Trauma. It can happen in many ways in any stage of our life. Most times we don’t even acknowledge or have an awareness that we’ve been exposed to trauma. Yet, we suffer from the effects of it for many years, sometimes lifetimes.
I’ve experienced a great deal of trauma in my life, and I recently attended a very informative workshop on this subject. In our small group, we brainstormed the types of trauma we had endured and the list was exhaustive, with there only being six of us participating!
In this blog, I’m going to focus on a topic of trauma not often talked about, but very real and common to so many of us. The trauma of having a mental illness. What we experience with our illness is shocking, painful and catastrophic to our way of life. And on top of it all, we face stigma and shame.
I’ve listed what I consider to be trauma from mental illness:
1. The symptoms. Between living in a heightened state of anxiety all the time and the darkest depths of depression, the symptoms of my illness are very disturbing. Between the physical ones such as upset stomach, headaches, racing thoughts and accelerated heart rate and the emotional ones such as increased fear and sadness, I’m literally a mess at times.
2. The diagnosis. Being diagnosed with a mental illness isn’t easy. They rule out absolutely everything else first – it’s as if they don’t want to consider an illness of the mind! So you flounder for years, bouncing around the systems, never being treated for what’s truly wrong. And then when I got the diagnosis I was many things. Relieved. Angry. Distraught. Scared. Ashamed. And nobody cared. There weren’t support groups back then or organizations that helped where I was from. It was still a shameful secret.
3. The stigma. Sometimes it’s so blatant and obvious and you see it for what it is. It hurts and you feel like a lesser individual, and not worthy of even being in society. The hushed whispers, the shunnings that begin to happen and how suddenly you begin to realize that people are discounting what you say, as if somehow you’ve now become incompetent. And then there’s the more subtle stigma – not getting promotions, doctors not giving you proper treatment, family and friends becoming fed up with your behaviour and needs. The impact that stigma has is not only traumatic, it’s ongoing and demoralizing. You never get to step away from it and you end up fighting not only an illness, but a stigma and the resulting trauma of that stigma.
4. The System. Dealing with the complex SYSTEM is traumatic. There’s the health system to begin with – a maze of mousetraps you are expected to maneuver on your own while desperately ill. There’s no patient advocate here – just snappy people angry if you miss appointments or chew gum in a group session. In cancer wards, there’s volunteers and staff to guide you every step of the way – the compassion and love is amazing. In the mental health wards, it’s cold and unloving. It’s like they designed the environment to mimic what we’ve lived with all our lives. It’s all so overwhelming and frightening.
Then there’s the insurance system. Or the social services system. Again, more trauma. Here you are, broken and desperately looking for help and on top of it all, you’ve got to navigate the complex systems of securing your financial needs. Again, there’s no advocate or support person to do this for you and the system doesn’t care – they need their data. You’re now filling out complex forms, paying for Doctor notes, faxing, making appointments, and doing whatever tricks they ask of you. The added stress is more trauma. And they treat you with little dignity or respect when they realize that you are suffering with a mental illness. Stigma pops in and it’s like they believe you are making it all up and it’s not a real illness anyway.
5. Grief and Loss. I have lost so many things because of my illness and I honestly don’t believe I’ve given myself permission or had the ability to properly grieve those things. With the various relapses and setbacks, I’ve lost career opportunities, relationships, and missed opportunities. I often find myself struggling with identity and trying to connect with others at a deeper level. I’ve never grieved my own suicide attempts in a way that allowed me to show myself compassion and understanding for the person who was in so much pain.
This list is only a brief snapshot for me of the trauma my mental illness has caused in my life. I believe that it certainly has created PTSD for me as I’m sure many of you can relate. The hurt is real and the healing takes time. But I do believe that I will heal and one day come to peace with things and maybe, just maybe, be whole.