"You're entirely bonkers. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are."
― Tim Burton, Alice in Wonderland:
Here's the thing, I’m recovering from mental illness. That may sound extreme, but honestly, somewhere on the continuum of moderate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and mild Dissociative Identity Disorder, you’ll find...me. Being willing to consider that I am in fact dealing with mental illness has been a crucial step in my emotional and mental recovery. Mental illness is label that freaks people out. Probably because it is always reserved for the most severe examples. There is resistance in the counseling community around calling the effects of emotional trauma "mental illness", perhaps because emotional trauma is so common that it goes unaddressed. But that's my point.
For years I tucked myself outside of this label and instead carried around the story that it was the other people in my life who were mentally ill. I desperately (read:co-dependently) tried making some of the significant people in my life “see the light”. In the end it was just the way they were and they did their best. It seems one of the biggest things I inherited from them is my bent towards bonkers. Denial kept me sick, but acceptance funnels me towards hearty wellness and that has become one of my favorite things about me.
Denial kept me sick, but acceptance funnels me towards hearty wellness and that has become one of my favorite things about me.
Emotional stress comes from being human. We each experience our lives with different levels of support and perspective. Some of us endure violence and horrific things, while others have more stability and safety. In either case, we can still have unprocessed stress and trauma. I’ve spoken to at least a hundred controlling, anxious, depressed, paranoid, jealous, self-sabotaging people who’ve told me, “Don’t get me wrong, I had a good childhood!” Trauma doesn’t have to be one big event to be significant. No matter the severity of the incident, when a person feels out of control and endures overwhelming emotional stress, it is significant to the brain and body. When that stress is not processed and released, it becomes trauma. And when trauma sets in, it becomes mental illness.
Dissociation, or detaching from painful emotions and unprocessed stress, is a fascinating function of the brain. And it seems it was something I did quite frequently when I was younger because I couldn’t feel or face what felt unbearable at the time. Sometimes it was the fear of punishment that required me to shut down. Adults around me would get angry if I showed too much distress or didn’t stop crying soon enough. So I checked out. And I got good at it.
Dissociation meant I was able to maintain my mostly happy and carefree self in spite of frequent overwhelming emotional experiences, such as lengthy separations from caregivers, disrupted attachment, moves, being bullied by caregivers, punishment, isolation, withdrawal of affection, spiritual and emotional abuse, domestic violence and rejection. I pushed away the feelings that swelled in the aftermath of those moments, believing what I was told: I had to do better, try harder or have more faith, etc. However, those painful feelings remained in my physical body, trapped by my psyche. When I became an adult and especially when I became a parent, I found them all still there waiting for me.
Dissociation saved me through those times, but in it’s wake left mental illness. I call it mental illness for several reasons. First, because my symptoms were pervasive, chronic and debilitating. Old feelings and reactions could take the wheel over the slightest things, a sound, a smell, the look on someone’s face. My daily even moment to moment functioning would be compromised. I would lose the ability to speak up for myself or even respond sometimes. My relationships and interactions with most people were clouded. These stuck parts had organized themselves around protecting me from relational pain, and were protective of any potential threat. To a fault. Even my physical health portrayed a picture of the unprocessed stress when my doctor guided me in treating adrenal fatigue. Recovering from such a state has required determination and commitment.
Trauma doesn’t have to be one big event to be significant, because when trauma it goes unprocessed, it becomes mental illness.
Here are a few of the ways I describe my process of recovery:
I choose to be in recovery because it’s less painful,