Aiming for Even Keel as I Sail These Troubled Waters

One of the interesting (ahahahahahahahaha.. haha… ha…) parts of recovering from trauma is the way you can quickly slip between old modes of thought and new ones. It happened to me just the other day (the day before this went up) in the middle of a conversation with a friend who was checking up on me. I was increasingly dour as she tried to be supportive, sinking down ever faster as she tried to drag me back to the neutral mind frame I’ve been trying to cultivate lately.

Literally in the middle of typing an extra depressed response about how it felt like everything has always been bad, everything is bad, and everything will be bad, I realized exactly why I’ve been spiraling downward today. I hit send on the whiny message I was halfway through typing and then changed course, letting her know I appreciated her help and had figured out what was going on.

I’d had a conversation with my sister the night before–Monday night–about our shared childhood, the traumas we’d endured, how we’d individually coped with the household we grew up in, and how our relationship with our parents was going in this day and age. I’m not going to go into specific since they’re not all my stories to tell, but our mental health journeys are more parallel than tangential, so we have a lot to talk about most days that we’ve both got the energy to do it.

It was a conversation I wanted to have and I 100% do not regret having, but I definitely didn’t practice proper self-care after it. The problem with having conversations like that is they take me back to the experiences I had and the person I was back when they happened. I’ve probably mentioned it previously, but one of the side effects of the trauma of my childhood is that almost all of my memories are in first-person. I don’t so much as remember what happened in my life so much as reimmerse myself in the experience of what happened. This is typical of traumatic memories, in fact it is sort of what drives most PTSD responses to trauma since any related stimulus can put a traumatized person back in that moment in their head, but it’s very rare in non-traumatic memories.

Because all my memories are stored as these sort of immersive trauma experiences, a trip down memory lane isn’t just a trip to me. It’s a clinging tide of emotion and pain that threatens to pull me down in the swirling vortex of hopelessness and grim survival that marked those years of my life. Pulling out these memories, remembering them, and processing the emotions that have been locked in those frozen moments of my past is a part of my healing journey, but I typically do it in a clinical setting, with my therapist guiding me to make sure I put them all away at the end of the session.

My mental imagery involves cleaning up my mental space, actually. Each session starts with me finding the barrel of memories and experiences, cracking it open, dumping it out, and then picking up the bits we’re going to work on. After we’ve finished working on them, I put the bits that are finished on a shelf with the other finished bits, sweep up the mess, and put it all in a new barrel that I glue and staple shut. It works really well for therapy, when used in conjunction with some other stuff like EMDR, sensory-based mental imagery to calm me/ and a few other therapy/meditation techniques I’ve picked up over the years, but it is ultimately just a metaphor. There’s no real barrel.

Which means that I can open up the barrel and start rifling through the contents without realizing it. It’s pretty difficult because it usually takes someone who has experience with the memories I’ve got stuck inside the barrel starting a conversation about said memory, but it’s not impossible. Sometimes it happens if something has a strong emotional resonance with one of the stowed memories. Sometimes I do it on purpose because I want to talk to my sister about the things we endured or explain why she might not remember something she knows happened, but I don’t realize that I smashed open the barrel and left my mind cluttered with the detritus of every emotional issue I’ve uncovered to work through in therapy.

Yesterday, I was stuck in the past, despite not once thinking about my childhood, my brother, or my parents (at least until I realized what I’d done) because I’d immersed myself in my past the night before. I grew more despondent and depressed as the day wore on because we’re in a really bad place these days that seems to mostly be getting worse due to idiocy, incompetence, willful ignorance, and blatant corruption. According to my mind and my (metaphorical) heart, I was still trapped in my parents’ house, trying to validate my mother while managing my brother’s outbursts so no one got hurt but me, and the world I’d always dreamed of escaping into was essentially burning down around my ears as the majority of my state’s senate attempts to sue the government out of good, practical, SAFE AND NECESSARY restrictions on businesses and public access in a naked, corrupt, and repugnantly evil power grab.

When I was younger, up to when I left for college, all I had was hope that things would be different when I finally got away. They were different. Much better, even, despite all the horrible things that happened as I navigated my way through true independence and my college experience. I had some pretty great moments during those four years of college and the six months I worked there after graduation. All of my best friends were made those years. Some of my proudest moments happened in college. The deepest love I ever had happened in those years, even though it eventually soured and went toxic. I felt seen and loved and appreciated most days, which is more than I can say even now (I know I’m seen and loved and appreciated, but that’s unfortunately a different from feeling it), but that’s not to say that my last six years since moving to where I live now have been bad.

I’ve got a great group of friends, some excellent coworkers, an amazing boss who is willing to listen to my crazy ideas and help find ways to make them work instead of saying why they won’t, and more financial security than I ever thought I’d have even as I’m currently scrounging to save money in case I’m furloughed longer than expected. I’ve had a pretty good eleven years since I left my parents’ house for college.

When I get caught up in the past, it’s like those eleven years never happened and, thanks to my years of therapy and the work I’ve been doing with my therapist, I can quickly clean up the mess and pull myself out of that mindset when I realize it’s happening. It takes a bit for my emotions to finish sorting themselves out, but it’s still a pretty quick adjustment. It’s a difficult experience to explain, but I’d say it’s like those nightmares you have when you’re trying to run somewhere, but you can’t move very quickly no matter how hard you try, but in this case you can realize that you’re dreaming and that this is a nightmare, allowing you to sort of reshuffle things so you can either run properly or step entirely away from the nightmare.

Even that description doesn’t quite do it justice, since there’s a lot more involved in going from being unable to run to choosing between running properly or leaving the nightmare entirely (which, to break out of the metaphor, would be to address whatever emotions are behind this period of reimmersion or to step away from your emotions entirely so you can catch your breath and rest before trying to address anything).

But it’s quick, it’s a little startling to experience, and it is becoming more and more a part of my life as I find myself in the uncomfortable teen years of my mental health journey. This is the time where I can suddenly reach the top shelf in the kitchen and suddenly start banging my hangs on ceiling fans. My proprioception is all out of whack and I’m pretty sure I’ve got more knees and elbows than any human should.

It’s nice to think about being able to feel like this all the time, though. Effortlessly neutral and like I’m actually in control of my feelings rather than at their mercy. I would love to get used to this.

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