Trigger warning: depressive and suicidal content, mention of mental illness and PTSD
What I am writing in this blog today is the scariest thing I have ever shared. It’s already hard to talk about it to people who are close to me. I am sharing it because writing is a kind of therapy for me. By putting down the sentences, word after word, I am trying to bring order to the chaos in my head. It helps me in slowly accepting my own reality. There are experiences I have been going through which I do not have the words for yet, maybe I never will. But today I will write this down. And maybe for you it helps in understanding. Which is helping me because I want to be understood so badly, I want to understand myself so badly. And maybe you recognise things. And maybe it is healing for all of us.
Honey, don’t cover garlic with chocolate. It doesn’t taste good. Likewise, there’s no freedom in denying reality, or trying to cloak it in something sweet. Hope isn’t a distraction from darkness. It’s a confrontation with darkness.Edith Eger
Let’s write this down
I am suffering from depression and PTSD. And today I am taking my first pill.
Probably after reading this you are having immediate thoughts popping up, not necessarily good or bad. But just thoughts. And I have heard these thoughts. I have heard these thoughts in my own head or they were spoken towards me:
- It’s just something in your head.
- No wonder, because you have been in warzones.
- But I always see you smiling, and you are very active in building your house.
- How is this possible, because you are still meeting people?
- You should just get out of your bed and have a walk outside more often.
- Try to talk about it with friends and family, it will get better.
- I’ve always known there is something wrong with you.
- You are just too sensitive and should toughen up.
- Just stop complaining, I am getting tired of you as it is always the same.
- But you are so great and you are doing all these great things.
- I know what you are going through, I have experienced the same.
- The organisations you have worked for should have taken better care of you.
- You need to figure out your own boundaries, instead of always keep on going.
- Try to think more positively, you are your own hardest critic.
- Taking a pill? That’s not very holistic and no long-term solution.
- Taking a pill? I hope that will solve everything for you.
And many more thoughts…
The image you are having from depression or PTSD can be very stigmatising. At least it was for me. And I need you to know that this is just my story, how I am experiencing it. It can be very very different for someone else, it may be very different for you. And the best is not to assume that because your experience is different it is not valid, or to assume that you know what people with depression or PTSD are going through. Just ask questions, it’s better to ask the questions instead of only thinking them. Be interested in their story. Ask how you can be there for them. Listen, ask and don’t judge.
Love is a four-letter word spelled T-I-M-EEdith Eger
A heavy dark cloak
For me the depression feels like a very dark and heavy cloak that is hanging over me. I don’t know when it fell over me. I do know it came into my life several times already. Maybe it’s always been there and it will always be there and it’s just speaking louder when it wants to. Sometimes it’s speaking too loud, then it’s taking over my power and my will to live.
Sometimes the cloak is so heavy it is literally pushing me down. I can’t get out of my bed. I don’t know what to do. I am not looking forward to anything anymore. I don’t experience any joy. I don’t know how to get through the day, as the minutes are ticking by very slowly. I don’t know why I am living, why I need to live. I think a lot about death. I just wished the day was over. On these days I feel like a complete loser as I just can’t get anything done. I am already happy if I am able to put on my clothes from yesterday. When Bouke Pieter comes back after work in the evening we still need to organise food, as going to the supermarket was just too overwhelming with all the colors, the sounds, the people and the choices. When I manage to do something on these days and a very small thing goes wrong I am easily frustrated. I get very irritated, annoyed, it’s getting me in a deep rage or I start crying. I can’t think anymore. And the noise, there are so many noises which are completely wire cutting my brain cells. And I am tired. Very tired. The nights are long too, as I am often waking up, so during the day I have to sleep.
Sometimes the cloak is leading me downwards a spiral into a very deep dark hole without a bottom. It feels like I can’t get out of it and that I will stay there forever. I am very scared I cannot control myself, and that if I get out I will fall into it again, but even deeper. It happened a few times that I got hallucinations. A man was standing next to me with a gun on my head, and I was standing on the edge of a cliff ready to jump. It felt real. And in these moments I am scared to be alone.
Sometimes I wished the dark cloak was actually an invisibility cloak, to completely disappear so no one can see me. On these days I am avoiding people because I am scared of interaction. I am afraid I am not allowed to be the way I am. And I am very scared that they will see who I actually am. That it will all come out. Sometimes it gets to the point I am too scared to go outside to the toilet and the only thing left is to pee in a saucepan. On these days the sun is too bright. And I am hiding.
Sometimes the cloak is suddenly hitting me very hard. It makes me very sad. I can cry for hours. I can cry for days in a row. Without any reason, or for all the reasons. It feels like I am carrying all the pain of the whole world on my shoulders. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, crying. I feel the pain everywhere in my body. My muscles are tense, my neck and shoulder blades are hurting, I am having stomach aches. It feels like I can’t carry it anymore. It’s unbearable. I feel powerless.
Sometimes the cloak is less heavy, and then it’s a good day. I don’t have to think before I can do simple tasks. I can forget the time and be completely obsessed with the work I am doing. I am meeting friends because I want to. And I can do sports. On a good day I can piggyback on someone else’s energy. I can just be there, next to them. I can laugh. I can do a small talk. I feel lighter. I can read. I actually believe people around me love me. I actually can feel I am alive. A good day is less heavy. But even on a good day, the cloak can still suddenly hit me.
Hope is curiousity written large. A willingness to cultivate within yourself whatever kindles light, and to shine that light into the darkest places. Hope is the boldest act of imagination I know.Edith Eger
Trying my own cure
I have tried a lot myself. Trying to eat healthy. Stop drinking alcohol and smoking. Doing more sports. Going outside. Waiting for the winter to be over. Taking vitamin D. Starting a job again. Quitting the job again. Forcing myself to meet with other people to not be alone. Making new friends. Opening up to friends and family on tough stuff. Connecting with people who went through similar experiences. Going to counseling sessions. Giving myself time to adapt to the Dutch culture again. Having a hormonal IUD removed. Asking for help. Going to a doctor. Starting a treatment program at the mental health care institution. Giving myself time to process everything I have been through. Starting my dream to build my own house. Reading a lot of books to get more insights on depression and PTSD. Trying to accept all of my feelings. Letting myself cry. Trying to make sense of everything. Recognising the unhealthy thought patterns in my head and replacing them with positive thoughts.
I have tried a lot myself and I know I’ve made it very far. But life is so very hard. It didn’t fade away.
Amongst all my efforts there was this thinking that it was all my own fault. That I was guilty of everything. That everything that is going wrong must have been my responsibility. That I could do something about everything that is wrong in this world. That I don’t want to get better enough. That I should be able to be my own cure. That I should have made different choices in life. That I should think differently in my head.
And there was so much shame. Shame about all of my bad feelings. That my pain shouldn’t be there, as there are so many people who went through much more pain. I was feeling ashamed because I am having food, a loving husband, and a roof over my head every day. Ashamed of who I am. Ashamed that it felt like I am failing life. Ashamed that I was still alive and not even feeling thankful. Ashamed that I didn’t want to live.
And I was doubting everything. If the love that the people around me were showing was actually real. If the love I was showing them was actually real. If I was making things up in my mind. If I was exaggerating everything or if I was already beyond rescue. I was doubting if I could trust myself. That I would never be able to understand myself, as no one else will. And I wanted to understand why I felt the way I felt. I was looking for reasoning. An explanation, a clear story. Often I wished that an accident would hit me, that my cause was clear. That I had broken my leg and it could easily be seen why I was feeling bad, what had to be done about it, and how to measure if it was healed. That it was real. Because I was doubting my own truth.
I was scared that I had faked all the smiles. Or that I was overly dramatic and not hurt at all.
I am writing this all in the past tense because I know it is not true, I know it’s not all my fault, I know I shouldn’t feel ashamed, I know there is no reason to doubt and that it can all be true. I know it is the depression talking. But my feelings are not there yet. But hopefully one day I will see. One day I will feel the truth.
Hope isn’t the white paint we use to mask our suffering. It’s an investment in curiousity. A recognition that if we give up now, we’ll never get to see what happens next.Edith Eger
And what about the PTSD?
Yeah, what about it, I am not sure, I find trauma a very heavy word. I have met people who have gone through extreme traumatic experiences, who saw their family being murdered, whose house was bombed, who were fleeing from war, who were sexually abused as a child, who had to be child soldiers. I saw death myself, and violence, and hunger but it can never be compared to the above. At the same time no person’s suffering can be measured against any other person’s suffering.
I read a lot about PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), the psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Where your brain and body are automatically responding by fighting back or fleeing a dangerous situation; the well-known fight, flight, freeze and appease responses. By definition everyone with PTSD has experienced trauma, but not everyone who experiences trauma develops psychiatric illness.
I have worked as a relief worker in global complex emergencies and humanitarian crises. Humanitarian aid work is dangerous, both emotional as physical. Primarily because it involves direct dangers to yourself, and secondary because you are exposed to others’ suffering. Studies showed that relief workers are facing chronic exposure to trauma, resulting in elevated rates of PTSD and trauma related illness compared to rates for the general adult population .
In humanitarian aid it is kind of implicit you always look to someone else’s suffering. Yes, you also learn that you should not step into a minefield to save someone, as you should stay alive first. And yes, there are often good policies in place to make sure you are personally recovering in your time of rest and recuperation. But it’s kind of in the name of emergency aid, that you are looking for the emergency to give aid to people who are suffering. So you are working in areas which are extremely complex and stressful, and this means you need to adapt yourself to be able to help the other. If there is one thing I became really good at, it is adapting to the situation I am in. To be able to move around, to be able to stay upright. The danger of continuously adapting is that at one point it looks as if the adapted situation is normal. The boundary is shifting. As if you are in a normal situation. As if you should be able to handle it very easily. As if you should be able to continue. As if you should be able to make the right choices. You are continuously turned on, there is no reset.
But it is not a normal situation. It absolutely is not. You have continuously been exposed to a lot of stress, where your body did everything it could to be able to survive. And the body remembers, it keeps the score.
And then, maybe many years later, it can still very much affect you. It is still very much affecting me. I was reliving everything I had been through. I can easily go back to the pain that I saw and the pain I was having, and I have cried for all of it. I have been scared as if I was in a life threatening situation, but I was not. Sometimes it suddenly comes up, and it goes away as well. I am not sure to what extent I am suffering from it, but what I do know is that I am suffering from the trauma’s other people have been through, and I am suffering from my own trauma’s.
I do know that things have changed after I have lived in humanitarian settings for three years. That I am even more sensitive. That when I see the news on television, it feels like I know all the people who are dying personally. I became extremely sensitive to rejection, completely out of balance as if I was in a life threatening situation. If there is a car driver getting angry on the road towards me, it is affecting me for days. I have a hard time letting go of things. I am having physical reactions, stomach aches and sweating, when I feel in danger. I am very jittery. I can be very angry. Everything is a bit more extreme. My body is still in a survival mode, although I have left the survival scene.
My biggest fear is that at one point I can’t bear the pain of this world anymore. That I can only see it’s getting worse. That I can’t see it’s beauty. That I will completely break. That my family and friends are done with me for once and for all. That I can’t experience their love anymore and that I think they don’t care about me. That I cut myself off from all the pain and have nothing to add anymore.
Hope doesn’t obscure or white wash reality. Hope tells us life is full of darkness and suffering, and yet if we survive today, tomorrow we’ll be free.Edith Eger
If I survive today, tomorrow I will be free
Edith Eger said this to herself at the death camp in Auschwitz. She was letting her inner voice speak and told herself it’s temporary. This kept her alive.
I am still having hope, for myself and for the world. And actually from today when I took my first pill, it feels like another step towards my healing. By taking this pill, I am accepting that I am suffering and that I am still trying everything to get better. And that it’s oke that my head is not able to do everything on it’s own and is getting a little help from medicine. I hope it will help me to get more stable, to feel lighter overall. So I can continue to do the work to be free.
Honey, may you also choose to give up the prison and do the work to be free. To find in your suffering your own life lessons. To choose which legacy the world inherits. To hand down the pain- or to pass on the gift.Edith Eger