Just today I completed a successful visit to the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Massachusetts. This may not seem like a huge accomplishment, but for me it felt like a triumph compared to my last two visits for a license renewal. In the best of circumstances making a trip to the RMV requires inquiry (where is the nearest office, what do I need to bring?), commitment (ok, I know this is gonna take a while, so I’m committing to get myself there and do what I need to do), patience and trust (here I am in a line with 100 other people, and I need to trust in myself that I have brought all the correct forms). However, not too long ago just getting myself out of my house, let alone with a stack of forms and the confidence that I could manage the task, seemed tantamount to sailing solo around the world—without any idea how to operate a boat!
This was due to depression.
If you’ve never experienced depression you may think that it is an overabundant feeling of sadness. That is not depression: that is melancholy. Depression is a feeling of being physically and mentally unable to operate in the world in the way most people (at least to the mind of the depressed person) operate in the world, and I was in a period of depression varying from mild to severe for about ten years.
Things like going to the RMV, grocery shopping, applying for jobs, going to the doctor or dentist, and in severe cases, leaving my house or getting out of bed to brush my teeth felt like they required a herculean effort. Just the thought of reaching out to friends or family left me feeling depleted.
In fact, all the normal things that would be considered engaging in life felt beyond difficult. My depression was directly associated with a physical feeling. I felt like I was cloaked in a lead blanket twenty-four hours a day. My head felt like it was stuffed with cotton balls. Any consideration of doing something—anything—besides sitting in my house (which was also where I worked) was immediately followed by a feeling of debilitating fatigue along with thoughts ranging from I’ll do it tomorrow, to I just can’t to why bother? And the truth is I knew that I was in this prolonged depressive state—but I just didn’t know how to change it.
It turns out that depression (and other mental health issues) feed on isolation and loneliness, and during the period of depression that lasted nearly a decade I was isolated—by design. After the trauma of an abusive marriage, the devastation that surrounded and followed my divorce and then the just plain re-traumatizing experiences of failed attachments after it, I made a commitment to living—and dying— alone.
You see, to allow someone into your life, in such a way as to have a meaningful relationship, means that you have to make yourself vulnerable. But when you have experienced interpersonal trauma, a series of devastating rejections or losses, or even early and unremembered relational trauma, you learn to recognize vulnerability as a very dangerous place.
From an evolutionary perspective this makes all the sense in the world.
Human beings are wired to connect—the most basic/biological reason for this is that without connecting with our early caregivers we would die, without connecting with social groups we would be exiled from the cave to die, and without connecting with a primary intimate partner babies wouldn’t be made and the species would die. So while that may sound extreme, biological responses in your body signal a threat to your organism’s survival when you feel betrayed and rejected. What I had done was try to find a loophole. After my marriage ended I figured I would connect with people, but without the vulnerability (attachment); and that was just a good old fashioned re-traumatizing experience—at my own hands.
After that I committed to living alone and in isolation. I became extremely fearful. I couldn’t even think about putting myself out there (via dating sites) let alone being romantic with anyone without panic and nausea. I couldn’t fake being interested in socializing—it just felt exhausting. Vacations with my immediate family brought me no refuge—how could they know what was going on if even I didn’t really understand it? And over time the isolation fueled the fear, anger and depression. The danger of this particular type of depression is that it is comfortable. It feels like being buried in sand up to your neck, with the knowledge that trying to get out will only make you feel worse; so you just keep your head above the sand and keep breathing—surviving is enough at this point.
My trip to the RMV recently felt like a triumph because it was easy, and this shouldn’t surprise me because my life has been on a slow trajectory of healing, connecting, allowing unconditional love into my life: both loving myself and allowing myself to be loved and recovering from long term depression. But it did surprise me because lately this feeling of being weighed down by a lead blanket has been revisiting me. It comes and goes, but at times I feel the grip of fear and familiar feelings associated with the depression of the past, when I feel this I have to work. Not work to snap out of it, but work to accept it and talk to it. Because I know the sensations that I’m feeling are my body’s way of protecting me from something it perceives to be dangerous.
I imagine my body telling me I need to hide under this heavy blanket in the dark in order to be safe in this world; and at one time in my life that was true. You see, when human beings are in a day to day existence from which they cannot escape, their body will default to an extreme state sometimes referred to as immobility. This is to protect us from the harmful things that are happening around us, or to us, on a day to day basis—and my body was relegated to this state during my marriage. This state in the body is one of the extreme manifestations of PTSD, when hypervigilance proves unhelpful (hypervigilance helps if there is an option for escape), and the option to fight or flee does not feel accessible. When we are children, or in an isolated and abusive relationship, our minds become latched onto the idea that we can’t leave (as children this is true), so our bodies make our lives tolerable by shutting the system down—and this is the feeling that has been visiting me lately.
It’s hard; I won’t lie. It’s hard not to be angry. It’s hard not to reject what I’m feeling and try to run from it or push it away. But I know from experience, and from helping others recover from trauma, that this does not help; in fact it only makes it worse.
These developed bodily responses are so protective that they will fight to stay alive—because somewhere in my biographical history they developed to keep me safe and alive in response to something that felt inescapable and dangerous. So I work to just be with the sensations. I work to refrain from judging myself. I work to invite them in, give them a space and tell them that I appreciate all that they are trying to do. I gently tell them that I no longer need their assistance, and I trust that they will not hang around forever. And I am blessed to have a wife who reminds me of all of this—because she has been through it and she knows what me and my body need to hear. My mind knows that in my present life I am not in any danger. And my intellect understands that this is another layer of healing that is being presented to me now—for whatever reason.
My last visit to the RMV left me feeling overwhelmed, confused and resulted in a crying heap of tears. So yes, because of the recent visits from my body memories I was scared. I was surprised that the most recent visit to the RMV felt easy—and that I felt confident and capable. But having the experience reminded me that healing from trauma is possible, though not easy.
I remind myself that if I just notice how I feel in my body, life and mind every moment of every day, my body will steer itself to the trusting, open, joyful and yes—vulnerable place in the end.
I don’t need to exile old body memories from my life because recovery, much like the rest of life this is not a linear process. It is cyclical, with feelings of freedom and aliveness becoming more the norm than the exception, and old body memories with their accompanying depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, immobility, fear and panic become the exception. It is a reminder that my body is capable of protecting me even when my consciousness is not.
The work of accepting, appreciating and sitting through these sensations is the process of recovery. And a successful visit to the RMV helps remind me that I’ve come a long way.