Saturday, October 8, 2016

Finding Peace in the Upside Down

A month ago, we moved to Denver so that I could start graduate school for social work. Tangibly, it was a pretty easy move, we drove an hour away and unloaded our truck and trailer. But emotionally, it was twice as difficult as packing two bags and moving to Korea.

Which is weird. But true.

Because this move cost more.
This move held more.
This move meant more.
This move played a pivotal role in my future career.

But beyond all that, within hours of carrying in the last box and closing the door, I was having flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks. I felt anxious. Scared. Absolutely sure that this was the wrong decision. And all my sweet husband could do is hold me while I cried and gasped for breath.

The next few days, I sat on the couch in a daze. I couldn't unpack a single box. I couldn't fathom having the strength to start grad school the next week. I couldn't understand what was happening or why I was so scared. Something about living in a city. Something about the absence of locks on the windows. Something about the rickety bolt on the door. Something about strangers walking past my window. My stomach was in knots and I couldn't eat. We took one, panicked car ride to Walgreens to buy a pregnancy test because we thought I might be pregnant. Not now. Thank goodness. I stood in the aisle of a hardware store in a teary stupor as Jeremy bought extra locks for our apartment. To be clear, I was a mess.

But laying in early-morning sleeplessness one day, feeling my tummy rise and fall, trying with all of my strength to be calm, I realized:
This feeling. 
This anxiety. 
This is how I woke up 
That I lived in Cambodia.


I haven't felt that feeling in nine years.
But I recognized it immediately.

When I was nineteen years-old, I moved to Cambodia for a year to volunteer as an English teacher. Taking that flight began the hardest, most traumatic year of my life. The country itself is a heavy place with a heavy past and I brought a lot of my own pain. The combination was almost unbearable. And honestly, laying in bed a month ago re-feeling for the first time that dull ache that makes you want to squirm and scream and run away under the weight of it all even though there's no immediate threat in front of you? That ache broke my heart. Because, in that moment, I would have given anything to be rid of that unbearable anxiety. And nine years ago, I lived with that constant ache every day.

In the last month, having been reminded how awful and hopeless that feeling was, I cannot tell you how I made it through my year in Cambodia. I have a renewed compassion for that girl who felt like she didn't have options. Like she couldn't just come home. But I'm not nineteen anymore.
It's not 2007.
It's 2016.
This time I get to make different choices.

I reached out to friends and family.
I called a counselor-friend for referrals.
I made an appointment with an EMDR (re: trauma) counselor.
I didn't pretend everything was okay.
I didn't try to do a whole lot.
I just sat and slept. Sat and slept.
I made Jeremy promise that if I wasn't better in one month, I was allowed to quit grad school.
I made Jeremy promise that if I didn't feel safe in our apartment in one month, we could break our lease and find somewhere else to live.
(He's a real trooper, that guy)

What I'm learning is that past trauma buries itself in our brains so that we can cope and move on with life. And I have moved on. I don't have a long history of anxiety and panic attacks. But this recent move and the feelings of exposure triggered my brain to believe that what happened in Cambodia was happening RIGHT NOW. That's what PTSD is. It feels like reliving a horrible nightmare and no matter how many times people say, "But that's not happening now. You're safe" you are living n a state of fight/flight/freeze.

To me, it feels like being Will in the TV show Stranger Things.

He's fighting for his life from a scary monster in the Upside Down, but on some level he knows he's in a familiar place where he can walk in his own house, but it's not his house. He can hear the voice of his mother, but she's just out of reach. You're here, but you're not here. And you feel like a crazy person trying to describe it to anybody else.

The mind is a fascinating--if not, at times, terrifying--place.

I keep seeing the face of that boy in Cambodia.
Around the corner.
In my dreams.
I can hear him laughing.
I can remember exactly how it felt it be taunted alone in the dark.
And to some degree, I will never forget that.
But EMDR therapy is helping me to sleep through the night.
To eat food.
To unpack our apartment.
To re-direct my thinking.
To name--out loud--real things that I see/fee/smell/taste/hear.
To keep living.

Since then, I have started my graduate school classes, an internship, and a new job. I have met 50+ new people and forgotten nearly all of their names. This content and these conversations are fascinating to me. I'm excited to be joining a field of work that acknowledges pain, validates people's experiences, and leads them to health and healing.

A month ago, I was looking for a way out.
Today, I'm feeling hopeful that this is exactly where I am meant to be.