Note: On the morning of March 22, 2016, my husband and I were in the Brussels airport bombings as we were checking in for our flight. This, and several other blog posts, reference those attacks and the trauma that followed. We both walked away from the attacks physically unharmed but the emotional and psychological tolls felt extreme. Over the past year, and under the guidance of professional care, it has been a process to work through these. I have, for the most part, kept this process private though I hope to begin writing more about how slowly recovering from this trauma has opened up some freedom from lifelong anxiety issues.
For anyone suffering from anxiety or in the recovery process from trauma, please talk to someone about it—preferably a medical professional or trusted loved one who can help you find the resources you need. No one should suffer in silence, and mental health and resilience are basic standards of healthcare that should be prioritized for everyone. Not sure where to start? Here are a few resources: Sidran Institute, National Institute of Mental Health, research-backed Mindfulness Meditation, “Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth”, and Mental Health America.
And, of course, in today’s political climate, please help be an advocate for mental health care.
For the most part, it’s difficult to talk about where I am in the healing process because it’s such an amorphous, slippery thing. From moment to moment things can change and sometimes what’s penned down in one moment can feel foreign the next.
But the world is grieving and suffering, so much violence and sadness both in our backyards and far away. I do not have enough sorrow in me to dig to the depths of what has been happening. My sadness has been plucked over and over again like a fraying string, but it will never snap. It will just keep stinging and hurting.
We feel most deeply that which is most easily accessible or imaginable to us, and right now what I feel is pain and sorrow for the survivors. I know the path that lies in front of them, and the months (or perhaps years – I don’t know yet) of recovery to face.
Imagine something distasteful or offensive. Perhaps a sore point for you, a past hurt or an insecurity. When that chord is struck by a stimulus – an off-color joke, a criticism, a slight from a loved one – you feel it physically. Maybe a little lurch, maybe a twist in your insides. Some people feel a clenching of the throat or the fists. Your body reacts physically, even if it’s just a tiny little flicker of energy.
Now imagine that moment but intensified. A punch in the stomach. A tidal wave of intense fear. The feeling that you are trapped. And imagine that the stimulus is happening all of the time, all around you. Headlines, Facebook rants, casual conversation in line at the grocery store, breaking news updates on every TV at the gym. Imagine you are surrounded by the thing that is not just in bad taste or plucking at some insecurity, but something that genuinely scares you. And you cannot get away from it. Violence becomes something that you assume, and something that you obsess over. The stimulus launches you back into a place of terror, where the scenes play over and over and over again. Imagine it takes incredible feats of mental strength to pull yourself out of that moment and back to the present.
You can try to curate your world. You can log off of Facebook and Twitter, selectively read news stories, refuse to watch 24-hour news channels (seriously, I’d get behind pretty much any candidate whose platform it was to demolish the 24-hour news industry), and ask your friends and family to help protect you. To alert you when it’s time to take a news hiatus, to cut into conversations that start to veer into dangerous territory, or to put a hand on your back to steady you in a public place. You can do all of these things diligently, but eventually you concede that you cannot live in this world and shield yourself from it all of the time. Things will leak in. In order to engage with the world, because engagement is what helps healing, you have to learn how to accept the bad with the good.
The healing process is painful and mysterious. It’s a cycle of pain, talking yourself out of pain, bringing yourself back to the present where there is no pain, more pain, more talking, more mindfulness, more pain. It’s mental gymnastics that are exhausting both to you and to people who care about you who are trying to figure out what they can do to help and what will hurt. It means you will be tired a lot of the time and have to take extra good care of yourself, because letting yourself get too tired, or too hungry, or too overstimulated can set you back in the process. You are IN your body and you are a slave to the process of healing from trauma.
(All of this, of course, is by no means a primer or a “standard” example of trauma and healing. Everyone’s experiences are unique. This is mine.)
The good news is that there is hope. The good news is that with each passing day, if you allow yourself to fully engage with this process and you have the luxury of a general base of good healthful habits, you will get stronger. You will find new depths of sorrow but new heights of joy. You will find within you an empathetic well that can and will make you a better person and the best part is that the more you draw from this well, the more plentiful it is. There is hope in love, in passion, in remembering to factor in the good parts of the world. There is hope in friends, family, nature, ice cream, wine, books, writing, whatever it is that brings you back to the present moment.
This process is a confusing one, ugly at times. There is bitterness and anger and grief. Oh, the grief. Every time I think have reached the edge of it, I pass into another uncharted landscape. Grief is vast, it is both untouchable and impossible to climb out of.
One of my favorite people, Cassie, is beautiful with her grief. She doesn’t apologize for it, she’s the queen of mindfulness, and also the expert in understanding how to be gentle with yourself and that you will make mistakes. She is a survivor in every sense and also a reminder that the process can be artful and natural. You’ll never be “normal” again (as in – your status quo prior to the trauma) but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Your new normal can be richer, bigger, more painful, but also more joyful.
Most importantly in all of this, Cassie is brave. She is a teacher even if she doesn’t want to be, and her openness about her grief is a relief because healing can be such a lonely thing. Everyone has to fight this battle alone to some extent because everyone’s process is different, but there is intense solidarity in finding others who are in the healing process.
I feel for the survivors who, these days, are all of us. We are all grieving, we are all scared, we are all trying to heal and make sense of tragedy. It feels impossible when it comes in waves that seem to be from every angle. There is solidarity in this sadness and fear. There is a desperate need for hope and joy and peace. We may not have control over when and how those things come, but we do have control of what we’re putting out into the world. Love, sweet love. Humor. Pictures of cats on the Internet. Throwing a filter on your profile picture to outwardly display your grief. Whatever helps.
To those who are fighting the silent (or not-so-silent) battle of recovery from trauma, my heart is with you. Every day is a new front, every day is a new opportunity. This work is not for the weak. And we are not. Be patient with yourself if you are healing, and if you are a friend or family member then be patient with the person in question. Understand that you/they may not always know what is needed from moment to moment, and that this is a learning process for everyone. Most of all, if you are grieving and healing (those can and should be simultaneous), I hope you find the space to talk about it whether through professional counseling (THANK GOD!!) or with others in the process or through journalling, painting, poeting, or whatever medium feels right to you.