How do you grieve the self you used to be?
December 14, 2018 11:04 PM   Subscribe

For my entire life until last year, I’ve been a pretty even keeled person emotionally. But then something traumatic happened, and now my mental health is showing the effects. I’ve got PTSD. I don’t handle distress well, and I have a lot of trouble regulating my emotions. I’m doing all the things I’m supposed to do (including individual and group therapy), but it’s becoming clear to me that although these difficulties may wane eventually, even with a lot of work, they’re going to be with me for a long time. This makes me so sad. Mefites, do you have any suggestions for how I can come to terms with the fact that my brain behaves differently now than it used to, and that I’m functionally a different person now, with more limitations than I used to have? I’m tired of feeling sad and broken.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I thought immediately of this question, and saveyoursanity's response in particular. You are still, relatively speaking, early on in the process, and the grief does modulate over time - in the sense of years at least, not months, and that you are engaging in therapy is a strong point in your favor.

In my experience, and an incomplete answer: I had to sit with the grief and not try to process it for a long time because all my energy was going towards processing [the self-harm / trauma]. I wasn't out of it enough to be able to grieve properly and then move on. I'm still not really out of it and I don't know that I'll ever, really, come to terms with it. Three things that helped:
1) having a better sense of the life I do want to and can have, and building a sense of self and self-worth around that;
2) having at least some distance to be able to see that things did change and get better, and there was an "other side" to whatever pain I was going through in that moment;
3) having others around me affirm my existence and hold me to the present and not who I could have been - and I hope if nothing else your therapist can do this for you.

But it does suck, and it doesn't feel right or fair or necessary, and I feel it deeply.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 11:29 PM on December 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

I went through a violent traumatic event a little over two years ago. I know exactly what you're talking about and it's something I've wondered myself.

I think it's still relatively early days or so for you -- you could see a lot of change in the next year and while you'll never be the same person, you may surprise yourself with the new positive traits you develop.

The traumatic event I went through changed me as a person, it changed my personality. For the first year I didn't do much other than go through the motions. I became a hermit, I didn't socialize (outside of work). I lived mostly in constant fear. I was angry all the time. A group CBT program helped a lot (the organization that ran mine was great.) Group therapy, not so much.

Things have gradually improved for me. I forced myself to sign up for a class at a community college. Making art has saved me in man ways. I recently saw a therapist for my obsessive thoughts about loved ones dying, and my anger at a colleague. I thought the traumatic event was unrelated, that I was mostly over it. She made me realize I wasn't over it and that these are all symptoms from the trauma.

Now I'm seeing a trauma specialist and she has recommended EMDR. I'm going to try it (what is there to lose?) My constant anger and fear of losing loved ones are just two of the after-effects of the trauma.

I will say that there are a lot of positive changes in my personality/behaviour that I couldn't have predicted. Before it happened, I was a good, caring person, but relatively self-focused. That has completely changed. I've developed a lot more empathy, particularly towards vulnerable people, and have dedicated a lot more time and money to helping those in need. I guess I sort of channel my anger and injustice that way.

All of the events of our lives shape us. Trauma leaves a deeper mark and will change you, but it's not necessarily all bad. I can see a light at the end of the tunnel and feel more aware of what it means to have a rich, meaningful life. That's my experience anyway. Good luck on your journey.
posted by Pademelon at 4:53 AM on December 15, 2018 [11 favorites]

I would suggest that you may feel better about yourself if you set and achieve some self-improvement goals, even if they are unrelated to your PTSD. If you get really fit, or learn to play the guitar, or teach yourself to code, or climb some mountains—or whatever appeals to you—it may help restore your faith in yourself as a capable, competent person who can do things. It's not a total solution, but it may help combat those feelings of being a worse, weaker person than you used to be if you can take on some things that you've never done before and knock them out of the park.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:44 AM on December 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I found EMDR to be useful for the specific traumatizing event. In addition, and I want to say this gently because it's intense, but sometimes trauma can awaken dormant mental illness. I say this because you say you have a "different brain." This link has been established in the literature. It also happened to me personally. It took me many years after my own trauma to realize that my brain was still very out of order, just that it wasn't linked to the trauma specifically anymore, and that a genetic predisposition combined with traumatic events (biology + environment) probably led to its bloom.

If you, for example, are ruminating a lot, or find yourself unable to stop thinking about traumatizing things (either ones you've experienced or things your brain has chosen), or you're finding yourself "stuck" like routine tasks are really hard for no reason, or you cannot easily get out of bed, or you feel ok when you're in the company of others but being alone is hell... please do talk to a psychiatrist. A therapist and group therapy may not be enough; you may need someone who can prescribe and manage medication, like an antidepressant or a mood stabilizer or an antiobsessive. A GP is not sufficient for this. If you've already tried antidepressants and they haven't worked, that is another thing to tell your psychiatrist.

This may not be a thing you can just grit your teeth through and come to terms with. You might need more help from professionals than you're already getting. Good for you for going to therapy and trying so hard thus far. Take care.
posted by sockermom at 6:23 AM on December 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

The first thing you might want to think about is whether the prolonged stress of the trauma has put you into a form of depressive spiral. I think it's the case where the biology of stress puts our bodies into such a profound state of frustrated fight/flight/freeze state that it alters our internal environment. You can never return to being the person you were, that's more or less an assertion that the person you are now is somehow lacking which is another pebble on the side of the depressive spiral scale.
Rather you need to think in terms of what you can do right now to make your biology work better for your long-term well being. The habits and grooves you had before the trauma were insufficient to get you through them in a healthy state. You need to find new ways to live that are going to be buttress, improve and advance your state of well being. That dark place in your brain where your pain seems to live and draw you into it, that's the depressive spiral. You can heal the mental habits of self-talk, you can release the physical trauma ( but ultimately your life has to route around and build new structures that promote your well being that are more powerful and stronger than the depressive spiral. Don't focus on the dark pit, start building wellness and well being that makes the depressive spiral a wholly unattractive and repellent lesson in what not to do with your attention.
posted by diode at 6:59 AM on December 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have found myself, overall, to be a much more empathetic and resilient person post-trauma. That’s not to say that it’s great; it fucking sucks. But sometimes I talk to people who really can’t mentally get their head around the fact that the world isn’t fair (for example), and it’s like I have a superpower, or an extra sense that they don’t have. It reminds me of the fact that, in Harry Potter, he and Luna can both see things others can’t see. That’s actually a good metaphor for the kind of deeper understanding of the world that comes from trauma.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:17 AM on December 15, 2018 [15 favorites]

I’m doing all the things I’m supposed to do
I would argue that there's nothing you're supposed to do. It's really easy to get into this mindset of, and I think even the most well meaning helping people can sort of unconsciously set you up for this, "A bad thing happened to me, so now I must recover for others, and be who I was because that's expected of me." And that makes me so fucking mad, that as trauma survivors it isn't enough to just have survived trauma, we also have to somehow repent for it, that the phrase "work hard" is used at all. So that whole thing, that whole "supposed to", from one person who felt crushed under it for too long, you have my permission to discard that. Maybe, in some small way, that can help with the rest. You can recover as fast or as slow as you want, do whatever therapy you want, don't do therapy at all. You're not broken, but you don't have to be a Good Trauma Survivor.

You survived, and now life is about what makes you, specifically, comfortable. I mean, it is for everyone, but it is especially for you.
posted by colorblock sock at 9:02 AM on December 15, 2018 [6 favorites]

What you are feeling is so, so common among people struggling with acute mental illness. I developed an anxiety disorder years ago that, at the high point, expanded to a complete fear of being outside of my room. Eventually I started going out in small bits, but it was not pretty. I had many very public meltdowns that were extremely embarrassing. I felt like a complete psycho and knowing I was "that person" around everyone - strangers, friends, family - filled me with deep shame.

Then I read a book full of personal accounts from people with anxiety that included a woman who would poop her pants when she had panic attacks. Over and over. She was so brave and worked so hard to try to stay functional and maintain some dignity.

The best advice I can give you is to be kind to yourself and work on accepting where and who you are today, warts and all. Your trauma has exposed your visceral human vulnerabilities and, for the time being, you don't get to pick and choose your identity. This is because you have been through a huge thing and it has fundamentally changed you. You are still worthy and deserving of love, kindness and comfort, even if you are not who you were before. It is ok to be having a hard time right now, to be lost and a bit messy. Honor what has happened to you and trust that you will find your way through it, which likely involves figuring out exactly what you need, irrespective of what you may think that should look like or what others recommend. Best of luck and I am sorry you are struggling!
posted by amycup at 9:13 AM on December 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

My physical and mental health both have an annoying tendency to get more and more interesting as time goes by. At the moment, I can walk about 6' on a good day without falling over. Most of the time I can feed myself. If I manage to eat twice a day, it's a really good day.

Jon Morrow is one of my personal heroes. This is one of the best things he's ever written, and one of the biggest impacts on my mental health. He can only move his face, but has started and grown multiple hugely successful websites. One thing he wrote in that article that really struck me was, "This is my life now. What's next?" It's on a sticky note on top of my monitor.

Several years ago, I was in the gym 6 days a week. Then one thing happened, and another, and another, and now I can't leave my bedroom without help. There are still times I want to be that person again. Gods, do I want to be that person again. But she's gone, and here I am. Sometimes when I think about her, I cry. Sometimes I smile. Sometimes I'm so angry I can barely stand it.

The best thing I've found for me to let go of old me again is burning incense. I'm allowed to be sad and mad and frustrated and grieving for as long as that stick or cone is burning. When it's done, so am I. I know it sounds simplistic, but it works for me. You could also try screaming into a pillow, beating up a punching bag (or the pillow you just screamed into), pounding on some play-doh, anything physical that lets you release that anger.

As my Dad tells me often, this, too, shall pass.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 3:20 PM on December 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think I can relate.

It's okay to be sad and grieve, I remember feeling weary about it and wanting that season to end, and feeling like it never would. But now it has, and I am glad I kept pulling myself forward, however ungracefully, even if I had to take breaks to vomit/cry, but that tenacious movement to the next step and the next step towards goals (even if they felt hollow and pointless at the time) helped me survive that tunnel. Plus when you get to the other side, which you will, it's nice to have something tangible you did during that period that you can put on your mental shelf of trophies and celebrate.

Have you heard of post-traumatic growth? In a way, I am grateful for both versions of myself. And people are always turning over, changing and adapting.

Also reading about hopeful stories of transformation / metamorphosis helped me get through it. You are not alone in this.

Wish there were easier answers. Message me if you want to talk! Here for you :)
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 7:42 PM on December 18, 2018

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