My Grief and Loss Is Intertwined With My Mentally Illness

I admittedly don’t know what loss and grief are like for most people. I have been battling my mental illnesses my entire life, so I don’t know what it is like to exist without them. Whenever I hear people offering their condolences and reassuring others that it gets easier over time, I can’t help but wonder if that’s actually the truth for some people because I know it is not a universal truth. Things most assuredly don’t ever feel like they get any better for me.

I have struggled with many types of loss throughout my life. Loss of innocence stolen too soon. Loss of safety and security. Loss of home, relationships, friends. Loss of babies who grew inside me but never got to take a first breath. Loss of both my parents a decade ago. And most recently, the loss of both of my emotional support animals. To say I am intimately familiar with the feelings of loss and grief is an understatement.

My depression often leaves me teetering between periods when I am raw and over-emotional, feeling everything too strongly, and periods where I shut down and am numb to the world, unable to process any emotion at all. Because of this, my grief often comes in waves. When there’s a lull in the storm of emotions, I often assume my heart has begun to mend, only to have it tear wide open again as another wave hits. My numbness deceives me into believing the worst is over for days at a time, only to awaken one day feeling raw and overwhelmed once again. And as is often the case with rough seas during a storm, multiple waves often crash seemingly at once, as older pain rides in on the heels of new.

My anxiety makes me question every loss I have experienced and meter out assumed personal accountability for ever heartache I have ever experienced. I over-analyze and criticize myself for things I have convinced myself after the fact that I could have, should have done differently. I find myself worried again and again that my actions or inaction will repeat the patterns of old losses and create new ones. Yet, instead of those fears promoting change, they often spark my fight or flight response, causing me to flee. Or worse yet, I become like a deer frozen in the headlights, terrified that any choice I make, to stay or to go, to act or not act, will ultimately be wrong.

My PTSD has caused me to relive some of the more traumatic losses of my life multiple times over the years. When those moments are triggered again in my memory, it is as if I am reliving those experiences again in real time. Having a flashback of old losses renews and resets the whole trauma for me.

It is not that I am dwelling on the pain and losses of my life. I try to focus on positivity as often as possible. I have a mental wellness toolbox full of techniques and exercises intended to help keep me grounded and centered. I spend time with family and friends, partake in hobbies and activities, and otherwise attempt to distract my mind from the pain I often feel. I thoroughly embrace and practice the art of self-care. I never sit home intentionally focused on those feelings of loss and grief. Yet somehow, those emotions seem to know about every crack in my armor, seem to always find a way back in.

I am not intentionally avoiding facing my grief and loss, either. I have spent many hours over the years talking about my feelings in therapy. I have further processed my emotions many times over by writing about them and the impact they have had on my life. I am not walling myself up, building an unfeeling facade that cracks under the pressure of pain. I have attempted numerous times to process my emotions, to rationalize with myself and heal. But the healing never comes.

I have allowed myself to feel both sorrow and rage. I have forgiven myself and others. I have accepted that I cannot change the past. I have done every single cliched suggestion thrown out there about moving on and letting go.

I want to heal. I don’t want to keep hurting over so much in life. But I honestly don’t know how to shut any of it off. Every time I think it is over, another wave hits or a different wave. It could be a few hours, a few days, sometimes as long as a week. But those waves of grief and loss always manage to find me, old waves and new, compounding on each other and seemingly ever-increasing as my heart develops new cracks.

And the moments are so seemingly random and sporadic that there’s no way to brace for them or adequately prepare.

My fiance and I were binge-watching old seasons of Hell’s Kitchen and came upon an episode where the contestants were preparing a dinner service for a young lady’s sweet sixteen. As quick and as simply as flipping a switch, my entire mood and demeanor shifted. One moment, we were laughing and joking, engrossed in the show. The next, my eyes were welling up with tears. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I never got my sweet sixteen, the sweet sixteen my mother had promised me for years. Three months before my sixteenth birthday, my father walked out on our family and cut all ties. I tried numerous times between that February and my birthday in April to get in touch with him but he always dodged my calls. I called up his work on the day of my birthday, sure that he wouldn’t deny me on that day, only to hear him in the background tell his co-worker “tell her I’m not here”. My sixteenth birthday was the first time I tried to kill myself.

Just like that, every emotion, every feeling of heartbreak and loss came rushing back.

My fiance lost his father to cancer shortly after we got together. The cancer, the hospice, everything triggered the loss of my father again and again. He’s still grieving the loss of both his parents and every time I attempt to comfort him and ease his pain, my own grief for the loss of my own parents renews.

For the last decade, I had two sugar gliders registered through my doctors as emotional support animals. I could take them everywhere with me, which helped immensely with both my depression and anxiety. One passed away roughly three months ago, the other last week. Losing them was like losing part of my heart. I cried inconsolably and went numb in waves, sobbing until my eyes ran dry and my voice went hoarse more than once. I watched the clock with pained precision, unsure what to do with myself each day when feeding time rolled around. I beat myself up horrendously for the fact that they passed at all, as if I could have spared them old age and death by sheer willpower alone. The truth is that they hadn’t been sick at all. They were just old and the time runs out for all of us eventually. Yet I still felt to blame for them not living longer, not living forever. I found myself taking in two sugar glider rescues last night, not because I was over the loss of my Lilo and Stitch or because I assumed they would fill the hole that loss left in my heart, but simply because I desperately needed that distraction. I needed new babies to keep me busy, new babies to love and to care for, a new purpose to keep going. Their adoption was bittersweet, though, because I am still raw from losing my other babies. But at least when feeding time rolls around again, I have something to focus on other than my grief.

An old friend from high school killed himself. The last time I spoke to him was less than a week before he died. Whenever I think of him, I wonder whether he would still be here today if I had said anything differently or called to check on him again. It doesn’t matter that we had grown somewhat apart over the years, living separate lives, and barely talked anymore. We used to be close so I feel responsible because I didn’t maintain that friendship better, didn’t reach out more, didn’t try harder. The rational part of my brain knows that line of thinking is irrational, but a larger part of my brain and my heart just won’t let go of those thoughts.

So many things can set off waves of grief, some large and obvious, others seemingly small and trivial. I’ve found myself sobbing uncontrollably over Hallmark commercials or sights and sounds, songs or movies that reignite memories. Empathizing with the pain of others reignites my own. As simple as that, in a flash, those feelings refresh and the grief is renewed. I can be fine one moment, laughing and joking, and be biting the inside of my cheeks the next in a futile effort to fight back tears.

I know mental illness is a liar and a master manipulator, capable of twisting truths and spinning lies. I know deep down that I am not responsible, directly or indirectly, for many of the losses in my life and that hindsight is 20/20. But my rational side knowing these things does not stop these emotions from flowing or my grief from being felt. And therein lies the problem. I can rationalize all I want but I cannot shut these feelings off.

Perhaps I’m just wired differently. Perhaps I’ve been broken too many times, been cracked to the core so often that I am incapable of fully healing. Perhaps some wounds just never heal. I honestly don’t know. I just feel like I’m in perpetual mourning, eternally haunted by every loss I’ve experienced in my life, whether one at a time or intertwined and flowing as one.

I honestly don’t know if those promises that things will get better is an old wives tale, something people just say when the silence becomes too heavy and they need some words, any words, to cut the tension and the pain in the room. I don’t know if for some people it does actually get better over time. I just know that for me, as someone struggling with mental illness, grief and loss never seem to fully go away.

What it is Like When PTSD Gives You Flashbacks of Abuse

I had a flashback today.  They don’t happen very often, but when they do, they shake me to the core.

It started with an argument at home.  In a moment of anger and frustration as he stormed out of the room, he shoved a floor fan on the other side of the bed, knocking it over.  He hadn’t meant to scare or startle me.  In that brief moment of frustration, he had lashed out without thinking, not even realizing the effect it might have on me.

It was an instant trigger for me.

I know he has never hit me or laid his hands on me in any way and that he would never do such a thing.  I know he isn’t even normally explosive like that.  I know he’d never hurt me nor would he ever intentionally do anything to scare or trigger me. Yet, in that moment, everything I knew flew right out the window.

I was suddenly that 8 year old girl again, that girl that knew when things went flying it was only a matter of moments until the pain began.  I was that little girl again, scrambling off the bed and cowering in the corner of the room in a tight ball, wishing I could shrink down to nothing and fade away.  I was that girl again, panicked because my arms were too tiny to shield myself, that I didn’t have enough arms to block the whirlwind of hits and kicks I knew was inevitably coming.

I don’t know if my flashbacks are the same as other people’s because I wouldn’t dream to even ask anyone else with PTSD how their attacks play out.  I do know, though, that my mind works differently than many people’s.  You see, among other issues, I have a condition called aphantasia.  In simplest terms, I cannot visualize.  When most people are told to imagine an apple, they can create an image of an apple in their mind.  Though I know what an apple is and can list all types of factual things about an apple, I cannot form an image of one in my mind.  The same goes with memories.  I can list all types of facts about an occasion but I cannot create an image of it from memory.

Because of that fact, my flashbacks do not have images from my past.  My body, however, remembers other things.  I’ve always considered it a type of muscle memory of sorts, triggered by my PTSD.  My mind has retained how those blows felt raining down again and again so when I am pulled back into my past for a flashback, it is those sensations and memories and not visualizations that I experience again.

As I lay curled up in a ball in the corner, I swear I could feel that barrage of swings and kicks as if they were happening right that moment.  My ribs ached from blows delivered back when I was a child.  I struggled to catch my breath as the wind I breathed decades ago felt knocked out of me again.  I felt I needed to protect myself, shield my head and my body, bracing myself for damage long healed.  I could feel bruises blossoming on my skin as a far off voice that felt disconnected and not my own pleaded to not be hurt, cried for it to stop, begged to be left alone. I was trapped in that moment, reliving the abuse of my childhood.

I was vaguely aware of his presence and of disjointed words being said that seemed to disperse before they ever reached my ears.  Though some small part of me recognized his presence, he felt no more real at that moment than I did.  The only thing that felt real was that scared little child who desperately wanted to protect herself from any more hurt.

It felt very akin in a way to the sunken place described in that movie Get Out, where a part of myself was watching and witnessing from afar, though disconnected and unable to do a thing.  I felt trapped in the past, cemented into a nightmare from my childhood, lost within my own head.

A small fragment of my consciousness wanted to scream that this isn’t real, to force myself awake and claw my way back to reality.  But it felt so real.  It was like I was trapped drowning in a memory, unable to catch my own breath.

After what felt like an eternity, I was slowly able to wrestle my way back to myself.  I sat there in the corner, shaking and sobbing, rubbing and squeezing my arms and legs, trying to convince myself that I was myself again, back in the present.  I kept reminding myself it was over, I was safe, that none of that had really just happened.  But it felt so real.  My ribs still ached as if blows had recently landed and my limbs all still stung as if they were bruised.

I sat on the floor, shaking and crying for almost an hour, searching deep within for the strength to even pull myself up off the floor and onto the bed.  I was mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted from my journey back in time.  I felt like I was freezing.  My teeth chattered whenever I tried to close my mouth, though it was not from the cold.  I was shaken to the core by the whole experience.

I eventually eased myself back up onto the bed and pulled the covers protectively around myself though they did nothing to stop the chill that went down to my bones or to quiet the sobs that still wracked my body.  He held me, doing his best to comfort and soothe me, apologizing again and again for ever even getting upset, pleading for me to talk to him, to let him know I was okay.  It was the first flashback episode of mine that he had witnessed and it scared and shook him to the core as much as it had me.

I laid here in bed, thinking about how badly I needed to share this experience, to try and explain what it was like while it was still fresh in my mind.  I wanted to explain the fear and the terror before the inevitable numbness set in and I shut down in order to recover and recuperate.  I know I didn’t truly go back in time, but I felt just like that little girl again, experiencing one of the many beatings I had endured all over again as if it was happening right in that moment.

I had a PTSD flashback today.

It may have been all in my mind, but it felt devastatingly real to me.

mamamia

Republished on MamaMia on 4/14/18.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 4/18/18.