Updated: Oct 27, 2019
And you're scared, and you're sure that your spine will dissolve; you will fall to the floor. The word "trauma" carries several connotations. One of the implied meanings I've long associated with trauma is that the word seems to accompany an inherently negative life or worldview. It is this assumption that largely explains why I was immediately in denial when I was diagnosed as having PTSD. How could I have PTSD when my outlook is largely positive? How can PTSD exist in my fairly happy world? How come it's here NOW, when all (well, most of) the bad stuff seems to have happened ages ago?
It has taken quite a bit of thinking for me to come to terms with my new diagnosis. It's a big part as to why I have been blogging more lately - this is a place for me to dump my jumbled thoughts and organize them into a Thing that can then hopefully be summarized. Or, if not summarized, then more neatly integrated into my personal narrative.
Logically, I realize that you can live a fairly happy life that also has trauma in it. The existence of trauma does not outweigh the beauty, the joy. But the good life is something you simply experience. Trauma is survived. Emotionally, I'm having a hard time holding 'survival' and 'experience' in the same place. You will take what you need. And the headaches will come, but at least you can breathe.
Indigenous People's Day was last week. As part of my non-Western art history course material, my class watched an amateur film that recorded parts of a traditional Navajo sandpainting ceremony. While the video was able to record in great detail the image created by the medicine man, it was only part of the story - the full ceremony is supposed to take multiple days, during which the person seeking the medicine man's healing will be seated upon the sandpainting. The sandpainting is destroyed in the process of healing and the remnants are then discarded to the North of the ceremony site.
A stark difference between Western thinking and non-Western artistic practices is that often, other cultures will place significant value on the process rather than the product. For Westerners, this is ass backwards. We prize the end result because we can place a dollar sign on it and enter it into the global market. How do you price out someone else's memories?
If you think about it, we offer souvenirs in places that are supposed to be experienced. Did you really go to Disneyland if you don't come home with character autographs and a set of Mickey ears? How does anyone else know you've completed that challenging escape room if you don't have your photograph posted to the company's Instagram? Experience alone is not enough here - we also seem to crave the tangible proof that it happened, that we were there.
Are you really living if there's no receipt for your experiences?
You opened books and peeked inside, they kissed you on your crown.
Trauma can be an event spanning multiple days, or it can happen in the time it takes to blink. It ultimately is a crystallized moment in time when something unspeakable occurs, something wrenching that does not fit into the lens with which you view the world. The dissonance between this horrible moment and your personal narrative create a break, a crack. This injury is then carried within you until you are able to reformat your narrative to include its existence, or mend the injury enough to go on living as before.
Surviving a trauma is, in essence, your ability to overcome its existence. If you are resilient, you are better equipped to overcome challenges - big or small - and reassert your agency. According to my therapist, there are ten facets of resilience: Emotional, financial, community/social, spiritual, ethical, occupational, cultural, physical, intellectual, and environmental.
To me, a resilient life sounds like a beautiful life. Resiliency belies stability, security. Trauma is, at its core, the loss of that stability and security. The ability to survive, then, is partially determined by how well you experience your life; not necessarily how positive the events of your life are, but how positively you live in them.
Indigenous People's Day is slowly taking root in place of Christopher Columbus Day, as a way to honor the resiliency of indigenous communities in the face of violence. Indigenous... Originating or occurring naturally. Native. People who were here Before, and continue to be here After, despite the trauma inflicted upon them. Resilient, indeed.
You arrive at the place; it is not what you want, but it is what you chase.
For some people, a diagnosis is an uncomfortable thing. It takes your youness and puts you in a box that's called "abnormal" and "disordered" and it can make you feel like you are lesser for having to be put in a box at all. But for others, a diagnosis is a breath of relief. Finally, what you've been experiencing has a name. There are other people who feel like you do, who have prepared a path of recovery ahead of you. If you know what you're fighting, you can prepare. I felt this way when I first received my anxiety and depression diagnosis. Having validation that what I was feeling and experiencing were real things, ones I could not only manage but treat? It meant the world to me.
I've been waiting for that a-ha moment with my recent diagnoses. As mentioned, I experienced some denial when I was first diagnosed with PTSD and ADHD. Those seemed like big acronyms that crushed me into a stifling box of "to be avoided" and "not okay". I didn't know this until recently, but there are actually different types of PTSD. I had thought post-traumatic stress disorder was the grand-daddy anxiety disorder... like if anxiety disorders were houses on a street, PTSD is the big one at the end of the cul-de-sac.
So far, I've learned about two specific types of PTSD - delayed onset and complex. I exhibit symptoms of both, which changes the way I receive treatment. It's in reading about how to treat complex PTSD that I've finally begun to feel that relief in at least, at last having a name for the thing. c-PTSD is not in the DSM-5, and is very commonly masked by co-occurring disorders or is mistaken for other illnesses. As PTSD is an anxiety disorder, it's no surprise that the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorders are similar to symptoms of PTSD.
There's a very strange relationship between ADHD and anxiety disorders, too. The difficulty to manage time, prioritize tasks, or focus on a particular activity enough can lead to a shame spiral; in anxious people, this might lead to obsessive planning and organizing or perfectionism in order to avoid that shame. ADHD symptoms include fidgeting or inability to sit still, but anxiety about being seen as disruptive or disengaged can lead a person with ADHD to forcefully keep still, despite the internal physical elements of hyperactivity still being present. And if they do that, the internal feelings of hyperactivity mimic the internal feelings of anxiety! It's an ouroboros effect - the ADHD and anxiety eat their own tail, looping infinitely into one another. Knowing this, it's becoming easier to see how my ADHD and PTSD have simultaneously hidden one another and exacerbated each other. My ADHD has manifested as impulsiveness, disorganization, poor time management skills, difficulty focusing on tasks, excessive restlessness, mood swings, difficulty completing tasks, and trouble coping with stress. These symptoms are 100% relatable - everyone on the planet will experience some or even all of these symptoms at some point in their lives. My struggle has been ongoing, and all of these symptoms can be traced back to my childhood. I have not experienced any long-term relief from any of these symptoms; they affect my life every single day. Medication helps to manage these symptoms.
Less relatable are my PTSD symptoms, which are complex. The short story is that I have intrusive memories of past trauma, avoidance of those memories, physical reactivity, and negative changes in thought and mood. The long story is that I have frequent thoughts or memories about past trauma, including intrusive and intense flashbacks to some events that can sometimes feel like I am reliving the moment. I spend a lot of time trying to avoid these thoughts, and actively try to avoid things that remind me of the specific events. One of the ways I do this is by keeping extremely busy, which is also a symptom. I struggle to fall asleep fairly often; sometimes I sleep too much, which is part of my depression. I tend to be irritable, experience bursts of anger, am easily startled, feel as though danger is lurking around every corner, and am overly vigilant at times. I have very strong physiological reactions (like an increased heart rate and sweating) to memories and places, as well as certain people. I experience a relatively constant and overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. I sometimes feel emotionally numb, and I have pretty significant memory problems associated with my avoidance of traumatic memories.
When it's time to escape, you'll realize you've waited until it's too late.
Someone who has experienced multiple traumas can sometimes unintentionally link these unrelated experiences together, magnifying the effects of each subsequent trauma. My childhood abuse and neglect was not directly related to the two sexual assaults I experienced in my teenage years, and those were not related to my abusive relationship after high school, and none of those are related to the chronic illnesses and subsequent losses of my father-in-law, great-grandmother, or Belly. However, the way trauma is experienced in the body can create a pathway of sorts, increasing the intensity of symptoms. Losing a feline companion is usually not a trauma. It can be, but it's not as likely to be experienced as a trauma as, say, witnessing a fatal car accident or surviving a natural disaster. In my case, losing Belly was a very acute trauma. This was in part due to what all came before, and in part due to the integral role Belly played in my emotional wellbeing.
Right after Belly died, I slept quite a lot. And then I started having nightmares, stopped being able to sleep, stopped coming to bed, and spent the majority of my time out in the living room, facing the spot where it happened. I struggled with the insomnia for two weeks. It hurt Aaron's feelings that I wasn't coming to bed, and I had no language to describe why leaving the living room was inducing a panic in me in the first place. I brought the struggle up to my therapist and she recommended that Aaron tuck me in. I laughed at her and she told me it was going to feel silly, but that it might help. So naturally, I spent the next few nights working late so I could avoid coming home until after Aaron was already asleep. Because change is hard and I didn't want to do something silly, I suppose. But then we did try it - Aaron goes to bed way earlier than I do, but I was feeling exhausted after a particularly emotional day and I felt ready for bed. He tucked me in and kissed me and turned the lights off. I fell asleep. And that's that. I've been sleeping in bed every night since then, and have been getting tired several hours earlier than I had been before. I've gotten back a partially normal schedule again because of this.
There's the smoke fills your lungs. We will wait for the day, we'll rejoice when it comes.
I regularly experience intrusive memories during my art history lectures. I believe this is because we watch a lot of films. We'll go to start a film and the chatter suddenly ceases, the lights go out, and there's a brief window of absolute quiet before we press play. I often will find myself overwhelmingly sad and tearful in the dark of the classroom. This makes my experience of the films very different. The film showing the sandpainting process was fascinating. The sandpainting itself was meticulous and beautiful. I couldn't help but notice the layers upon layers of symbolic meaning in each line and color. Everything is connected... and in the sandpainting we saw, everything is specifically connected by blue sand. Blue for beauty and life; blue water and blue sky. Blue to connect the four directions. Blue to connect the good and the evil. Blue to connect Mother Earth to Father Sky. I have an eclectic approach to life and spirituality. I can hold multiple concepts about a thing, which when put together doesn't necessarily adhere to one paradigm, but altogether exists as my own paradigm. When I was a teenager, I was encouraged by a religious leader to not just accept answers from a belief system without first verifying that they actually answered my question. This person taught me that I not only should question the world around me, but also that if the environment directly around me did not answer my question, I should go seek the answer elsewhere. He was adamant that if anyone remains in a strict religious system, it should be because they have sought answers in the world and found them all to be answered within that system. I took his advice to heart and began to seek answers. I've found that my answers lie in seemingly random places and belief systems. I've also found that even if I am not actively questioning, the world will gift me answers anyway. My traumas are connected in the way that blue means multiple things to the Navajo: at once different and entirely the same. In PTSD recovery, you process your trauma. This is grueling. It's necessary so that you can identify your triggers, manage your symptoms, and loosen the hold your past trauma has on your present and future health. I've actually done some trauma processing before, in the context of treating my anxiety disorder several years ago. I'm not looking forward to doing so again. But while the trauma itself was not something I was responsible for, I am in charge of healing that trauma. I am in charge of healing my trauma. This is a serious struggle of mine. I actively will self-sabotage my progress in recovery because I feel guilty for getting better now instead of Before, when maybe getting better Before could have changed things. I am aware that this is a logical fallacy, and that the woulda-coulda-shouldas do nothing for me. But I still struggle with this, and it's largely due to an inherently negative underlying belief that I do not deserve the peace, health, or happiness that would come from recovering. With pins in your fingers, you held yourself up high. The picture peeled the person; they let themselves divide. I have a largely positive outlook on life, and have a fairly happy world that I've built around me. It has taken me a lot of time in reflection and therapy to understand that I am allowed to be a positive person who also believes some negative things. I can encompass both halves of that contradiction and still be a valid, truthful human. I don't want to continue to have those negative beliefs take up residency in me. The other day, someone said that they felt as though they had Sadness in them, that if they cried they could just let it out and then they'd go back to feeling normal. I was struck by the fact that I too carry Sadness in me, but I have never felt that removing it was an option. In some respect, Sadness is me; Sadness is woven into my identity in a way that makes it impossible to disentangle from my body. I know I can change my mind, but how do I change my marrow? Before we begin trauma processing, my therapist wants to build a wellness plan and focus on a paradigm shift. My positive outlook and my negative beliefs are at war. If I unpack a trauma into this internal environment, it will wreak havoc on me and those around me. So a paradigm shift is in order. Change and transformation is hard and scary. But in all this, I've learned that what I have been doing is just surviving. I am surviving my symptoms and I am surviving my traumas. I am experiencing life in between. But I am not thriving - and that is precisely what I want to achieve. My resiliency and eclectic spirituality are going to be heavily leaned upon, because I'm not looking to just learn to cope. I'm looking to learn to live. How I think and how I experience my life are the keys to changing my narrative from Survivorship to Thrivorship. And I don't need a damn receipt for that experience. You don't have to hold all of the candles that burn on their own. xo,