The Trap Door

You’re sitting in your room enjoying the freedom of an unstructured day. Your laptop glows, and your favorite Netflix series is blasting through your speakers. Suddenly, your phone vibrates. It’s an e-mail from your professor. You’re failing a class. How do you react?

If you don’t struggle with suicidal ideation, your likely reaction might be to freak out a little bit, respond to your professor, and jump to problem solving with immediacy. If suicidal ideation is in your wheelhouse, however, you might think you’re toast. You might collapse onto your bed and desperately enumerate reasons to continue being alive. You might assume that your future has somehow been cut short because of this disappointing news.  Problem solving might seem unbearably far away. You might want to die.

My therapist calls this “the trap door.” When someone with regular suicidal thoughts experiences a minor disappointment or a touch of sadness or anger, their mind falls down a trap door that leads straight to the concept of suicide. For example, when I got kicked out of an organization because of my deteriorating mental health, I immediately suspected that my life was over. Instead of thinking of ways to alleviate the stress, I began to plan a suicide attempt. I lost hope and faith, and I got trapped in a train of thought that took me to an intolerably dark place.

When I fall down the trap door, I become a helpless mess. I cry, kick, scream, and throw a little tantrum. My pain becomes so real and so severe that I can barely function. I don’t go to class. I don’t dance, and I isolate myself until people stop reaching out to see if I’m okay. I don’t “overreact” voluntarily. Overreaction happens to me. I’m a victim of it. It assaults my senses until I can no longer breathe. One slip-up, and I’m so far down the trap door I can’t see any light.

Lately, I’ve been living beneath the trap door. Anxiety has me stuck in this horrible limbo between life and death. I haven’t been going to class. I’ve been melting down and panicking repeatedly. Suicidal thoughts have become my constant reality. I’m safe. I’m not acting on anything. I’m just plagued with emotions that nobody wants. I guess I drew the short straw this week.

I’m ready to claw my way out, but I don’t quite know how. What I do know is that I need people. I need more validation than usual, more compassion, and more patience. My support system is my guiding light right now as I navigate the dusty, dark tunnels beneath the trap door.

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Introversion and Isolation

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge introvert. I eat, sleep, and breathe introversion. I love to sit in my room with the lights off, the door shut, and at least one cat on my lap. When I’m in a crowded room, I stay at the edge of conversations and cling to my extroverted friends who can speak for me. For every social interaction I have, I need roughly an hour alone to recover. I like to say that my “social battery” wears out and needs recharging.

There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about being an introvert. Spending time alone is relaxing and cleansing. Being thoughtful about words before saying them aloud is a positive communicative trait. Having a few close friends as opposed to a crowd of acquaintances helps foster an encouraging support system. Being an introvert has its perks.

However, there’s one thing we introverts often do that is unhealthy. It can deteriorate our relationships, negatively impact our mental health, and reduce our productivity. It’s called isolation. Isolation is not the same as choosing to be alone. Alone time heals. Isolation destroys.

To isolate is to push others away. When we isolate, we ignore texts and calls for days, cut corners on personal hygiene, ignore our responsibilities, and possibly lash out at our loved ones. Isolation, for me, looks like skipping class, sleeping on-and-off during the day,  turning off my phone for more than 24 hours (and possibly throwing it against a wall in frustration), failing to shower or brush my teeth, and sometimes even dwelling on suicidal thoughts. I don’t isolate very often, but when I do, it’s crippling.

So at what point does introversion become isolation?

Isolation happens slowly and over a relatively long period of time, but we realize we’re isolating very suddenly. It begins with tiny, ineffective behaviors in day-to-day life. We gradually reduce the number of conversations we have with close friends. We start napping a little bit longer each afternoon. We chip away at our routines, and we don’t notice it at all. We say, “I’ll do this differently tomorrow,” but we don’t. Then, one day, we realize we haven’t showered in a week, we missed ten assignments at school, and our friends have stopped reaching out to us. That’s when we finally identify isolation, and it’s terrifying.

The slow burning fire of isolation creeps up on us over the course of weeks. We, as introverts, are so used to feeling alone that we don’t notice when we begin to feel lonely. The loneliness hurts us far worse than any kind of overstimulation might, and we don’t even call attention to it until the time for salvation has come and gone. We lose friendships. We cause our families pain. We bury ourselves in negativity until it swallows us whole.

Then what? How do we break free from the shackles of isolation and recover what we’ve lost along the way?

The first step is noticing the problem. This is arguably the most difficult part of recovery. We don’t want to admit that our behaviors are flawed. We love to think that we’re undeniably perfect, but that’s impossible. We must own up to our faults and accept them or we will never fix them. Realizing we’re isolating may incite in us the desire to isolate even more severely, but we must resist this urge. We must decide we want to change.

Once we are aware of our isolation and its collateral damage, we can begin the healing process. It’s a mountain worth climbing. The first thing that needs to be healed is ourselves. We can’t make amends with others until we are at peace with ourselves first. Take that shower. Brush those teeth. Eat a decent meal. Comb that hair. We have to do seemingly small things to feel refreshed.

After the basics are taken care of, we can turn our attention outward. I like to start by making a list of all the assignments and tasks I need to do to catch up. I approach the list one item at a time and take enormous pride in myself with each completion. Celebrate the little victories! Start with what’s most urgent and work your way down from there. If you don’t do it perfectly, don’t sweat it. Just do your best. Sometimes, the best we can do is imperfection, and that’s okay.

We complete the must-do’s, and then we can finally move on to the want-to-do’s. This includes our relationships and hobbies. We text our friends back in a flurry of apologies and how-are-you’s.  We call our parents. We post on social media. We return to our dance classes, our clubs, and our social lives. We put ourselves back together one piece at a time.

And that’s the key to recovery–baby steps.

So, fellow introverts, let’s try to be more aware of our behaviors. Let’s try to notice isolation before it evolves into something irredeemable, and let’s never give up hope when we do fall into that pit. I believe in us!

 

Sorry for Being Sorry for Being Sorry

This week, I have already apologized for an apology that was issued in response to a different apology that was an apology for being apologetic. It’s only Tuesday. One can only imagine the cycle of apologies I’ll conjure up by the weekend. I spit out unjustified apologies left and right as if saying sorry on a constant basis is the only way to have a healthy conversation. It isn’t.

When is an apology unjustified, and when is it justified? The way I see it, an apology is justified and effective if the action for which you are apologizing somehow goes against your values. For example, let’s say one of your core values is family and you skip your sibling’s birthday party for a movie with friends. That warrants an apology because you disregarded your devotion to your family to do something that could have waited. On the flip side, say one of your values is honesty and you speak your truth to somebody close to you. You may feel the urge to apologize for “being a burden,” but such an apology would be completely unjustified.

The fear of being a burden on another’s life is a tricky one. Of course it’s possible to overwhelm somebody you’re close to, but it’s important to trust that they would tell you if it got to that point. I know I feel burdensome every single time I open up to someone else. It’s chronic. Even if they are clearly requesting that I talk to them about something, I still manage to find a reason to be apologetic about doing so. I think it actually offends my friends that I fail to believe them when they say that I’m not being annoying, and it definitely irritates them when I apologize approximately one million times. I don’t blame them.

This week in therapy, the primary focus of our session was discussing my being overly-apologetic. We identified my constant apologizing as an unhealthy behavior that is triggered by my anxiety. I worry that my friends will betray my trust or judge me, so I respond to that worry by covering all my bases and apologizing for absolutely everything I say. We discovered that this fear does not exist in a vacuum. I have, in the past, had people dart out of my life and break my heart because I opened up to them and they rejected me. It is this history of rejection that sparks uncontrollable anxiety in me when I speak to other people about deeply personal things.

So, what can we do to avoid unwarranted apologizing? There are a few alternatives that I have latched onto. The first is gratitude. Replace apologetics with gratitude, and you won’t be sorry. Instead of, “I’m sorry you had to deal with me tonight,” try saying, “Thank you so much for your patience tonight.” Instead of, “I’m sorry I bothered you,” try, “Thank you for listening.” Saying thank you validates the other person’s efforts without self-deprecation. Gratitude strengthens relationships while unnecessary apologies break them down.

Another important tool is in-person communication. I know it’s so much easier to communicate in text messages and e-mails, but it’s also incredibly difficult to gauge somebody’s reactions to things if you can’t observe their non-verbal responses. If somebody’s body language is warm and inviting, I’m less likely to feel the urge to apologize, but if I’m only able to determine their tone based on the words they choose to send in a text message, of course I’m going to feel insecure.

I have also found it helpful to simply be honest and ask the person how they’re feeling about the conversation. It’s a little awkward to do this, but it’s worthwhile. This way, there’s no guesswork, no assumptions, and no disconnect. You’re validating the other person’s feelings while protecting your own. Communication with others is one of the most challenging skills to have, and I’m certainly no master of it. However, I’m trying with all my might to push back against my insecurities and apologize less often. It’s a slow, unsteady process, but I’m working on it.

Trauma, Memory, and Music

When I suffered through a traumatic event, my memory paid the price. In PTSD patients, there is evidence that the hippocampus, the part of the brain largely responsible for memory storage and recall, actually shrinks. In my experience, this leads to severe memory dysfunction. I struggle to recall both short-term and long-term memories, and as a result, my ability to experience the breathtaking feeling of nostalgia has been disrupted. It’s like I am completely detached from my past self. The only thing that seems to trigger this emotion in me is music.

When I go on a trip, I make a playlist for it. When a new season of the year begins, I make a playlist for it. If it’s a period of time or an event, I’ve probably made a playlist for it. I obsessively organize music this way because it seems like connecting songs with pieces of my life enables me to form memories more effectively.

I first noticed this quirk about six months after my trauma. I was riding in the car and dared to play my iTunes library on shuffle. Normally, this results in annoyance and frustration, but this time, it was different. A song came on from a playlist I made when I was in my early teenage years. Suddenly, it was like I was back in Memphis, Tennessee for a dance competition that I had previously forgotten all about. I vividly recalled the competition venue, the spiraling hallways, the smell of the streets, the sound of the live bands playing in bars. When the song ended, I flashed forward to present day life and Memphis was gone.

Once I discovered that my old playlist was like a portal back to my Memphis trip, I started to play around with other songs from various eras of my life to see if they carried the same effect. Sure enough, each playlist revived a deeply detailed memory from some trip, year, season, or activity. Through music, I found the ability to dive into my past in a way that my trauma had previously rendered impossible.

There’s a song that takes me back to a time I went jogging just after Christmas in 2015. When I hear the song, I remember what I was wearing and what the holiday lights on the passing houses looked like. There’s another song that takes me to a lake in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, where my grandparents live. Another takes me to a time my dad and I got lost in Philadelphia. Music enables me to travel to London, Charlotte, Savannah, Fort Lauderdale, New York City, and dozens of other places without even leaving my house. For a person who can hardly remember what she ate for breakfast because of traumatic memory loss, this is huge news.

I knew music was powerful. I knew it had the ability to elicit a wide range of emotions in its audiences. I knew it was beautiful. I didn’t know it would be one of the only sources of hope during the darkest times of my life. When I found myself drowning in the deepest trenches of depression and despair, music dragged me out. My favorite artists became my closest confidants. Listening to music became the most valuable expression of emotion in my life.

Music saved my life once. It was a year after my trauma and the night before my Genetics final exam. The middle of the night came and went, and I was still awake, panicking. It was one of the most painful panic attacks I’ve ever had. I knew I was going to fail the final and possibly fail the course, and I was losing my mind. Suicidal ideation consumed me. I decided I’d rather die than fail a class.

I picked up my phone and mindlessly scrolled through social media, desperately trying to distract myself. I noticed a link to a song published by one of my friends and decided to check it out. It was an instrumental Irish song. I won’t name it because my music taste embarrasses me deeply, but it is the most touching, intricate, and evocative song I have heard to this very day. Listening to that song, I allowed myself to cry. I cried for probably an hour straight. It wasn’t a calm, steady cry. It was a hurricane.

That song played on repeat until the early hours of the morning. It brought me to a state of calmness and acceptance that I hadn’t experienced in years. Because of that song, I sank into my emotions and gave myself over to feeling. This connection stopped the suicidal thoughts in their tracks. I felt human and important. I felt worthy of living. I experienced a pivotal moment of vulnerability that snapped me out of a life-threatening shame spiral.

Ever since that night, listening to that song has brought me overwhelming joy and serenity. I listen to it when I have panic attacks or any kind of intensely negative emotion. My brain has made an invaluable connection between that song and peace, and my body has a physical reaction to it. It’s like magic.

The way music evokes memory is so powerful, especially for traumatized people who experience dramatic decreases in memory function. Musicians have a way of speaking to the soul that other people simply don’t possess. I admire the hell out of them. Now that I’ve discovered music as a life-saving device, I use it deliberately to process and store new memories. Like I said previously, there’s a playlist for everything. Sometimes, music is all we need.

Learning to Trust

In 2014, I put my trust in the wrong man. He was a friend of mine. He was supposed to be a good friend. I told him all my secrets, and he told me all his best lies. I looked up to him and counted on his approval. I thought he was the kind of guy who would never do the wrong thing. He was friends with all my friends. I had no reason to think he would do what he did.

But that summer, he got me overwhelmingly drunk and took advantage of me. I was only eighteen. He was in his mid-twenties. When I was crying and begging him to let me out of his apartment, he told me I was being a child. He pinned me down with his hands and left bruises. I thought my friends would support me, and a few of them did. Others told me I was lying. Many of them pretended to support me but continued to visit him behind my back. This betrayal lasted for months, and yes, I knew about it.

After all that, how in the world was I supposed to trust anyone ever again?

The ability to rely on others came back to me very slowly. I think it was over a year before I felt even the slightest inkling of trust in another. I certainly pretended to trust people, but I was always skeptical of their motives and allegiances. I scrutinized every move my friends made and constantly worried that they had poor intentions. I didn’t like being touched, either. I put up with hugs because it seemed like the right thing to do, but the truth was that every touch made me feel like I was being assaulted again.

Trusting men was an even slower, more arduous process. I’m not even totally there yet. About two years after it all happened, I still struggled to be alone in a room with a man without feeling like my life was being threatened. I never complained about this or told anyone, but the feeling was there. I would get nauseous and find an excuse to end the conversation promptly so that I could go try to breathe somewhere quiet. It had nothing to do with the men themselves. Just me and my memories.

Things have changed. There’s no doubt about that. You won’t find anyone more passionate about hugging than me. As long as there’s consent on both ends, I’m cool with it. I dig it. I talk to guys all the time now without feeling afraid. I can even be alone with them and feel comfortable. I share my story publicly, which requires an absurd amount of trust in people I don’t even know. My life is on display on social media, and I like it that way.

So, how did I get to this point?

I think I started to open up slowly. At first, it was with people I knew intimately, and it ultimately grew to include those I only knew from a distance. I started by sharing little things about myself, like my writing and stories from my childhood. I measured people’s reactions to those little tidbits of information and decided whether or not to share more based on the level of judgment I perceived.

The real test of my trust came when I was in the hospital. I was in a partial-hospitalization program at an institute in Smyrna, Georgia. It was a unit for women who suffered from trauma and/or eating disorders. In our daily process group, I refused to share my story at first. I told my case manager that I never would delve that deep and that she would be a fool to try and make me.

But something changed one day when another group member shared her story and it sounded very much like my own. I couldn’t believe it. How could somebody who had gone through what I had gone through be so bold as to tell a room full of strangers about it? And then I realized that they weren’t strangers. They were fellow women who had experienced similar traumas and were seeking help. That shared experience brought us together as sisters, not as strangers.

After that epiphany, I shared my story with the group. I cried, and they cried. It was an emotional experience that I needed to have. Once I realized that shared pain brings even the most polar-opposite people together, I decided that I could start broadcasting my story to a wider audience. We all have struggles, and we all have our own histories of trauma to varying degrees. If I share my story with any number of people, statistics show that at least one person in the audience will relate.

From that point on, trust, for me, became a way to connect with people. I’ve met loads of people online and in person through mutual trust and compassion. I’ve become closer with the most random people in my life because my story resonated with them. When others decided it was right to trust me, I followed suit and showed them the same trust. This has strengthened my relationships, improved my confidence, and enhanced my quality of life by miles.

But the journey isn’t quite over. Sometimes, I still feel that paralyzing fear of being judged, manipulated, or hurt by somebody I’m supposed to trust, especially when it comes to men. This distrust isn’t founded on the basis of anything the person has done or said. It’s merely a product of my anxiety and PTSD. Reminding myself that irrational distrust is just my mental illness talking does wonders to help this, but I’d like to get to a point where I don’t even need to do that.

In learning to trust again, I’ve discovered that trust is the key to living a fulfilling life. I can’t function alone. I need people. I need people to love me, trust me, talk to me, and validate me. That’s perfectly natural. In order to achieve that level of human connection, I have to trust others with my whole heart. I have to open myself up to potential betrayal or I’ll never find friends or a partner. From my experience, learning to trust is worth the pain. I’ve made the greatest friends I could ever hope to make, and it’s all because I showed them trust and was trusted in return.

 

Anxiety and Athleticism

One of my biggest challenges is managing my anxiety while doing a high-intensity sport like Irish dance. In my experience, anxiety dramatically reduces stamina, which is a critical requirement in any sport. In Irish dance, nothing is possible without it. When I’m five shallow breaths away from a panic attack, how am I supposed to perform anywhere near my best?

Anxiety has held me back in dance like nothing else. At my old school, I used to sit in my car before class and worry over all the dancing I was going to have to do inside the studio. I used to have fully-fledged panic attacks in the middle of dances because of a lack of perfection. After class, I would cry in my car for at least fifteen minutes, unable to hold it together until I got home.

Now, I’m at a new dance school, and I’m managing my anxiety far more effectively because of the combined support of my therapist, my friends, and my teachers. However, it still isn’t easy. Sometimes before dancing I still get that troubling feeling bubbling up inside my stomach, and I know anxiety is about to hit me hard. So, what do I do when it does?

One thing that has helped is positive self-talk. In my mind, I purposefully think things like, “You’ve got this,” “You’ve done this a million times,” and “You are good at this.” Oftentimes in the moment I don’t believe whatever mantra I choose, but the act of thinking it reduces my anxiety by at least half. The more I think it, the more it becomes true. Changing the way I talk to myself on a daily basis has serious positive effects on my health, and a healthy person is more likely to succeed in a sport.

Talking about it works too. Just turning to my neighbor and saying, “Gee, I’m really anxious right now” lightens my load. They usually don’t have anything constructive to say in response, and that’s totally okay. I don’t expect anyone to know what to say. I just hope they’ll listen. Letting somebody know what’s going on is key. The more I try to restrict my anxiety and force it deeper inside of myself, the worse it gets.

Mindfulness, as always, is another helpful tool for me when grappling with anxiety during dance class. I know people give cringe-worthy speeches about the cleansing powers of mindfulness all the time, but hear me out. Living in the now has enabled me to focus better in class, avoid dissociation, and quell that anxiety that rises in me just before I’m about to dance. When I’m doing a dance all the way through, it is enormously helpful to focus only on what my feet are doing in that exact moment rather than what they’re about to be doing. This way, I’m not worrying about whether or not I’ll get through the dance. I’m dancing deliberately and mindfully instead.

The importance of breathing cannot be overstated. I can’t tell you how many times I have held my breath before, after, or even during a dance. Starving my brain of oxygen does nothing to stop anxiety in its tracks. It only increases the problem. I start to lose feeling in my legs, which renders any kind of technical dancing impossible. Before I dance, I like to take three deep, purposeful breaths. This improves my confidence and sends my anxiety far away.

Most importantly, I try to remember how much I love what I’m doing. In the heat of things, it’s easy to forget that sports are supposed to be fun. When your feet are bleeding, your head is full of corrections to apply, and you’ve been struggling to dance for three hours, you might think, “I hate this.” Resenting your sport is an easy way to get yourself feeling anxious about it. I used to dread dance class because I was in a toxic headspace about it. I was so focused on perfection that I forgot to enjoy myself. My anxiety had a field day when this was going on. Now, before every class, I remind myself how much I love to dance, and that makes all the difference in the world.

 

Stuck

How do you kiss a memory goodbye?

I have to grow up one day, or maybe I already did. Maybe I grew up faster than everyone else, and I’m waiting on other people to catch up. Or maybe I’m naive, and everyone is flying past me at the speed of light. Maybe I’m living some kind of in-between life. Not a teenager, not an adult. Not anything.

Memories of horrible things keep me stuck. I know it’s unhealthy, and I know I could be realizing my potential if I would only move on. But if I move on, I’m not me anymore. I’m someone else. Someone who probably eats kale and wakes up at 6 a.m. for sunrise yoga and never speaks ill of anything because people aren’t allowed to have feelings when they’re happy. I don’t want to be that person. That person hides skeletons in dark closets and never lets them out to breathe. I let my skeletons dance.

I didn’t go to school today. I sat in my room and let my thoughts carry me off to some distant place. I don’t even know where it was. I just know I was sad there. And I was with other people who were sad too. And we never smiled or talked about the weather. We only talked about the stuff nobody else wants to talk about. The stuff I love talking about. I’ve never been so happy to feel sad. Because you have to feel sad sometimes, or you can never feel happy. Or maybe that’s just me.

Maybe I can’t move on. Maybe other people are born with an undiscovered part of the brain that lets them grow the fuck up, but I wasn’t blessed with that gift. If I’m stuck like this forever, I hope I write a book about it. I think people would read it. People like reading about those sad people who cry on public transit and go to the movies by themselves. That’s me. They think I’m deep when everything about me is shallow. My breathing, my patience, my heart. It’s all as deep as the kiddie pool.

Some people dream at night. I stay awake instead. If I go to sleep, I remember things, and I don’t like remembering things. Or maybe I love it. Maybe I thrive on the bad memories because they remind me that I’m human and not a cog in the machine. Maybe I’m sleeping all the time because if I wake up, I’ll see that things aren’t as bad as I crave for them to be. I’m nothing without suffering. I’m nothing with suffering. I’m nothing at all.

But I’m also everything. In my head, I’m everything. I’m the voice I hear every moment of the day, and I’m the face I have to wake up to. I’m afraid that I’m losing myself. Every step I take forward is another step toward becoming someone new. I like the monotony of my inner monologue and I like the way the rain sounds when it beats against windows. I listen to sad songs in the car and never fake a laugh. I like this beat-up shell of a person I pretend to be.

Someone told me once that I deserve to find happiness, but I don’t want it. Happiness means giving up. I deserve to stay stuck. To be resilient. I am brave because I am miserable and fighting. I am weak when I have nothing left to fight. So I keep fighting. I fight things that died a long time ago, and I destroy myself in the process. If I keep writing about it, I keep it alive.

I don’t kiss memories goodbye. I welcome them with open arms and let myself be blinded by them. I don’t need to see the present because my past is my present. I built a home in my past and filled it with roses. I love it there. And I hate it there. The front yard is full of weeds and I don’t have any neighbors. It’s lonely there, in my past. But it’s lonely here, too. I’d rather be alone with my memories than be alone in a crowded room.

I’m stuck.