Writing Through Trauma: What is Trauma?

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Note: This blog post is a raw, unedited chapter from my current work in progress, Writing Through Trauma. Part memoir and part inspiring instruction, Writing Through Trauma aims to help you write your way through difficult events in your life. Click here to join my email list to get notified when I post new chapters.


Up until November 2015, I had no idea that the events I’d experienced were considered traumas. In fact, I was so determined to believe that they were no big deal, I’d repressed them almost completely. Any time you bottle something up, though, it almost always explodes on you.

And explode it did.

It wasn’t until I started seeing Dina*—a trauma-certified therapist—in November 2015 that I realized the things I’d experienced were not only traumatic, but also the root of the depression and anxiety that I’d been fighting for the past 15 years.

Trauma is any event that shatters your sense of safety and what you thought you knew about the world. Trauma is subjective, meaning that what might be traumatic for me may not affect you the same way, and vice versa. Examples of trauma include:

  • being bullied as a child
  • becoming sick with chronic illness and/or pain
  • getting into a car accident
  • having your area hit by a severe storm
  • being sexually or physically assaulted
  • serving in a war
  • having a miscarriage
  • the death of a loved one
  • and more

None of these examples are more or less traumatic. Everyone responds to stress in different ways.

Trauma develops into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when a person who has experienced one or multiple traumatic events becomes stuck in the brain’s natural fight/flight/freeze response. Most of us react in some way when something bad happens, but are able to calm down—especially once you realize that you’re safe.

For example, if you’re driving during a snowstorm and slide on ice, doing a complete 360° turn and nearly hitting a wall, you feel afraid. Your hands shake, your breathing and heart rate speed up, and your brain kickstarts the fight/flight/freeze response to help you get through the incident.

If you’re able to process the event—driving, snowstorm, icy roads under snow, spun, stopped before hitting the wall—you’ll realize you’re safe and your brain will shut off the fight/flight/freeze response.

If you’re not able to process our example event, though, you may start having nightmares about the incident (re-experiencing symptoms, or flashbacks). You refrain from driving yourself anywhere whenever it snows (avoidance symptoms). You snap at the people around you for seemingly no reason and have a hard time sleeping (arousal and reactivity symptoms). You may even completely forget that you nearly hit a wall while driving in the snow, but still believe that you’re a terrible driver when it snows (cognition and mood symptoms).

For years, all of these things were happening to me, and I had no idea why. I experienced recurring episodes of severe depression and anxiety. I saw nearly a dozen mental health professionals, who repeatedly misdiagnosed me. Many of them asked questions about my past, such as “Have you ever been raped?” But none of them ever mentioned that my past traumas could be causing my present symptoms.

I tried medication after medication—all of which affected me adversely, either intensifying my depression and anxiety or causing unusual side effects. One antidepressant, Viibryd, caused waking dreams, extremely vivid nightmares, and severe anxiety and depression. Still neither my therapist at the time nor the APRN who was prescribing me the medication ever realized that my problem was not chemical, which explained why antidepressants were not helping.

I hit my lowest point in October 2015 when, against my will, I was hospitalized under a physician’s certificate.

My APRN had recently taken me off one of my antidepressants, Wellbutrin, without weaning me, and I had a really hard time coming off them due to rapid withdrawal. Within days, I become barely recognizable.

I’d walk into a room and, unable to move, burst into uncontrollable tears.

I couldn’t do anything I loved—like writing my rockstar romance, the South of Forever series.

I kept having weird thoughts that were not my own, like “I wonder what would happen if I filled the tub, got in, and then threw a toaster in with me? Wait. Where the hell did that come from?!” The thoughts freaked me out, because I did not want to die.

I wasn’t able to eat, sleep, or shower and I spent every day on the couch watching TV shows and movies that I later wouldn’t remember.

It was absolutely terrifying, because I knew this wasn’t like my usual depression and anxiety.

I told Grace* (the therapist I was seeing at the time), and she told me there was nothing more she could do for me. I also told the APRN who prescribed the medication, and he decided I should also come off Abilify, the other antidepressant I was taking. When I asked if I should wean off, he insisted that I should be fine.

I wasn’t.


Note: This blog post is a raw, unedited chapter from my current work in progress, Writing Through Trauma. Part memoir and part inspiring instruction, Writing Through Trauma aims to help you write your way through difficult events in your life. Click here to join my email list to get notified when I post new chapters.


*Names have been changed for privacy.

Why I Decided to Stop Taking Antidepressants

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I have depression. The kind that I have is cyclic and incurable, though they tell me that it’s treatable. A few months ago, I started feeling less motivated. I had been medication free for a little while after a really bad experience on Viibryd, but my therapist and I determined that it might be a good idea to get back on something. My APRN—who prescribes my psychiatric medication—agreed. So we started me on Abilify.

Within a couple of weeks, I was feeling productive again and less depressed. I felt more like myself. But a couple months later, I felt myself slipping into a downward spiral. So we added on Wellbutrin. And for a little while, it seemed like it was helping.

Until it wasn’t.

My APRN decided to take me off the Wellbutrin. And even though I’d been on the lowest dose, I crashed. Hard. For two weeks straight, I burst into tears at random. I completely stopped working. My self-esteem plummeted. All I wanted to do was sleep. I struggled against suicidal thoughts. I had wave after wave of panic attacks.

My mental healthcare team decided to take me off the Abilify as well. I’d been taking a moderately low dose, but my APRN told me that I didn’t need to wean off. I should’ve known better; I’m very, very sensitive to these meds. But honestly, I wasn’t thinking clearly. I stopped taking Abilify cold turkey.

My APRN and therapist talked me into trying another antidepressant, Effexor. I let the APRN call the prescription in to my pharmacy. I had every intention of giving it a shot.

Until I started feeling worse.

I had a terrible time coming off of Abilify. Though I no longer felt suicidal, I completely stopped caring about anything. Getting out of bed took monumental effort. I wandered through my days, exhausted. I cried all the time for no reason.

Antidepressants tend to have an adverse effect on me. When I was fifteen, Zoloft turned me into a zombie. Ten years later, Prozac made me suicidal. Viibryd almost killed me. Lately I’ve wondered more and more whether I have any business taking these drugs. I know they help some people. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t really know why these medications work. We don’t know much about the brain, and we know even less about mental illness. More and more, I’m wondering if putting these chemicals into my body is doing more harm than good.

After some thought, I’ve decided not to start Effexor. I want to give myself more time to heal from coming off of Wellbutrin and Abilify. These medications alter your brain chemistry; coming off of them throws things out of whack even more. As your body gets used to being without them, your brain chemistry changes yet again.

Honestly, I’m terrified to throw anything else into that mix. No matter how bad I’ve been feeling, I want to get better. I’m truly scared of what might happen if I try yet another antidepressant.

The past few weeks are a blur to me. I’m not writing anymore. I’m barely working at all. Deadlines are looming and part of me could care less while the other part is horrified that I’m so apathetic. Everyone I know is worried about me; I’m worried about myself.

I’ve hit rock bottom.

But I don’t plan on giving up.

I’m fighting for my life, one minute at a time. See, I want to live. I want to feel better. I want to be writing again.

And I will.

In the meantime, I need to heal—without pharmaceutical help.

I honestly am beginning to think that I have treatment-resistant depression. I’ve tried multiple medications from each class. I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was fifteen. Yet nothing seems to help. I’m looking into alternative treatment options. I’m also considering getting another opinion on my diagnosis; in the early 2000s, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, yet more recently I was re-diagnosed with dysthymia. I’m wondering if I’ve been misdiagnosed. A social worker once told me that she thought I have bipolar disorder. It would explain the cycles I go through. If I’ve been incorrectly diagnosed, the proper diagnosis could unlock the key for treating my depression.

So that’s where I’ve been, why I’ve been so quiet, and partially why I’ve slowed down a lot. Like a bad cold, I’ve got to ride this out and take good care of myself in the meantime. And eventually, this will pass and I’ll be even stronger.

As the Buddhist saying goes, “This too.”

“I’m not giving up
I’m just giving in”

To me, this means to stop thrashing against it and instead, float for a little while, letting my mind, body, and spirit rest. This song perfectly explains that need to just let go.

October Goals

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I used to set goals for myself every month.

I don’t know why I stopped.

Maybe because I thought they were stupid, that they were just distracting me. In truth, I think they were keeping me on track.

My goals for 2015 were divided into three areas of my life:

Career

  • Make a full-time income
  • Write the South of Forever series
  • Write a YA series

Marriage

  • Get an apartment
  • Have a date every week
  • Be more patient

Health

  • Get a diagnosis and treatment
  • Eat healthier
  • Do more yoga

Jury’s still out on the yoga thing. I remember to do it maybe once a month. #oops

The last time I set goals for the month was July.

That’s two months of nothing. Interestingly, I was super depressed throughout August and September. Does setting goals really impact my mental health that much? Maybe.

When I think about September, I think about new beginnings. But when I think of October, I can only think about the impending winter. November is even worse.

It doesn’t help that I feel so heavy because of the medication I’m on. Thinking is very hard right now. But I want those goals. I need something to refer to this month to keep me on track.

I think, when you are in a fragile place, you need to set goals that are super attainable but not too easy. I decided to pick three things that I’m already working on.

  • Release Savannah’s Song
  • Adjust depression medication
  • Read 1-3 books

Savannah’s Song comes out on the 26th. I’m seeing my APRN tonight to do something about my meds. (I still think I want to come off of everything and start fresh.) And I’m already reading K.A. Tucker’s Ten Tiny Breaths.

Sometimes, when you’re down, you need to build yourself back up.

I’m a work in progress.

Nightmares

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I’m seriously starting to hate Wellbutrin. First it turned my thoughts against me. Now it’s ruining my sleep.

When I first started taking it, it made me laser focused. I could think. I could write again. For about two weeks, I tackled my To Do list with a fever. I even commented on it to my therapist, that it was almost too good to be true.

It was.

Two weeks ago, after being on Wellbutrin for a couple of months, I lost all concentration. I stopped writing. Disturbing thoughts started popping into my head. They weren’t suicidal thoughts, per se, but they were definitely not mine.

Last night, the nightmares started. I’ve always had odd dreams on Wellbutrin. They were quirky and charming. Now they’re bloody and terrifying.

It all reminds me too much of when I was on Viibryd.

I still can’t quite talk about the hellish experience I had. But I know when it’s time to get out of Dodge.

I have an appointment with my APRN for psych meds on Thursday. He has razor sharp instincts when it comes to these meds, but I want off. I won’t wean without supervision. I know how dangerous that can be. And I’m sure that there’s a drug out there that will work for me. I’ve just had enough for now.

Maybe I’m a little traumatized. Maybe I’m being too extreme. All I know is, Viibryd almost killed me. I won’t make the same mistake again.