(Note: brief, vague mentions of self harm, eating struggles, deaths, and violence)
I am happy and proud to say that I have been feeling much better recently!
My PTSD has almost disappeared! I have nightmares less than once week now, and their content is much less violent and traumatic. I can’t remember the last time I had a flashback! I’ve had many fewer intrusive thoughts, too.
I think the main reason for these improvements in my PTSD is that I’ve been doing Prolonged Exposure and directly confronting traumatic memories. I’m proud of this because I’ve put in the work and done things that scared me and were hard to do. I may write about this more later, but it really is remarkable to me how much it has helped.
I have so much more free time in my day now. Being upset took up so much of my days! I have more time available for going to class, doing homework, and hanging out with my friends, and sometimes I even have free time left over after that!
I got grades that I am proud of this semester; I took on a leadership position in a club I’m part of; I even tried flirting with someone I had a crush on!
Getting better is a change, and change can be scary
However, there are still struggles in getting better. It’s new and very different from how the past few years of my life have been. Change of any type is hard and scary for me, even when it’s positive change. There are new things to get used to.
Experimenting with the possibility of dating someone was a very stressful experience for me, even though I’m glad I tried and have grown from it and made a new good friend (I told him I liked him; he said he didn’t like me back, but we’re still good friends). There are a lot of situations I’m not used to being in. Applying for jobs? Having interviews that aren’t for therapy programs?!
It’s scary, but I’m growing. 🙂
Higher expectations for myself
As my mental health improved, my expectations for myself shot up. Before, I called a day a success if I went to all my classes and ate some meals, and I’d be proud of that and pat myself on the back because I knew it had been hard to do. When those things got easier and more routine, I felt that I needed to do more. I thought that since I was doing better, I had to take school more seriously and actually get better grades (in part to make up for the lower ones I’d gotten when I was struggling more). My mental health had been holding me back before, and it wasn’t now, so I felt that there was no excuse to not do well, to not do everything, to not be like my peers.
I didn’t see it at the time, but those were unrealistic expectations. There is a lot of room in-between managing to make it to most classes and getting straight A’s; it’s not strictly one or the other. I expected myself to be perfect all of a sudden. I wanted to be able to make up for all the things I’d missed out on over the years all at once.
Wanting these things did make me more motivated, and I plan to achieve many of the things that I realized I wanted — someday. I have to radically accept that I can’t do everything all at once, and I can’t do everything so fast. I need to be patient with myself. While it’s great that I am getting better and seeing improvements, I’m not fully better. It’s a slow process and something that I need to keep working on.
Not everything gets better
Another thing to radically accept is that there are some things in my life that don’t get better as my mental health gets better. I came home from college recently, and it was a bit of a rude awakening to see my parents arguing just as much as they had been when I left. My improvement hadn’t affected them — of course it wouldn’t, but somehow I just assumed that everything in my life would get better as my mental health improved. That’s not the case.
Therapy also can’t make up for the fact that I have two family members missing in my life. Opposite action can’t bring them back from the dead. I think that I am dealing with the losses better than I was a few months ago (I’m not incapacitated by sadness; I don’t spend most of my days lying on my bedroom floor crying; eating isn’t as much of a struggle), but they are still gone. I am still sad. The grief resurfaces every now and then.
Worries about things worsening
Another challenge is that I worry about my mental health worsening again. Now that I’ve experienced how good things can be, I feel a deeper loss when I’m temporarily feeling worse again. I know all the things I’m missing out on and feel sorry for myself.
When something goes wrong, I also worry that it’s the beginning of the end. Will I go back to being depressed and tormented by nightmares? Good things can’t last forever, right? Is this a temporary blip in my life, or a more lasting change?
If I check the facts on these fears, I can see that the gradual changes I’ve made over the past year have lasted so far. I can see that I have been doing the treatment recommended to me by multiple therapists who believed that it would improve my life, and they agree that I have made lots of progress.
Yes, more bad things are bound to happen in my life, but I do have better skills to deal with them now. I haven’t self-harmed in maybe four months? I “graduated” from DBT group, and I use the healthier coping skills that I learned there every day. I can get through things.
Same friends, new relationships?
When I became friends with the people I’m friends with now, I was struggling, and I was looking (consciously or unconsciously) for certain things in friends — sensitive, a good listener, etc. In addition, many of my friends have their own struggles with mental illness. I’ve also stayed in touch with some people I knew from group therapies.
As a result of these things, many of my interactions with my friends were centered around me venting/asking for support, or me providing emotional support to my friends. I was happy and grateful for that, and it enabled me to have deep, intimate friendships, but I’m not struggling as much anymore. What do we talk about now?? What if we can’t relate as much because we’re not in the same dark place anymore? What if my friend liked me because she felt like she was helping me, and now there’s nothing left to be helped? The dynamics have shifted.
I don’t think that any friendships will end over this, but I may end up more distant from certain people, and that makes me sad. I suppose it’s also possible for friendships to evolve as people evolve, and I hope that mine will, because I really do like my friends.
On the other hand, I am also making new friends. Now humor and playfulness are more attractive qualities to me. I want to laugh for a while with a friend more than I want to express to them how badly I’ve been feeling. There is a time and place for both, but I find myself wanting more fun now than I did before. This is another change that is scary for me at times!
My friends enabled my avoidance
Some of my friends also enabled some bad habits that I want to stop doing now. They let me and even encouraged me to avoid things. Part of my exposure therapy is not avoiding things that aren’t objectively dangerous. I don’t want to avoid things anymore, but the message hasn’t sunk in for my friends yet.
Several people know that I hate blood, decapitation, violence, and related things. When there are scenes in movies with those things, they say, “[My Name], don’t look!” They say, “I don’t think you’ll like this movie, it’s not for you.” When I ask, “What are you laughing at on your phone?” they say, “You don’t want to know, you won’t like it, it’s bad, trust me.”
I very much appreciated these warnings at times when I felt like I needed them, but now I feel like I can handle things. I know that avoidance makes my fears stronger. I don’t want to avoid! I am ready to face scary things!
It’s just frustrating that my old habits were so deeply engrained that they spread to my friends, and now I have to change my friends’ habits, too, not just my own.
Overall, I’m doing so much better now than I was a few months ago. A couple of weeks before final exams, someone asked me how I was doing, and I said “good”! She said, “haha, like the dog in the fire meme?”
Meaning, was I saying that things were fine when I was really super stressed out about finals? I wasn’t! I was serious that I was doing well! As I thought back on the conversation afterwards, I realized that I wasn’t just doing well, I was doing the best I had been in the past two years. That seems quite amazing to me.
I wrote this post because I think I had an idea in my head of “getting better” that was all perfect sunshine and butterflies, and I wanted to express the ways in which getting better is still hard. But the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. 🙂
As part of the prolonged exposure therapy I’ve been doing, I do imaginal exposures, which involve talking through a traumatic memory. I tend to dissociate when talking or thinking about the trauma, so it’s sometimes hard for me to continue thinking about the memory because my mind goes blank with dissociation. However, I need to engage with the memory in order for the memory to make me less scared in the future, so I can’t just block it out. I have to balance not dissociating (by grounding myself in the present moment) and remembering the memory (which brings me a little to the past).
This affirmation is to remind me that it is possible to do this. It is possible to remember without having a flashback or dissociating. I can remember non-traumatic events and still know where I am in the present. With time and hard work in treatment, I am gradually able to do the same with traumatic memories.
There are good days AND bad days. Keep going, and you’ll find both.
When I’m not doing well, it sometimes seems like these bad things are all that have ever existed and all that will ever exist. But that’s not true! Good days will come again.
Conversely, sometimes when I’m doing well, I think that I’m finally at an idealized “better” place and that my life will be perfect from now on. That’s not true either. There will always be hard times, easier times, neutral times, happier times, sadder times, etc., throughout life. When I expect things to be more perfect than is realistic, it a) makes me stressed about the good times ending because I know deeper down that I won’t be able to keep up with these expectations, and b) makes me crash harder when I start to feel worse again.
Reminding myself of the duality and accepting both the good and the bad helps me to keep a more balanced perspective.
I’m on the train going to my family’s home for Thanksgiving and am noticing all the good things.
We rode past beautiful bays and beaches, over rivers emptying into the ocean, through forests of bare branches with sun streaming through.
A little girl, maybe 2 or 3, in a cute dress and white sweater walked down the aisle of the train while looking at a phone, like an adult, and bumped into someone. It was so cute. It made me smile, and the person across the aisle from me (the one the little girl bumped into) saw me smiling and smiled, too.
I texted a bunch of friends I haven’t spoken to in a while. Scrolling through my recent text messages, I can see people from middle school, high school, college, my summer program, and my family. All these nice friends! I’m so glad I have all these great people in my life, even if I don’t see them that often.
The guy sitting next to me apologized after being on the phone for a while (which didn’t bother me at all) and asked if I’d mind if he ate lunch. It was very nice to be treated so politely and considerately.
I’ve been thinking more about gratitude lately since it’s Thanksgiving time. This year I have been making a real effort to pay attention to the good things.
At the beginning of the new year, I saw a BuzzFeed post that mentioned keeping a calendar of good things, or something like that. I liked the idea, and I’ve been actually following through on it, for the most part. I have a calendar with nice pictures hanging on my wall, and each day I write down one good thing that happened in gold sharpie (or green sharpie more recently because my gold ran out).
I don’t put pressure on myself to decide on the best thing that happened that day; just one good thing is enough. Sometimes it’s a good dance class, or someone saying something nice about me, or a yummy dessert I ate, or laughing at something. Some days, or weeks, I forget to fill it out, but that’s okay.
I’ve also been keeping a gratitude journal, which I write in as part of my morning routine. I write in it somewhat infrequently, but when I do do it, it really starts my day off well.
I say all this because noticing, remembering, and focusing on these good things has actually been really helping me. I notice such a difference in myself when I do these things regularly. I’m more tuned in to all the good things going on throughout the day. I’m happier, more appreciative, more loving, and more relaxed.
Sometimes when I’m feeling hopeless and depressed, I challenge myself to think of five good things, right now. In that state of mind, it’s hard to think of good things. I tell myself that anything good is fine; it doesn’t have to be a big thing. Oh, look, that cloud is really nice. That leaf that just fell in front of me has pretty colors. I’m walking and able to use all four limbs. I have a therapist. My jacket is warm. That’s five right there.
I have a friend who sometimes talks very negatively about the world. I wish she knew that when everything looks awful, it’s the depression talking and not the way the world really is. There are good things in the world. I have been in that place where it looks like there aren’t. But that’s just because my emotions are clouding my vision.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t bad things, too. There are, and those are very real and very valid. But it’s not all bad.
There are so many good things in the world, in my life, in my present. Even when I don’t see them, they’re still there. I think that’s important to remember.