Trigger Warning: The following piece discusses eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and suicide.
Among the myriad issues that I navigate as a millennial that has struggled with mental illness for over eight years, there is one that I think is often overlooked. What I speak of is the “little-t trauma” that the cray has wreaked on my life. “Little-t trauma” is when your experience is not at the traumatic level of being raped, fighting in a war and seeing your comrades killed besides you, experiencing physical and/or sexual abuse, or something along the lines where PTSD is practically inevitable. “Little-t trauma” is the (relatively) more subtle past experiences that elicit a rational, or irrational, flight or fight response when you are exposed to reminders of the past, or when your brain decides to take a dash down memory lane.
I literally feel my heart rate and anxiety skyrocket when I think back on some of the worst moments of being anorexic, incredibly depressed and anxious, or suicidal—and of course there are the delightful moments when all of those were going full throttle and I was barely functioning. No, I could not pull myself up by my bootstraps and get back in the game of life. Furthermore, the utter helplessness that I felt was, at its core, purely from within—I felt I could not trust myself because my brain was fundamentally screwed up. Below are some examples of events that occurred in my past that, when I vividly remember them, still evoke that acute fear response:
My high school self, in 2005, laying on her back on the wooden floor of my bedroom, staring at the ceiling, and crying because she could feel her life slipping away due to anorexia’s starvation. She could see her cleaver-like hip bones yet forced herself to do more crunches and felt her prominent spine grinding into the floor as she crunched away the illusory fat that only she could see. As she crunched up and down she prayed that she would be given one more day to live, and she promised that she would eat better tomorrow. And then repeat that scene over and over for years.
Forced to go to family therapy for the first (and last) time with her parents, and then leaving the session knowing that things had only worsened and they would not be returning. Then enduring the drive back while she cried in the back of the car, and her parents yelled at each other, and her dad yelled that she was “sick, just sick”—in a tone that only conveyed his disgust and lack of support for the situation. All the while he was insisting that if she could just eat some ice cream she would be fine.
Standing in the cafeteria line at the inpatient eating disorder facility she entered, attempting to wait stoically for her plate of food, and having a panic attack that left her crying and gasping for air.
It’s 2012, and she’s sitting on the floor of her closet sobbing and clutching her phone as she waited for her therapist to call her, because she was so depressed that she couldn’t feel anything. She was matter-of-factly considering whether it would be best to knife herself, just stop eating altogether, or overdose on pills.
Sitting in a depressed stupor in her quiet apartment last June, and apathetically googling the best way to commit suicide. Lengthwise or horizontal?
To be excruciatingly clear, I am not sharing these snapshots of my past to garner your pity or sympathy. I am sharing these scenes with you because I want you to understand that mental illness can be a horrifying thing to go through, and one can only hope to come out whole on the other side with minimal scarring. It is rather disconcerting to feel like you cannot trust your own brain because it is urging you to: wield the razor one more time; skip meal after meal; hoover in half a gallon of ice cream and then purge it up; wash your hands at least 10 times and then start over if you touch something unclean; run mile after mile after mile… or whatever your personal monster might be.
Furthermore, there is always the looming risk that the mental illness could recur at a moment’s notice. I often feel that I live looking nervously over my shoulder, and anxiously analyzing any gloomy moods to see if the dank pit of depression is underneath it waiting to swallow me up. Cutting myself accidentally with my razor when shaving reignites the itch to set the blood flowing with the blade—just one more time to feel that brilliant pain. If I am traveling and have to eat out, I still err on the “safe” side and don’t eat quite as much as I should. As soon as I restrict a tiny bit, I can feel ED (my eating disorder) stir in the dark corner of my brain and urge me to not eat for a couple of days—just for a little while to lose that bit of weight on the sides that I secretly despise. I have nightmares where I’m back in an eating disorder treatment center being tube-fed, forced to eat mountains of food, and pulling on the thin gown to go down for weights. Little triggers can send me reeling, and it is only with some solid social supports that I don’t fly off into oblivion again when those pop up in my life.
I think back on those moments of intense emotion, pain, and darkness, and I feel desperately afraid. The sane part of me recoils from the memories and pleads with me to not go down that rabbit hole, and to not dabble with the fire again. So, please, don’t poke at the stories of a person’s journey with their mental illness unless they offer to open up. Just because you can’t see the residual pain and scars doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Photo credit to Zephyrance Lou