I was a very sensitive child and I remember, as an older child, catching sight of a bull fight on TV. I was somewhat traumatised, to say the least. The whole process of killing this bull was gratuitous and horrific and the revelation that this event had a real presence in the world, the world that I lived in, slapped me across the face. Hard.
My world was simple to begin with; safe and secure. But soon enough I learned there was much to fear in this life. With a vivid imagination and a penchant to be neurotically fearful, I thought a lot about what could go wrong.
One scenario I imagined was the death of someone close to me. I expect most of us did. I remember quite vividly being able to feel the pain of loss in that moment of imagining the reality and immediately thinking:
I could not survive that.
My son is five-years-old and starting to comprehend what death is. It’s tough watching his innocence begin to melt and to not be able to preserve him.
“I came here with a huge open heart, like a big, sweet dog…” Anne Lamott
I read the above quote in this article and it reminded me of the change we all go through when we learn facts about the world that incite fear. That fear is instinctive and self-preserving. Fear is not completely bad and unwelcome but necessary for our survival. Yet there are times in life when it can grow into something so obtuse we cannot function in a “normal” way.
Anne Shewring, a breast cancer survivor, talks in a Head Talks video about her experience of anxiety and depression following her recovery from the illness.
“And then, the planes crash, you get your diagnosis and you think, we won’t survive this, I won’t survive it, we won’t survive it. And then gradually you do survive it but the world has changed.” Anne Shewring
We can often focus on the traumatic event itself, just as I did as a child when I imagined it. Or we can focus on the process of grief and expect to just feel the usual feelings associated with it (sadness, numbness, anger, for example). Yet often there’s a period after where we can be faced with mental health issues we weren’t expecting. This can be referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and you can experience this after any trauma.
It can present as anxiety or depression or both and what can make it more intense and difficult to cope with is the fact you weren’t anticipating it. It’s nearly two years on and I suddenly develop panic attacks… It’s three years on and I feel depressed. I was immensely relieved because I survived, yet now I feel anxious.
In the video, Anne refers to her anxiety over her health but also she says something that is powerful. She explains:
“It’s now a different world, it’s a slightly less good world perhaps, because a) you know you can get this disease but also you know you could fall back into that mental blackness I’d never experienced before. I was like that for about 2.5 years.”
Before the trauma I was happy. It was easy to trust life, my health and that of those close to me because my experience gave me no reason to mistrust it. Then the trauma hits and a psychological wound is inflicted. The world is now not the same place that it was. The threat feels very immediate and intense. A normal part of grief is that you have to accept this new state of being without this person, but you’re naturally resisting it. It’s like a tug of war.
Recently, I was walking down the pavement to my son’s school thinking about my life as it is now. I suddenly felt angry, ‘I hate it, all of it.’ It was a strong feeling that went as quickly as it came because actually, I love my life. However, I experienced that resistance that says, ‘I hate one change that has occurred and I would give up the good changes if that would bring him back.’
I didn’t want this life. This new state of being. Not only that, but I know I could experience that suffering again and I don’t like a world where I can know such a bleak and desperate time. Suddenly, it’s hard to get up in the morning. It’s hard to wake up and think of anything other than what happened. It’s hard to feel any joy about life in general.
Instead, it’s easy to feel irrationally afraid. It’s easy to feel worried about the smallest things. It’s easy to devalue yourself because you think you ought to be OK by now. It’s easy to be misunderstood. It’s easy to feel alone.
Psychological wounds do heal. As time passes and you live as normal a life as you can manage. Your brain re-learns that the world is mostly OK. You realise that you survived. You coped. You did well. You are strong and have changed for the better in many ways. You start to focus on the good more than the bad. You start to feel happy again. But it’s a richer happiness. A deeply grateful happiness.
You savour it because you know that you don’t know what’s around the corner.
But somehow, you’ve learned to be OK with that.