9.4
December 8, 2020

When Emotional Trauma shows up as Anxiety & Depression.

I used to find myself in the bathroom, throwing up before new events.

I wasn’t able to leave the house because my brain told me today would be the day I died in a horrific car crash, and I believed it. I had overwhelming fear, massive off the charts anxiety, and let’s throw in some obsessive-compulsive disorder just for fun—which is not fun at all.

I was as a teen the first time I was prescribed medication for anxiety and depression. The two go hand in hand, as my doctor revealed to me. I was taking Prozac in the 90s, when I was at the point where I would do anything to feel happy and for the dark cloud to go away.

I didn’t realize that drinking and drug use is frowned upon when taking Prozac and that it can take weeks of daily use for it to level out our serotonin levels and create an overall feeling of happiness and well-being. I used to take two at a time while having suicidal—like thinking about driving my car off of the road—thoughts and then wait a week to do it again.

I wasn’t clear-headed enough from my dependence on substances to take medication each day. I wasn’t rational enough to follow a doctor’s advice, and I honestly didn’t care enough to want to better myself on the long haul.

I believe that people, including myself, have to be at a certain level of their mental health to be able to first get out of bed, then possibly shower, then get some fresh air, eat properly, and if applicable, take a pill at the same time every day. The keywords are every day, and at that time in my life, I just wasn’t able to do that.

A few years later, I sobered up. I learned some tools, and I wasn’t feeling so alone and in such a dark place anymore. I let some people get to know me, and in turn, I was able to open up toward others. I could look outside of myself and not be consumed by the darkness and negativity that was eating me alive.

I recall someone close to me saying, “You always have excuses; you can’t see a way out. Your answer to everything is: but I can’t.”

My journal entries from that era were so negative and heavy. I was carrying around so much pain. I didn’t think that I could ever recover from all the hidden trauma and shame. I literally couldn’t play the character of being okay anymore. I needed to fall apart.

But how do we fall apart as parents, spouses, and members of society in general? Remember when we used to hear of people having nervous breakdowns all the time? I don’t hear that term anymore, but I’ll bet you money they are still happening. We are much more medicated as a society these days, but people are still breaking and broken.

We have many more distractions from our misery and loneliness with social media and the virtual world at our fingertips. We can blur our lives out by binge-watching TV and scrolling where previously we could not.

I don’t know about you, but pretty sure none of us have ever lived through a global pandemic until now. None of us, on top of our already stress-filled busy lives, have ever had the added stress of worrying about our health, loved one’s health, schools closing, proms and graduations being postponed, weddings and funerals being called off, and an overall feeling of isolation in not being able to hug friends, attend functions, go out to eat, and get together. Add masks and a lack of close proximity, and I am already grasping my chair, wondering what is next?

I ended up being on multiple types of medication for almost 20 years. I would try to get off and then get back on because the feelings always came back. I always needed to run from the feelings; they were so scary and came on so strong. I tried praying them away; I tried going outside and running them away, but I really didn’t have a clue on how to make them go away. For years, I talked incessantly to therapists. I felt better temporarily, but the feelings always came back up.

It wasn’t until I stopped to ask them what these feelings were trying to tell me. They asked me not to run, escape, or distract. My feelings urged me to start writing and sharing the deepest parts of me through hyperventilating tears.

I tried gratitude journals, which helped to a certain degree, and I do believe gratitude is great, but we also can’t pour sugar on our wounds for them to go away. I’m a huge fan and believer of a positive mental outlook, but we must not overlook the deep pain and trauma from our past. We must not overlook and pretend that we have not been wounded. We can make our gratitude lists all day, but in addition, we must do that deep, dark healing work that transmits lasting beneficial change.

I do believe I needed to be medicated, as I wasn’t ready to go deep. I had young children and was emotionally struggling. I had tried hypnosis, EMDR, Reiki, and multiple other therapy modalities, as well as multiple 12-step group programs. For me, it all worked, and it all got me to where I am currently, which is living a medication-free life of freedom from anxiety and depression for the most part. I have my days, but they are not weeks and months at a time where I am not functioning.

Clearing away the wreckage of our past is a popular term in AA, and I believe it. I believe that to be the root of our journey to freedom. When our bodies, nervous systems, and adrenal glands are overworked, we are carrying around so much baggage within us. When someone cuts in line at the market or in traffic, we are already at the top of our threshold for stress, and our anger can erupt out of nowhere. But when all of those vessels are primed and empty, then one little bothersome thing can roll off of our shoulders and doesn’t have to ruin our day.

I had to relinquish all of the false ideas I held about myself. At the root was the thought: I’m not good enough. I learned that as a small child. I heard it in a myriad of ways and felt it from various teachers and my parents. Everything I tried to accomplish was stained with those feelings of unworthiness and shame.

It came out in my interactions with others, and I only truly felt self-worth when I had a cute outfit or received a compliment. I was always seeking my worth from the outside world. I needed validation to feel like I had a place in this world. There was a deep dark gaping hole in my soul that I tried to fill up constantly.

It felt uncomfortable to live in my skin. I was fidgety and had a hard time looking people in the eye. I thought everyone could see how gross I was and where I had come from. I was wearing years of emotional and physical abuse—and I thought everyone could see how poor and unworthy of love I was.

Therapists would tell me time and time again that I wasn’t gross and that even without new clothes and hair and a nice car, I was worthy. I had worth, and I was a good person, but until I believed it myself, it meant nothing. All of the medicine in the world couldn’t bring me self-worth; it could only anesthetize me until I could find it on my own.

It wasn’t until I got brutally honest with myself about the pain inside of me and how abandoned I felt. I kept telling myself these things:

>> Many children of abuse live in a constant survival mode. They use denial and disassociation as tools to survive.  

>> It wasn’t that bad.

>> Others have had it much worse.

>> At least I’m here now.

>> Look how far I’ve come.

Those are all great ways to have an optimistic attitude, but they are not dealing with the true feelings that set us up for failure. Once we fill these thoughts with more context, they can become a tool for healing:

Admit to yourself it was bad. No one deserves to be treated that way. I deserved much better. It hurt when I didn’t get the love I needed. It hurt when I was left alone. It hurts to be rejected, yelled at, and abused. It hurt when my feelings weren’t acknowledged.

Process those feelings with someone you can trust. A therapist or close friend who will hold space for you and actually listen while not trying to fix you. The most important thing a therapist ever said to me was, “I am so sorry that happened to you.” I felt heard for the very first time.

Use writing as a tool for healing. Find something you can write in that you can burn or shred afterward. You want to write with no apprehension. Write like no one is watching—write your heart out. Write all of the things you would be too embarrassed if someone was to read it. Knock down all of those cobwebs in your psyche. The yuckier, the better. Write, write, write.

Get it out. Your load is too heavy. Surrender it all to your paper. Release and let it go. You are not what happened to you. You do not have to carry it all. Release all of your previous generations’ shame while you are at it. Forgive and move on.

Look at the bigger picture. Healing is not linear. Grief may pop up. Let it up and out.

Please do not do this alone. Reach out to find a 12-step group or a therapist if applicable. A trusted friend could be the next best thing. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to let those tears fall. Crying is cathartic and needs to be released.

There should be no shame around crying, but unfortunately, in our society, it can be seen as weak. The best thing I ever did was surrender to being vulnerable and open.

I think Jim Carrey had it right all along and found a good balance between these two aspects:

“I believe depression is legitimate. But I also believe that if you don’t exercise, eat nutritious food, get sunlight, get enough sleep, consume positive material, surround yourself with support, then you aren’t giving yourself a fighting chance.” ~ Jim Carrey

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