6 Things I Wish I’d Known About Recovering From Emotional Trauma
As we pass our daughter’s November birthday, we also pass the anniversary of her near-death experience. The events which followed that experience overshadowed what was supposed to be a joyous time, leaving an everlasting mark on our lives. For the last three years, the holiday season has served as a time to reflect on all the events, good and bad, which have shaped me into the parent I am today.
With each year that passes my memory of some details fade. I suppose this is one gift of time fleeting away. However, one wish remains constant and intensifies with time. I wish someone would have talked to me about recovering from emotional trauma. I wish someone would have prepared me for what lied ahead. As our daughter moved through a complicated hospital stay filled with life support equipment, convoluted diagnoses and major surgery, I knew recovery was going to be a process. What I didn’t know is that her physical recovery was just one aspect of this new course our lives were on. What I didn’t know is that our progress was going to be painstakingly slow.
Just like anyone who’s been blindsided with an intense and life-altering event, it was going to take some time for my husband and me to recover. The initial ordeal was quick, intense and traumatic. My awareness and recollections of this disaster still, at times, leave me feeling alone. While this doesn’t really surprise me, the bombshell of experiencing an identity crisis was a shock. And one question still lingers: how much longer is this recovery process going to take?
1. I was caught off guard. Of course the events we experienced were an unexpected shock. There was no time for postpartum recovery, bonding or even a moment to truly experience being a new mother again. I was caught off guard by how unprepared I was, after spending months preparing for this birth. Although I knew there was nothing I could have done to prevent this from happening, I was unexpectedly hit by self-interrogating questions of what I could have done differently. I could have never anticipated the feeling of powerlessness and loss of control I felt. Although I was in an acutely fragile state, the element that took me by surprise was my strength. I unexpectedly found the relentless, strong-willed, determined and tenacious person whom I had tucked away only a few years prior. By rediscovering the very person, whom many had considered flawed, I tapped into an unshakable strength I never knew existed within myself.
2. I needed time for reflection. Once we arrived back home, I found myself feeling lousy. I was filled with an awful level of confusion. I was met with an unforeseen feeling of emotional numbness and felt spiritually disjointed. I quietly experienced flashbacks and uncomfortable moments of emotions flooding my mind. I didn’t expect to experience these things with such intensity. Had I known that what I was going through was normal and productive, would I have fought it so hard? By allowing myself ample time to reflect, I stumbled upon acceptance. I never predicted that by allowing myself to look back on our experiences I would one day make sense of everything and finally feel comfortable enough to stop asking the question, “Why?”
3. I had to allow myself to grieve. This life-altering event was abounding in negative experiences. But someone hit the delete button on some good moments and milestones I would’ve otherwise experienced had this not happened. This was a lot to digest, and I never realized how much time I would need to grieve. There wasn’t one person around who was ever going to give me permission to be an emotional mess. I didn’t immediately catch on to the fact that it was OK to feel and experience my emotions; the depression, fear, distress and outrage. It was only when I felt the intense longing to hear someone tell me it was OK to fall apart that I finally give myself permission to do so. It was then that I accepted my emotions and began to move through the pain of loss. It was also then that I understood this was simply another step toward finding my new normal. Although this process has, at times, presented itself as unwanted change, in its reveal it’s been a transformation in the way I understand and exist in the world. I was unaware that three years later I would still long for my postpartum time back, would still be yearning to have another chance at bonding with my infant. Despite these feelings, I’ve found new meaning in my present and future.
4. I would see how other people cope with crisis. I wish I could have anticipated the challenges during the first year after her surgery. As the complexity of our daughter’s care grew, so did the list of expectations of loved ones. During a time when we were struggling to hold ourselves together emotionally, pressure to meet the needs of family set in. A certain level of awkwardness existed when I needed to talk about our daughter’s complexity of care. The few people I chose to talk to offered only blank stares and emotional vacancy. I instantly felt others’ need for me to repress and disassociate myself from the trauma. I quickly recognized this wasn’t personal but simply how some cope with crisis, and I wasn’t judging. While these coping mechanisms might be appropriate for them, they were unsuitable for me. I could have never predicted the courage it would take to turn down a preferred way of coping and wrestle this experience in my own way, even if it meant being considered an outsider and being rejected. Fair-weathers came and went and, as fate would have it, many others arrived to indulge with gentleness, compassion and grace. I’ve enjoyed many of our oldest friends rising to the occasion and providing some of the greatest support. I’ve grown to accept this as an opportunity to create new relationships with others who’ve had similar experiences.
5. I needed to take one step at a time. Sometimes I wonder how so much time has passed and how little headway I’ve made in this process, but then I look at where I was two years ago. I wish someone would have told me the first year was about survival. I wish I would have had a flowchart exhibiting step one as: “Finding Safety and Security.” I didn’t realize at the onset, but our lives were unexpectedly undergoing a drastic restructure. Everything that was once familiar to me swiftly required reevaluation and readjusting. Jobs, family, friends, routine, money, how I saw myself — like it or not, I was getting a total overhaul. I’ve come to realize this overhaul is leading me to finding a new meaning in this life. This reformation has changed me. I’ve become a better wife and mother as result of this journey. I’ve been granted a new and better understanding of who I am.
6. I would socially reconnect when I was ready. We arrived home exhausted– mentally, emotionally and physically enervated. I felt a craving to make up for lost time with my child who was barricaded behind a bedrail for two months. I needed to spend time looking at her fingers and toes, smelling her scent, lying with her on my bare skin. I had to devote time to establishing a new normal. I had no choice but to acknowledge and accept my need to experience the transition period I was immersed in before I could begin to truly reconnect with others. It might have taken almost three years, but when the time was right, I didn’t feel coerced or manipulated. It felt good to enjoy time with the people who have supported me.