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One Aspect of Complex Trauma I Never Expected

Two years ago I would have introduced myself as a normal suburban mom. Flecks of gray hide in my middle-aged hair, two dogs wearing sweaters usually poked their noses out the window of my baby blue minivan and I spent my days shuttling kids and cooking food. Life was normal, or so I thought. But then life fell apart, crumbling into bits and pieces, as traumatic memories entered my life and I finally had to confront my past. It’s been almost two years of battles that I never would have anticipated or thought I had the strength to endure. But there’s one thing that in the middle of the flashbacks, panic attacks, severe depression and anxiety that come along with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) that I never expected — the grief.

If you would have asked me about grief years ago, I would have told you I had dealt with grief when my grandfather died. It was brief, as we knew for a long time he was in heart failure, and it gave me time to deal with my feelings before he passed. Other than that, I didn’t really know grief. I simply thought it came after someone you love died. I narrowed it down to singular instances involving a loved one’s death and because my experience with it was so small, I lessened its impact in my mind.

And yet, almost two years after my life fell apart, here I sit in grief so deep that I feel like I can’t breathe. Some days I feel like a tree surrounded by thick, smelly muck and mud that’s darker than the darkest night. The more I reach to the sky, trying to grab the blue skies and sunshine, the more the muck and mud climb up me, trying to grab hold of any area they can use to pull me down.

Grief in my trauma journey has appeared in different ways.

At first, grief appeared in the way most people would expect it to look after having something significantly impact their life before they knew the full weight of what was coming. During those first few days and weeks, before we knew that trauma was causing my life to fall apart, I remember crying into my husband’s arms as I muttered, “I think I’m depressed.” Grief for me at that time simply appeared as something I didn’t want in my life. I wanted to be the person I once was, the person who cranked classical music at a stoplight in response to someone’s car bass thudding so loud it hurt your ears. There were plans for my professional life and personal life that had to be put on hold temporarily that I grieved over. But, I held onto the hope that it was temporary and so also was the grief.

Four months later, things took a drastic turn when my first really hard flashback occurred. All of the sudden, everything I thought was temporary was canceled. Overnight my world changed when we shifted from a diagnosis of depression with possible trauma to full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and later, complex PTSD. Suddenly I went from floating on a lifesaver in the middle of the ocean to feeling like I was tied to an enormous weight at the bottom of the darkest sea. The grief that attacked me was so powerful as I had to admit the truth of what had really happened in my life, that it froze me in place and I became a walking zombie.

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For the next year, I fell deeper and deeper with every memory that surfaced. The pit of depression became so deep I stopped talking to almost everyone in my life. I didn’t work, I dressed all in black or dark colors and music became a torture device. During that time, I found a new layer of grief. I found one that told me every time I said that the abuse in my childhood wasn’t that bad, I had been lying to myself. I had to start grieving for the truth I didn’t want to accept because it meant there were people in my life who I loved deeply who had hurt me irreparably. And as I accepted the truths of what had happened and how brutal it had been, I had to grieve for the relationships in my life that I might never get to be part of again.

Grief was my constant companion, shrouded and hiding as a part of severe depression.

21 months later, my grief has once again shifted to something new.

Now, as the colors in the world are getting brighter again and as I’m trying to dip my toes back into life, I’m grieving for where I have been the past 20 months. It’s unbearably hard to look back at where I have been. To know I’ve lost over a year of time where I couldn’t laugh or cry is heartbreaking, even more so when I realize how quickly my kids are growing. Looking back I realize how deep in crisis I was for so long, but the worst part is realizing I could count on one hand the number of people in my life who stuck with me through it all. I’m grieving for what I lost but more so for the realization that no one stays in suffering. I’m grieving because of the realization that how lost I was during that time really scared the few that did stay in my life. The grief now just comes as solemn sadness as the tears that I can now cry slowly fill my eyes, but never fall. They don’t need to fall because I am starting to laugh and play games with my kids again. But the grief is still there, coming through different parts of the day.

During this time of going through trauma, I’ve lost it all. But what have I found? Grief. It’s deep and it doesn’t let up. It’s the thing that causes my heart to painfully throb as I realize what could have been but never had a chance to become. Grief isn’t a result of death, grief is a result of choosing to keep on living.

For the rest of my life, I know I’ll encounter moments reminding me of the past I ran from for so long. Little moments will take my breath away and take out my knees as they bring back memories that hurt more than I can stand. And slowly, that memory will fill with grief because my life could have been different, it could have been easy and joyful, but it wasn’t. I’ll grieve what happened. I’ll grieve how it impacted my life. But then I’ll move on because I’m still alive. The trauma tried to kill me but I survived.

Grief isn’t a result of death. It’s a result of choosing to keep on living.

Getty image by Big_and_serious