mental health

Scripted in Stone

“The trauma said, ‘Don’t write these poems.

Nobody wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones.’”

~Andrea Gibson, The Madness Vase

Trauma’s a funny thing. (Okay, NOT literally) Everyone views it in their own way, and each person will come up with a different definition on what they’d consider “traumatic.” And what IS funny is that, despite that variability, it’s almost universal that society wants to bury traumatic responses – such as PTSD – as thoroughly as they do any other mental illness. We know all of us undergo these experiences, carrying away SOMETHING, but we don’t want to acknowledge it, talk about it, or bring it out into the open where a person might feel comfortable admitting they’re struggling.

So, yeah, funny.

And I’m the first to stand here and say that I’m as guilty as the next person. Not about the “big” things out there. I come from a military family, and I accept PTSD in soldiers without a second thought. I’ve seen first-hand the changes wrought by war in the men and women that set foot in theatre. That’s the kind of environment that defies description – even for someone that thrives on their imagination. And while family members sit in front of a television and hold their breath through the glimpses of news stories the media allows to trickle through to the public, it isn’t a TENTH of what those people experience.

But I’ve overlooked smaller traumas. Things that can reach in and twist a person’s guts while leaving their outward appearance unchanged. Because – again – everyone has different tipping points. What you may handle without a second thought can unhinge someone else. And while you’re shaking apart inside, another person can handle with complete calm. That’s where we fail one another. And it’s where the failure to acknowledge trauma starts. If you can’t look into the glazed eyes of someone and see them unraveling, you’ll never notice the silent cry for help down the road.

At least, not until it’s staring you in the mirror.

Trauma response ISN’T healthy. And until you recognize the symptoms, you can’t break them. Such as reliving the moment – however unintentionally. Or cycling through the self-loathing prompted by the trauma event. And triggers? They don’t always make sense – at least not to people around you. Because you didn’t talk about the trauma in the first place. So no one understands why you’re curled up on the couch, staring into space. (And they can’t hear everything your brain is shouting at you) All because of something benign that triggered you. Now you’re stuck in a loop of anxiety or a depressive fugue, and your friends and family are bewildered as to what’s happening.

I never catalogued the traumas I experienced in the past. Mostly because I thought PTSD was for BIG things. And I wasn’t going through those things. It wasn’t until I started paying attention to these loops that I realized they had patterns – and roots. They went back to horrible moments in my life that I didn’t label “traumatic” – because I didn’t want to sound dramatic. (Why do those words sound so similar?) But they DID strike blows to my psyche. And they carved out WEEKS of my life, demanding intense recovery. I lost time, dwelt in intense misery, and suffered horrible self-loathing and depression as a result. Yet, not one was my fault.

The light bulb went off.

What words was I using during my loops? The same ones OTHER people did. I was taking on the blame for things that weren’t my fault, too. One thing went wrong, and, out of the blue, the entire world was falling apart because of ME. I was wrong, and terrible, and unwanted, and worthless. HOURS spent cycling around in my head, examining every tiny fault in my life and character. (Because that’s ALWAYS productive) I was reliving those moments. It was a fucking trauma response!

People don’t realize how small a trauma can be. And while the response may not impact someone’s life to the point of PTSD, it still isn’t something rational or safe. I’ve lost hours to a response. Hours of self-loathing and self-hatred! And they come out of the blue! For no good reason, the bottom falls out of the world. It isn’t a gradual drop, the way my depression works. Nope – no warning, and I’m stuck. And fighting out again? It’s difficult as hell. I KNOW other people go through the same thing. But because trauma’s such a taboo – on top of the squirmy topic that is mental health – how may suffer in silence?

And how many lose the fight?

Recognizing the stupid loops is tough. Mostly because I have to be IN one to catch on. And then it’s a battle to get out. Meanwhile, my depression perks up its ears and joins in on the fun. So that leaves TWO battlefronts to face. (Yeah, I know – plenty of military metaphor there) And all of it devolves around the fact that I can’t figure out how to heal the original trauma. How am I supposed to get past that kind of damage? When you have a major betrayal that leaves a giant CRATER in your emotional sense of self, how do you even narrow the gap? Can you close it? Because, right now, it doesn’t feel like it. Which leaves me scrambling to try to notice triggers before they happen (hasn’t worked yet), and then struggling to get out of the quicksand after.

Maybe if the world discussed trauma more, this wouldn’t feel so difficult or overwhelming. People could talk openly about the way they feel. (I’d like to add that the trauma wouldn’t happen in the first place, but I’m aware that’s a pipe dream) Instead, it continues to get buried. Leaving those of us who experience ANY kind of blow (big OR small) to suffer in silence. Which, to me, kind of feels like another trauma – don’t you think?

mental health

Being Unavailable

Everyone that’s ever responded to a text message or email after work hours, raise their hand. If you’ve taken a phone call related to work on the weekend (and I’ll use the term “weekend” loosely, as people work different schedules), keep your hand up. Finally, ANY work-type function performed during a vacation (mini or otherwise), leave your hand up. Now, be completely honest:

Is your hand up?

Yup, so’s mine. Welcome to the world of the workaholic. We have no sense of self preservation, and no concept of the word “boundary.” SOME event in our lives drove us hurl ourselves off the cliffs of perfection and people-pleasing. And our brains translated those needs into answering every beck and call as if our very lives depend on it. It doesn’t occur to us that – unless you happen to work for an actual Evil Overlord – we won’t die if we start setting up boundaries and allow those intrusions into our downtime to pass by. In some cases (say, if you’re dating, married, or have families), it MIGHT allow us to live longer.

Now, I’m not telling you to abandon a healthy work ethic. You don’t come across those very often these days, and they ensure quality. There’s nothing wrong with throwing yourself into everything you do, avoiding distraction. But when you punch out at the end of the day? You’re DONE. You don’t need to continue dancing attendance to the “powers that be.” Especially when it starts compromising your health and well-being. Running around in circles, frantically watching a phone every moment of the day? How does that improve ANYONE’S anxiety?

Newsflash: It doesn’t.

I worked in veterinary medicine for ten years – usually at emergency practices. That meant I could receive a text at any moment, asking me to come in and cover a shift. I understood the possibility, and while I wasn’t always coherent when texts or calls came through, I faithfully kept my phone on and the volume up. It never occurred to me that other people turned theirs off when they were home, ignoring THEIR messages. It took me years of agreeing – over and over – to add hours to my week, stretching myself thin, before I caught on. And by then? I’d established a pattern. Trying to back away and say, “No” became nearly impossible. I couldn’t figure out how to put up boundaries when my back already looked like a well-worn welcome mat.

And transitioning to freelance work? Things didn’t get better. Oh, sure, I set my hours and days. But the panic of reacting to the snap of someone’s fingers was already set in my mind. As soon as a message, email, or text came in, I jumped to handle it. Who cared if it was five minutes before I crawled into bed? Or on the weekend when I’d decided I wouldn’t work? How about the week of my wedding when I firmly declared I WASN’T working? The ingrained pattern drove me to reach for a keyboard. And my husband frowned and made the same comment, “I thought you were done for the day.”

I had ZERO boundaries!

If you don’t put down pickets and barbed wire (sometimes you need razor wire AND an electric fence), you’ll never learn to break the habit. And YOU’RE the one who has to set and hold a boundary, not the people around you. Because odds are pretty high you’ve trained people to walk all over you. A neat little note asking them to stop? That’s not going to work. You have to slam the door in their face a few times to get the message through. And, honestly, all of those barriers are for YOU just as much as they are for them. Trying to hold those boundaries is difficult. You’re breaking a habit that’s engraved down to the BONE. Erasing muscle memory takes a force of will. One you probably don’t have, courtesy of your anxiety that a client, your co-worker, or your boss will HATE you for deciding to insist on your time to relax.

The withdrawal? It’s real. I haven’t made it to the point of not checking my professional email account – mostly because I also use it for my personal writing. So I see messages come in after I’ve finished for the day or week. And there’s an internal LURCH to respond. Then my brain starts attacking me when I say (aloud), “I’ll take care of this in the morning (or Monday).” Every negative thought in the world shrieks in my inner ear. And I start shaking. Because my go-to gut reaction is to handle the response immediately. I have to talk myself down from the ledge – and, no, that isn’t an exaggeration.

Who cares that it’s dinner? I should drop what I’m doing and send a reply ASAP so my client knows… Oh, wait. So they know what? That I’m not a human being? That I chain myself to my desk and do nothing except sit and wait to hear from them like a dog in a shelter – desperate for any crumb of affection? Put the phone down and worry about it later.

It’s the weekend, but they have a question? I need to make sure I answer it! Because if I don’t the world will come screeching to a halt? Did they specify that the issue was immediate? Or didn’t it say “when you have a chance?” Doesn’t that imply they understand I have other things going on? Because I TOLD them I don’t work on weekends so I can spend time with my husband?

It’s exhausting!

But it’s also an important exercise. The week of my wedding was insanely stressful – for a ton of reasons. Letting myself fret over work issues (none of which were critical), was stupid. I’d set out of office announcements and let all of my clients know ahead of time about the time off. The fact that it got ignored wasn’t my problem. But instead of holding my boundary firm, I let them trample over the line. And I suffered as a result. It was the same as taking a text to cover a shift when I was on vacation (a POSTED vacation) years before.

When you don’t set boundaries, you give up pieces of yourself. And your mental health suffers. You don’t get rest (obviously, since you’re constantly staring at your phone in horrified anticipation). Downtime becomes a complete and utter joke. You might as well move into your office, because you never “leave.” Then there’s the domino of what happens with the people around you. Your family gets frustrated with your never turning “off” work. Friends get irritated with your need to step aside all the time. And you come apart trying to please everyone.

Are you going to get shocked by that fence a few times? Yup. Is it going to hurt? You bet. But will you thank yourself for putting up the fence down the road? YES. I feel the hiccup of tension and anxiety, but then I put my phone down and go back to what I was doing. I mean, I’m a work in progress, but I’ve come a long way from how I used to be. But you have to take that first step. You won’t regret it.

mental health

Cracked Vessels

“What is grief if not love persevering?”

~WandaVision

For decades now, I’ve found a trend emerging: odd-numbered years bring the most grief. Line up everything negative and positive that happens, and everything tips down in those years. Even with a pandemic shaking loose last year, 2020 didn’t manage to bring the same crippling blows as the first half of 2021. (And, yes, I’m aware there are still six months remaining to slog through) Going into odd-numbered years requires bracing myself for a never-ending onslaught of abuse from the universe – whether I put on a hopeful outlook or not.

And this year? It’s a winner.

In a handful of months, I’ve witnessed the loss of so many people. Friends and my own family have lost people close to their hearts. I’ve touched on grieving practices before; the myriad ways people handle coping with the holes in their lives. And I’ve seen every possibility, participated in each one. I’ve watched the usual phrases emerge – and had friends come to me because they can’t handle hearing them anymore. I reached a point of not handling them anymore and withdrew. Have we really nothing new to say to one another when our worlds collapse?

The worst phrase I’ve encountered is a variation on, “time will heal the wound.” Excuse me? You’re trying to tell me that, given enough years, I’ll stop feeling the loss? What utter bullshit is that? I look at friends who have experienced the unimaginable this year. Why is there an expectation for them to close up that CRATER and get back to “normal?” Normal fucking went out the window! It’s GONE, permanently. They can’t get it back. NEVER use those words for people undergoing supreme grief.

Because grief doesn’t go away.

I think that’s something I’ve come to realize in the past couple months. As I wrote a farewell letter to my uncle, I reflected on other relatives who’ve slipped away in past years. The pain? It doesn’t hurt any less when I poke at it. Even losses from DECADES ago. So this theory that time closes over chasms within us and puts them to rest is complete bullshit. Perhaps we grow around the wounds, rising above them. But dissolving them away like a wound? No, that doesn’t happen.

Someone shared a post of social media this week that explained grief in a way that makes more sense to me. It showed a series of jars with a ball inside. In the first row, the ball grew smaller and smaller and disappeared. In the second, the ball never changed size. Instead, the jars grew larger. It struck a chord. The first row represents that stupid phrase – and it’s wrong. Time doesn’t heal ANYTHING. The second row is more accurate. The grief remains, often constant. What time does is allow us grow AROUND it.

When I sit in a room and look at the ghosts of those I’ve lost, the pain aches – every bit as fresh as the day they stepped away. Coming from a medical background, I can assure you that doesn’t represent “healing.” Healed wounds cease to cause pain. So why do we still use that stupid phrase? How is that supposed to offer comfort to someone enduring something so horrific?

I think, as I’ve said before, that society is so afraid of “negative” emotions. They refuse to recognize grief as anything positive. There’s no room in our programming to see the pain of loss as anything other than something to get over and move beyond. But I think we need to change that. We feel grief because of the bonds created. That’s positive. And holding that connection, that energy tight? There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a positive asset to a person’s character, I’d say. Why would you want someone to throw away that aspect of themselves?

Yes, I’m a huge geek (I never deny that). And when Vision uttered that quote, I came apart. It captured everything I wanted to say so perfectly. I’ve also held onto the words so much these past few months. They’re the best I’ve been able to share with people – and with myself. I don’t know which writer came up with them, but they’re a genius.

Stop asking people to let go of grief.

Grief is love. And holding onto that love – as strongly and deeply as it started? That isn’t weakness. It isn’t negative. We should promote it.