Life is full of contrasts. The other day, I was reading a book to one of the children I nanny, and it talked about how we shouldn’t hate the dark, because without it, we would never know when we had the light turned on. We have great things, and we have awful things, and sometimes we have average things, too. But life isn’t really life without all of them together. We need the dark to know what light is, and we need the light to understand the dark. And sometimes in these contrasts, we can find answers, or new ways of looking at old problems. We can gain context for interpreting them, for coping with them. We can grow through them, good and bad.
As some of you might know already, I am engaged! I will always look back on the moment that Shane asked me to marry him as one of the happiest moments of my life. It’s a level of pure, inexpressible joy that I never thought I would be lucky enough to experience. Every “congratulations”, every time I get to tell the story again, every spreadsheet we fill in as we start planning a wedding together, brings me another burst of this total full-heart happiness. My life is full of a new light, and it shines so bright alongside the contrasting darkness I have been learning to move through.
When I first moved to North Carolina, I knew that I needed to see a therapist. The experience of finally being in an emotionally supportive and healthy relationship forced perspective and allowed me to see how unhealthy other parts of my life had become, or maybe always had been. The contrast was undeniable. I started to share pieces of my life, of my story, that I had never shared before. Or that I had tried to, but unsuccessfully. And I experienced two more feelings I never thought that I would ever experience: support and validation. With encouragement from Shane, I found an amazing therapist, and after dumping my soul out into a puddle on the floor of her office, I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For the first time in my life, I was able to be honest with myself about how truly awful and lasting some of my experiences have been. The emotional abuse and trauma I experienced, starting in childhood and carrying on until I stopped it at 23, was so impactful that I have this disorder, this label, that means my brain – my life – has been forever altered by the trauma I lived through.
I’m doing my best to learn about PTSD, as much and as often as I can, but I’m clearly not a doctor and wouldn’t call myself qualified to define it for anybody. I do know how it has impacted my life, though. It affects me in unexpected ways, sometimes small and sometimes overwhelmingly large. For one, I forget everything. I forget to do majorly important tasks, even with several reminders. I forget words in the middle of sentences. I forget names. I forget where I put the phone I’m speaking into. And, as it turns out, that is all because my hippocampus was actually physically damaged by the trauma I experienced as a child. My PTSD broke my memory. Literally. An overload of cortisol and noradrenaline (which occurs when significant and sustained trauma is experienced) have shrunk certain parts of my hippocampus, parts responsible for retention, memory, and language. I’m bad at remembering, and I’m never going to get good, because my brain is literally actually damaged.
And that is a very hard thing to know. Some days I feel like I am absolutely capable of overcoming this. I feel empowered, and strong, and like a total badass for surviving an awful childhood and coming out the other side. And then other times, I remember that a piece of my brain has quite literally shrunk. That I have a greater chance of dying due to a cardiovascular condition. That I’m much more likely to have gastrointestinal issues or musculoskeletal problems, or many more physical conditions. Not to mention the dramatically increased chance of suffering from depression or anxiety, of committing suicide, or of developing a substance-abuse problem. It is so disheartening to know that my body, my mind, and my actual brain are all irrevocably changed in harmful and impactful ways because I experienced awful things, things over which I had no control. It’s hard not to feel like my abusers are still here, still hurting me. The ramifications of their abuse lingers, and will continue to linger, and no amount of going to therapy or taking depression medication or doing yoga is going to give me back the missing pieces of my hippocampus.
And I know that’s not a positive or optimistic way of looking at it. I know I’ve just gone on about perspective, and contrast. About how we need the bad to feel how good the good is. And I promise, I’ll come back to that. But sometimes, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, when my google search is full of questions that have plenty of answers and no solutions, all I have left is to sit with the knowledge that I, like my hippocampus, am a shrunken version of what I could have been. As my brain and personhood were developing, my growth was stunted, squished, and diminished. And I can’t get it back. There’s no cure for a shrunken hippocampus, or for a stunted emotional development. And I can go to therapy, and do my endless painful worksheets, but at the end of the day I’m not going to remember why I came into this room in the first place. I’m going to realize that what I started writing fifteen minutes ago is not what I’m writing anymore. I’m going to apologize before thanking somebody, because I’m going to feel like needing anything worth gratitude is an imposition that necessitates remorse. And when somebody accidentally breaks a cup or a plate, I’m going to need at least fifteen minutes to take deep breaths and remind myself that I’m safe.
What I’m trying to say is that coping with this new diagnosis has been very, very hard. It’s jarring to move between the feelings of bliss I have when I’m thinking about marrying my best friend, and the feelings of hopelessness I experience when I have another incapacitating flashback. It’s strange to experience such strong and overpowering and totally opposite sets of emotions. But, in a way, it’s helpful, too.
When my fiancé and I have an argument that never escalates to yelling, that ends in a feeling of caring and resolution, I am thankful and proud in a way that I know I would not be if I hadn’t lived so long believing that kind of conversation was not possible. When I need his help, and he doesn’t tear me down, when he’s simply there and willing to help me however he can because he loves me, I feel overwhelming gratitude because this is new to me, and I didn’t know if I would ever have it. This joy that I feel when we are together, it fills me up. It explodes out of me in bright yellow fireworks. It makes me cry, and dance, and laugh. It is overwhelming in its depth, its completeness. And I’m not saying that I couldn’t feel this happy if I hadn’t experienced so much pain. But I know that I wouldn’t be so absolutely thankful for it, for every second of it, if it wasn’t a feeling I never thought I could have before now.
And it doesn’t stop there, with my fiancé, with our new life together. I am able to deeply feel the love and selfless support that my father and step-mother show me. I’m blown away each time they give so freely, simply because they want me to be happy. I am able to appreciate the innocence and laughter of the children I nanny, the wild and unburdened imaginations they possess. When I throw out my arms and pretend to be a bird, or when we go on a bear hunt together through the corners of the house, I am able to feel so grateful that childlike wonder doesn’t have to end when you grow up. I’m able to value each chance I have to play with them and feel like a child again. I am able to be so so thankful for my future parents-in-law and the wonderful, kind open arms with which they have welcomed me into the family. And, maybe more than anything else, I’m thankful that I’ve come through it all. I’m thankful that I have the resources to go to therapy, the support system to lean on as I learn to manage the symptoms of PTSD, the conviction to work harder every day to improve my mental health, and the voice and strength to talk about what I’ve gone through. I am so privileged to be standing where I am today, to be getting the help that I need to recover from my past, and I feel infinitely grateful to be able to share this experience and know it will not impact my safety.
If I’ve learned anything from therapy, it’s that every emotion gets a seat at the table. I’m learning how to feel angry, how to unpack my sadness, and how to manage my fear. These are valid, and important. Ignoring them doesn’t make me happier, or make my life better. What does is learning to embrace them all, and then deeply, emphatically appreciate the happiness. Yes, I have experienced some awful things. I have felt deeply, overwhelmingly, crushingly sad, and angry, and hopeless. But when I gained the capacity to feel those things so fully, I also gained the capacity to truly appreciate how big and bright the happiness can be. Living with PTSD is always going to be painful, but living with the person I love most is always going to be wonderful. Putting in the work to heal will always be hard, but laughing with my fiancé will always be easy. Speaking out about my past and my mental health will always be terrifying, but knowing that I might just help someone else going through the same thing will always be empowering. And I think, maybe, I can live with the hard if it means being able to know that.