People say it comes in waves. Depression and anxiety ebbs and flows like the tide. Gentle and so subtle you don’t realise what’s happening until you’re immersed. But sometimes its more like being caught in a storm, sudden, violent and painful. It comes on suddenly, a violent assault. It aches so much and there’s nothing I can do but endure and know that it will end.
Things were going well for a while. Every day there were increasing moments of normality, where the tremor of anxiety was almost stilled. There were even moments of almost carefree happiness, fun and joy.
Yesterday, however, I woke with a sense of great unease. It seemed to come from no where. I couldn’t identify a trigger.
It grew rapidly into a state of inexplicable distress and pain, tight across my chest, and heavy in my stomach. It felt unbearable. My thoughts became dark and self destructive.
I dug my fingernails deep into my palms. I made a fist punched my thigh. Physical pain to block out the emotional pain.
I meditated – a few minutes of quiet relief.
When the rain stopped I went for a walk. There were brief moments where the winter landscape was able to distract me from the pain.
I went to dinner with my partner and for an hour or so felt calm again. But then the unease started to grow again, so rapidly it began to overwhelm me. I felt like I was suffocating and couldn’t wait to get home.
Home again I curled up on the couch and silently dug my nails into my palms as hard as I could.
Things are better today.
Yesterday’s therapy session which I was dreading wasn’t as confronting as I’d feared. We stayed away from some of the pointier issues.
While therapy is helping me understand why I’ve been struggling, and how the past is impacting on my present, I sometimes wonder if its doing much good. I still get triggered, I still have anxiety attacks, and I don’t know how to predict when that will happen, or much about how to deal with it when it does.
I suppose in terms of progress, I could say that the duration, frequency and intensity of the anxiety is reducing. Yesterday I was on edge all day, but for most of today, I felt completely normal. That only changed when I went to check my email. A number of messages required actions and considered responses. That sort of thing has been bringing about anxiety attacks lately. However, after an initial panic, I was able to pull myself together and deal with a couple, before it got to stressful and I had to walk away.
I really hate admitting to having a difficulty with email right now. It seems so weak, and it isn’t how I like to see myself. We talked about it in my therapy session. It seems that email is triggering fears related to a very difficult time in my youth. And that’s the weird thing with trauma triggers – they can be the most ordinary things.
When the anxiety hits, I try not to get caught up in all the thoughts around it or resist it. I do some breathing and mindfulness exercises which don’t end the anxiety but seem to stop it escalating.
I also have a daily routine which helps:
I’m using the headspace app to practice meditation each morning, and I go for an hour’s walk. My therapist wants me to add to that 30 minutes of email after breakfast, lunch and dinner as I have a mountain to get through. The time limit makes it manageable. I’m supposed to do a bit of self-talk when I commence, but I forgot that today. I’ll try email again after dinner and see if the self-talk helps.
Blogging also helps. When I began this post, I was feeling negative, as if I’d made no progress at all. But as I continued this reflection, I discovered that in fact there’s been a lot.
Someone recommended I read “Happiness and How it Happens”
I wasn’t sure if I would like the book, but so far, much has been helpful. When dealing with triggers, I find this particularly apt.
‘It is our tendency to ‘add on’ to our experience that leads to our suffering. Most of the thinking around the event is unneccessary; it is this that is the problem.’
The Happy Buddah
I’m seeing my therapist tomorrow and I’m nervous.
We’ve been circling around the issues. In the first few sessions, she constructed a sort of biography, questioning me about times in my life from my earliest memories up until the present day. She was doing this to identify trauma, and expected that it would take just one or two sessions. Four sessions later we were still going.
I’ve never considered my life unhappy, its been more good than bad. But, along the way there has been trauma. We’ve identified 8 distinct events, any of which, according to my therapist, would be enough to really mess with someone’s head. (She put it more professionally than that). Apparently the amount and type of traumas I’ve experienced is actually quite extreme, and therefore it’s completely justifiable for me to be finding it hard to cope. So that’s validating: I have a legitimate reason not to be functioning.
But, it’s also weird. Life just happens, and while yes, there have been some difficult experiences, everyone has difficult times. I knew a couple of events in my life were extreme, but I didn’t think I’d had more than my share. In fact, I’d been denying a lot.
Its disempowering to consider oneself a victim, and so I’d come up with all sorts of excuses and explanations for what I’d experienced. Its easier on the ego to believe that if I’d just made different choices things wouldn’t have happened the way they did. That gives me a sense of control. To acknowledge, as I’ve had to recently, that no I didn’t bring any of that on myself is hard. I feel diminished and also angry. The world seems a more frightening place.
I’d made excuses, rationalised it all and just got on with my life, because what other choice did I have?
But, out of the blue, about 8 weeks ago, I read something in the newspaper that acted as a trauma trigger, and I was back in one of those moments, with all its fear and distress.
I like the Wikipedia definition of trauma triggers because it comes pretty close to what I’ve been experiencing.
A trauma trigger is an experience that causes someone to recall a previous traumatic memory, although the trigger itself need not be frightening or traumatic and can be indirectly or superficially reminiscent an earlier traumatic incident. Trauma triggers are related to posttraumatic stress disorder, a condition in which sufferers often cannot control the recurrence of emotional or physical symptoms, or of repressed memory.Triggers can be subtle and difficult to anticipate, and can sometimes exacerbate PTSD. A trauma trigger may also be referred to as a trauma stimulus or a trauma stressor.
After I was triggered the first time, it seemed all sorts of things would bring back unbidden memories. Day after day, night after night, I’d find myself thrown back into the most painful experiences of my life.
Things calmed down for a while, but last Monday, when I flew to Brisbane for the Edutech conference, I was triggered again, and again, and again.
By the end of my first evening there, I was in such a state of terror that I could not sleep. I huddled against a wall in my hotel room, gripping a kitchen knife, and checking the doors were secure. It felt crazy, because I knew on one level I wasn’t in any danger and should just go to sleep, but the fear which had been unleashed was too powerful. I think I had 2 hours sleep.
The next day the triggering continued. The most subtle and unexpected things would set me off. A sudden movement out of the corner of my eye induced terror, a 13 year old speaker triggered painful memories of my life at that age.The crowded expo full of strangers brought me back to the isolation I felt as a fifth grader being bullied and intimidated at school.
I spent the day alternating between fear, distress and frustration at not being able to properly enjoy or benefit from being at such a great event.
I’d calmed somewhat by the time I returned to Sydney, but Thursday was still hard. I walked to our local shopping centre at around 5pm, just as commuters were starting to arrive home from the train station. Every time I’d see a man walking towards me along the footpath, I’d tense up, on edge and panicky, unsure if I was safe.
My therapist wants to use a form of Radical Exposure Therapy. She says it has longer lasting and better results than cognitive bahaviour therapy,which in my case, she thinks will act as a bandaid.
For real healing to occur, she believes I need to confront those traumas in a safe environment and re-experience the emotions that went with them. Apparently, through exposure, we can reframe the memories and process them so I don’t find myself reacting to things in the present as if they were traumas of the past.
The idea of really confronting those traumas, of having to explore and FEEL what happened scares me. Reliving the experience? I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
Last week, she attempted to have me remember in detail one of the events. It was too much for me. Even the thought of remembering was painful. Tomorrow, we’ll be trying again.
I know I need to confront things. Burying them like I had, clearly didn’t work, and if I don’t deal with them, I guess I’ll keep on getting triggered. But I’m scared by the prospect of re-experiencing trauma. It’s going to get harder before it gets easier.
Wish me luck.
Something that’s been bringing me joy lately is this leadlight tulip lamp. I’d been admiring it for weeks where it stood lighting a side table at my local winebar of all places. Two nights ago, after an evening of wine and tapas, it just made sense to buy it. I should probably point out that as well as being a winebar, they sell furnishings, jewellery – all sorts of stuff. Even the leather lounges that you sit on are for sale.
So we took home this over the top, flowery lamp – completely different from our usual simple and modern style. I love the warm, not too bright light it emits. Perfect for reading in the evening. And I love the red glowing tulips which are much more scarlet in real life than they appear in this photograph.
And I love that it’s pretty and sort of carefree, and that some would consider it bad taste.
I know they say money can’t buy happiness, but this purchase definitely brought with it a little bit of joy.
Update: Hmmm, now that I think about it, it’s probably more a lotus than a tulip lamp.
I’m finding “How Are You?” the most difficult question to answer, along with versions like “How was your weekend?” and “How was your day?”
Usually, I say “fine”, but what throws me is when I know the people asking genuinely want to find out because they care. I don’t want people to stop asking either. It’s an act of kindness and when they ask, I feel cared for. But the question always stumps me for a while and it usually takes me a fair amount of thinking time to compose an answer.
I mean how do you answer “How are you?” when you’re anxious, depressed and suffering from PTSD. Some days are better than others, but saying “fine” or “great” isn’t honest, and when people care about the answer, I want to be honest.
How do I honestly say how I am? It seems so complicated. I’m not okay to work, but I’m okay to sit with my laptop and write this post. I’m not great, I’m not terrible. But I still have this kernel of sadness inside of me, and if I turn my attention to how I feel, I start to notice and pay attention to it and it grows.
If I say I’m not fine, will people stop wanting to have anything to do with me because I suck the energy from every conversation with my negativity?
The question, “How was your day?” should be easier, but it’s not.
Today, I met my friend Michelle for lunch at the Opera Bar, which is outside the Sydney Opera House, overlooking the harbour. Perfect for people watching on a sunny winters day. It was pleasant. I had the chance to catch up with what had been going on in Michelle’s life, and I appreciated the opportunity to share some of what’s been happening in mine. The company was good, so was the food. Everything was pretty much perfect.
It was a great day.
But, underneath it all I had this tight ball of tension in my stomach that grew and grew.
Michelle was talking about her work, and I started to think about how I hadn’t been at work. Report writing time is one of the busiest times of years for teachers and they’re doing it really tough. Yet here I am, not having to write reports, not working, not contributing any way. What right have I to be taking time off work? It’s my overworked colleagues who need it, not me. I feel guilty and slack, and start to wonder how anyone could respect me because they’re all pushing through in spite of gruelling workloads, while I’m taking time out.
By the time our lunch had finished, I was feeling sick and really sad. I wanted to cry.
But, as an observer, I can see that it was a lovely day, and I really did have a moment there where I was enjoying myself. So, did I have a good day or a good moment?
And that’s why I find the question so difficult to answer.
I haven’t been able to bring myself to write here for a while.
I feel this sense of responsibility to be positive and constructive when I write things online.
While my instinct has been to hide myself away, I’ve been forcing myself to try to take pleasure in things. I’ve spent time with friends, seen movies, eaten out at restaurants, walked in the winter sun, read books. Hell, I even spent two days in Brisbane for an interesting conference, and caught up with people whom I admire and whose company I really enjoy.
I’ve taken time off work which has allowed me to be free to enjoy life and take each day as it comes.
I am SO privileged to have access to opportunities and to afford to take them up, and to have such good friends. Many people would swap places with me in an instant. I lead a fortunate life and I have no right to complain.
I should be happy. I WANT to be happy.
But, as much as I genuinely try to enjoy and appreciate all I have, I feel like an observer not fully present. I go through the motions of participation, smile, laugh take an interest. And a small part of me genuinely is smiling.. but I feel sort of hollowed out inside. There is no joy, just this big gaping pit of… I don’t even know what to call it: pain, sadness, despair, fear, grief?
An awful ache, which I wrote about here.
My therapist has been encouraging me to practice mindfulness, and in the moments I am able to do that, it does help.
Playing piano has a soothing effect, probably because I’m not very good at it. I’m having to re-learn how to read music, to synchronise the movement of both hands across the keyboard, altering tempo and dynamics. It requires so much attention from me, that in those moments nothing else exists, and even my clumsy attempts at playing the simplest of tunes creates a form of beauty. It’s music after all.
Also, at my therapists suggestion, I’ve been using the Headspace app. Those moments of mindfulness don’t erase the pain, but it stops overwhelming me. It’s a part of me, but I’m more than that.
Some days, like this morning, meditation is hard. There was a knot of anxiety in my stomach that grew and grew. Practising mindfulness, I couldn’t run from it, or fill my mind with distractions by jumping on Twitter. I just had to sit there and feel, and it was kind of scary.
I fill my life with busyness, I work too hard and fill my spare time with projects and distractions. It’s only recently that I’ve started to understand that a lot of this is to avoid being still and present and having to face what I feel.
I think I need to carve out some space for stillness. I’d like to get to the point where it isn’t scary, but brings me peace instead.