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mental health

Coping with the Lasting Trauma of Mental Illness

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Pajama pants, t-shirts, a gray sweatshirt—I recently had to throw or give away all of these items. Seeing them would conjure up flashes of memories of such fear and pain, I could barely catch my breath. Thoughts of the hospital and ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) are only the jumping off point as my brain processes all I have been through in just the past year. These powerful memories impose themselves not just on my mind, but on my entire body. Headaches, stomachaches, and flowing tears are all part of the experience.

This is the part of my recovery from a severe depressive episode that I did not count on. When describing it to my therapist, I said, “This may sound traumatic, but these flashes come and then they go and they trigger a response.” She told me that what I described is a post-traumatic response to my depression and is something I may need to combat for some time. While it was nice to be validated, this was not something I had planned for, nor did I ever imagine that, while my depression lifted, I would still need to combat the memories and experiences of my illness.

READ: Electroconvulsive Therapy Saved My Life & Helped Me Be Myself Again

These are some examples of how my illness still haunts me:

1. One night, I pulled out the pajama pants that I often wore while in the hospital. The pattern, along with the lack of pull-through string (which was removed upon admission), transports me to the memories of the smell of the unit, the fear I felt before each ECT, and bits and pieces of conversations I had with nurses and doctors. I threw the pants out. I could not bear to see them anymore.

2. My husband bought a gray sweatshirt for me that first full day in the hospital, because the air conditioning made the unit chilly. It was extremely comfortable and cute, but when I recently cleaned out some clothes and came across the sweatshirt, I had an immediate emotional and physical response. My stomach turned and I instantly felt fear. It brought me back to that place, emotionally, when I was in the hospital, and it felt horrible. I instantly took the sweatshirt and placed it in the pile to donate.

READ: How to Help a Parent Whose Child is Suffering From Mental Illness

3. As the weather changes and the temperature increases, I am happy, yet at the same time, I am brought back to last summer where the sunshine and heat only seemed to worsen my depression instead of improving it. I have to work hard to separate my memories from my current reality. I am now well and can enjoy the sunshine and warmth, but I have to use my mindfulness training to be in the moment–where I can accept these memories but also anchor myself with a thought (usually of my husband and daughter) that brings me back to now.

When these memories arise and I am with my daughter, I do not let on that anything is wrong. I may take one of my “as needed” medications to help calm me and may also tell her I need to sit and rest for a bit in order to practice mindfulness, but I do not go into detail about what I am feeling. That seems to be too much for her 5-year-old mind. Her understanding of my illness is that I had a boo-boo in my head and heart, and many things helped me get better.

These experiences add another layer to my recovery. And while I did not plan for it, I have a better understanding of it and am able to respect the memories as they come up and use my learned skills to accept them and seek appropriate support when needed. I now know that, for anyone recovering from any severe illness, it does not simply go away once you are well. People need and deserve continued support, both during and after recovery.

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