The Drama with Trauma

If you ask my therapist, she will (rightly) tell you I have some kind of unresolved trauma I need to sort through. Even though I feel I had an idyllic childhood, she insists there’s still something going on with me based on how my depression and anxiety manifests. Signs of unhealed trauma include depression, rage, addiction, PTSD, pain, guilt/shame, sleep issues and fear of abandonment — just to name a few.

Me, about 2 or 3 years old

Aside from the flashbacks, PTSD and fear of abandonment, I experience all those “symptoms.” Nothing terrible happened to me when I was a kid. I had two eye surgeries when I was three and four years old, and I was in a bad car accident with my mom when I was 12. The thing my therapist and I keep coming to is that the trauma is from my eye surgeries. I had to have surgery to correct a lazy eye that would wander outwards, then another surgery to correct that one (my eyes were too close and on the verge of crossing).

I can remember having the surgery. I remember being in a room with a nurse who was trying to put electrodes on me, but I was peeling them back off. She told me to stop that or we’d have to start all over. I also remember my Mema being at the hospital crying, but I think that’s a memory I created from listening to my mom talk about it. After the second surgery, I refused to open my eyes. My mom would try and ply me with popsicles and toys that would make noise (like the Fievel toy whose ear would squeak). But I wouldn’t open my eyes.

I never really thought it was weird that I didn’t open my eyes until my therapist asked me how hard would it be for Isla or Eli to keep their eyes closed for one to two days. Then it seemed really strange. There’s no way I could walk through Target with them closing their eyes, not even being persuaded with the offer of toys.

I started thinking about the surgery again. I’m not sure how much I understood what was going on, but obviously, I was scared. Then I realized something — I’ve developed a phobia of anesthesia, which is unfortunate because I have to have an ECT treatment every eight to 16 weeks. When I’m wheeled into the room, they start to put electrodes on me, and I panic. I wasn’t always like this, but during one treatment in 2020 it felt like the anesthesia was taking too long to work, and I was scared I wouldn’t be under during the seizure. It hasn’t been the same since. Was I suffering a flashback? Maybe. I’m able to go through with the procedure now, but it’s still hard, and I still cry, and the nurse still has to hold my hand and talk me down.

I didn’t think trauma could work like that — where one seemingly insignificant event could affect me now, but at this point it all adds up, in my opinion.

Maybe I’m wrong, and they weren’t significant. Closely related, sure. I still owe it to myself to explore all the areas of my life where trauma could’ve sneaked through and caused so much chaos. Because that’s what this feels like — total chaos in my mind. I don’t like feeling rage and yelling at my family. I really hate binge eating, and feeling so much guilt and shame. So, my therapist and I are going to do Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) this week or next. I’m interested in how that will go because I haven’t done EMDR in years.

My whole point in writing this is that you don’t always know what emotional or psychological trauma you’re trudging through life with. It can be painful, but it cannot be ignored because one way or another, it will find you. I’ve been binge eating like crazy lately, and I can only attribute it to what I’ve been talking to my therapist about. I like this from HelpGuide.org, “There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel, or respond, so don’t judge your own reactions or those of other people. Your responses are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events.” The site also says that trauma can be caused by commonly overlooked causes, such as surgery, especially in the first three years of life. Well, there you have it.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to work through it. I’ve come this far.

As always, stay in the light, my friends.

Trauma and Depression

Dr. Lorna Breen. Photo from Ny Times

A couple weeks ago a well-liked ER doctor at a Manhattan hospital killed herself. Dr. Lorna Breen, the medical director of the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, had been reportedly working long hours and on the front lines fighting the coronavirus. She was 49 years old. Her father, also a doctor, said Dr. Breen had no history of mental illness or depression, but sometimes that doesn’t matter. Dealing with trauma, be it a one-time situation or an ongoing ordeal, can lead to depression and I imagine that was the case for Dr. Breen. She saw hundreds, if not more, of people suffering. People who couldn’t be with their loved ones during their final moments. Just thinking about how scary it must be for those dying alone makes me so overwhelmingly sad – not just for those dying but their loved ones who couldn’t say goodbye. Couldn’t tell their loved ones, “I love you,” or pray with them.

As of April 7, there had been 59 patient deaths at Dr. Breen’s hospital, according to an internal hospital document.

New York continues to be a hot spot for COVID-19, with 333,000 people infected and more than 21,000 dead. The weight of those numbers is so heavy, it hurts my heart. And I feel a combination of compassion and pain for nurses, doctors, first responders and others who are fighting this battle that has no end in sight. These people are heroes. They continue to fight a losing battle with not enough personal protective equipment and other life-saving medical supplies.

Everything I just mentioned can have a huge toll on anyone, and sometimes traumatic events can actually change your brain and can cause depression. A 2013 study done by researchers at the University of Liverpool showed that traumatic life events are the single biggest cause of anxiety and depression, followed by a family history of mental illness and income and education levels.

According to the National Institutes of Health, some depression can be situational and with life changes, medications and therapy, it can be manageable. Other times, depression, anxiety or PTSD can be life-long problems.

What’s scary to me is that Dr. Breen’s depression (I’m assuming it was depression brought on by severe trauma) came on fast. There wasn’t much time to prepare for COVID-19, as fast as New York was hit. I’m sure priorities were treating sick patients, providing PPE to health care workers among numerous other jobs that had to get done. Which means, there was no time for Dr. Breen to get help. She felt she was best needed at the hospital and no doubt she helped hundreds of people and supported everyone in the ER Department, even after contracting COVID-19 herself.

Dr. Breen was no doubt a hero and dying by suicide doesn’t change that. It just emphasizes the need for better mental health care, more support for those struggling and more understanding from the public, who still support the stigma of mental illness and depression.

Look for these symptoms of trauma-induced depression:

  • Extreme sadness
  • Frequent crying
  • Feelings of loss
  • Emotional numbness
  • Disillusionment
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Recurring memories/flashbacks
  • Nightmares about the traumatic event
  • Social withdrawal

If you know somebody struggling, please direct them to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

To learn more about depression, please visit the National Institute of Mental Health.