On what trauma feels like

childhoodtraumaOn Thanksgiving, I had a major triggering event. You’ll have to forgive me for not going into details, but suffice it to say it was basically deja vu of my childhood trauma (funny how that can happen even when your family is thousands of miles away). So I thought I’d try to describe what the effects of trauma can feel like.

My initial reaction was crisis mode: Things needed to be done and said, so I went to that place where everything is calm and rational and devoid of feeling. I did what needed to be done. Before I started recovery, this state would be both my first and last reaction — until I went into a depressive episodes several days later, anyway.

Now, several steps down the road to recovery and with just enough progress that I recognize dissociation for what it is, I don’t have the luxury of not feeling. I know that’s a blessing, but that day it felt like a curse. I sat there, hugging my best friend/recovery buddy, shaking slightly, thinking Any minute now all of this will recede, I’ll straighten up and be ready to go to Thanksgiving dinner. It didn’t happen.

When the tears came, it was like each one had to force its way between my eyelids. Each breath tore out of my throat in a ragged gasp, stalling at the height of my exhale like my diaphragm had spasmed and caught. Like the force of denial and emotions, all mixed up and unidentifiable, was trying to punch its way out of my lungs. I was stuck there, noncommittally crying, dragging my lungs through each stuttering breath, thinking What happens now? and I think I’m supposed to let myself feel things, but I don’t know how, until my best friend took control and told me “We’re going to go in the other room, lie down and cry for as long as you need to.”

As soon as we curled up on the bed, the tears came in earnest, but my mind was still an obliterated blank. In the last few months, I’ve fought off my obsessive need for control so many times. I’ve climbed over mental walls and liberated emotions like stolen princesses. I have let myself cry. But this was the real deal. This was a tendril from my past. This was a real test.

I’m not sure I passed.

I tried to open up to what I was feeling, but damn those old habits are deeply ingrained when push comes to shove.  I felt the edges cracking, and I tried and tried to tell my recovery buddy what was going on in my head, but I could barely even begin to pull apart the threads.

The moment started to get fuzzy around the edges, distant, like I wasn’t in my body or in that moment in time. But for once, my emotions didn’t lift and separate. They become more real, and as they loomed bigger and bigger, everything else become less so. I looked around my home, and it was like looking at a backdrop. I stared down at my hands, wiggling my fingers, and they were completely alien.

And then the flashbacks came.

I told my best friend it was like I was experiencing every moment of my life at the same time. Old, traumatic memories slipped through my head and some stuck, as real to me as the present even though I wasn’t experiencing them with my senses. For a little while, I was a scared 14-year-old girl again.

End note: Eventually, things settled enough that I could go enjoy our Thanksgiving festivities. I still couldn’t tell you what emotions I was experiencing that day, and since then I’ve been fairly solidly dissociated. But I’m grateful for the coping mechanism. For now, I’m focusing on self-care, finals and doing whatever I can to ward off the uncomfortable feeling of unreality. 

The danger in “feeling better,” or The sneakiness of depression

If you’re interested in  a personal update first, check it out here. And don’t forget the Tumblr.

The past few weeks since my last update have been very productive — both a blessing and a curse. I’ve noticed more and more that my good days, my normal periods, come after periods of high productivity. When I’m coming back from my long class day feeling smart and capable or after a day at my internship accomplishing measurable things. So I know I’m doing the right thing by not completely stopping my life to make room for recovery.

At the same time, all it takes is a few decent days an unfinished to-do list to set off some subconscious subroutine that decides I’m fine. Totally normal now. Depression over. No need to think about that anymore. Let’s work on all of your ambitions at once. It’s like I only have two settings: slow, easy, remember-you’re-in-recovery or fast-forward.

And when I’m in that state, I become completely disconnected from my own mental state, completely in denial about the fact that I don’t have the mental resources to do all the things I want to. This gap between my thoughts and reality begins to generate massive amounts of anxiety, which (at first) I have no idea the source of. And when I can’t get things done, can’t find my focus, etc. I start to panic even more. After all, I’m only even trying to do a fourth of what i was doing last year. I’ve never been so overwhelmed by a little to-do list before.

As this escalates, the depression symptoms start to break through, but I instinctively, ruthlessly push them down. Subconsciously, I’m terrified of giving up “normal” and admitting I’m still depressed. Who wouldn’t be? And, after all, I’m very good at pushing through. At putting my head down and just working,

All this tension and cognitive dissonance eventually lulls me back into old thought patterns, the old coping mechanisms. (In a way, this whole cycle is itself a coping mechanism.) These quickly devolve into the fear, frustration and pain that characterized my pre-recovery life. I end up lashing out a myself and those closest to me with negative thoughts and emotions. Nothing I do is good enough. My best friend doesn’t really love me or want to be around me. I’m not worth the air I breath, You get the idea.

Until I realize what’s going on (which thankfully happens after only a little while of this now that I recognize the pattern), these thoughts don’t seem like symptoms of my mental state. They just seem like reality. Even though I logically recognize the conclusions as false, the premises that lead me to them seem valid and entirely based in empirical evidence. Right now, coming out of one of these cycles, I’m struck by easy it is for my brain to lie to me about reality. And how completely I believe those lies.

This cycle isn’t particularly surprising, given that my primary way of coping with my childhood trauma was to center my entire identity and self worth on my achievements/ambitions. But it does have an interesting side effect: It’s actually better for me to stay depressed right now.

I need a real recovery, one that’s founded on new ways of thinking and processing the world, and these false starts are just making that goal harder to reach. So I have to work to avoid the relapses into the worst of my depression, but i also have to work to avoid relapses into “everything is fine.”

Quick update

Before I put up my real post for today, I thought I’d throw out a quick personal update.

Mood-wise, I’m coming off a week or so of pretty high spirits and productivity. Yesterday, my mood started to dip, and I’ve been feeling quite low today. But I also feel fairly capable of handling this mood. Self-care and all that. And later today I’ll be skyping with the family back home, and then the roommate/recovery buddy extraordinaire will be home to commiserate with me. So things aren’t looking too grim.

The internship is going very well. I’m learning a lot, I love the people I work with, and I really love the feeling of accomplishing practical things every time I’m there. School is still a bit of an adjustment, but I’m keeping up with and enjoying the material, so I can’t ask for more.

I still haven’t gained back any of the weight I lost at the beginning of this depression thing, so I’ve started keeping closer track of what I’m eating so I can be sure I’m not forgetting meals or something like that.

This week marks about a month and half since I’ve had a really decent night’s sleep, thanks to this bout of insomnia. That’s making everything more difficult, but I’m sure I’ll figure out the trick to sleeping again any time now.

Should be getting my first therapy appointment set up any day now, so my treatment regimen can begin again in earnest. It’ definitely about time.

On the name …

So what does “Everything is Tigers” mean? It comes from  the amazing webcomic on depression from Hyperbole and a Half (part one, and part two). In it, she includes this panel:

It’s a great illustration of the emotionless grey that comes with depression.  And, of course, it’s hilarious.

Everything is spiders quickly became a common phrase in our household. At the same time, as my roommate and I tried to come up with easy ways to express the depression and anxiety we were facing, we hit upon the idea of the tigers. See, early humans developed fight or flight responses to dangers and predators in their environments. They needed certain biological and psychological things to happen to enable them to be aware of and escape these dangers.

As my oh-so-smart roommate pointed out, anxiety and the emotional angst that can accompany depression are like twisted versions of this response. Except instead of responding to actual dangers, your brain sees dangers everywhere. Everyday things look like tigers. Sometimes the tigers just appear out of nothing.

So having anxiety: Everything is tigers. Having depression: Everything is tigers, but you don’t care.

Sometimes, when it’s really bad, you might even take a bath in soy sauce.

I did it!

Interviewed for my internship today and, though it wasn’t my most impressive interview, it was a success. I’m hired and already scheduled. And though I had a spike of anxiety afterward that was seriously unpleasant, the fact remains that I didn’t let my depression convince me not to bother and I didn’t let my anxiety convince me I made a terrible mistake.

To be honest, both are going to be ongoing battles. But this is proof that recovery can happen.

It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week (and I have an update)

MIWeekbanner

Note: If you’re interested, I’ve created a Tumblr to accompany this blog. It might be easier for you to follow, and it includes a lot of little things I don’t post to this blog.

This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week, so I’m going to try to post something every day this week. I’m starting off with a basic update on mood/progress and then I’ve got some other interesting things to post for the rest of the week. But before  we get to the update, here are two things you can do today to support me and everyone else struggling with a mental illness.

1) Read this fact sheet on mental illness. If you’re interested, here are some for specific illnesses. Take the initiative to learn about mental illness and bust some of the myths you might believe. It’s the first step toward fighting the stigma.

2) Wear a green ribbon this week in support of mental health issues. Hopefully, someone will ask you what it’s for, and you’ll have a chance to get someone else thinking about these issues. But even if not, you never know who will see it and feel a little less invisible.

Okay, now that I’ve done my advocacy bit for today:

Acceptance vs. Wallowing

These last few weeks have been about me taking the first faltering steps out of depression. And I’ve already written about how those steps are frustrating, slow and often involve just as many steps back as forward. That’s still the reality. While I haven’t come anywhere near close to how I felt at my worst, I still spend most of my time below what I’ve identified as my “normal” — much less thriving. I feel capable of getting basic things done (self-care, school, communication, etc.). But those things are still often a struggle, and I almost always do them despite lacking motivation.  My moods are much more stable than they had been, and I find myself more and more genuinely enjoying the pleasant things in my life. But I still can’t think about my life or my future for more than a few minutes without triggering myself.

But I have had another good day. Another day where I felt normal, energetic, happy. Where I had motivation and ideas and clear thoughts. I found myself walking back from the subway actually dancing along to the music I was listening to, looking around at the people walking past me like they were interesting, complex, probably not malicious fellow human beings. Like they might actually pertain to me and be worth meeting. I thought about projects I wanted to work on, books I wanted to read and stories I wanted to write. I thought about the future and felt like I could (and would, and wanted to) accomplish anything.

It’s amazing how easy it is to forget what all of that feels like after even a short time being depressed.

Of course, that mood didn’t last. But it left me feeling a little better than before and with a clearer picture of what I’m working toward in this recovery effort. It was a nice reminder that what I’m feeling right now isn’t who I am.

And it did something else even more important. It made me realize that it’s time to get my life going again, even if that means starting at a slower pace than I’m used to. See, I had put everything I could on hold once I realized how hard recovery would be. Over the summer, I finally started to see how I had used work and responsibility to enable my denial. As long as I was throwing everything I had into a job, a leadership role, various projects, etc. I could push away the depression and anxiety. It was like being in crisis mode 24/7, and my mind had realized early on that I do well in a crisis. I’m allowed to push away my emotions in crisis. Who would expect anything different?

Once I realized this disassociation from my emotions was a big part of my mental illness, I knew I needed to disconnect from my usual coping mechanism that relied on that disassociation. Basically, I needed to be depressed. To let myself be depressed and feel unpleasant things and take time to take care of myself and stop running around trying so hard to healthy and functional on the outside while I was hurting on the inside.

That was, and still is, true. But these coping mechanism have been with me since adolescence. They were literally the way I survived that part of my life. They are a fundamental part of the identity I’ve developed, and when they’re happening, they’ve practically invisible to me. The only reason I could see them in the first place was because I had a breakdown big enough to force me to be depressed long enough to look inward and see the clockwork.

So what did I do? I cut out everything I thought would let me fall back into those habits. I took a break from activism and even partially stopped reading the news. I was lucky enough to have some time before I needed to find a job, so I decided to take this semester off. I didn’t look for groups to join on campus, I didn’t look at internship offerings (because this is DC, and if I looked, I would find one I couldn’t refuse). Even school ended up not being quite the challenge I expected. I went from a full sprint to a nap over the course of a month.

You can probably already see where this is going. By trying not to listen to the impulses in my head that want to keep me in denial about my depression and disassociated from my emotions, I had inadvertently given my depression everything it wanted. I was trapped at home, often alone given my roommate’s schedule, watching TV, occasionally reading philosophy and trying really hard to remember to shower and eat. As much as I do need more rest, downtime and self-care than before my depression, this lifestyle is the opposite of conducive to recovery.

And those two good days I’ve had? Both came on my one day a week I have class. The day I have to get up, go be around other people, accomplish something and feel smart. Obviously, not a coincidence.

Finding a balance

So when an opportunity to apply for an internship practically fell in my lap (thank you universe, for speaking loudly enough that even I have to listen), I took it. I’m interviewing sometime this week for a part time internship at a housing equality organization.

But as sure as I am that this is the right step, a funny thing has happened as my depression has slowly and unevenly gotten better: My anxiety has gotten worse. At the worst point in my depression, my anxiety was completely gone. The week or so, I haven’t gone a day without taking one of my anti-anxiety meds. And they freak me out a little, so I only take them when it’s really necessary. A lot of this anxiety is focused around this internship and around my other responsibilities.

What I’m moving too fast? What I’ve lost my ability to do, well, anything since my depression started? What I have a significant relapse? Can I go and do a job while I feel like that? Can I face the idea of not being able to do my best work? What if I have to take a day off because of my mental illness? Something that should be so easy (who wouldn’t take a day off for a cold?) sounds like a cardinal sin to my ears.

What if I never get over this incredible flutter of fear every time I have to respond to a damned email?

Fear of not being able to achieve something I want (or, worse, not being able to trust that I will continue to even want it) is not something I’ve had to deal with before. And all the while I know I need to be on the look out for these old habits that I’m not completely sure how to recognize. So I need to trust myself to succeed, but do so in a way that’s different from everything I’ve done before.

That’s the balancing act I’m dealing with right now. But I’m committed to biting the bullet and going for this internship. I think this may be one thing you can only learn through experience.

A message from Limbo

So one super fun thing about recovery is that it it’s not a slow, straight line leading up out of the valley and eventually hitting normal. It’s more like a series of starts and stops, with some loops thrown in for good measure. Sometimes you’ll feel a little better and a little better for several days in a row, maybe even hitting something that feels like what normal might be, and then somehow end up right back where you started.

To illustrate this, I’ve stolen a wise and accurate post from Tumblr:

Recovery

  • Expectation: I feel a little bit better today!
  • Expectation: I feel a little bit better today!
  • Expectation: I feel a little bit better today!
  • Expectation: Hey, I think I feel pretty good!
  • Expectation: I guess that means I’m normal now! Time to go live a normal life!
  • ———————————
  • Reality: I feel terrible.
  • Reality: I still feel terrible.
  • Reality: Is this seriously “recovery?” This sucks.
  • Reality: I don’t want to be thinking about all of this shit, this is exhausting.
  • Reality: I guess today’s not so bad.
  • Reality: Today is bad again.
  • Reality: Today is bad, but I think I’m starting to understand why.
  • Reality: Wow, how long has it been since I cleaned my room?
  • Reality: Cleaning my room didn’t make me feel any better, but hey, room’s clean.
  • Reality: Whoa, okay, I need a shower. And maybe a haircut? Definitely a haircut.
  • Reality: Everything sucks.
  • Reality: Okay, except you.
  • Reality: And you too, I didn’t mean that you sucked.
  • Reality: And that thing that I like is pretty cool.
  • Reality: What was I talking about?
  • Reality: Oh, THAT’S why my ex broke up with me.
  • Reality: Wow, it turns out that was totally my fault?
  • Reality: I was the jackass.
  • Reality: Holy shit, I am such a jackass.
  • Reality: Everybody must hate me.
  • Reality: EVERYBODY HATES ME.
  • Reality: Okay, how could everybody hate me? I mean, even if I’m a jackass, the Law of Averages dictates that SOMEBODY out there would probably like me anyway.
  • Reality: Why would everybody hate me anyway, I’m awesome.
  • Reality: …I’m not that awesome.
  • Reality: Sometimes I’m pretty awesome, though.
  • Reality: OH MY GOD I HATE MYSELF
  • Reality: WHAT IS THIS, I’M RIGHT BACK WHERE I STARTED
  • Reality: EVERYTHING SUCKS, THE WORLD SUCKS, I SUCK, NOBODY WILL EVER LOVE ME AND I WILL DIE UNMOURNED AND ALONE
  • Reality: …What the hell was that about?
  • Reality: Anyway, gonna get stuff done.
  • Reality: Gonna get stuff done
  • Reality: Getting stuff done
  • Reality: WHY DO I FAIL AT EVERYTHING
  • Reality: WALLOWING
  • Reality: WALLOWING SOME MORE
  • Reality: Okay NO MORE WALLOWING, we’ve talked about this, we’re not doing this right now.
  • Reality: …I can’t believe that worked.
  • Reality: Huh.
  • Reality: So hang on, is this it?
  • Reality: I mean, is this recovery? Am I doing this right? Is it going to be over soon?
  • Reality: I just want to be normal.
  • Reality: I am such a ridiculous trainwreck of a human being. How do I even exist? Why do I get to have friends? Why do you people talk to me? There’s so much about myself that I really don’t like, and there’s probably even more stuff that I don’t even know about that isn’t too hot, either. And I’m working on it, but man, it’s hard.
  • Reality: …I just realized that everything I just said is normal.
  • Reality: Oh my God, am I already normal?
  • Reality: I’M ALREADY NORMAL. THIS IS NORMAL.
  • Reality: It’s…not exactly everything I was hoping for, to tell you the truth.
  • Reality: …Oh well.
  • Reality: Today was okay.
  • Reality: Maybe tomorrow will be better.

I’m sitting somewhere at the beginning of that process. I’m still on a ridiculously small dosage of antidepressants, but they seem to have taken the worst of the edge off. For the last two or three weeks, since the meds kicked in, I’ve been doing much better than I was at my worst. It’s been subtle, but it has at least made things tolerable. I even had a pretty good week in there where I got some important things done and, even exhausted and unmotivated, felt good about it. And last Sunday, I had the strangest surge of happiness and motivation and just simple normalness. It’s easy to forget what that feels like after so many months of depression. It was a good experience, and it reminded me that there really is such a thing as “wellness” to be fighting toward.

But that uptick was immediately followed by a relapse. I feel like I’ve lost almost all the ground I’d gained since I started on the antidepressants. Old anxieties and angst triggers keep kicking up in my thoughts for no good reason, and I’m generally struggling with the feeling that everything is terrible and everything hurts. When it’s not that, it’s exhaustion and emotional dissociation. And oh what I would give for a decent night’s sleep.

I can comfort myself with the knowledge that this isn’t like it was at my lowest point. That I’m still interested in food and hygiene and work. That I can enjoy the things I like to do. That I still want to be around the people I love. That I still have moments of genuine happiness.

But right now, I’m in a kind of limbo. I’m stuck between “I’m tired of thinking about this stuff” and “I’m ready for this to stop.” The latter mostly because this is an unpleasant way to live, but also because I’m bored. I’m bored of this disorder. I’m bored of feeling helpless and unmotivated and tired and pointless. I’m bored of barely having the energy to have ambitions, much less the drive to carry them out. I’m bored of resting and not over-exerting myself and limiting the amount I leave my house and all the other things that come hand in hand with convalescence from a serious illness.

I want to be far down my therapy path with a decent dosage of antidepressants. But those things are going to take time and patience and work. And until then, this is where I am.

Today was okay.

Maybe tomorrow will be better.