Blog posts can be challenging for me to write. Not because I don’t have things to say – those that know me well know that I have a lot of thoughts and opinions. But because it feels uncomfortable to take on an expert role. That feels like a particularly difficult role to embody because, as a human and as a therapist, I am constantly learning and growing. Throw in a little bit of imposter syndrome and you arrive at a good case of writer’s block.
I work primarily with people dealing with trauma so it makes sense that I would write a blog post about trauma. As I attempted to detail the symptoms and offer some education on what trauma means and what it looks like, I kept flashing to memories of my younger self. A younger self surrounded by books, trying to figure out what was wrong with me, why I couldn’t handle things like a “normal person,” why my emotions were so intense and difficult to control. The therapists and psychiatrists I saw offered an array of diagnoses (mood disorders, personality disorders, adjustment disorders), all feeling like confirmations that something was indeed wrong with me.
Not one person mentioned trauma. Not one person offered me the explanation that the swings I was experiencing may have been my body’s way of surviving some of the big, scary things that had happened to me. And some of the small, scary things that had also happened. That I was not sick – rather my body was just stuck in survival mode because it felt safest that way. By staying in survival mode, I was always ready, no matter what else happened.
Out of that memory, this list is what bubbled up out of me. Here’s what I wish someone had told my past self:
1) The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) that mental health professionals use to diagnose people was written by a bunch of old white men a long time ago who put all the confusing human behavior into categories to be able to give people labels and fund treatment. It shifts and changes all the time and is about fifteen years behind current research and knowledge about mental health.
2) Take what’s helpful about the label and leave the rest.
3) Healing is painful. And sometimes you won’t want to do it. That is okay.
4) You will think you are done healing at least five times before you are forty. You will not be done. It is okay that you think that you are done and that you take a break. It’s not actually a break and you’re still doing a lot of good work. It just doesn’t look like it.
5) That girl in high school who told you that you didn’t smile enough was in just as much pain as you were. We all show pain and loneliness differently. That is okay.
6) Dealing with life is painful. Sometimes you will do things to stop the feeling and it will be a stupid thing. That is okay.
7) Find the people who don’t try to make everything okay or fix anything. Find the people who let you be your full self – the light and the dark – they are out there and worth the time it takes to find them.
8) You are not broken, and you are not ill. Your nervous system developed a way to survive all the shit that happened to you – every single human’s nervous system works the exact same way. And your nervous system likes to run away and not trust others. This is okay. And sometimes it works extraordinarily well. When you heal, you will still be able to run away and not trust others but instead of it being everyone, it will only be the people who you need to run away from and who are not to be trusted.
9) You think you need to change your feelings. Remember that they are just guides on the path. When you learn to regulate your body’s response to those feelings, they will naturally begin to shift.
10) The things that you really don’t want to do are usually the things you should be doing (i.e., drinking water, doing yoga, reading before bed, and letting other people love you). You won’t do those things as often as you think you should, but you will do them more than you think you will.
11) Your perceptions of the world, mental health and others will shift and change. They will never stop shifting. But you will always only listen to the music you listened to in high school.
12) The guided meditations will transform you. Reiki will help heal you. EMDR will open your heart and therapy practice. You will also feel stuck a lot and for every step forward, there will be two steps back. Keep going.
13) Talking about your problems will not do what you think it will. That is okay. It still helps.
14) I don’t know all the answers. I made mistakes yesterday. I’m probably making a mistake right now. But I do know this – show up, be authentic and don’t take anything personally. Oh, and you will never perfect how to do that.
15) Things will get better. They will also get much worse. You will be okay.
I wrote this list a month ago. And I was angry. Angry and sad for my younger self. Angry at our mental health system. Angry at the stigma that comes with a mental health diagnosis. Angry at myself for buying into the illness model of mental health as long as I did. The anger stewed and festered inside of me, stirring up things that I hadn’t felt in years as I remembered the hardest and darkest points of my mental health journey. And I did not post it. Because I couldn’t get to the point. What was I trying to say? Why did this list and my story, including my anger, feel so important to share? As the month went on, that anger softened. It changed its shape and here’s what I’ve come up with.
After I felt the rawness of all the feelings that came up writing this list, I noticed the thing I’d missed: I am now able to write this list.
Somewhere along the way, I learned these things. If I’m able to identify what I wish someone had told me, it means that someone did tell me, or I figured it out myself. Maybe not in the way I wanted or as soon as I needed it. But I know these things now and get to share what I know with you.
I hope in another ten years I’m writing another list of things I wish someone had told me. I hope we get better and better at understanding human behavior and creating new routes to change and healing, routes with less judgement and more kindness. The anger is real – and it can burn us. It can also fuel the journey. So keep trying. Keep going. The path is there for you to find. I hope you sit down and write a list of your own.