Part 1 of 3: What It’s Like
“It’s okay to not be okay.”
I’ve seen this posted time and again as a meme, article headline, and caption. It comforts me—momentarily. And in the blink of an eye, I am once again washed away in grief: nostalgia, sadness, denial, longing, regret, acceptance, gratitude, silence, rage . . . the range of emotions are seemingly endless.
As a trauma survivor with an inherently dysregulated nervous system, I’m unable to intrinsically process feelings. And when a loved one died by suicide in January, I felt as though someone had covered my nose with a clothespin and stuffed wet cotton into my ears. I floated into the sky like the billowing kites on the Jersey Shore beaches where I grew up. My shoes were filled with cement, and there was an acidic brick in the thick of my stomach.
In the weeks after I received the tragic and unexpected news, I felt like I was walking on water, and at the same time, swimming through mud. I was heavy AND weightless, a paradoxical dervish, whirling while standing still.
On the day of the funeral, I couldn’t breathe. I literally had to call my best friend and ask her to help me breathe because it was like my lungs forgot how, and my brain was too busy telling my heart to keep beating.
It was at this time that I set one goal for myself: to walk through this devastating process of grief being present. As a person in recovery, my longest-running M.O. was to take the escape route and numb on something outside of myself. Historically, I would use any means to not feel the feelings. It was a blatant splitting-off. Big feelings get put into a container like last night’s leftovers and make their way to the recesses of the fridge, only to be discovered weeks or months later covered in a filmy spoil.
Now a few years sober and many years into trauma recovery, my autopilot can still be to split off. While I find ways to accomplish the endless To-Do’s, unprocessed feelings and emotions get tossed into the dissociation heap. In this liminal space, my body moves in a performative manner, while mind and soul quarantine themselves frozen in time.
So even though substance use and process addictions (shopping, eating, etc) are no longer my crutches, I can still tend toward overindulging in behaviors that keep me in the loop of numbing and escapism. This is where the more subtle foes enter the picture. Strategies that once literally kept me alive have become maladaptive and outdated. Codependency, people-pleasing, keeping the peace, and putting others’ needs before my own top the list.
With the disconnected feelings off to the side, what would remain is strikingly similar to productivity, helpfulness, and a cheerful demeanor. Typically, I would present as the hostess-with-the-mostess ushering my loved ones and fellow mourners to a place of calm and ease. I would do whatever it took to keep the peace and make sure everyone else was okay, abandoning my own needs and rush to everyone else’s aid. And then, weeks or months later, I would lie in the dark, panic and self-loathing searing through every cell of my being, confused as to why I couldn’t sleep, concentrate, or eat.
By consciously choosing to be present and feel all the big feelings—as they materialized in real-time—it dawned on me that it requires bravery, vulnerability, and a dusting off of some skills that I’ve been honing for quite some time. In other words, a lot of intentional work and sustained effort.
In the next two entries, I will share how I’ve gotten through these initial 6+ months of life after death. Of still living while grieving a heavy loss. Of working with reopened traumas, unpacking closeted truths that can no longer be unseen, and finding silver linings in a situation that is otherwise a blunted grey.