Personal reflections · Psychology and mental illness

Winter Freeze

“When people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past, to the last time they felt intense involvement and deep emotions, they suffer from a failure of the imagination, a loss of the mental flexibility. Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.” -Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

This happens every winter – my writing slows down, I sink into existential depression, and I feel like I don’t deserve any of the good things that happen to me, while fighting to get through necessary appointments and tasks, and I fall deep into therapy, letting my emotional turmoil roar until I feel like writing again in weeks or months.

My relationship with writing is changing, and I know it’s for the best, but I’ve always been impatient with growth. What I’m learning is how to combine my high-brow research with my emotional side.

My emotional side is very broken. I’ve been reading a lot about psychology to understand more about what is going on with me. Basically, I dissociate hundreds of times a day – doing things that are embarrassing, with lapses in my memory every time I enter a new room or put something down or in a pocket. I forget where I put things, within moments of putting them there. I wake up every morning chasing away nightmares about the chaos of my past, and these nightmares have raged on in every sleeping moment for months. I wake up exhausted as a result. I’m trying to work hard for my clients, and often have little energy left over to write. And what to write? What, indeed.

I’ve learned that when I go through dry spells with writing, the most prudent course of action is to just keep putting one word in front of the other, and hopefully, eventually, I’ll have something worth sharing with the world. So each morning, I work on the many essays I have partially written across many documents, picking one and working on it for as long as I can. Then I work for my clients. Then I try to get new clients. Then I’m knocked flat, often huddling with my heat pad, dealing with the impacts of the trauma on my body. The pain itself is something so visceral, it’s hard to put into words.

Doctors ask, “when did it start?” And I always look at them in confusion. The pain has always been there. I just learned how to relate to my body in a way that wasn’t numb. I used to think that I could just ignore it, and I would be fine. It’s why I struggle with eating, too – my body has been locked into a state of survival for so long, remembering my mother’s words, just do the next three things, busy, busy, busy, that I don’t know how to stop. But I can describe the pain now, as it haunts me daily: pain in my wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, spine, lower back, hips, knees, and ankles, and everything in between, but primarily sprouting and spreading from the joints. They still haven’t found a medical cause for my chronic pain, and I’ve so far had ineffective medication for the psychological symptoms of my trauma, so I rely on cannabis for pain relief and to help me eat.

Does it hurt to type? Of course. But writing is my lifeblood, both literally and figuratively, updated dictionaries be damned. So I sit with the words and let them marinate, and cry a lot, and trust the process of recovery.

The road is long. It is far from over. I am still on the edge of homelessness – staying stable thanks to astounding sponsors. I am still dealing with the anxiety of staying alive, keeping a roof over my head, and stretching my food stamps far enough to avoid living on peanut butter and noodles at the end of every month. Each time I talk about economic disparity, and of the complex challenges related to trauma, recovery, and trying to stay alive and afloat, I get a twinge of guilt for vocalizing the taboo. And yet it’s desperately needed. The fact is that I’m not better, I’m not stable, and I won’t be for a long time. Internally, I’m doing everything I can to process the emotions and impatience and fear related to that. Externally, I am working on writing in all of my spare time – it’s not a full-time job, but as I’ve explained elsewhere, my body won’t allow me to work full-time anymore. I can’t keep pushing myself. My body has broken through to my mind at last, and I am constantly aware of the years of labor that were demanded of me.

I’m learning something new: how to play with writing, instead of fighting desperately to demand productivity from myself. I’m learning how to relax, instead of carrying all this tension in my body – and that process takes a lot of emotional work, unraveling what I wound up and sealed inside because I was not allowed to express my feelings.

I’m learning how to paint in the whole picture, not just tell stories for their shock value. As I work on the book, I am working to elicit my own voice and tone, while telling a vibrant story, complete with well-developed characters who have unique mannerisms and ways of speaking. These are my siblings and parents, frozen in time at the ages they were when I last knew them. Such a thing is painfully delicate. These are real people who are growing up and existing, already in a different family than the one I knew, because it is always being reinvented. Now there are nine kids at home, and all of them are in school. Things are changing, but my parents’ personalities haven’t.

Now I see my family as a symptomatic thing, a very small group of people in a much larger picture, one that is, ultimately, an entire population deluded by religion and conservative politics. My perspective is impersonal. I am nobody on the broad scale of human power and destruction, and this thought often keeps me from writing, as the meaninglessness of it all envelops me in numb depression.

So what I’m working on in therapy is recognizing – yes, I know my parents aren’t evil, they did their best, and did what they believed was right, and I can’t even really blame them for all of the above, because they are as misled as the MAGA masses they are a part of – BUT that still leaves emotional baggage to dig through. Regardless of whether I understand what happened cognitively, there is a little girl who’s wrapped under layers and layers of mental protection that I constructed to survive, scared and hurting and angry and in pain. I’m working on finding her, holding her, nurturing her, and figuring out how to align myself so I see her as me and us as the same.