I wrote the following piece over a series of months that I now call my “mental health deep dive.” I spent more than a year searching for the reason that despite multiple skilled therapists and a wonderful social support system, I was still struggling with PTSD to the point that it was debilitating. One of my primary symptoms was writer’s block so intense that I could only write a paragraph every couple weeks, which is exactly how this piece was written. I wrote it prior to my diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder, but now it reads like a textbook list of the symptoms.
CN: In depth descriptions of the experience of mental illnesses including PTSD, anxiety, and depression, generally emotionally heavy content, ableism, trauma.
I’m clutching a tissue in my hands, the words “I can’t I can’t I can’t” swirling around my head.
My best friend has her hand on my knee. She’s carefully offering me solutions to try to get me out of this trap. I say no to every single one. I know it looks like I don’t want to find a way out. I do. I can’t find it. I want permission to lose it, permission to stop searching for a way to function like a normal person. I don’t want to be held together. I want to split apart and lose myself in the fragmentation.
An hour ago I was lying on the floor, my boyfriend trying to find some means of comforting me, and the fountain of panic that was rising in me all morning finally came out in desperate sobs that I so needed to release but also frightened me. It’s like the most vulnerable part of me is exposed to the outside world and I have to protect it from even the smallest hardship because it has no armor, and if I damage it, it will never recover. It’s like every tool I’ve learned my entire life to cope with the workings of my mind, to cope with the unpredictability of other people, to cope with my tendency to give all of myself, is inaccessible because this central old part of myself never learned those tools and how can I protect her now?
I hang up the phone. My venue has canceled my event. I don’t know the words in my language to name the feelings in my head. Anger? Disappointment? Stress? What emotions do those words embody? Are they the ones that I have?
For some reason, I can’t tell anyone that my world is crashing down until I know what words describe my feelings. The turmoil has to stay inside me, it mustn’t come out. But it’s like somewhere inside me there was an explosion of ten feelings contained within a vacuum and all I felt was the muffled noise that the explosion made when the bomb went off. I want to open the door to this capsule and look at the damage but I can’t find the door either. I want to peel off this band-aid. I can’t find the edge of it, even though I’m scraping my skin, hunting for it.
There are flashes of pain in my heart, and then my vision goes fuzzy as I stare at nothing. I stay like this for a minute and then resurface, the pain returning but a little diluted, and I catch my breath. I don’t remember if I was breathing while I dissociated.
I come up for air and with no warning, I’m lucid again. I feel like myself and yet I thought I was myself before. I want to connect with my boyfriend, I can feel his touch. It penetrates all the way to my core. It’s as if I haven’t seen him all day. But just an hour ago, I was pushing words to come out of my mouth to ask how his day went, as tears built up under my face, filling my cheeks and the contours of my eyes, clouding my vision, making my thoughts slow, waiting to burst out again.
A window into my writer’s brain opens for a brief moment, I manage to type out three paragraphs and then I feel the window slowly closing, my heart succumbing to numbness like a cloud that covers my connection to myself. It’s an impulse to protect myself from something I can’t quite name. I can feel a distant part of myself crying out in grief as my creativity, my productivity, my reason for being valuable, slips away from me once more.
Why does this youtube video about a divorced couple remind me of my life? Just a little while ago, I had access to that stream of light and ease, where I could feel some satisfaction when I finish a task.
And then I watched two people who used to love each other, looking at each other with sadness and kindness, the woman clearly still in love with the man who does not love her back, and before I know it I’m looking at the part of my instagram that I call, “the hard times,” where even though I left no photographic evidence of the degree of pain I was in on a daily basis, the pain shines through in my memory so clearly that even a photo of a dog or a plate of food says to me, “I was hurting so much, for so long.”
I’m fine just a little sad and I’m lying on the floor wondering why I’m a little sad but I’m fine and then it hits me like a sack of bricks dropping onto my chest that I’m not scared of abandonment I’m scared of losing access to intimacy, this precious substance, the lack of which causes me to wither and numb myself, and why am I so afraid of losing it? Don’t I know I can find it with someone else? But no this time, I cannot dance to fill the hole in my heart, this time I cannot meet new people easily to try to date again, this time my disability hangs on my shoulders like a neon sign that says “I’M NOT WORTH YOUR TIME” and I have no way of knowing who can see the sign and who can’t. The bricks stay on my chest even as sobs explode out of me and I gasp at the pain, this new strange backwards crying I’ve started doing, as if the act of pushing the pain out of my chest only makes the pain from this wound more vivid, and every breath, I cry to rid myself of the pain and cry in reaction to it as it penetrates deeper. The crying stops because I have no answer to the question, “what will I do if I lose that again?” I’m hoping that the gnawing panic that won’t stop reciting the question over and over is just a traumatized part of me, feeling scared and overwhelmed because she does not know how to do anything else. I hope it is just my trauma talking and not the oldest parts of me fearing for their survival if there comes another time when there is no one to touch me.
When I’m in this crossroads of having a feeling but not a definite source, I’m torn between moving towards the pain, exacerbating it, thinking about everything that created it, and moving away from the pain to try to recapture the bubble of peace I carved out for myself a few hours ago. They say that when you’re going through hell, keep going, but I also have an abyss that’s just a roundabout, there is no way through, only around and around, unless you figure out how to hop the turnstile and go on the main road again. And now I think I have created a hiding place for when hell is too long of a journey and I need to rest. Can I get back to it? When you are going through hell you’re supposed to keep going but what happens when you can’t survive that long?
One month of increased anti-depressants or maybe it’s getting to the other side of the trauma or maybe it’s the most recent conversations with my boyfriend but whatever it is, I can feel the streaks of dopamine cutting through the dull molasses that so recently covered my heart every moment of the day. Rather than every task being a dead end, pointless, sad endeavor, some of them have light at the end. And then because your brain doesn’t just respond to the dopamine trigger itself but the lead up to the dopamine, I get that little bit of light earlier and earlier, like catching my breath for just a moment at the end of a devastating work out that has no benefit. I keep expecting to fall into the tank of quicksand again– responding to every thought, every need with “I don’t care,” or “what’s the point”– but then I step and there’s solid ground. My feelings swirl and collect neatly, still sharp and intense but they present themselves clearly so I can pick them up one at a time and hold them close.
Like the first day back after a wipeout flu, I’m exhilarated by how functional I am, trying to cram as many to-do’s into this stretch of motivation and energy as I can. I start to slow down and find myself scrolling through Facebook an hour after I finished my last task. Determined to teach my depression that my doing-things neurons can fire even when that cloud is consuming me, I barter with myself until I find a reward motivating enough to get me up. I wash dishes and chop some vegetables for the dinner that I will never make. I sit back down, feeling as if the flu has hit me again and it takes a moment before I realize I’m not depressed, I’m spent. 7pm and I am done for the day.
This weight in the center of my chest keeps pulling me inward. I try to interact, to connect, to think of things to talk about. What do healthy people talk about for fun? What did I used to talk about? The longer I resist the pull to withdraw, the more exhausted I feel. As I give into the pull, tears come to my eyes without words to accompany them. The pain surges up and out but I am no closer to understanding it. I crumple inward, angry at my inability to understand my own mess.
I don’t remember what it was like before I went through this spell. I used to do things. I used to talk about things. I used to feel things. Now I feel like I have to try to predict what is expected of a person like me in a situation like this and mimic what would be done, but it’s as if I’ve never done it before. I read my writing from three months ago and stare and stare at the clearly illustrated points and organized structure. How was my mind ever free enough to write this?
I have a doctor appointment to follow up on my medication change. I rate my symptoms on a scale of 0-3, trying to accurately represent what I feel and also accurately represent the difference between the last time I filled out this sheet and now. Last time, I counted out my total, decided it was too high, crossed out several of the numbers, and replaced them with lower ones. I struggle to describe to my doctor the paradox of grief and emotional pain so deep that I can barely function, and yet somehow I am not in danger of hurting myself or neglecting basic needs. Each day I am simultaneously devastated and okay. It’s as if I’m sitting at the edge of a pool and I’m choosing to throw myself in, let myself sink to the bottom, struggle and writhe, and then float back up, out of breath and exhausted. My doctor tells me that it’s okay to call my weird childhood a source of trauma. I think she thinks I’m a person who undermines my own trauma. I am. But not like that.
My mood has improved enough that I can look at the tasks on my to-do list and feel a little spark of interest or desire but when I try to do them, but I must first throw myself in the pool and drag myself out again. I watch minutes tick by as I sit, wishing I could find the lever that releases whatever is stuck inside me that will not send the message through my limbs and tell them to lift my body up. I search and search for a feeling, a drive, a pathway to task completion. Minutes turn to half an hour and then an hour. The higher the count gets, the less I care.
I’m cleaning my room for the first time in I don’t know how long. My desk became a storage unit, items without homes stacking higher and higher. I knew it was bad when I started losing things in my tiny room and realizing I had no hope of finding them until I cleaned. Now I start at the top and place one thing at a time in the recycling, the trash, or the place it belongs. The stacks get a little smaller and then my hand falls on… A bar of chocolate? From who knows how many weeks ago, my favorite type of chocolate was sitting untouched at the bottom of a pile of junk. I have no memory of buying it or putting it here.
It’s another reminder of how far away I am from healthy me. I know she’ll come back but I have no sense of how long she’ll be gone. It feels strange having concrete evidence that I was clear headed and organized just a few months ago, that I was not constantly inundated with feelings that halt my body until they’ve moved through me, wrecking me in the process, that I was not always resisting the pull of numbness, of something brainless to take the edge of this hurt. I don’t know what the path back to health looks like this time. I just know I’ve done it before.
I slowly open a tiny door and peek inside. A warm vulnerable feeling fills me, like watching a fawn and holding your breath hoping it will not startle and run away. The feeling is so delicate and precious that I tell no one I have it. When I interact with other people, I close myself off and pull away so that they won’t startle the fawn either. Even when I want to connect, my door inside closes and so does the rest of me, my body language turning away as if I want to avoid all contact even when part of me wants to show my new discovery so badly. Even though I want to, I cannot step inside the door for more than a minute at a time, the fear of self-expression is too powerful.
But I watch as unwittingly, words flow through my fingertips, I have something to say, I think something important and moving and I express it, without the usual wall of doubt surrounding me. If I ask myself to write in a formal document, the terror returns, rising up in my throat as if asking myself to attempt to write a paragraph is as bad as asking myself to tell my therapist I no longer want to see her. But I did that, so maybe I can do this too.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. She specializes in educational writing about civil rights, disability, chronic illness, abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, and Splain You a Thing and in 2022, she released a self-published book of poetry, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery“. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter.