“I always feel like I should be doing more but I am still struggling so hard. Every week feels like a different battle. Sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m way, way down. I don’t know how to balance it all. I’ve been turning it over in my head and trying to process it, but I still feel so far from real progress. I know I have to give myself time and that it’s all fresh. I know perspective is on the way. I know there are lessons. I know all of this, but I want to fast forward. I don’t want to go through years of pain. Happiness doesn’t seem like a choice right now. It feels like hard work that I don’t have the energy for. It could be years before I am totally myself again. Besides, ‘myself’ won’t be the same person. I will be newly formed — rebuilt, and pieced back together. The girl who sat on top of the world last April is no more. She is gone.”
–Excerpt from my journal, January 22, 2014
These are the words I wrote to myself 6 months after my mother’s tragic death. I was feeling extremely fatigued with my grief and isolated from my relationships. Nobody knew what to say and I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed.
I honestly didn’t know what I needed, besides time. I was beyond frustrated because I’d just started to feel like a whole human being again after a series of traumas in college — being raped in September 2004, and then finding myself in a three-year disaster of a relationship, where I was catfished and emotionally abused. After my mother’s death, I was bitter that I had to give so much more of my life — a time when I should have been in my prime — to my shattered heart. The idea of falling back into the black hole of depression, anxiety and PTSD; of having to claw my way back out again felt incredibly cumbersome — insurmountable, even.
I felt like I was just spinning my wheels; that unending pain was just the cycle of my life: First would come trauma, and then my prolonged healing cocoon. After several years, I would emerge as new, stronger person and finally start to get my life together and fulfill my untapped potential. Just as my unfettered optimism was taking flight, tragedy would come back around knocking . . .
It’s no wonder I was so desperate and fatigued. The truth is, I’ve never caught much of a break. For much of my life, I’ve been in the active process of healing. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I would say I have a decent amount of experience.
Here’s what I know:
I’ve learned over the years that healing is a tricky thing and it takes time. As many times as I’ve found myself broken, I’ve never discovered a trick or a shortcut back to happiness or wholeness. There’s no life hack that’s going to make you heal overnight. Trust me, I’ve tried them all: disassociation, straight up pretending everything is fine, focusing on other things, faking a smile until it feels real (note: it doesn’t. It just gets exhausting holding your face like that, plus it makes people feel awkward) and about a billion other “how to be happy” tricks. As the brilliant Taylor Swift says, “bandaids don’t fix bullet holes.” Bandaids also don’t fix galaxy-sized gaping wounds in your heart. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it — sometimes you have to buckle in for a bit to get back to the good place.
What’s worked for me, personally: 1), lots of time and giving in to my emotions — letting them surge and swell as needed, and wallowing whenever I needed to give in to the tide 2), canceling plans to focus on self-care, even if to outsiders, that self-care looks strikingly like plain old laziness, 3) writing in my journal and allowing myself to indulge in my bleakest thoughts.
Healing also takes patience and self-kindness, both of which I’m still mastering. This morning, as I was leafing through my journals from the year after my mother’s death, I was struck by how absurdly hard on myself I was. Even in the weeks just after my mother’s death, I was constantly berating myself for not doing more, whether it be working out daily, tending to my neglected relationships or pursuing my writing. Truthfully, I just wasn’t in a place for any of that, but I couldn’t see it at the time, even as I self-awarely promised to give myself a break.
A dear friend of mine, Jordan, still routinely reminds me not to be too hard on myself; that I may always use up about half of my energy healing from the misfortunes that have befallen me; that I can’t compare myself to others who seem to be accomplishing more with their time. PTSD may keep me in a headlock for a while, and even long after I’ve surpassed the peak of “Pain Mountain,” traces of my trauma will live inside me and shape my experiences forever.
A lot of times, it’s difficult not to get ahead of myself, to stay on my path, and to be steadfast in my commitment to healing when so much else calls me — career, writing, relationships, being a good friend, travel, my puppy, never-ending house work and about a million other hobbies and interests that I’d love to focus my energies on. I constantly have remind myself, “you can only be where you are. Don’t rush it and take the little victories as they come. You’ll need them to stay strong.”
Ultimately, I press on, because I know there is so much life and so much good waiting for me on the other side. And there is beauty in both the breakdown and the in-between, too, if I look hard enough for it. I’m already starting to experience it. The other day, I looked at all of the plans on my calendar and I felt excited and giddy for the first time in over two years. It’s finally happening — little by little, it’s getting better. I actually thought, “I CAN’T WAIT FOR IT TO ALL HAPPEN!” rather than “ok, I just have to get through these next two weeks of calendar events, and then I’ll be able to retreat. Phew!”
I’m not getting through my life anymore, I’m living it. It still takes me by surprise now and again how far I’ve come. What a gift it is, to be excited to live! If you are excited to live your life, count yourself among the lucky. So many people are silently living in pain, hoping for each day to end so they can comfort themselves with the knowledge that they got through another one. Take it from someone who’s been there many times before.
Of course, none of this is to say that it’s all sunshine and rainbows in Chelsealand. I still have bad days and I’m still struggling with the anxiety that trauma always seems to bring. But at the very least, I don’t feel continuously bogged down by sadness.
And right now, that’s good enough for me.