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August 31, 2020

I was Transformed by Trauma—& so were my Needs.

Trauma can happen to anyone, especially emotional trauma.

For me, it happened three years ago. There was a period of grief for my island; everyone lost something with Hurricane María. But that was nothing compared to the pain I was feeling after losing my dad to a water current on his way home.

You may think: “she can’t seriously compare her single loss to the loss of thousands of people,” but I can. That’s how trauma works and that’s how the body reacts. I remember who I was before this, but there’s barely anything left from that woman I used to be.

I started having symptoms of anxiety attacks when I was just a little girl in middle school. I remember being through a traumatic experience where me and a few other students were sexually assaulted in broad daylight. And as clear as I remember that, I also remember not knowing how to breathe properly when I saw police intervention was involved. I panicked and immediately lost sense of my whole body.

But not even this was enough to change the whole functioning of my body. It was traumatic and terrible to live as an adolescent, but it didn’t hurt me as much as losing my dad to a hurricane did. To this day, I can’t explain to you what about this loss changed me forever.

The thing is, trauma is not always something you can explain; it’s complex, tedious, and very cruel. However, what I can tell you, from my experience, is the things that change in the list of things we need. Did you know trauma can cause real and painful physical symptoms? Specially when these symptoms go untreated or treated as something completely different.

This year I started experiencing different symptoms in what has been a long process of grief. I really thought my sickness was just God being cruel and putting even more things in my life to worry about. I really believed I was just going to be sick every month until something really bad happened and I was done. That’s how terrible my symptoms of PTSD and anxiety were.

I got chills, I would sweat uncontrollably during sleep, I got chest pain that felt like a heart attack, I got ridiculously painful headaches, period cramps while I was not on my period, and I got what I thought were fevers. But what scared me the most, because I still didn’t know where it came from, was a lump in my throat. And you may think that because this feeling is caused by anxiety, or other mental health conditions, that it’s just in my mind. Well, no.

Sometimes I couldn’t touch my throat, other days I would lose my voice, and at some point I could barely sleep because it was really hard to breathe. I started treating it as a sinus problem, but when it didn’t go away, I went running to my doctor. She did every possible test and everything, surprisingly, was in excellent shape. That’s when I realized my problem was a little more complicated than just unbalanced hormone levels. My anxiety and my trauma were taking away my voice, breath, and my health. I was letting them, too. I was so scared no one would believe that this was something I felt on a physical level that I just ignored it. I adjusted my life to these symptoms instead of treating them as a real thing.

And here’s the thing, we are taught to celebrate new things, new births, and beginnings, but we are never taught how to deal with loss and trauma. So, I had no one who could tell me how my life would change after experiencing trauma. I was being transformed and so were my needs.

With that being said, here are some of the things I found I needed a little bit more of after suffering trauma:

1. Sleep

If you’ve gone through trauma, you may need more sleep than most people.

As I said before, three years ago as Hurricane María passed over Puerto Rico, she was taking more than the life of trees and buildings—she took the life of my dad. Trauma has the crazy characteristic of ruining your sleeping schedule. You can notice an increase in nightmares, flashbacks where you revisit the trauma, avoidance which leads to insomnia, negative moods and thoughts, guilt, and an increased physical arousal such as irritability and having trouble relaxing.

For me, it was all of that. I remember the first few days after the news, I would wake up crying and holding my chest. I was sleeping, but the pain was very much awake. Other nights I would have trouble sleeping, because as soon as I closed my eyes, I started to imagine how my dad drowned in his car on the way to see us. And on some other days, I would just spend the day sleeping nonstop. There is no way of telling how your body will respond to trauma. Some days are mild and others are just unbearable.

It doesn’t matter the size or the severity of your trauma—trauma is trauma. I want to invite you to take time to meditate on the things that are disrupting your sleep and alone time. Face them instead of avoiding them.

Some things you could practice if you have no access to professional help are:

>> Exercising during the day, but do avoid rigorous exercises close to your bed time.
>> Make a sleeping schedule and try to stick to it.
>> Pay attention to your eating and drinking habits.
>> Stick to a schedule during the day.
>> You’ll hate this, but less caffeine intake.
>> Try to relax. Look and read about effective relaxation techniques that could work for you.
>> Seek treatment. 

2. A routine that values gentle movement

Routines become tedious when you have zero energy to work through the day. Work, college, socialising, and even existing becomes heavy when you’re going through any type of trauma, anxiety, or stress.
Structure can help you develop a sense responsibility and order in areas where you may have lost control. Having a constant plan of what to do can ease your stress and anxiety over regular day tasks, and it might help you make more positive and consistent decisions.
It’s been years of grieving, and honestly, I’m tired. I’m exhausted and I just want to sleep. Saying these things doesn’t make me irresponsible nor negligent with my process. Saying these things doesn’t mean I’m giving up. These words mean exactly what they read: I am tired of the absence of order.
Everyday I try to be consistent in the things I do, even when I feel like staying in bed. Every single day is about trying and about deciding to make positive choices. Now, this isn’t an obligation, and maybe routines won’t help you as much they help me. What I can promise you will help though is deciding to take care of yourself every day. Decide every morning, evening, and night to do good for you—at least better than yesterday. You can do that.
If you are not sure of positive decisions you can make every day, let’s talk. Maybe I can give you ideas and maybe you can even help me.

3. Breaks during arguments or intense emotional experiences

Learning when to stop a stressor or trigger can be tricky, specially when you are working with limited resources. Triggers are inevitable, let’s just say it. There is no healthy way of stopping the memories from past trauma or the stressors that constantly unbalance you.
I recently graduated from college, and a thought that kept coming into existence every day was: “I can’t think about my future, my partner, my family, nor my grad studies ’til I’ve had proper treatment for my PTSD and anxiety.” I kept thinking and hearing that I had to be healed in order to achieve anything in my life.
I soon learned that that is not true. I can coexist with my trauma and my anxiety and still be brave, smart, responsible, professional, successful, and loved. I can definitely plan my future and have goals with my professional life. I am not defined by my trauma nor my anxiety, but by how I use it to become even stronger and more firm in the things I want for my life.
I encourage you to get strength from where you thought there was nothing left and do what you are so very afraid of doing. You can be successful and happy while living with anxiety. You can be at peace. You can be loved by your partner even when you don’t feel deserving of it. You are entitled to take breaks from anything that triggers you or makes your trauma feel unbearable. You are entitled to take breaks from planning, too. Don’t pressure yourself to make plans now that you’ve read this. I want to encourage you, not scare you.

4. Long-term therapy even when you’ve processed the experience

Something I became frustrated with was thinking people wouldn’t see the severity of my pain and my trauma because of how strong and composed I projected myself. I was afraid to seek help and be dismissed.

A few months later, I found The Grief Recovery Method, an organisation dedicated to treat grieving patients. I wrote an email, sent it, and ignored my inbox for the next few days. Until I got this email back from the possible psychologist I picked for my treatment:

“Dear Jenisse,
Thank you so much for your note that you sent through the Grief Recovery Institute, and for sharing what’s happened. I am  deeply moved and touched by your share, and by the depth of the grief that you are describing. I can’t even imagine how hard and how painful this must have been (and still is) for you, to get through this scary hurricane, and then losing your Dad in such a horrible way…
The feelings of that constant sadness, the confusion, the nighmares, lack of energy and concentration – and all the other things you are describing as you are currently experiencing it, make so much sense to me. And I am impressed at your level of awareness of what’s happening inside of you.
I am so glad that you have found the Grief Recovery Method, and the courage to reach out. I realize, when you are in the midst of grief, that’s a huge step! So yeah You! And yes, the Grief Recovery Method is extraordinary, and it can help move you through this, so that you can let go of these haunting images, the endless thoughts, questions and confusion – and that pervasive sadness.”

I was not dismissed. This is when my heart started to understand I could seek help and be taken seriously, as serious as my pain felt.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Seek that help, ask around, make the calls, make that appointment. You’ll find what you need if you look in the right places. There are professionals prepared to help you and ready to guide you.

5. Space to check out of social media

Social media can be such a cruel place when you’re in the midst of suffering. It becomes a place where triggers are way too easy to find. One moment you’re enjoying a friend’s picture and the next you’re imagining how great it would be if you could be that wholesome. When we feel sad, anxious, depressed, hurt, lonely, or stressed we tend to use social media too much and obsess over the things people post. We become more interested in other people’s lives and their happiness more than with our own well-being. We forget to tend ourselves and our pain.

I’ve become obsessed with people who, I think, lead a great life. People who, I assume, are successful and are far more attractive than me. I’ve become way too obsessed with setting expectations for myself based on the lives of people I don’t even have a relation to.
This has made me feel even more isolated and miserable. There’s no other way to put it. A few months back, I started getting palpitations every time I went through Instagram, because I thought nothing I could post was good enough. To me, I was someone not worth connecting to—until I started writing these series.
Using my platform, even when limited, to share my pain and process with you guys has healed me in many ways. For you to love me, even when I’m showing you the ugliest parts of my pain, is incredible to me.

I wish for you to find that use for your platform. You have an audience, and whether it’s big or small, they are watching and learning from you. Become an inspiration, not just to people, but to yourself. Write, post a picture, a story, anything that makes you proud of exposing yourself to the world.
Remember to take breaks from this, and also to make an effort to make social media a safe space. Sometimes this means erasing, unfollowing, or muting. It’s okay to clean the slate once in a while and pause some interactions.

6. Space to check out of social events

Social events have become such a burden to me. They drain every ounce of energy I may have accumulated by being in my bed all week. And it’s saddening to me, because I love socialising and having people around. I enjoy people so much; they make me feel awesome and content. However, put simply, my body can’t take it sometimes.

As I write this, I’m feeling tired and drained. The only thing I’ve done today is go to the bank and immediately leave, because the line to get in was too long. And yet, my body and mind feel like I’ve spent a whole day working out, with back, leg, and chest aches and all.

Even though my identity is not defined by my trauma, my trauma changes my identity completely. I used to be an outgoing person with my social interactions. I used to love giving and getting attention. But right now I get too scared to answer text messages, or to ask someone at the car wash to wash my car. Simple things are so scary to me at the moment. I’ve gotten to the point of not making a noise inside of my own apartment when I know someone is walking through the hallway.
When going through trauma, interactions can become triggers. Trauma dims the lives of approximately tens of millions of people in the world. But each trauma is different. For me, it’s been my social skills that have been most affected. Sometimes I even feel like I forget how to speak. I forget coherence in my words and mess up my line of thought way too often. The human brain works slowly: first the blow, and hours or months later, the bruise. The world returns more or less to normal, but we do not.

This is an invitation to get to know the new you. Not the traumatized you, but the new and grown you. The you who has suffered trauma and somehow learned to grow in it. And if you do not think you have grown, think again. Meditate on the things that used to be weaknesses and are now your strengths. The list will be long. Let me know what is a new strength you’ve discovered recently.

Your needs will change throughout your whole life, but trauma likes to tells us which ones are going to change—just not when. Timing is always a mystery. There are many ways to seek healing and many people who are willing to figure out your needs with you. Try to seek and develop relationships where this is not a dealbreaker nor an annoying task to do. Seek relationships where you are accepted with your trauma and your anxiety, and most importantly, where you are validated and loved.

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Jenisse Matías  |  Contribution: 230

author: Jenisse Matías

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Editor: Farah Hany

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