Written by Salina Gray
For much of my life I walked wounded, a chronically depressed child and woman who often found myself having what I called ‘nervous’ breakdowns. It was the early 80’s, and I, a young teen, albeit self-aware, had no idea of the language of psychology and mental health. I only knew that there’d be these seemingly random, always unexpected moments of utter and absolute emotional distress. I would end up laid out, sobbing, inconsolable until I’d fall into a deep sleep. These episodes often interrupted the rather infrequent times of joy and celebration. The first time this happened, I was 5, Christmas, or the day after. I came home from visiting my father and grandparents. I don’t remember much about the day, except that I’d had a wonderful time. I walked up the stairs alone to the apartment I shared with my Mother and Baby Brother. I can’t remember if I let myself in, but I know that once inside, whatever joy I’d carried was violently pulled from my body. It was dark, and I looked over at the Christmas tree, and the few gifts my brother and mother received, and my heart broke in a million little pieces. Even as I sit here nearly 47 years later, tears well in my eyes, my chest tightens, and I am breathing steady to keep myself from spiraling down. I felt such sadness for my mother and my brother. I could only stand there and cry and cry. I don’t remember what happened after, but that was the starting point at which trauma showed up in my life.
Imagine me, attending a slumber party with my closest friends, only to be right there, in the midst of our laughter and teenage girl hijinks to start sobbing uncontrollably, literally falling over in front of them, inconsolable. I remember the dead silence, and looks of utter helplessness on all of their faces as they sat and watched me have what I called my first ‘nervous breakdown’. My efforts to form words were futile, as I could do little more than howl and ball up as the tears just poured out of my 14 year old eyes. Another year later, I was out with my bestie and her mother, shopping for junior prom dresses. It was a beautiful Spring day in the Bay Area. I couldn’t have been happier going into shops, trying on dresses, full of giddy excitement and laughter as we made our way around town. I remember seeing an unhoused woman, holding a sign. In front of her was a bowl for donations- and in that moment I felt the familiar sorrow, starting at the bottom of my feet, threatening to wash me away. I looked away, hoping to contain the emotions threatening to spill over. These psychological moments continued to happen, even during my graduate studies at Stanford University. Here I was a 42 year old doctoral student, sitting in meetings, in classes, and even in social settings, ‘falling apart’.
Even after years and years of engaging in intensive and active self- and professional help, I just couldn’t shake the depression. The realization that something had to give, was palpable the morning I woke up and went to the campus mental health services in my pajamas. I was fortunate to start short term therapy with a doctor who affirmed all of my efforts, in spite of my then present state. Our sessions were the first where I came to see that those ‘nervous breakdowns’ were actually psychological responses to the years of childhood experiences that were psychologically and emotionally overwhelming.
Trauma is a ‘lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event’ (camh.ca). My depression, she said, was actually a symptom- and not the actual condition. ‘You aren’t depressed because something is wrong with your brain’, she said, ‘you are experiencing depression as a result or symptom of childhood traumatic events’. I began to see the light. Language Matters.. Language can bring Life.
I spent days and weeks and months finding any and everything I could on ‘trauma’, landing upon the research on PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) and then eventually C-PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic stress disorder). With each article, video and messageboard my entire life began to make sense. I learned those ‘nervous breakdowns’ were actually ‘breakthroughs’, emotional releases necessary to move me towards a healing rather than pain centered focus. Perspective matters. The more I learned the more my self-loathing began to fade. My shame and embarrassment transformed into gratitude and awe. And that was just the beginning….
For more information on trauma and healing please check out TILA’s resources.