What Happened When I Started Opening Up About My Trauma
For almost a decade, I kept my trauma a secret, told no one what had happened to me to trigger a mental health breakdown in 2015. A suicide attempt in that year led me to entering treatment in the mental health services and, consequently, I began the long, arduous process of recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), anorexia nervosa, social anxiety and depression.
My BPD is what I write most frequently about; it dominates my life in such a plethora of ways that it is difficult to keep it to myself, now that I am aware of how it affects me. Even in the early stages of my recovery, I began to understand the importance of being open with my loved ones and started to communicate more and more about my mental health. I got better at expressing my needs and emotions, something I had previously struggled with. I started to talk about my mental health, not just with my partner but with my friends and family, too, growing ever more confident as I did so. As I became more determined to remove the stigma that I experienced staying quiet about mental illness, I became more open intrinsically as a person, stopped hiding behind walls. But, I still told nobody of my trauma and kept those walls high.
My PTSD was something I decidedly wanted to tackle alone. Recovery itself is something one can only do alone, but a good support network can make it easier to undertake. However, I felt a great deal of shame around what had happened to me and opening up about that felt like I was standing at the top of a tall diving board, about to jump off. That sick feeling in my gut, anticipating the fall and the fear that stopped me from jumping, even though I knew it couldn’t kill me. Sometimes, I would feel such desperation to share my burden, lift that weight somewhat by having another person in the world share in my story, but there was some kind of block between my mind and my mouth; the words would just not come out.
I recently began seeing a wonderful therapist. Therapy is hard, harder than I ever anticipated it to be. I assumed it would be much like the small amounts of counseling I had received in the past, but having someone push you to name, understand and make peace with your judgments, behaviors, and feelings is incredibly tough going. I am determined, though, to make the most of this treatment opportunity and I will not take it for granted, as it took me so long to get here and I know of many others who have not been afforded such help. I have pushed myself to talk to my therapist about my trauma and, in doing so, I have started to open up with a select few of my loved ones. When I started to talk about my trauma, I had no idea how anybody would react; it isn’t something you can really test the waters for, and could not pre-empt the various reactions I would receive. These responses have varied from unbridled love and sympathy, to apparent uncaring, to total insensitivity. The real challenge has been understanding why people react in the ways that they do, and communicating how they can best support me.
Nonetheless, getting to a place where I could crumble some of my walls was hard and if it helps someone else in that position to know a few of the responses I have received from loved ones, then I am glad to share this part of my mental health recovery.
I have opened up to close friends, expecting some allowances to be made for my behavior as I explain it is caused by my PTSD. I hoped for understanding, to an extent, but mostly just support and kindness.
However, some people never broached the topic again with me and were seemingly very uncomfortable when I ventured to discuss it. I think these select few simply did not know what to say to me, how to support me and did not want to make things worse. I’m not resentful of this at all; but I wish these people would tell me that they don’t understand and they have no idea how to navigate this at all.
Others, similarly, responded to things I divulged with little to say in response and were quick to change the subject or raise an issue of their own. I am somebody who loves to help others and provide support in times of need, but it felt rather invalidating to have my problems minimized in this way and it is hard to tell someone that this approach can be harmful.
Conversely, some of my loved ones, particularly those closest to me who know me best, responded with such love and kindness that took me aback. They were there for me after tough therapy sessions, a sympathetic voice when I needed a shoulder and were honest about the fact that they did not understand my particular situation but wanted to be there for me nonetheless. This, for me, was the ideal reaction. This was what I needed from my loved ones. I needed to feel validated, like my situation was as horrible and damaging as I felt it was. I needed to feel that even if people could not empathize nor understand, they wanted to support me anyway.
But, in opening up to people and receiving such varying responses from them, I have learnt that I still have a way to go in communicating my needs effectively. I cannot divulge such sensitive information without being prepared to then express my needs in turn and how those listening can best support me. Recovery is, as I said, long and arduous, and I find that even when I think I know it all, I don’t. I have a lot of work to do in opening up; this post is merely a beginning. I have to work continuously on myself and on my communication; there is no final point of recovery because it’s a process that continues endlessly. This does not scare me; it just reminds me that I must constantly check myself, my behaviors, my stability, my feelings, my overall wellness. And, the best thing I can do for myself, even if I do not get the desired responses, is to be open. This is my goal, now. I am going to keep pushing myself in therapy, I am going to persevere on the road to recovery and I am going to destroy, brick by brick, all the walls and defenses I have built around myself. I am going to let people in.
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Thinkstock image via OGri