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CW: Mental Illness and Trauma (I don’t get specific in this post with stories of trauma, though I do talk about the physical impacts of trauma)
It’s Mental Health Month.
Today, I’m going to talk about my mental illness. — and —
I’m going to talk about how we talk about mental illness. — and —
I’m going to talk about how I want to talk about my mental illness.
And because I want to talk about how I want to talk about my mental illness, I’m going to begin with story, identity, body, and life.
I am a Trauma Survivor.
And within this experience, I have had C-PTSD.
Over the last few decades, people have come to understand a lot more about trauma and PTSD. This is so helpful, as this has led to more compassion, sensitivity, accommodation, and advocacy. The C is an added term for some; it stands for ‘Complex.’ This does not necessarily mean that one’s mental illness is more complex, but rather, more particular, because the trauma itself is more complex. ‘C’ or ‘Complex’ is the marker for long-lasting trauma, as opposed to short-term trauma events. (We also know that short-term trauma events can be debilitating, and these deserve our compassion).
I am a Trauma Survivor.
I want you to know that I’m proud of who I am.
I survived trauma experiences that lasted multiple decades. These are stories that I am able to tell, and I feel empowered in telling them as I share them in relationship and make meaning of what I have learned. (Please also keep in mind that some do not wish to share, and sharing is not necessary for healing. Those who do wish to share should be able to do so on their own timetable and in ways of their own choosing).
I am not equated with my trauma history, but I have lived through these experiences, and I’ve integrated them into who I am and how I operate within the world.
I’m proud of who I am, and I’m proud of the life I have cultivated in response.
I also don’t need to tie any of this in a perfect bow.
These experiences have impacted the whole of my body.
My body has carried chronic stress over very long periods of time, and I have lived with a dysregulated nervous system for most of my life. In the midst of this, I also learned how to be remarkably resilient to stress, and I found many ways to cope with what I did not yet know to name as a dysregulated nervous system.
But all of this left an impact too.
When I was in my mid-20s, several circumstances came together which created conditions for me to really feel the chronic stress I had carried for so long. My body began to act in ways that did not quite make sense to me, and frankly, that was scary. It was helpful when I had a diagnosis because I discovered that I did, in fact, absolutely make sense. I learned how physical this could be, impacting the whole body, and I had a framework to name and describe what I was experiencing, like,
insomnia (this was especially intense for me during that time period)
somatic illness, and
the inability to concentrate.
C-PTSD was most pronounced and most symptomatic for me during a year and a half in my mid-20s. It got much larger than I could handle, and I came very close to not finishing my class work for seminary. The vast majority of people, however, never saw signs of this. I have always been very skilled in hiding illness (See this story about that) a skill, by the way, that I do not want to celebrate, as no one should have to do this. I’ve also been pretty skilled in pushing through (likewise, no one should have to push themselves too hard). I managed to finish after all and won a significant fellowship upon commencement. Most people could not see how deeply this was impacting me.
In the summer that followed, all of these symptoms were at their strongest after they had already persisted for a long time — imagine a year without adequate sleep! — and I bottomed out physically in ways that became remarkably dangerous to my health.
It was very challenging.
At the very same time,
My body wasn’t static.
In the years that followed, with help, I was able to move in directions that were healing. Therapy was helpful. Meditation and mindfulness were helpful. EMDR was helpful. Somatic bodywork was helpful. For two different periods of time, anti-anxiety medications were helpful. I am grateful.
And to these, I want to say two things:
1) I was privileged to have insurance that paid for these necessary forms of care. Everyone deserves this.
2) I reached a healthier plateau, but there is no marker of health or wellness that makes one “successful” or makes one’s pathway “normative.” These kinds of beliefs and larger narratives are ableist. People deserve care, inclusion, compassion, dignity, and self-determination however they exist in their bodies.
This is so important.
I don’t need to tie any of this in a perfect bow.
Some symptoms of my trauma history have faded, but I also carry impacts and have particular needs too. Flashbacks are very rare. Not non-existent, but very rare. In the midst of stress, if I’m not purposeful and intentional about it, insomnia can still become a challenge. I try to gauge that very intentionally.
I am happy. I am even joyful. I have been for a long time.
This is a gift.
And… I have a compromised nervous system. To make a comparison, some people have compromised immune systems and have to gauge their environment. I have a compromised, sensitive nervous system. In the midst of this, I maintain particular rhythms and have to avoid certain things too.
And this is okay.
In naming my mental illness —
for me, and for many, an illness of the whole body —
I do not deserve
Too often, this is exactly how we treat people with mental illnesses.
I am a Trauma Survivor.
My life deserves
I am proud of who I am.
I deserve this.
And so do you.
And so does everyone.