April 30, 2020

The Grief that comes with Losing Yourself after Trauma.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I got lost.

It is one of those things that happened slowly over time. One unchecked thought and one unchecked behavior at a time, the person I was slowly eroded away.

At first, I didn’t even know I was gone. I just felt this deep longing for something and I wasn’t sure what it was. I felt unhappy with myself and my life. It was a feeling of being homesick for somewhere else surrounded by the life I built. I was homesick for the home I built within myself, and I didn’t even realize it. It was a restlessness and discontentment surrounded by things I assumed would bring me happiness, that used to bring me happiness.

It was the feeling of discomfort and crawling out of my skin, even surrounded by people I loved and cherished and used to be comfortable around. These feelings slowly grew until I was consumed with grief, a grief that I now know was for the person I was before the trauma.

See, the thing about trauma is if you don’t deal with those demons, they will deal with you. At first I was in shock and disbelief after the initial trauma. The morning after I was so dysregulated. I stumbled my way into the shower feeling weak, dizzy, nauseous, and disoriented. When I pathetically attempted to turn on the water in the foreign “shower” of the emergency department’s decontamination room, I could see blood rushing to the surface of my skin, causing a red glow.

I was so dysregulated that I could not tell if the redness was discomfort from scalding or freezing on my skin. As the skin continued to flush, I tried to gather my thoughts and figure out what my next step was in the shower, something I had done thousands of times and normally complete with no thought at all. I did not know it at the time, but this unfamiliar feeling of being unable to process things would soon become a familiar place for me.

I felt as though there was a cloud or fog between myself and the world, even between myself and myself. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that the world was still turning for anyone else. I felt like a shell of the person I once was. I felt empty and numb at times, and completely consumed with grief and sadness at other times. As I continued to try to uphold my life in the same manner I did before the trauma, I felt something slowly erode away at my insides.

I was a single parent, a social worker, a dog mom to two new puppies; the list of things I held together, alone, was endless. As I struggled through life as a single mom who was trying to balance her full-time job in child protection, I felt the weight of my job so deeply. I could not separate their pain from the pain I was trying to hide from. I started to make mistakes. When I would come home to my children, and two new puppies, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I felt my autoimmune disease begin to flare and add unbearable exhaustion and physical pain to the torturous emotional pain. I felt myself begin to pick at myself and demean myself with judgments for not meeting my own standards—there was no room for me to fall apart, I needed to do better, I needed to try harder.

So, I shoved it down—I denied the trauma and the pain. I refused to allow myself to feel any of the deep sadness, violation, rage, depression, or grief that came with the trauma. I thought I was “being strong.” In reality, I started to deny myself the right to heal. I started to deny the trauma all together.

When you first deny the trauma, you may be able to trick yourself temporarily, but after day in and day out still grinding away, it will eventually ooze out of you like puss from an infected wound. I knew I felt different, but I just couldn’t put my finger on what was going on. In order to deny the trauma to myself, I needed to also deny my self-awareness and mindfulness. Every time I practice mindfulness and being present in the moment, in any form, the trauma would consume my mind and emotions, at times even my physical sensations and body.

I did not believe I could survive it. I thought it would consume me, so I pushed it away. In doing so, I pushed myself away. I fought against letting it consume me at all cost, and the price for this was larger than anything I could have ever imagined. I thought at the most I was putting it on hold, and would take it out and deal with it when my life would allow me to, maybe when my kids graduated and were out of the house.

To be mindful is to be conscious and aware of the present moment. It is to be aware of and accept one’s own thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, it is to nonjudgmentally observe. In order for me to deny my trauma, I needed to deny myself the state of mindfulness all together. I also denied my self-awareness. At the time, I just knew I was in survival mode. In hindsight, when practicing the slightest bit of awareness, I was overcome with such intense fear and grief, I avoided it all together. This lead me down a dangerous path.

The more disconnected I became from myself, the more decisions I made that left me with intense feelings of shame when I was able to come to a place of mindfulness and self-awareness. Self-awareness is to be aware of one’s own character, motives, intentions, desires, and personality, and to understand them. Self-awareness is what separates humans from animals. We can be conscious of ourselves, and be aware of that consciousness and use this information to take a moral inventory. We can then adjust our behavior to meet our values and honor our authentic selves. I believe this is what makes us human; if we have this ability, we must use it to become the best versions of ourselves that we can.

Somehow, I had forgotten this—my most fundamental value.

I was stuck in a state of intense generalized fear. The slightest disturbance would send an electric shock through my system, I was jumpy all the time. It slowly grew into a fear that devoured me, my brain registered every little sound as danger. Relationships became horrifying and difficult to navigate, and I lost trust in everyone and perceived everything as a lie, danger, or threat. Then the doubt started to seep in. I doubted other people and their intentions, I doubted myself and my capabilities, I doubted my behaviors and decisions, I doubted every truth. This left my self-esteem low, and for the first time in my life I started to hustle for my self-worth.

With the lack of mindfulness, self-awareness, and acceptance, I slowly began engaging in behaviors and thoughts that did not align with my authentic self, because I was hiding from my authentic self. My path led me into the darkness, away from my own light. I began to disengage in therapy, and pull out when it got “too close” to anything that would cause discomfort.

In the darkness, with the pain I denied, I could no longer differentiate between the pain I felt and the pain individuals in my life were causing. After experiencing such a horrific trauma, my boundaries were so violated that at times I could no longer see them or feel when they were violated. Everything else felt so minuscule compared to the trauma I had experienced. I took on the shame of the trauma and how it had changed me, I let the shame, doubt, and fear eat at me until my self-esteem was nonexistent.

Then, one day I had a thought: “Maybe this is the life I deserve.” This thought, along with everything else I was experiencing, led me down a path that opened the door to much more trauma. My ability to protect myself with boundaries and self-honoring decisions disappeared with my self-respect.

Trauma is like eating a parasite. If treated, it can be managed with little or no damage. However, I left it untreated and it slowly sucked the life from me. I was able to shove it down and go on with normal life for a while, but slowly the symptoms started to ooze out from within me. It divided and multiplied and sucked away all the sustenance I attempted to give to myself—that I thought I was giving to myself.

Not getting sustenance drained me; the light in my eyes went out, my behavior changed, and I started noticing subtle changes in everything about myself. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. Eventually, other people started to also notice, adding to my low self-esteem. Eventually, I was so worn out, exhausted, drained, and hurt I felt as though I was at the end of my rope feeling there is no end to the suffering.

Trauma will rob you of everything you are, if you let it.

I did not realize that denying myself the right to heal would turn me into such a wreck. I thought I would put it away, and go on with life. I lived in a perpetuated state of busy, of doing, and never being. I was always consumed with tasks and maintaining my life. I was stuck in the future, because the present was too much to bear, and when things slowed down, the past would come out and devour me. I was too busy to truly connect with anyone, including my children. My nights were spent battling demons that left me tortured, exhausted, and depleted, and my days were spent trying to keep it all together.

I longed for the person I was before; I missed the way I was able to interact with my kids and soak up every moment in the present. I deeply grieved for the contagious laughter and humor that used to freely flow from my lips and sprinkle all over my friends and family. I missed how unguarded and vulnerable I could be in relationships, and the deep sense of togetherness and satisfaction that it left me with. I was trapped in a prison inside myself, and I still just couldn’t seem to find myself. My wounds bled all over those around me, no matter how pure my intentions were.

Eventually, I completely broke. By the time I stopped and allowed myself to practice mindfulness and self-awareness, the realities I was forced to look at and accept were brutal. I was blinded by the path of self-destruction I had left in my wake. It was then that I realized I needed to hurt. I needed to allow myself to feel the pain I had experienced, and I needed to love myself through it, ruthlessly and unconditionally. It took me a long time to realize: my trauma is not my fault, but healing it is my responsibility.

In order to take responsibility for my healing, I had to start with being deeply honest with myself. This was not an easy thing to do. The first couple of times I tried it, I allowed myself to push away the grief and shame that I felt and not accept them as reality, so I continued spewing my garbage all over those around me as I denied myself. Eventually, I was able to not only be honest with myself, but I was also able to except those realities about myself, and make the changes I needed to.

In order to heal, I needed to let it consume me. I needed to deal with my demons before they continued to deal with me. I denied my trauma, but it did not go away. It devoured me, and I was too checked out to even realize it.

Piece by piece, I began to put myself back together. When I did not know where to start, I just started by sitting with myself. I sat with my trauma, sadness, grief, rage, shame, guilt, sorrow, flashbacks, happiness, discontent—all of it. I sat with it even when I wanted to hide from it and especially when I thought that I may not survive it. I surrounded myself with the people who could remind me, in those moments, that I will survive, the people who I could be broken and vulnerable in front of. I sat with everything that arose, and I tried my hardest not to hide from it.

I tried to detach from my expectations of what was and what should have been, and deeply accept reality for what it was. I had been a victim, a victim of a terrible horrific crime, and that horrific act drove me away from myself. Slowly, I had the realization that the shame I was carrying around was not mine to carry.

Slowly, I was able to build my boundaries back up and rebuild my self-respect. By sitting with all of myself and providing even my most unlovable parts unconditional love, I started to regain the ability to protect myself.

I began to think of my traumatized parts the way I would think of a small child who is worthy of love and validation. I began to speak to myself the way you would speak to a small child who deserves respect and compassion. I began to behave in the same manner you would behave toward a small child, and was then able to provide myself with protection and boundaries.

Without my ability to be mindful of current emotions, I would not have been able to sit with them, identify them, and accept them.

That is where all the healing begins, in the place you spend all day running from.


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