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Why Healing From My PTSD Means Living in the 'Gray' Instead of the Black and White


“Nothing’s black or white. That’s childlike thinking.”

That’s probably the first thing I was told in therapy. Children who have grown up with trauma often view the world as black or white. It’s how they coped, how they survived. It made sense out of an otherwise chaotic world and made things seemingly less complicated.

I spent a lot of my childhood being the grownup: taking care of everything, making sure everyone and everything around me was OK, so I was OK. I suppressed negative emotions so I didn’t stress my mom out, pretending I was perfect and everything was perfect. From the outside, by all appearances, it was working. I functioned quite highly in the black and white for a long time. The black and white world was the illusion of safety I enveloped myself in. A little pretend bubble that protected me from pain, kept me functioning and allowed me to succeed in many aspects of my life.

That bubble was burst, however, when I began therapy. This was when the world of gray was introduced to me. There was no longer the safety of clarity, of “either or.” All of a sudden I felt lost and confused in a new world with no clear boundaries, no clear good or bad, no clear right or wrong. And I’ve been trying to figure this world out ever since.

The longer I’m in therapy, the more murky and confusing this world becomes. Today was the perfect example of the unease, displacement and vulnerability that exists in the gray. I woke up “feeling my feelings” as I have been coached by my therapist for the last two years to do. It took forever to identify and allow myself to feel them, but now that I do, the intensity is almost overwhelming.

By all outward indications, I “should” be happy. My business partner and I have been busy with our business. We recently won a national contest, we had a successful inspection which insured our inclusion in an elite directory for lodging, we have had local TV coverage, other media coverage and plenty of business success. I’ve worked hard at finding a circle of friends and trying to nurture those relationships. I have a stable and loving (although at times challenging) relationship with my husband. I have relatively good health, a roof over my head. The sun is shining, the gardens are blooming, everything around me should be multidimensional, colorful and alive. But inside, all I feel is gray. I wake almost every day feeling sad, angry, frustrated, helpless, vulnerable, scared and abandoned — a shell of a person who is functioning at an extremely high level on the outside, but is feeling more and more murky in the inside. Part of it is lack of sleep due to nightmares and insomnia, part of it is the ongoing anxiety and intrusive thoughts I can’t get out of my head due to my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but a lot of it is the gray.

Everything feels vague and unclear.

Have your feelings, all of them, but if you express them, people around you are uncomfortable. It’s impossible to run a hospitality business when you feel like crying all the time. So you compartmentalize your feelings to function, but you shouldn’t compartmentalize too much because then you are avoiding feeling your feelings.

Having needs is normal. You didn’t get those needs met as a child, so it’s OK to want to get them met now, and it’s normal to rely on others in general to get your needs met. But don’t be too needy because you might overwhelm people and push them away, and anyway, some needs are impossible to meet because you aren’t a child anymore.

Being attached to your therapist is normal and necessary. It’s the only way forward in therapy and it’s the function of the therapist to help to “re-parent” the child inside you. But don’t be too attached, or you will violate your therapist’s boundaries and make them resent you.

Reach out to others to both help them and to get help when you are feeling badly, but don’t do it too much because it can overwhelm everyone.

Rely on friends, family, spouses and pets for comfort and soothing, but really, you should soothe yourself and learn to be self-sufficient.

Which brings me back to square one. I started this journey self-sufficient, afraid of relying on anyone, afraid to trust anyone, afraid to need anyone and afraid to attach to anyone. It worked. Kind of. Even though the angst was always churning underneath, waiting for just the right opportunity to explode like a volcano — which is exactly what happened. Once it did, I become covered by the gray ash between too much or not enough and it is overwhelming me. I feel like I’m on the edge of a precipice.

I want to be “normal,” healthy, emotionally well-balanced. But I haven’t a clue what that looks like or how to regulate myself. Some weeks I feel like I’ve made so much progress, and that is validated by my therapist and those closest to me. Then the next week, I feel like I’ve stagnated or regressed and all of a sudden, I’m told things aren’t working and I’m not progressing like I should. It’s all just so confounding and painful.

Maybe the gray is the inside of the cocoon I’m in. Maybe it feels dark and confusing because inside the cocoon, I simply can’t see the transformation going on. I can’t envision the colorful butterfly I can and hope to become, and I have no reference or time frame to rely on to know when I might get there. So for now, I just have to sit with the gray and hope I don’t dissolve into nothingness while awaiting my transformation.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via panic_attack.