Anxiety, GAD, Mental Health, PTSD

Living in the Grey

I had a small breakthrough in therapy a few weeks ago.

Lately, I’ve been stuck in a constant cycle of having either really good days or really bad days. Over the last several months, a lot has changed in my life, especially when it comes to my mental health. And no, I’m not merely blaming my shift because of Covid-19 or the new outbreaks my home province has been experiencing, but there has been a major shift.

After spending nearly a month in the hospital because I had started making plans to end my life, I’ve entered 2021 with almost a defeated attitude. Between adjusting to new medications, continuing my trauma therapy, and getting myself prepared for EMDR treatment later this year, I already feel like this year has taken it’s toll, and we’re only into the second week of March.

One of my recent homework assignments in therapy was completing a timeline of my life, highlighting all the details of the trauma I went through over the course of my life. Because of my PTSD, and my repressed memories, I spent over a month digging through old diaries, old court documents, and nagging my family about their memories in an effort to jog my own. What resulted was a ten page document explaining all the events of my past. Seeing all that trauma splayed out like an open book sent me spiralling, almost re-traumatizing me as old memories resurfaced.

I went back to my therapist in a completely sour mood. For the first time in my life, I was viciously angry. Because of my past, and the methods I had to use to survive my abuse, I became very efficient (to a fault) at repressing my emotions. One emotion I never let myself feel was anger. To me, it meant I was just like my abuser. And that thought frightened me more than anything. But now, as intense feelings of anger began bubbling over the last several weeks, I realized that I didn’t know how to accept that anger. I simply didn’t know what to do with it. It was as if I had found the Holy Grail, and my immediate reaction was, “Now what do I do with it?”

Looking at the timeline of my life and seeing all, for a lack of a better word, crap I went through vs. all the good in my life, I realized my life has been nothing but chaos. Moments of either extreme highs or extreme lows. There are moments in my life where I absolutely had the best circumstances and then the rest were absolutely the worst. My life has been either black or white.

And that there was my problem.

First off, there is something you must know about me: I’m a realist. I’ve been through so much in my life, and survived so much, that I take living with a very cautious approach. I never get my hopes up and I set really low expectations sometimes because I know what it’s like to have everything ripped away from you. When things are going great in my life, I’m constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Because in the story of my life, the good never lasts. Just when I start to feel a little bit secure in my life, I feel as if some greater force becomes aware of that and decides to rip the rug right out from under me. The trauma I suffered has resulted me in having a very black and white view of the world.

“I don’t know how to live in the grey,” I had said to my therapist. “It makes me uncomfortable.”

Her response: “Who says it has to be comfortable?”

Boy, did that send me into a mild existential crisis!

Having spent the majority of my life living in a hypervigilance state, viewing everything as a potential threat, I already knew that living was uncomfortable. But now, I have to find a way to accept being uncomfortable without it being uncomfortable? (Does that train of thought even make sense?)

I have to learn being comfortable with the uncomfortable. I have to learn to live in the grey.

Life isn’t always merely black or white, high or low. Sometimes we have to live in the grey – the times in are life where we are simply just present; no great expectations, not waiting of the other shoe to drop. Living in the grey means we’re simply just living. And living is uncomfortable.

As to quote George Washington from Hamilton: “Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.”

For the first time in my life, I have to navigate living in the grey. I have to learn to be comfortable just existing. To some, that may sound weird, but when you’re a survivor of abuse and multiple traumas, it’s much harder than you think. When someone looks at the timeline of their life and all they see is a highlight of all the crap they went through outweighing the good times, how do you expect that person to not have a black and white thinking pattern? How do you expect that person to be optimistic about anything? How do you expect them to feel comfortable the moment things start to feel like they’re simply just OK?

Well, in my experience, it isn’t about expectation. It’s about learning to grow. It’s about being a compassionate witness to yourself. (Like that fancy term I learned in therapy?) It’s about being aware of yourself and your thoughts, and catching the moments your internal monologue (if you have one) starts to spiral out of control. It’s about acknowledging the uncomfortableness and reminding yourself that it’s OK to feel that way. Living is harder.

It’s what I’m learning to do now, and slowly learning to accept that. It’s the same for all the anger I’ve been suddenly feeling as I finally address the trauma of my past. I’m allowed to be angry. And yes, anger is an uncomfortable emotion. But I also have to learn to deal with that anger so it doesn’t consume me. I may be a black-and-white thinker sometimes, but I’m not a bitter person. The last thing I want is for my past to make me bitter, to further taint the way I view the world. For the first time in almost twenty years, I’m allowed to feel anger without the repercussions of being punished for it, so of course, I’m a little wary. That’s normal. That’s learning to live in the grey.

It’s like a few days ago. I had a really bad panic attack but I was able to draw on one of my new strategies from therapy and calm myself without having to result in taking my medication (which then leaves me zonked for the day). Sure, it sucks to have a panic attack, but being able to calm myself for the first time without medication in months is a small victory. It was an uncomfortable experience, but it was also rewarding. It was living in the grey.

And while this new breakthrough is helpful, I know that doesn’t mean I’ll be living the rest of my days in the grey – because sometimes my mental illness likes to throw me a few curveballs. The real lesson is knowing that I can get back to the grey. Yes, there will be moments where I’m merely living in the black, or euphoric about living in the white, but I know that I can always settle back into the grey. I know I can finally allow myself the benefit of the doubt to live in the uncomfortable. I don’t have to view everything as a threat. If I offer myself a little compassion in times of need, I know that I can learn to comfortably uncomfortable in the grey. And despite being a realist, that thought gives me a little bit of optimism.

And as always,

Fight the good fight.

-A xo

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