I have a question for all of you who, like me, have a hard time letting go of a painful past. It could be one event that shook you to your bones. It could be a series of horrible events. It could be something so embarrassing you wished you could melt away into a puddle of goo.
There’s no size comparison, and we aren’t going to measure our traumas. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been told it was no big deal or if you think other people have it worse. It might be true in a cold, logical, sense but so what?
All things being equal?
If you’ve been through something that haunts you? If it’s a memory or a feeling that you just can’t shake? If it’s so overwhelming that someday’s you can’t function at the most basic level? Pain is pain. Struggling to cope is still a struggle. And the past that won’t let you go is a burden to carry.
Screw cold-hard logic! Forget what other people say. If it hurts? That sucks, and I’m so sorry. If no one’s told you this before? You don’t deserve to feel like this, and you didn’t deserve to go through that kind of pain. No one deserves to hurt like that.
I’m not blowing smoke up your back passage. This is said with the utmost sincerity: You deserved better and still do.
I’m sure you can tell that I’m not a big fan of the trauma yardstick. I don’t know why we feel the need to validate our pain by invalidating others. The flipped script is just as confusing. Invalidating our own pain to what end? What does that accomplish?
Absolutely nothing! It does nothing. It’s a waste of time and, yes, I’ve wasted my time doing it. I’m in no way perfect, and it’s taken me a lot of years to get to a place where I can validate my experiences by saying, God, the sucked.
It’s a calmer and far less lonely way to operate. Accepting that no one will ever fully understand what I’ve been through doesn’t mean I’m alone. Talking about it, sharing it with you breaks that third wall of secrecy and shame. It opens an honest dialogue between different experiences and shared pain.
So many people — too many people— have experienced trauma in their lives. It’s shocking how many of you have been through awful things. But sharing that, speaking up, is an incredible thing. We’re supporting each other, embracing our differences, and accepting that we’ve all been hurt. That brings with it a certain amount of healing that can only be found in a raggedy community of traumatized people.
It doesn’t wipe away every tear or erase the scars. There’s still a lot of work we have to do on our own. But knowing we’re aren’t alone is comforting. So, let’s throw that yardstick in a bonfire, roast some marshmallows, and try to answer a question that’s tickling the back of my mind.
Have you ever looked into the mirror and told yourself that you should be over it by now? It’s usually said with a tired sigh, an accusatory glare, and follows another classic: What the fucks wrong with you?
My hand nearly shot up into the air like I’m back in grade school, and I finally know something. It’s been a while, I hardly ever know the answer, and my excitement is getting the best of me. Oo, pick me. Pick me! I know what’s wrong with me. I have a list and I alphabetized it. See!
The other night, I woke up standing next to my bed with clenched fists. I vaguely remember jumping out of bed with a sense of urgency and purpose. The words, oh shit, were coming out of my mouth on repeat. My hair clung to my damp forehead, and a drop of sweat rolled down the back of my neck. My heart was beating so fast, and the surge of adrenaline was wild.
I stood there in the dark, blinking wildly, and tried to get my bearings. Where was I? Home. Bedroom. Dark. At this point, I’d temporarily lost the ability to use complete sentences. What time is it? 2. Morning. Why are my fists clenched? Who was I fighting? What was I fighting?
Expletives were the only answers that came out of my mouth as I slowly realized that it had been a dream. Or, as the mental health professionals call it, a nocturnal panic attack. It’s bad enough to have panic attacks when I’m wide awake. Having them in my sleep adds another layer of, Oh, come on!
Do you have night terrors? I don’t get them as often as they used to, but I’ll never get used to them happening. The shot of adrenaline takes hours to wear off. That unsettling urge to fight or run away doesn’t dissipate even though it was a dream and there’s no actual threat. There’s no way I’m getting back to sleep anytime soon because I can feel my mind searching for danger in the shadows.
I just want to sleep!
I know that I’m in no real danger and it was just a nightmare. A horrible, no-good, very nasty dream, but it was just a dream. It wasn’t real. My apartment is locked uptight, and it’s structurally sound. No one’s getting in, burning it down, and beavers don’t chew through buildings. It’s not going to fall down so, chill out!
My mind never listens to me. I spend the rest of the night trying to shake off the uncomfortable aftermath with my usual go-to self-care kit. I have a hot shower, make a nice cup of tea, journal, and try to meditate. I’m horrible at meditation. After three minutes, I’m restless, distracted, and completely over it, but I still try because one day it might actually work.
But over it is a good descriptor because I am well and truly finished. For all the work I’ve done processing the traumas of my past? I should be past these emotions, the night terrors, and all of the other symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). It should be done. I should be over it by now.
I should, but I ain’t, apparently.
And yes, I’m should-ing all over myself. I know better than to get caught up in the shoulds of life. Those little bastards! We all do it. I should have more fun. I should lose some weight. I should de-clutter my home. I should be better than this by now.
There’s this mistaken belief that we can should ourselves into action, but it doesn’t really work. I end up feeling guilt, shame, and a sense of worthlessness because no matter how hard I try, I can’t live up to the shoulds in my life. They’re too big and, in some cases, too abstract to actually be attainable. They’re fickle, and they keep moving the goal post. If the would just stay in one place than maybe I could catch up!
As long as I’m should-ing myself, I’ll never get to where I want to go. And where do I want to go? The shoulds mask the wants and needs of my life. I’m not talking about responsibilities like taxes or renewing your driver’s license. Those are unavoidable, and I really should do the last one before I can’t legally operate a motor vehicle anymore.
The wants and needs are those things that would make life immeasurably happier. Maybe, if I could balance those two things out, I wouldn’t wake up at two AM ready to box the shadows. I’d get a solid eight hours of sleep instead of napping on and off during the night. Finally being over the pain of my past so I can really enjoy the present? Well, yeah, that would be wonderful.
Wow, the shoulds in my mind just perked up and said, guess you should work harder than. I could scream. I’m working as hard as I can. There’s nothing more I can do given my current circumstances. I’m doing my best, and I need that to be enough.
It should but it isn’t. Oh, stop it!
There is a small sense of accomplishment in moments like this when I take time to acknowledge the work I’ve put in and how far I’ve come. One night terror in, what is it, three months? I would get them almost every night or, at the very least, they’d come three or four times a week. That’s a vast improvement, and that’s the result of a great deal of time, effort, and determination.
Congratulations. Well done. Good job. Do you think that, after all that work, you could be better than this?
Yes, but I’m not, and that’s frustrating.
Even when I take the shoulds out of the equation! I still feel depressed, angry, and annoyed. I wonder, for a brief moment, if all of this has been for nothing. Which is not true! I know it’s not. I can look back at where I started, and there’s quite the expanse separating then and now. I’m moving forward, but I’m not doing it at the pace I want.
I am the type of person who works better on a schedule, and having a list of things I have to get done is highly motivating. Meeting a deadline, crossing something off my list, getting something done ahead of schedule is incredibly comforting. It’s only natural that I would put my recovery on a schedule too.
When I started my recovery, I had this timeline mapped out in my head, and it fits perfectly on my calendar. There were milestones I could mark off, deadlines that seem reasonable, and a routine that I could keep. I thought if I could put my head down and just do it, then I could get it over with and move on.
So, how did that work out for me? It was a monumental disappointment, and I felt like a horrible failure. At some point, I decided that I was broken beyond repair. It was the only answer. I was too far gone to help. If I was redeemable, then I would be better than this by now.
Except, recovering from a painful past isn’t that simple. Trauma rewires our brains. We are changed by what we’ve been through. We become different people than who we were before we were hurt. That’s not some wishy-washy psycho-babble that’s a fact. Check out some of the research studies, they’re it’s fascinating.
What I went through…Sigh.
My body was mutilated by a man who was supposed to help me. Because of him, I’ve spent my whole life fighting for a chronic illness and gritting my teeth through chronic pain. But he didn’t just change my body; he rewired the most complex organ in the human body.
Our brains are made up of billions of neurons that control everything we do, think, believe. Damaging that? Rewiring it to send out warnings of impending doom? That wiring has to be fixed, and it can be repaired with the right help. We have to work through a tangled web of hurt, fear, stress, and pain. It’s complicated. It’s painful. It takes time, patience, and no small amount of self-compassion.
Trauma recovery, any mental health recovery, isn’t something we can markdown in a calendar or check off on a to-do list. It’s slow, arduous, and on days like today, it’s incredibly frustrating. It’s worth it! On the good days when I look back at how far I’ve come, I can honestly say: So worth it.
But on bad days, like today, I need to cut myself some slack and forgive myself for taking one small step back. I need to look at myself in the mirror and change the narrative. Instead of saying that I should be better than this? I can say I’m recovering, and it’s a process.
This one step back isn’t a sign of weakness but rather a moment to rest, regain your strength, and keep going. You’ve come so far, and you’ve worked so hard. You can do this! You can recover. Recovery isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.