Heads up for talk of trauma and violence. ALSO this is based on my own experiences and reflections and is not meant to supplement or replace anyone’s work with a mental health professional.
Since starting my career as a social worker, I have heard a lot about self-care. In social work school, it seemed like a joke because sometimes I barely had time to pee, never mind take a bubble bath or whatever it was that they suggested I do (hint: it wasn’t really take a bubble bath but some suggestions seemed just as ridiculous to me).
Then I graduated and had a bunch more free time, which was awesome. I didn’t have a ton of money to spare but the fact that I could leave work and not have to do more work (save when I was on-call) was basically like winning the lottery. But I found that often times I didn’t know what to do with myself. People talk about self-care while throwing out generic ideas of what that means, like yoga and getting enough sleep. And sure those are nice things to do and they are a part of self-care but they are not, in and of themselves, self-care.
To me, self-care is more about being self-aware. I’ve always had some amount of self-awareness but it has increased exponentially over the past ten years, especially the last five years. Ten years ago, I had some but it was definitely not enough. Not enough for a young woman with a trauma history who didn’t feel safe in her new neighborhood and worked an intense job as a mental health paraprofessional. And so when some additional trauma was added to my trauma plate and I lacked sufficient self-awareness, I crashed. Like really crashed, like unable-to-function-crash.
So would regular yoga and a diet of organic, healthy foods have prevented this crash? I doubt that, in and of themselves, they would have. For starters, I would have struggled to afford either of those options. And yes they would have helped to some extent. But the fact of the matter is that in the months leading up to the crash, my mind and body gave me several warning signs but I didn’t recognize them or I thought I could handle it. So when my nightmares became frequent and spilled into my waking life, I had little awareness of why that was happening to me. I tried to drive it all away and ignore it, but eventually it got to a point where I no longer could.
In hindsight, I realize I was terrified and had been for almost a year. But I wasn’t acknowledging that, never mind processing or coping with it. I mean I was 22/23, how much self-awareness do any of us have at that age? At 23 years old, I chalked it up to stress and loneliness and tried to carry on as usual. In reality, I needed to give myself time and space to cope with recent traumas. But I both ignored and struggled to recognize the warning alarms my own biology was setting off.
Finding time and space to process and heal is of course no small task. I struggle to find those commodities more now than ever before, and I don’t even have kids yet! For me, I have to incorporate the right balance of intentionality and authenticity into my recovery. What helps is past work I’ve done on myself. I have a very different take on my life and emotional experiences. When I have nightmares and intrusive thoughts now, I listen to them. I think about what they’re telling me. I don’t fight them but instead I try to have a relationship with them.
It is not easy. It is unpleasant. I’ll be having a perfect lovely day, enjoying the great outdoors when I’ll suddenly be flooded with violent images. The natural reaction is to turn away or try to purge them. At first I think “What is wrong with me?” or “Why is this happening now?” But then I pause and re-think “Why is this happening now?” I try to remember if anything particularly difficult happened recently or even if I was reminded of anything difficult recently. More often than not, the answer is yes and so it’s not so much what is wrong with me but what is wrong that’s happened to me or that I have witnessed in some capacity. It helps me to reframe it this way and remember I am having a normal response to abnormal, unsettling experiences.
Usually I don’t have to do much more than make room for these thoughts and acknowledge the difficult things I’ve heard or seen or experienced. Because – and this is what we so often forget – our negative experiences take up a lot of space and they need room. Unfortunately they won’t go away just because we want them to. Instead they will resurface ten times bigger and louder than before and also likely in some distorted manner. This happens until we have no choice but to pay attention. I find it’s better to welcome them from the start. Perhaps welcoming them is cliché but, if you think about it, welcoming these thoughts is giving you some empowerment. You have control over how and when they impact you. If you instead push them out or distract yourself then the chances of you having control over when and how these experiences impact you will likely diminish.
Self-care/self-aware also means being conscious of what triggers you. You know those pesky issues/memories/etc that make you feel all out of whack with just a mere reminder of them. But. Knowing what triggers you also means you can prepare yourself. So if seeing a certain relative dredges up past shiznit, you can prepare yourself for that ahead of time. Or if you experience something unusually bad, you can gently remind yourself that you may experience some trauma symptoms soon. Sometimes trauma takes awhile to catch up with you but the more aware you are, the more you’ll be able to recognize no matter how long or what form it takes. And this level of awareness doesn’t come by ignoring, distracting or numbing. It comes through paying attention.
And hey now, if you are prone to distraction or numbing, do not I repeat do not berate yourself. These are normal, automatic reactions to events that overwhelm one’s capacity to cope. In fact, they are coping strategies for when all else fails. It’s just that, to the best of your ability, try to notice when you engage in those coping strategies. Just ones that have perhaps some unpleasant and unintended consequences.
I know for me when all other coping techniques fail, I’m prone to ignoring and distraction. When I crashed, it was because I just tried to keep so busy to the extent I had no time to think about, never mind process the stressors in my life. I am someone who likes to do things (though I can also bang out a weekend on the couch like it’s my job) but I know I need to do everything in moderation, including lounging on the couch. So sometimes I disappear from this blog. Because to an extent, this blog is an amazing, cathartic outlet for me. But if done in excess, it becomes consuming and draining and that’s not good for anyone.
So does it suck to have a nice apple-picking excursion turn into thoughts of how many people have likely been assaulted in an apple orchard? Um, yes. But I know it’s going to suck a lot more if I try to drive these thoughts from my mind. The thoughts and reactions, after all, aren’t going anywhere. They happen to me for a reason and they are waiting for me to catch on to that. So I don’t want to wait for them to become so big and bothersome that I’m completely consumed by them. It’s so much less difficult to make a little room, acknowledge them and be gentle, give myself some psychological first aid and tlc. Because really, underneath it all, that’s all these thoughts are asking of me. They are merely a reminder to be self-aware and take self-care.