbacks: after an injury on the field, a period of rehab and a tour through the minor leagues on the way back to the bigs; after the job is lost, a flurry of cover letters and, eventually, hopefully, interviews and a new position; after a relationship ends, a period of sweatpants and staying in on Friday nights listening to sad music and accidentally making too much coffee in the morning for a while, until one morning you don’t, and make just the amount you need.

A traumatic injury, on the other hand, breaks the body open, physically or psychologically, or both. Often both. Trauma demands of us a chemical change, a reorganizing on the cellular level; it rewires pathways in our brains and lodges itself in the body. Trauma isn’t a setback requiring a return to the start and a new path forward so much as it is blasting the surrounding landscape away entirely. A setback burns up the chapter you were on and forces you to write a new one. Trauma burns up the entire book and forces you to write a new story.

“Write your story” has been one of Kyle Lewis’s catchphrases during his ascent to the majors and the greater baseball world over the past two seasons, culminating in his earning Rookie of the Year honors on Monday, the first time in 20 years a Mariner has won the award. It’s something he’s said both on social media and in several post-game interviews when asked about the dazzling start to his major league career.

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Yesterday, the Mariners debuted a half-hour documentary titled, fortuitously enough, “Kyle Lewis: Writing My Own Story.” You can watch the documentary, streaming now on YouTube.

Replay Video

The film narrates Lewis’s journey through baseball, highlighting the supportive family that nourished his talent starting in Snellville, GA; the smaller-conference college that offered a chance for the lower-profile but obviously talented teenaged Lewis a chance to play every day; his ascent, via the Cape Cod League and Golden Spikes Award, to a buzzed-about top draft choice, and the still-inexplicable fall from the top three to five picks to where he landed in Seattle’s clutches at number 11. There’s a funny story about him post-draft taking BP for the first time in Seattle with a borrowed bat and not knowing how to put pine tar on it and dirtying a pair of Robinson Canó’s pristine white batting gloves. There’s a clip from his introductory press conference of Lewis saying “right now, I just feel like I’m on an upward progression every year.”

Trauma is never invited in. It is the thing we don’t or won’t think about, either due to a superstitious belief that we can keep it from touching our lives if we don’t think about it, or due to a naïveté or privileged innocence that shields us from even imagining such a thing. Trauma is an unbearable, unthinkable loss. And then it happens, and on some level, must be thought about, and in some way, must be borne.

At that point, the documentary, like Lewis’s playing career, is interrupted. There’s grainy footage of the devastating knee injury he suffered while playing in Everett, when he tore his ACL, both meniscuses, and partially tore his MCL, among other injuries. It repeats, in slow motion. There’s a still shot. Then a tight shot. Again. A different angle. Lewis rolling on the field in Everett, grasping his knee in pain. And again, the tight shot. Over and over again, he crashes into the catcher and falls to the ground. A still shot. Agony. And over it all, Kyle Lewis is recounting his own injury, narrating his trauma for the camera.

It is understandable that Lewis was reluctant to speak extensively about his injuries before this documentary. Talking about bad things that have happened to us can feel like dwelling on them, which can feel like being stuck in the past, in the endless recursive cycle of trauma and re-traumatization. It is uncomfortable to sit with trauma, to ask questions of it, to try to learn from it, especially in a culture that prides moving past grief and presenting a stiff upper lip and being strong. Americans tend to want to get over things, to be recovered without doing the painful, tedious work of recovery, which involves sitting with the trauma.

Yet there is a difference between suffering trauma and being traumatized, from psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk: “Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new event or encounter is contaminated by the past.” In order to continue his career, Lewis had to revisit, in some sense, the scene of his trauma every day, every time he stepped to home plate. In order to be successful, he could not allow that area to be contaminated by the past. He had to recover, not only his body and mind, but the very physical space surrounding him. “Trauma robs you of the feeling you are in charge of yourself,” van der Kolk writes. “The challenge of recovery is to re-establish ownership of your body and mind—of your self.” In narrating through his trauma, Lewis establishes ownership over it. He tells his own story.

In telling that story, Lewis not only owns it, but provides a roadmap for others going through a similar process. He acknowledges the chronic nature of trauma: “It was just a lot of like, ‘my knee hurts.’ Honestly. For like, two, three years.” He acknowledges the doubts and dark nights of the soul: “The mental side of that was a nightmare, to say the least. Dark nights, man.” He acknowledges the fear that is a silent companion dogging one’s heels through recovery: “There were a lot of times where I didn’t know if it would ever stop hurting.” He acknowledges all these things that were part of him, the doubt and pain and fear he had to sit with for years, and in doing so, declares his freedom, body and soul, from them.

After a traumatic event, the body and mind adapt, learn survival strategies. These strategies can be helpful in the moment but aren’t built for long-term use and can complicate a recovery journey. Lewis’s recovery was interrupted multiple times by tendonitis in his surgically repaired knee (“I had so much damage, all the muscles were trying to protect it...”) followed by a bone spur, leading to a frustrating stop-and-start rehab process for him. In order to move from survival mode, where one is constantly on the defensive, to growth mode, the body and mind both have to unlearn the effects of trauma, which requires working on physical and mental rehab in tandem, focusing on body awareness and emotional regulation. Lewis worked on re-learning his body, but he also leaned on his support system—his family, agent, close friends, his tight circle—to help him mentally move from the survivalist mindset to one where he felt supported and encouraged to continue reaching and growing.

Thanks to his years-long experiment in resiliency, Lewis was more prepared than most players for the March COVID shutdown of baseball. He described his approach to quarantine as “another mini off-season,” and posited “this might be a blessing.” Armed with his growth mindset, Lewis crafted a plan to get in his baseball work while doubling down on continuing to build flexibility, mobility, and range of motion, and returned when baseball started up again ready to race for the ROY crown. “I felt...like my window had opened,” said Lewis, explaining his dedication. “Like you don’t want to have to do another one of these ‘dig yourself out of a hole’ situations. You want to stay in that window.”

The thing about these survival strategies one finds down in the hole is that, no matter how damaging they may be long-term, they are proof that the default directive of the human animal is to stay alive. The body wants to survive, even when the mind or soul does not. “Life force counteracts trauma,” writes van der Kolk. And even while in the hole, Lewis provides a roadmap for how to get to the window:

“Do what you can to get through that day so you can make it to the next day. And then you know that at some point, something’s gotta change. Something’s going to happen.”

Kyle Lewis plays with the feverish delight of someone who has walked a long dark night of the soul and come out on the other side. The big swings, the leaping grabs, the diving catches, the post-game celebratory high jumps and hip bumps with his teammates; none of it is taken for granted, all of it is taken with gratitude. The obvious joy he takes in being on the field is what makes him so special to watch. Not all loss is a gift—not all trauma needs to be, or will be, alchemized into gold—but it’s impossible to deny, when watching Kyle Lewis play, that every swing he takes means that much more to him, every healthy step is taken with an extra bit of anticipation of what step comes next. The new book is being written by Kyle Lewis, and he’s writing in all caps, with a flourish, but leaving us a reminder, a promise, as well:

Something’s gotta change.

Something’s going to happen.

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