Deeply-Rooted: Battling Bitterness & Pain After Trauma

Life can be such a dizzying enigma.

At the best of times, it can bestow us with beauty and jubilance of poetic proportions. Yet at the worst of times, life’s circumstances can administer lashes so severe that we’re left limping for years. When I was a child, I never could get a firm grasp on the concept of life’s fickle ways. From time to time I would hear people retort, “Life’s not fair”, but it wouldn’t be until much later that I would learn just how true that adage was.

Thinking back to early youth, I now realize just how fortunate I was. With the exception of a few minor hiccups and one major death, I enjoyed a fairly charmed childhood. No major illnesses, no serious injuries, no instances of bullying and no family turmoil. In comparison to many of my schoolmates, I was very lucky. My parents did a terrific job ensuring that I grew up in as peaceful an environment as possible, but perhaps that is just the trouble. Perhaps I was too sheltered, too ignorant of the possibilities that would await me later in life.

In my last post (which you can read here), I shared a list of things that happened in my teenage years. It was by no means an exhaustive list, but I suppose it was all I could manage to discuss at the time that I originally wrote it.

Though I would love to be the kind of person who can proudly declare, “I have zero regrets in life”, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Half of that post was a laundry list of regrets I managed to accumulate in a very short amount of time. And though it pains me to acknowledge having so many regrets in life, it is the memory of what I felt I had to do in order to cope with them that breaks my heart the most.

I used to watch the show Intervention, which (for anyone who doesn’t know) is a docu-reality show that documents the lives of individuals suffering from addiction issues or other maladaptive behaviors. Show after show, I would watch as these poor souls would essentially wreck their lives to continue the habits that harmed them and those they loved. All too often, when therapists would dig into the cause of their habit, they’d uncover deeply traumatic events as the trigger for the addictions.

The untimely death of a loved one.

The memory of war.

The divorce of one’s parents.

Molestation.

Domestic abuse.

The list truly goes on.

Though I never agreed with the behaviors I witnessed while watching that show, I knew all too well the kind of pain, anger and turmoil that drove the guests to those extremes. I understood how their memories replayed in their minds on loop like a skipping record. Their burning desire to scrub away any trace of remembrance was the same that smoldered within me. Same agony, different vice. There was very little to set me apart from the hundreds of people featured on that show besides having had a little more hope and a little less desperation.

It could have been me. It could be any of us.

Something I try to never, ever do is judge other people for how they choose to manage their emotions following a traumatic experience. I think it is sometimes easy for other people to automatically criticize those who have gone through something difficult. Though we all share in the human experience, our experiences are not the same.

And even in instances where the circumstances are the same, we are all wired to react differently. Unless we have walked in someone else’s shoes, it may occur to us that we have all the answers and can say for certain what we would do if faced with the same thing. However, we’ll never truly know…until we actually are in such a position.

The experience of going through a deeply distressing situation can completely devastate an individual’s personality, worldview, priorities and desires. Fear, anger and misplaced guilt can become prominent fixtures in their lives, leading to a dramatic shift in character.

Unlike an everyday disappointment, truly traumatic events almost “reprogram” an individual, making these negative changes partially involuntary, but almost necessary to their continued survival. What might seem irrational, irresponsible and dangerous to an unaffected individual may seem critical and most necessary to the sufferer of the trauma. Furthermore, their ability to effectively cope with subsequent trauma (or even minor inconveniences) may be severely impaired.

I speak from experience when I say that the difficult events we can go through in life have the ability to wound us so deeply that we fail to recognize ourselves afterwards. I lived behind a mask for many, many years following the sexual assault. In an effort to protect myself and ward off the danger of being hurt by other people, I developed a tough, cold and distant exterior. I’d convinced myself that I should no longer care about others, that everyone was bad and the world was an evil, untrustworthy place. It seemed safer to isolate myself at all costs…no matter how lonely I would grow to be.

Determined to “be alright” and “fix myself”, I vehemently declined any form of professional help. Despite my extensive academic understanding of trauma, I had zero experiential knowledge of what “treating myself” would even begin to look like. Outside of knowing which physical precautions to take, I truly didn’t know what I was up against.

At first, I tried to cope as positively as I could. I attempted to stay distracted by my hobbies and friends. However, when I was suddenly hit by additional hurtful circumstances, I couldn’t take it anymore. I lost the desire to live, to try, to care. Nothing I did brought me joy or hope. Peace had become a figment of my imagination. All I could think about was how I could end my misery. That’s it. If not for the slightest lingering regard for my parents and their feelings, I probably wouldn’t be here to tell this story today. It was that bad.

Bitterness and pain is like a root. If you can catch it early, you can dig it up before it corrupts your heart. Leave it too long, and it will burrow so deep you may never be able to rid yourself of it.

A few years ago, while having a conversation with someone I love quite dearly, I decided to share my past with them. They didn’t understand why I was so reserved around unfamiliar people despite being quite outgoing and boisterous in other situations. Upon sharing my regrets over having previously turned to destructive behaviors in an effort to get through the difficult phases of my life, he said something I will never forget. He said, “It wasn’t what you wanted to do, but it was what you thought you had to do in order to keep living. You’re still here, and we’re all glad for it.” Indeed, I had been trying to stay alive…however I could.

I have spent the last sixteen years wrestling a broken heart and wounded spirit. Through trial and error, I have attempted to rid myself of debilitating depression, constant anxiety, dysfunctional relationships and battered self-esteem. I’ve come up against tremendous bouts of guilt and regret that I still don’t know what to do with. The pain of feeling robbed, permanently tainted and unloveable has been…I don’t even have the words to describe it.

All the same, I have found freedom from the pain of my past. I have long since abandoned my former coping mechanisms in exchange for self-love and a renewed trust in others. Though I am still a work in progress, I am the happiest I have ever been. My sad memories no longer hold dominion over me, but instead serve as a powerful testimony of what can happen when you refuse to lose hope of living to see a better day. I have taught myself how to reclaim my identity and view myself not as a victim, but as a victor. I am living proof that there is life after trauma. Through my blog I seek to show people that hope can still dwell in the most helpless of places.

This post is dedicated to anyone who has ever endured the pain of losing yourself to an unfortunate event. Whether you’ve recovered, or are currently in the process of recovering, just know that you are not alone.

No matter what has happened to you or what you’ve done to combat the bitterness and pain, don’t let anyone plant shame in your heart for trying to survive. We all make mistakes. We all make poor choices. A mistake is still a mistake, no matter how seemingly “unspeakable” or “harmless” it may be. I just want you to remember that we are by no means defined by the mistakes we’ve made, but how we amend them in the end.

Pain and struggle comes in all forms. I don’t care what it is that’s happened, if it’s hurting you and making your life hard to live, I want you to know that it doesn’t have to be that way. Even if you haven’t made the best decisions while trying to cope with your feelings, it’s never too late to make a change. I have seen so many beautiful people take their own life just because they needed respite from the thoughts in their mind and the emptiness of their heart. But you are still here, you are still reading this. That is not by accident.

You still have the opportunity to heal from past hurts. You are still able to find a healthy way of dealing with the pain you’ve been going through and connect with other people who can relate to your struggle. If you are currently trapped in a place of pain and you don’t know how to get out, please reach out to someone. It can be a trusted friend, a neighbor, a doctor, a religious leader, or even a complete stranger like me. You don’t have to suffer by yourself.

You can still dream. You can still love. You can still trust.

The road may be bumpy, but it is well worth the effort. I promise you.

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