Recently I found out that the depression and anxiety I’ve been dealing with isn’t chemical, isn’t major depressive disorder or dysthymia or bipolar disorder, but is actually the result of multiple traumas—probably PTSD. And the more I learn about trauma and how it affects the brain, the more what my new therapist says makes perfect sense. All of this misery started fifteen years ago for me, directly after a majorly traumatic event. Since then, I’ve been through several other traumatic ordeals. I didn’t even think of them as traumas until long after they’d happened; for years, I thought of them as Things Not to Think About.
But the thing is, our brains remember these things whether we want to or not. These events become dark spots in our memory, resulting in behavior and feelings that make us think we’re crazy—especially if we’re not connecting them to those Things Not to Think About. This is why trauma is frequently misdiagnosed. Many mental health professionals know about trauma but aren’t trained enough to recognize the signs, to see where trauma has been confused for something else.
I spent years careening from professional to professional, pill to pill. None of it worked. A psychiatrist reasoned that this was because I have bipolar disorder when, in actuality, the problem wasn’t chemical at all. No wonder antidepressants weren’t working (or, more often, making me feel worse)! This same psychiatrist speculated that it must be bipolar, because I’m an artist and “lots of artists are bipolar.”
Our mental health system may help a lot of people, but it’s also a very flawed system.
Up until last month, my coping method for those Things Not to Think About was to avoid them like the fucking plague. I know now that this was how I tried to protect myself. Turns out, avoiding these things actually made me feel worse. I ran and ran, spiraling into depression and anxiety, sometimes feeling better but never for very long.
My new therapist is working very closely with me. She tells me that I need to accept the things that have happened. First, though, I have to face them. I have to acknowledge that they happened.
I’ve been in denial so long, I don’t know how to face these things. Even when I do, I gloss over them and try to make a joke. Laughter is my coping mechanism. I laugh at everything—nervous, awkward laughter. And by avoiding everything for so long, I’ve racked up a hefty amount of shame. I think our society often shames or even blames victims so much that when we become victims, we are afraid to even acknowledge to ourselves what happened. So many women don’t report sexual assault, for example, for multiple reasons. Fear. Inability to prove anything. Embarrassment. So these women remain silent, hoping that they can just put it behind them.
The crazy thing is, social workers and primary care physicians have started asking patients standard questions—”Have you ever been physically assaulted? Have you ever been sexually assaulted?”—and then, when the patient answers “Yes,” do nothing. They make a note of it and move on to the next question or to the flu that needs to be treated.
Our society is good at ignoring trauma. The military, for example, fails to treat many veterans who experienced horrific things while serving. I knew someone who, while in the Navy, had to gun down children. He never received treatment. Before he enlisted, he was a charming and handsome young man who laughed a lot. He came back very wrong, saying and doing things that were sometimes weird and other times frightening.
After Columbine, 9/11, and Sandy Hook, as a nation we barely took time to grieve. We’re so good at ignoring our pain.
All I want for Christmas this year is to get past those Things Not to Think About, but it could take months or even years before I recover. I’ve carried these things with me and avoided them for so long, it sometimes feels like an impossible task. In the safety of my own head, I can think about them for fleeting moments without panicking. If asked to talk about them, at best I can gloss over them quickly as if reading facts off a piece of paper. At worst, I shut down completely. Ideally, I’d like to be able to get to the point where I can write about them here, telling my story in an attempt to help others.
But that terrifies me, because then people will know.
It all comes back down to the shame.
There are things I’m afraid to talk about for many reasons, but what holds me back the most is the fear that people won’t believe me. There are a lot of people who have been worried about me, baffled by my increasingly odd behavior. I know I don’t owe them any explanation, but my soul cries to be understood. And I know I couldn’t take that kind of rejection.
But I want to come out of the dark. I want to help others who might be dealing with the same things. And I really, really want to save myself. Lately I’ve felt like I’m not really living, like I’m walking and talking but kind of a zombie. I’d really like to take my life back.
I think everyone deep down just wants to be understood.