We talk about mental health issues because it helps us — and others — to know we’re not alone
Originally posted on Medium By Nikki Kay
“People who go on and on about how messed up they are seem like they’re just looking for attention or sympathy.”
“At some point you have to grow up and get over it.”
How many times have you heard these arguments used against survivors of childhood trauma?
After all my work recovering from my own childhood and speaking out about trauma recovery, it will come as no surprise how close to home these comments hit every time I hear them. I feel indicted by these words, but I also feel guilty because I used to hold the same views myself — before I began to realize how the trauma I sustained as a child shaped my behavior over years and decades, without my being any the wiser.
Childhood traumatic experiences often replay in adulthood
I am thirty-eight years old. I have children of my own. A house, a car, a job, all the grown-up things. Yet when my mother texts me I still get a pang of childish apprehension before I see the message. Am I in trouble?
I’ve been out of the house now for longer than I was in it. I’ve had drug habits, abusive relationships, and an eating disorder. Yet until just a couple years ago, I blamed all these things on my addictive personality, my inadequacy, and my lack of willpower.
I’ve lost pregnancies, pets, and relatives. I’ve graduated, gotten married, and had babies. Yet a single thought — or even a smell — can transport me back to when I was eight, or 12. The fear I felt when I was locked in a shed as my much-older cousin wielded a huge knife, and the helpless rage I felt when my mother cornered me with her hateful words, feel just as real to me now as the joy and sadness from these other events.
I still occasionally say and do odd things that are inappropriate in professional or social context, just because I was never taught any better. I still binge eat, I still find it hard to make friends, and I still cry and shake uncontrollably when I’m angry.
There is no expiration date on the effects of trauma. Telling a survivor of childhood trauma to grow up can actually worsen things, making them feel like a helpless child all over again.
Recovery is not linear, and it’s never over
I say this a lot, but it’s only because I need a lot of reminders — so I don’t think you’ll mind a reminder every once in awhile as well:
There is no such thing as recovered.
Therapy helps us intellectualize what’s happened to us. Talking and thinking about our past, and about the systems our unconscious minds designed to compensate for it, helps tremendously. But it doesn’t heal us, not completely.
Even with the best plastic surgery, you will always have a little scar, a tender spot. And if the weather changes, or if it gets rubbed just right, you still feel it. A reminder of the time cleaning your new knife set bought you a trip to the emergency room, or the time you fell down in your auntie’s car and bit through your lip. And every time you clean the knives, or climb over the seat in an SUV, you remember. You get a tingle of pain, a ghost of the nerve you sliced in two. You rub it, fuss over it for a while. You think that might make it feel better, but all it really does is aggravate it.
So it is with recovery. You’re around old people, and you remember. You go through a similar situation with new people, and you remember. So you backslide, you have a setback, you fall back into old patterns. These paths are long-trodden and it’s almost impossible to walk alongside them without sliding down into the canyon.
Generational trauma can further complicate things. Trauma, abuse, mental illness, addiction — they can all create a self-perpetuating cycle. And when you watch your parents, cousins, grandparents, aunties and uncles — and the crowd they all run with — struggle with all the same issues, you might be tempted to believe that’s just the way things are. It’s hard to gather up the motivation to get healthy when there’s not an example of a healthy person in sight.
It can be frustrating to our loved ones. “I thought you were over this,” they might say. “Oh, not this again,” they might think. That way of thinking just adds to our feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Listen, I get it. It can be hard to love someone with a mental illness. It can be hard to understand someone who is in recovery from trauma, substance abuse, an eating disorder, or whatnot. It can be hard to have the patience to witness this irregular trajectory of recovery, especially as periods of calm bring us all a great sense of relief only to throw us back into the tornado when the winds change.
It can be hard to watch a loved one struggle. But if you’re going to do it, you need to understand that, for us, it’s never over, as convenient as it would be if it were.
*Talking about our struggles helps us feel kinship, for once
For as long as I can remember, there was a voice in my head, telling me I had no business feeling traumatized. Others are subjected to literal voices attached to real-live people, continually minimizing their experiences.
Sometimes it’s because, in someone’s judgment, the struggles aren’t extreme enough to warrant such an emotional response. Sometimes, the people around us just don’t believe mental health is a thing. I actually read a Twitter comment the other day where someone asked if there was data supporting the importance of mental health.
When I began writing about my own mental health struggles, I had to start out with a lot of self-affirmations. I had to give myself permission to feel the way I felt, and I had to stop hedging about my own feelings because people had it worse than I did. And what started happening was pretty remarkable.
Story after story, readers would comment. “I’ve felt this way too,” or “I went through the same thing,” or “This hits very close to home.” The more vulnerable the story, the more comments I received and the deeper my connection grew with other survivors and the mental health community as a whole.
A couple months ago I published a very vulnerable story about the early sexualization I went through as a result of seeking love and attention I wasn’t getting where I needed it. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you’ve likely read it. A scroll through the article reveals nearly the entire nine-minute piece has been highlighted by someone or other. Many of the 29 comments say something like “This is me,” or “I could have written this story.”
These words, these feelings — they resonate with people.
If it looks like people who talk about mental health are looking for attention or sympathy, maybe that’s because we are desperately seeking someone — a community of someones — who can see us, hear us, understand us, and take us for who we are instead of who they wish we could be.
I connected with my closest friend, and really the only friend I’ve made since I had kids, over our shared traumatic pasts. We often found ourselves telling each other details of our lives that we wouldn’t share with most people. Finally, we’d found someone who could hear us. Someone we could identify with. Talking about our trauma was healing for us, and it helped us forge a strong relationship.
Processing our pasts is essential for moving forward, and people process in a variety of ways. I write essays and poetry; some people make music or visual art. Some people climb mountains or swim across huge bodies of water or jump out of planes. However we choose to process, the act can help us develop a great deal of self-awareness, which often leads to even more processing. Talking about our struggles isn’t a way to say, “Poor me!” Instead, it’s a way of putting words to experiences which have weighed on us for — in some cases — decades.
Telling a survivor to get over it does nothing but harm
I live my life very much in the present and future. I clean my house and cook meals and play with my kids and write my articles and books, and all in all I am a happy person with a happy life. I’m not sitting around waiting for something I think is owed to me because of my traumatic past. I’m not walking around being a sh***y person because of what I went through when I was a kid.
But I’m not over it, either. And, as uncomfortable as it might make some people to hear about your mental health struggles, you don’t have to be over your sh*t either.
While there are still people in this world suffering from abuse, addiction, trauma, and all the other things that hurt, I am going to be here, lending my voice to remind you that you’re not alone in this. I’ve been where you are, feeling lonely and inadequate and broken and judged. It’s okay to be hurting, and it’s okay to acknowledge that your life has been unconsciously controlled by these feelings.
Listening to the voices that try to minimize these feelings is going to hurt you more in the long run, I guarantee it.
Maybe it will be okay one day. But it’s not anyone else’s job to decide for you when that day should be.
Nikki Kay is a writer, educator, and mental health advocate from New England. She writes about the intersection of mental health and parenting with an emphasis on trauma recovery. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook: @NikkiKayAuthor
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.
*Learning to talk about your mental health can be difficult; especially when you do not know who to talk to. You are not alone. There are many groups with trained staff and volunteers ready to listen 24/7. Here is the link to a list that can help you get started.