Moving forward: 5 ways to take care of yourself when you’ve experienced trauma

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Photo credit: RunJanefox on Flickr

A friend reached out to me last weekend after a traumatic experience, looking for advice on moving forward. It really got me thinking about what I wish someone had told me in those times when I was struggling to stay above water. I am not a therapist and I am certainly not qualified to give professional advice on treating trauma or PTSD. But I DO have enough experience with having my world rocked that I know a thing or two about how to take care of yourself in the immediate aftermath of horrible life events. I think this advice is rather universal, and can help folks who are in the throes of breakup/divorce, loss of a loved one, assault (sexual or otherwise), sickness, a friendship breakup, etc.

Here are a few things I recommend to keep in mind as you move forward:

1. Be kind to yourself: This one is crucial. Be. Kind. To. Yourself. Like, radical self-kindness. Even when it seems absolutely impossible, try to have patience for your pain and your anxiety. After I was raped, I used to write little words of affirmation or lyrics on the insides of my wrists, to remind me that I was worth something. You will find your own little ways to remind yourself. Tell yourself “it’s not your fault” as many times as you need to; as many times as it takes for inner, critical you to believe it. Tell yourself it will get better (because it will, eventually), but don’t push yourself to get better before you are ready. Be kind. Treat yourself like you would treat a child coming to you after a traumatic experience. Have empathy for yourself. Do things that make you feel good, and avoid doing things that don’t. You might experience some changes in your life and interests (example: I used to love being in crowds of people. It made me feel less alone. Now, my PTSD makes it difficult to be in crowds — I struggle with fear of the unpredictable nature of large groups of people). That is ok. You are surviving, and surviving is complex. Have patience for yourself and the changes you will go through. It’s part of that self-kindness. TREAT YO-SELF TO KINDNESS.

2. Give yourself time and take it one step at a time: The first few months after a trauma will be among the hardest, and they will move painfully slow at times and absurdly fast at others. Giving yourself time to have your pain, for better or for worse, is crucial. The healing process is long and it’s a lot of work. Rushing it won’t help. I remember when my mother died, just being so exasperated that I would feel sad for such a long time. I was like “no, not again with this sadness!” You will probably find yourself getting antsy to just HEAL ALREADY. But unfortunately, there’s no substitute for time in healing. There’s no short cut I know of YET (but if I do get my hands on some healing hacks, y’all will be the first to know). Continue reading

What I wish someone had told me about grieving

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Photo credit: Annemariebusschers

When my mother died unexpectedly of a stroke, there was no shortage of platitudes offered:

“It will get easier with time.”

“One day this will all make sense.”

“She’s in a better place now.”

As I’ve written before, I found these types of sentiments, at the time, to be rather empty and unhelpful. Nonetheless, I learned to appreciate the fact that the people who said them were just looking for something, anything to say to ease my pain. And I can’t fault anyone for trying to comfort me as I faced the unimaginable. Dealing with death is not easy. There’s no playbook. You simply offer your condolences and try to be there for the bereaved as much as you can.

But there are so many things I’ve learned through grieving; things the platitudes never mentioned and that no one ever warned me about. Things I wish somebody had told me before I started the process. Things I want to share with all of you so that you might be able to better understand a friend who is grieving, or your own feelings if you’re going through the process yourself, like:

The world won’t wait for you. 

You will stand still, very very still for a long time. I cannot say how long. Everyone’s journey is different. You may try to fight against this stillness by filling up your calendar, or going about life as normal, or ignoring your pain. The world will continue to move at a breakneck speed, but try as you might to keep up with it, inside the stillness will remain. You will not be ready to move on; to pretend as if it’s all ok. Not for a long while. I call this the zombie phase. As I wrote in the Long, Lonely, Road of Grief, it went a little something like this (for me): “I looked on at those walking amongst the living, exasperated, wondering if I would ever join them again; wondering if promotions, moves, petit social slights, new workouts, or politics would ever matter to me again. I wondered if I would ever again feel anything but longing and despair.

Your friends may stop asking you how you are doing after a few months, assuming your loss is old news and that you must have compartmentalized it by now. They may talk to you like they always have, assuming if you wanted to talk about “it,” you would do so — they don’t want to upset you by bringing it up. You will learn to forgive them; for both assuming that you aren’t conscious of your loss every moment of every day, and for failing to address the elephant in the room, when you just don’t have the strength.

You will be angry at the world for spinning, and frustrated because all you want is to get back to moving with it. Eventually, you will get there. But this time, this space of stillness is sacred. It means you really lost something; that you’re learning to live with a massive hole in your life. It is normal, and it is ok.

Grief knows no timeline.

One day, you will start to walk amongst the living again and you will be thrilled at your re-acquired excitement for life. It is the surest sign that you are healing; that you will move on, even if you’re never quite the same again. You will start to feel excitement, rather than dread, at the big happenings coming up on your calendar. Your good days will outnumber your bad. You will breathe a sigh of relief — I am getting there, you’ll think, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Until, after many months of feeling great, the tunnel closes in on you and you are thrown back into despair. Just as you’ve gotten the hang of your new life; your new normal, you’re thrown for a loop. You might need advice on your taxes, or a new career path, but you find that nobody can guide you like your mother could. You feel the loss all over again as if it happened just yesterday, even though it’s been years. You are depressed. Nothing feels right. Your skin crawls with an unshakable wave of grief. I thought I was past this, you will chastise yourself, dammit, things were really looking up!

They’ll look up again, but give yourself time. The “active” grief comes and goes. Things get easier until they aren’t anymore. This is because grief knows no timeline. There are no definable stages to be found. Grief is fluid and, at times, unpredictable. You can only take your time, roll with the tide and accept that sometimes the waters will be calm, sometimes you’ll get smacked in the face with an unexpected wave, and sometimes you’ll be thrown violently by a tsunami of pain.

The ripples will affect every area of your life. 

Nothing in your life, or in your psyche is an island. Your loss will have a “ripple effect” and touch every aspect of your life. You might get easily knocked down by small setbacks (like an injury or your car breaking down), and start to feel like the world just isn’t fair. You could find yourself suffocating those you love; terrified to lose them — or pushing them away to avoid the inevitable pain that their loss would bring. You may become anxious at holidays, unable to explain why.

You might adopt a puppy and struggle to bond with him, because you are so afraid to love him, knowing that you will most likely outlive him. Yet, the hole inside you that your mother’s death left begs, screams to be filled and you let it, partly, by a sweet dog with a red beard and boundless joy. 10 months later, that puppy might get very sick and now that you love him unimaginably, the concept of losing him is already too horrible to bear. The anxiety grips you as you make your way through the snow to the emergency veterinary hospital at 2 AM on the first night of spring, tears streaming down your face, as you relive your middle-of-the-night drive to the hospital the night of your mother’s emergency surgery.

Some of the ripples you will see and understand, and others will elude you. You will learn to accept these ripples, even though they make your life more complicated. They are part of you now.

You will be changed, forever.

This one is hard to swallow. Nobody wants to be defined by their trauma, and we go to great lengths to remain “ourselves” in the face of earth-shaking sadness. But the truth is, it is nearly impossible to avoid these changes. Losing a close loved one will most likely irrevocably change who you are, for better or for worse. There is a growing body of evidence that trauma can actually change our neurobiology. You may find that your priorities suddenly shift, or that grudges you’ve long held against loved ones simply aren’t worth it anymore. You may decide to sell all of your stuff to move to an island somewhere, because the grind seems totally worthless to you.

You might grow up nearly overnight, finding yourself making decisions about end-of-life care and funeral prayer cards when just 6 months ago, you were seriously considering moving to Buenos Aires on a whim. You might lose your wanderlust, or your deep love of watching sports, and not understand why. You could suddenly hate crowds, when you used to thrive in them. You might move to the Jersey Shore (an idea that would previously have seemed absurd to you) to get away from a city that was once the only place you felt at home. You may find yourself holding onto ridiculous things, like a shirt your mother bought you that you always hated, for the simple fact that she’ll never buy you a shirt that you hate ever again.

The good news is, these changes aren’t all bad. You will likely grow in ways you never imagined, and find yourself more easily prioritizing what’s important to you. You can even come out better than before: more empathetic with your ear and far more careful with your time and limited resources.

Everyone grieves differently.

This one is very important. In your pain, you may have a hard time understanding the pain of others, especially those in your family dealing with the same loss you are. Remember, everyone handles grief differently. Others’ actions may be truly confounding to you. One person may experience PTSD or battle depression (or both). Another may try to go on as though everything is normal, but be haunted by nightmares and anxiety. Still another may compartmentalize their pain. None of these reactions is “right” or “wrong,” though, in your pain, you may be pulled to assume differently.

You may find yourself angry with your family as they ignore the empty chair at the holiday table, rather than bringing her memory into focus. It might be difficult to talk to them about your pain, because they process things differently than you do. You might judge them, and assume they’re doing it all wrong. You might find yourself at Hamilton: The Musical, a full two years after your mother has died, unabashedly weeping, realizing your resentment towards your family is wrongheaded, as the cast sings:

There are moments that the words don’t reach,
There’s a grace too powerful to name,
We push away what we can never understand,
We push away the unimaginable.

They are standing in the garden,
Alexander by Eliza’s side,
She takes his hand-
Forgiveness… can you imagine?

There is no wrong way to grieve. Some grievers may not be able to relate to a word of this, and that’s ok.  We are all different. It’s important to remember to give a grieving person the space to do it their own way, on their own timeline, even if it makes no sense to those of us on the outside.

With that said, I hope these words can be of some help or comfort to those struggling with grief, whether you’re just starting the journey or feeling stuck.

I can’t tell you that it will be ok, and I will not feed you a beautiful platitude. But I will offer you this: You are not alone. Please know that.

The balancing act of vulnerability and self-preservation

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If you’ve ever spent any amount of time with me, or even if you read my blog, you’ve probably noticed that I’m a very open person. I wear my heart on my sleeve (for better or for worse) and my empathy for those around me knows no bounds. For example, I routinely find myself listening to the struggles and life stories of complete strangers.

“It’s like they can sniff you out,” a friend joked, “I’m not sure how you do it.”

But really, how could I not? If there’s something happening on my face that’s telling people, “you can trust me with your secrets and I won’t judge you,” then who am I to refuse an ear?

While my empathy and sensitivity tend to help me connect with people, these traits also leave me quite vulnerable. My openness actually makes me the perfect target. And my penchant for forgiveness and seeing the best in people means that opportunists often take advantage of me. A vulture can quite easily cash in on chance after chance while I make excuses for their behavior.  Continue reading

The gut punch of grief; what it’s like to be triggered.

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The old soccer crew. I’m #20 and you can see my mom hiding in the back sporting her shades, probably wearing a tracksuit.

Let me set the scene: I am waiting to get on the field to compete in a soccer tournament. I stand in a solemn circle, surrounded by the girls I grew up playing with. Their faces are all the same, except we’ve all aged some since we last played together. Laugh lines mark our faces, and a few of us, myself included, are showing grey hairs.

I feel a misplaced anxiety, and I am sure everyone is picking up on it. My bad juju is palpable.

Our longtime coach calls me out: “Chelsea, what’s going on over there? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I’m hungry, and I have to go to the bathroom,” I announce. A few of my teammates avert their eyes. “What?! Do you all want me to go into hypoglycemic shock?!” I say dramatically, knowing that that’s not really a thing. My starting position has clearly gone to my head.

“Fine. You have 15 minutes,” Coach says, obviously annoyed with my antics.

I wander hurriedly and find myself walking into Grand Central Station. I enter the main concourse and marvel at how much is happening around me. I start to panic — I am really feeling the time crunch of getting back to my team. How many minutes has it been? Surely at least 12! I run towards Grand Central Market and when I enter its doors, I strangely find myself in a high school gymnasium. There across the basketball court is none other than my mother, coaching a game of teenaged boys.

She’s standing there like a beacon in her typical hunter green Coventry High School tracksuit and athletic t-shirt, calling out plays. She sees me across the gym and waves distractedly in her familiar I’m-busy-but-glad-you’re-here way. I am so incredibly relieved to see her. My anxiety falls away completely. I need her. I need her right now, I think. I break out into a full gallop towards her and she hurries towards me, too, looking confused.

As I reach her, I fling my arms around her, enveloping her much shorter frame. I am desperately sobbing and convulsing with gratitude that she’s here; that I’m feeling her body in my arms.

“Are you ok, hun?!” she asks, obviously concerned.

Hearing her voice sends a shockwave through my system and my conscious comes crashing in, reminding me; it’s not real, it’s a dream. She is dead.

—————

I wake up and come back to reality. There is no one to comfort me here.

I am not ok.

I am shaking and very real tears are streaming down my cheeks and onto my pillow. This is no way to start my day, much less a day I had high hopes for. My puppy looks curiously at me through his crate. He is ready for his morning walk, but in this moment, I am paralyzed with devastation.

I exhaustedly run through a list of today’s “musts” in my head: I must walk the dog, fix a healthy breakfast, hit my deadlines. Everything else is negotiable.

I bargain with myself: Chelsea, if you get out of bed and make it through this list of things, you don’t have to do anything else today. You can be off the hook. Emails can go unanswered; to-do lists and blog posts put on hold. 

So it is, to be triggered.

The smallest thing — a memory, a dream, a smell, a song — can derail me and send me spiraling. Just last week, I went into a tailspin over the 11th anniversary of my rape. I thought I would be fine (some years, I am) but this year, my body decided otherwise. I spent the week emotionally eating (immediately followed by self-loathing for emotionally eating) and putting off anything I could possibly push back. I’m totally regressing, I vented grumpily, I thought I was over this. I thought I had more self-control.  

It doesn’t help that the one thing in the world that could instantly make me feel better is a hug from my mom and her steady assurance that I’ll be ok — even when I really, truly believe otherwise. She had a way of grounding me and easing my anxieties (like the time I was having a panic attack over my law school student loans, and she said, “relax, people take out loans this size all the time. Only they’re called mortgages. You invested in yourself instead!” and I instantly had a sense of perspective and calmed the hell down). She was my safety blanket. The world can feel like a cold, unforgiving place without her.

This is my life with depression/PTSD in a nutshell. Yesterday, I thought I was doing ok. But that was then and this is now. Today, my reality is different. Today, I must navigate this ever-lingering darkness whether I want to or not. I cannot cast this pain out of my life, though at times I’d like to. My mother’s ghost haunts me, touching everything I do.

Sometimes I feel like myself again for a spell, and I’m convinced I can take on the world. But it doesn’t take long before I’m swept back into my grieving state; hopeless and frantic — torn between waiting for the storm to pass and wanting to cease the day regardless of the state of my anxious mind. I have no idea how long this will go on for; maybe forever. I take great comfort in knowing that the “good spells” are becoming more prominent, and the bad are fewer and further in between.

I have no idea how to feel better. Right now, I’m just riding the wave and trying not to push myself too hard. Truth be told, if I was kinder to myself and paid more attention to my self-care needs, I probably wouldn’t be so easy to knock out in the first place. Besides, I spent the last year trying to control everything around me with an iron grip, and I was miserable. I cannot control my grief and it doesn’t have to control me. I must remind myself that the bad feelings will come and they will pass. I can only recognize them, let myself feel them, and move on from them when I’m ready to. Today will be tough. Tomorrow will hopefully be better. My to-do list will likely suffer yet another week in limbo. It will be ok, so long as I keep moving forward and checking off my “musts.”

Such is life, and perhaps this will always be my “normal,” finding balance between giving in to the darkness and pulling myself back towards the light.

Perhaps I will always teeter at the edge of the void, and it’s by sheer will and tenacity that I don’t fall in.

Perhaps I’m not doing nearly as badly as I think.

Perhaps my mother always WAS right, after all: I. Will. Be. Ok.