I have been in some kind of talk therapy for the past four years. It was a necessity given all that has happened in my life in that time period. I reconnected with my estranged father and he passed away three months later. My son had a critical illness and a stroke. Friendship and family changes happened and left me questioning everything about how I relate to people. Having a place to go to work out all that has happened and how my brain is processing all of it with an objective third party, has proven an invaluable tool in my living-life-the-best-way-possible toolbox. It has also had the interesting side effect of making me incredibly curious about the human mind and how it handles the experiences and the events that shape us.
It has been two years since the worst day of our lives - the day my son coded in the PICU and had to be resuscitated and put on life support. Thankfully he survived his sudden and unexpected illness and is now thriving, but those five minutes were the longest ones of my entire life and they changed me forever. What I didn't know then, was exactly how much, and how fundamentally those few minutes would change the very fabric of my being.
This is the part about trauma that you don't hear about until much, much later. About how trauma changes you. And not just the person at the centre of the catastrophe, but everyone in the immediate blast zone as well. Trauma leaves an imprint on our brains, and it's effects can be felt for years after the initial traumatic event. In my efforts to understand how trauma has affected my life, how it continues to affect me, and what I need to do to heal from it, I thought I would try to write out what this process has been for me and hopefully make some sense of it all.
You probably already know this, but when you are in the thick of things during a traumatic event - regardless of what that event is - your body and your mind go into automatic pilot. Much of what you do is instinct and not necessarily carefully thought out and/or planned. You are in your fight or flight mode and your body responds appropriately and automatically. You do what must be done to get through your day(s), with just enough reserve to get you up the next day and do it all over again. (And coffee, lots and lots of coffee.)
When Nine was in the hospital, I remember many people asking me how I was able to handle everything? How surprised they were at how well I was doing "considering", and how they "couldn't imagine" what it took to keep going day after day. I remember at the time thinking, "What else am I supposed to do? How is me losing my shit going to help anyone right now?". I know that no one meant any harm in what they were saying, and sometimes people don't know what to say when confronted with situations that are really terrible, but those comments struck me as odd at the time. Yes, it was difficult and terrible and awful and really, really bad, but we had to keep moving forward, stay focused on getting him well, and all of us making it to the next day.
And we did. And those days turned into weeks, weeks into months and in record time, Nine healed physically, blew away all his therapists and doctors with his determination and goal to be discharged on a certain day and he was able to come home - on that very day. Life eventually started to feel normal again. We all went back to our routines, and everything was just FINE.
But was it? What I didn't realize then, in those weeks and months of healing, was what I had unwittingly started to do, and what we were all doing to some degree. We were building walls around us. We insulated ourselves more and more from the outside world. In our efforts for self-preservation, we started letting fear guide us and keep us from moving past the physical healing from our shared trauma. My husband and I became the SUPER-hyper-uber-vigilant parents and our already heightened sense of risk-aversion became even more pronounced. Our reactions to the sometimes crazy things the kids did, (because you know, they were still kids) was often way out of proportion to the actual antics they were getting up to. A fever in our house sent us into a complete tailspin. A swollen lymph node or an unexplained pain in the leg was cause for a visit to the paediatrician - STAT! Casual talk in the school playground about so-and-so's kids having strep throat sets the hairs on the back of my neck on end.
We were living in a vacuum of our own making, always waiting for the next shoe to drop, the next bad thing to happen, because now we knew - bad things can and DO happen. FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER! At times it's felt like our lives were still in autopilot mode and we were simply getting through our days as opposed to living wholehearted lives. Our fight or flight button was stuck in the ON position all the time. We were moving forward, but with so much caution that sometimes it didn't really feel like movement at all.
There are consequences to living in this vacuum. They have names like anxiety, depression, anger, and frustration. They can only be ignored for so long before they start manifesting themselves and affecting not only our connections with the world, but also our connections to each other within our newly built up walls. In our efforts to protect ourselves from "all the bad things that COULD happen", we ended up living in a place where we couldn't see that we weren't actually protecting ourselves at all and our fears began manifesting in other destructive ways. Even when we thought what we are doing was for the "greater good" and for the safety of all, we ended up hurting and not healing.
It has taken me two years to realize that I can't be a good mother, wife or person in this vacuum. Whatever internal generator I had that was keeping the fight or flight button in the ON position has run out of battery and all my coping reserves have been effectively used up. I recognize now that living with a constant buzz of fear in my ear and a sympathetic nervous system on overdrive is unhealthy and unproductive, not just for me, but for those around me as well. And worst of all, I am not being an good example for my children in how to work through these tough feelings and/or to admit when I need help.
I wrote a few weeks ago about finding a new baseline, but what I didn't realize was that I also needed to accept that the trauma that we experienced had actually put me at a different baseline already. A POST-trauma baseline so to speak. THIS is the not-so-secret secret to healing from trauma, and it is what most people fight against (to no avail). We mistakenly think that healing means getting back to where we were before the "bad thing" happened to us, and fail to see that this simply can not be done. We are changed, our world has changed, and we have to first accept and then adapt to these changes. We have to find our new touchstone and move forward from that point. There is no going back. There is only now. After.
I have a clarity right now that I didn't have a month and a half ago and I know it is because I hit my limit. I know now that I was reaching backwards for a place within myself and from those around me that no longer exists. I had to say out loud that I needed help finding my way. I needed to take the anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medication to clear the path in front of me. Even knowing all that I do about maternal mental health, the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses, and my hundreds of visits to a psychologist, I fully admit that this decision still made me feel like I was a failure and too weak to "handle things" all by myself. The harsh truth is that in a sense I was, and I needed help to get strong again. I know it is only with the help of the medications and continued talk therapy, that I have that clarity to see what was holding me back from truly healing and moving forward with my life.
I feel as if I am no longer in my fight or flight mode. This in and of itself is a new mind space for me to get used to, and I am finding my way down this path slowly but surely. Now starts the work of tearing down the walls that we were building up around us. Of opening up our hearts and our lives to each other and to those around us. Of me stepping out of my own cocooned comfort/safety zone and being open to what the world has in store for me and what I make of it for myself and those I love.
It seems fitting to me that this is happening right now as spring comes anew. As the earth thaws, and new things start to grow, and there is more light in our world, and the forest creatures wake and frolic. We can not forever live within the winter of our souls. The seasons know when it is time to change and so too it seems, do our own minds. Sometimes we simply need to get better at reading Mother Nature's signs and knowing when we need a bit of help to get the buds to open up and push through the earth.
I am excited to say that there are more changes afoot in our lives this season as well and I can't wait to share these with you! And yes, all of these changes continue to stem from our new baseline. Our "after".
Growing stronger together.
With LOVE and patience and clarity and...
a little bit of help.