You know those days when you wake up with something shoved farrrr up your butt? Sorry, that was especially crude. If that actually happens to you, I have questions about how much Ambien you’re taking.
What I really mean is, from the moment you open your eyes, something is not right. You’re deeply depressed inside, or you’re filled with anxiety at peak performance levels... and it's for no apparent reason.
Maybe you’re having flashbacks and involuntary memories that seem uninfluenced by your surroundings. Perhaps you’re feeling pessimistic and fearful of the future. Hell, you might just have a busily blank brain and the sensation that something is askew, without a single idea what that something is. Maybe you get the sensation that you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, ready to tumble down into full-blown trauma land after standing proudly on the highest peak for several weeks or months.
Been there? Yeah, me too.
And every time it can be a huge challenge not to effectively fling myself off that rocky mountain face as my head spins and my inner critic starts bitching at me. “Why are you feeling this way again, asshole? What is wrong with you? You’ve been working on this for years now, aren’t you past this yet? Will you ever be? Have you actually made progress at all?”
So begins a day or twelve or twelve hundred of walking around like a nutjob, desperately trying to undo whatever damage has secretly taken place during the night while simultaneously feeling individually doomed and chronically repeating mantras of failure.
“Quick! Do all the things you’re supposed to! Don’t let this get worse! Wait… what are the things you’re supposed to do? Clearly they aren’t working, because here you are. Maybe you have no idea what to do and you never have. What if your mental illness is all coming back? What if it never left? Maybe you’ve been deluding yourself. What if you haven’t recovered at all? What if you can’t?”
The voices in my head are always ready to start arguing with me. Suddenly, I’ve transitioned from desperately scrambling through grounding practices to freezing up and shutting down. Panicking. Letting the increasing anxiety about my increasing anxiety take over my brain. Drumming up trauma responses as I do everything I can to avoid them.
Yeah, Fuckers, this is a pattern I’ve gone through many times in the past few years. And, if you can’t tell, I used to beat the hell out of myself over it. I couldn’t understand how my brain could feel so healthy and happy for weeks or months, only to take a rapid nosedive into pure-shit territory for no great reason. Don’t get me wrong, there generally was a reason, but it wasn’t necessarily something that I could pinpoint in my present life. Often, it was a memory or emotion from my past, spontaneously recovered without my permission. (Remember that episode on involuntary memories?)
And, you know, it’s pretty confusing to find yourself trudging through waist-high sewage when you haven’t actually seen yourself fall into the sewer. It’s like you were kidnapped in the night and dropped down a steaming manhole. When the fuck did this happen? How do I get out? Is this my life now?
Today, I’m here to talk about the baffling experience of taking ten steps forward, falling down, and finding yourself 20 steps back. Because it appears as though time doesn’t move in a linear fashion when it comes to this complex trauma repair service.*
(*More evidence that this life is all a simulation, spread across billions of overlapping universes, with the purpose of teaching our energy conglomerate souls important lessons through reincarnated experiences until we finally get it right. Just a fun side note from Jess's batshit corner. Okay, sorry. I'll take my woo-beliefs elsewhere, but hear me when I say that they sincerely help a trauma brain.)
Today, let’s actually chat about… Well, the fact that backslides are definitely going to happen (sorry)... but also, why they happen,s how we tend to make them worse for ourselves, and how to handle the intermittent mental health degradation a bit better.
There will be bad days
One of the things I’ve had to come to terms with on this trauma recovery effort is how transient my feelings, confidence, and mindset can be.
For the first few months and years of your rehabilitation efforts, it’s a bit like trying to run up a water slide. You get a few steps up, straining and struggling for every centimeter of progress. You feel accomplished with your heightened position, you look around and see a broader view of the waterpark. You actually feel like you can understand the layout and make plans for the rest of your day splashing in the sun, relieved that you’re no longer being pulled under the pee-filled water where you previously thrashed and gasped for air.
And then… you slip right back down that goddamn waterslide. You get overly confident in your stance and loosen your grip, you make a wrong move and lose your footing, or some chubby kid in a tee-shirt comes barreling down the slide and knocks you right out with them. Regardless of what happens, you don’t really see it coming and you really aren’t amused when you open your eyes and realize you’re half-drowning in the pool of human soup at the base of the slide again.
What the fuck? You were over this. You’ve already waded through this cesspool and made it to the other side. How did this happen again?
It. Is. The. Worst.
For anyone who’s slaved over their anxiety management, changed their fucked up core beliefs, or finally got motivated enough to try at life… this rapid relapse into traumatized territory is incredibly distressing. It makes you question everything. It turns your valiant therapy efforts into pointless trials in paying someone money you don’t actually have. It makes you into a liar on all those days you told yourself you were doing better now. It causes you to ponder if you should just give up on the whole idea and go back to the couch.
And that thought causes you to spiral even further.
In my own trauma reckoning, I’ve gone through this about (counts fingers) a trillion times. In the past 2-3 years of my intensive recovery efforts, lawd, I’ve had my ups and downs. You've heard some of them. And they have caused me more than a few existential crises.
The first experiences with a trauma slip-up were probably the worst, most terrifying times for me. I mean, when you’re doing well for months or years, it’s not easy to feel yourself taking a plunge in the wrong direction. It erases all sense of control and capacity - and that's a really important aspect of managing this trauma brain.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I recognize that my couple of years working on this trauma life is nothing compared to the 30 years of nonsense that I’ve been trying to untangle. I realize that I was, and still am, a complex trauma recovery baby in comparison to all the damage that needed to be dealt with. But it felt significant to be in committed trauma therapy for a while, to have made many huge changes in my life already, and to have a grip - relatively speaking - on my anxiety, depression, and mindset for the first time in my life.
I had days and weeks when I was supremely confident in my recovery. I could see and feel a massive difference in myself. I was so proud of the difficult distances I had carried myself. I honestly felt unshakeable, bulletproof to the entire world. “Give me your best shot, I’ve already been through it all and I know how to fucking deal.”
But I found that just as quickly as those good days emerged, they could be ripped away at the drop of a hat.
Sometimes there was a blatant reason for my mental health downturn - my coworkers or my ex (and, honestly, they were one and the same at some points) being pieces of shit, for instance. But sometimes, there was absolutely no obvious cause of my universal hatred for everything and everyone in the world (myself included), or my anxiety, my stress responses, my disorganized head that was begging for the relief of non-existence all of a sudden.
Spiraling thoughts of self-hatred and pessimism, unnameable fears driving my body into anxiety overdrive, and existential woes of wanting to end it all would abruptly flood my inner experience. And once that happened again, I felt powerless. It was especially confusing, because nothing necessarily had to happen to cause this sudden shift in mindset, mood, and life functionality - at least, nothing that I was aware of had to happen.
And I think that’s an important thing for us to remember.
Not only are these bad days going to happen - make no mistake, you will feel like shit sometimes after actually feeling pretty good at other times. But, as always, there are sneaky brain-based reasons for this recurring trauma nightmare. Let’s talk about why.
Trauma brain don’t die
So, I think the important thing to remember here, as I already briefly touched upon, is the amount of damage you’re trying to undo during Complex Trauma recovery. We’re not just picking ourselves up after a few months of being down in the dirt. We’re literally working on resolving a lifetime of known and unknown events, thinking patterns, and physiological responses. Actually... to be more accurate, we’re trying to rectify one species’ evolution worth of these trials.
So, you can imagine, we still have traumatized brain programs running in the background, even after years of therapy, months of personal research, and days of journaling. It’s inevitable. With early trauma comes unknown trauma that’s not so easy to contend with. We have strong survival brains, constantly aiming to detect new threats to keep us alive.
Even when we manage to quiet those danger-obsessed pieces of ourselves, they don’t disappear.
We try to shift the energy towards our reasonable, human brains with all our might... but our old well-meaning but practically-deleterious lizard brains are still strong enough to push us off course into dysfunctional territories. No matter how often you’re chatting with a therapist, going to yoga, or making changes to the circumstances in your life, there are still a lot of tiny bits of information half-strung together in your brain and body after a lifetime of instability.
As hard as you work to process your old memories, notice your emotions, and find healthier coping skills, you’re still running on an operating system that was shaped by bad programmers. For every bug that you fix in your coding, there is another one that hasn’t been pinged yet. For every fragmented memory that you piece back together, there are ten unprocessed recollections banging around disjointedly inside your skull. When we accidentally bring our corrupted software into use, we get unexpected issues that don’t fall in line with our newly-updated OS.
It’s understandable from a biological perspective. Yes, we’re working very hard to reprogram our brains to see new patterns and utilize different pathways, but no, we can’t guarantee that a few years of therapy will cause every old connection to be direct-wired to the intended circuit. Things go awry sometimes. Electrons jump to the wrong path. Unknown errors suddenly emerge. Our brains and bodies light up in all the wrong ways.
And we feel like we’re back at square negative five again.
It also needs to be mentioned again that there is a threshold for noticing danger signals in our heads. Our automatic detection system might get riled up when some stimuli is categorized as risky, but it might not be strong enough to bleed into our cognitive thoughts. This is why we can experience low-key fear and stress responses without knowing why. We can also have emotional reactions to said responses, which really make us feel insane when our moods shift without warning.
Lastly, you know I have to bring up those involuntary memory pathways again. Our trauma brains have been changed through adaptive development. They are unfortunately very active when it comes to accessing memories on accident. As in, they love to reminisce about distressing memories that we don't want to recall rather than the recollections we actually want to retrieve. Why are you suddenly being catapulted back in time to the negative sensations of 15 years ago? Because your dumb brain is waving a particularly shitty polaroid around in your face instead of denoting your grocery list.
Our brains are primed for this ruminatory revisiting of past ghosts - whether we're talking background processes, unacknowledged danger signs, or implicit memory recall. And who knows what's going to spark those unwanted neurobiological responses.
I just want to tell you, again, without question. There will be bad days, Fuckers. This might come as terrible news. You might hate me for this cheery matter of fact proclamation. But my intention is to let you know that it’s normal to feel like shit sometimes, even if you haven’t felt like shit for quite some time.
It’s just how your brain has been coded for the past lifetime, your parents’ lifetimes, and your species’ existence. We have certain innate responses - for better or for worse - through years of personal learning and millenia of ancestral learning. Those lizard brained components of your head - they aren’t exactly tuned to the 21st century or your sudden desire to disregard all your old ways of being in the search for an enlightened, motivated, evenly-keeled and consistently safe-feeling perspective.
We want to turn away from our rudimentary survival systems. We don’t enjoy relying on our same old dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors. We’d like to feel as if our human brains are steering the bus, rather than hurdling at breakneck speed down a twisting mountain road with a lizard at the wheel. Clearly, this strategy can only end in plummeting to the bottom of an unscalable ravine again.
So, we have to learn to do the opposite of what we’re programmed for.
How we tend to react - Self-hatred, confusion, and panic
It seems to me that Traumatized Motherfuckers are primarily experts at berating themselves for feeling down after a lifetime of self-shaming for the same reason.
In general, we’re apt at beating the shit out of themselves in any circumstance, thanks to our inner critics, shame responses, and fucked up core beliefs. So, why would a mentally imbalanced day or week be any different? That's right! It wouldn’t be.
We actually find ways to presently make ourselves feel bad for feeling bad about things that historically made us feel bad. Yeah, sort that out. I’ll wait.
What I mean is, none of us asked for this complex trauma bullshit that started, in many cases, before we were even born. No one wanted to be permanently contending with the sins of our families and our family’s families. We weren’t stoked about the early neglect, abuse, and aggression that we experienced. We definitely didn’t invite the triggers, flashbacks, and emotional dysregulations into our own lives. And, if you're here, listening to this podcast... I think we're working really hard to try to figure them all out.
I have no doubt, if you’re here with me now, you’re working your ass off to undo all the damage from your past. It isn’t easy. It isn’t clear cut. It isn’t even a positive feeling, most of the time.
And on top of all that, we eventually find out that our recovery isn’t infallible.
When we have a mental tumble, experiencing fear responses, triggerings, and thought disorganization - or, just generalized shitty moods - we don’t tend to respond with a great deal of care and concern for ourselves. It’s not our normal MO, that’s for sure. “How do I treat myself like I treat anyone else on the planet” is one of the questions that I hear most often in the Discord community and my own head. We all struggle to kindly contend with the difficult inner environment that has flooded our lives.
And we tend to react in a few common ways.
Getting surprised by the rapid slip
Getting confused about what we “need” to be doing to fix it
Getting frustrated with ourselves for a perceived failure
Getting panicky, and eventually defeated, that this is forever
Let's walk through those.
So, the first stage is being shocked into reality when you start getting that inner trauma itch. Your brain is doing something weird today, your body is following suit, and your thoughts are immediately flying into, “Hold up, what’s going on here,” sentiments. But you’ll probably try, at least for a while, to ignore them.
You might actually feel a bit shell-shocked or experience a sense of denial when the slump first sets in. After riding on your high horse for a few miles now, you’re not willing or capable to acknowledge the trolls closing in at your feet. “I’m fine. It’s just a weird day.” You might say in the beginning, as you go about your normal routine and try to ignore the twists in your stomach.
A few hours later, when you’re slouched over on the bathroom floor crying or mysteriously find yourself back in bed (how did that happen?) you stop running the same dismissing track on repeat. "Okay, maybe something is going on here. My tear-smudged mascara, bed full of spilled cereal, and disregard for my own life seem like good clues. Screaming at my significant other for no apparent reason was a pretty good hint. Breaking down when I dropped my pen on the floor earlier was a bit weird, too, I suppose."
And this leads to the next stage. You try to take several steps running backwards to undo the damage before it fully takes over. “No, no, no, no, it’s coming!” you yell, as you desperately start reading down your list of mental illness management techniques.
“What do I do, again? Journal? Talk to my therapist? Call an emergency hotline? Call my best friend? Go to a yoga class? Lay under my weighted blanket? Try to take some deep breaths? I can’t breath, my chest is too tight thinking about breathing. Give myself some care? How can I care for myself right now, when my trauma recovered life is ending?”
"Just get busy!" You tell yourself. "Keep your head moving forward! Do the things you’re 'supposed' to do," even though you feel like doing nothing at all. This is where we might spin into a bit of a manic response. We start wildly flailing through the day, believing that if we just go through the motions and ignore our inner inklings, we’ll be able to catch ourselves before we tumble.
Unfortunately, this mostly has the effect of drumming up more anxiety, telling our survival brains that we’re in deep shit, and causing our bodies to start reacting with emergency system arousal. AKA - making the issue that we’re trying to improve get much, much worse. So that’s always fun.
As you might guess, it sets us up for some unpleasant thoughts about our efforts and ourselves.
Next up, you really start your backsliding reckoning as you begin harassing yourself over the newly re-emerging issues. “How is this happening again? I already went through my days of eating my feelings and hiding under a blanket. I haven’t lost my shit over something inconsequential in months.” and most importantly, “What did I do wrong?”
It’s no big surprise, when complex trauma sufferers are presented with a difficult day, they find a way to blame themselves. Everything is always our faults, after all. Our inner critics start chiming in, counting down the ways that we could have brought this nightmare on ourselves. "Well, I guess I forgot to work on my gratitude for the past few days. I haven’t been making enough time for anti-dissociating practices since work got busier. I did skip that last therapy session because I had other obligations that day. Now, none of the work I’m doing makes a difference."
"This has to be my fault. I’m just not strong enough to do what I need to do. My head can’t stay in the game long enough to make continual progress. Other people do it, why can’t I just learn to be happy? Or, fuck, just to be alright at some baseline level? It must be because I’m not trying hard enough. Maybe I’m just not destined to ever live like a normal human. Maybe I’m just broken."
That’s right! The final stage is returning to our old favorite past time, internalizing an unfortunate event and projecting that experience into the future, you know… Forever.
When our frantic rehab efforts don’t immediately produce the results we were looking for, we start hearing whispers of our old fucked up core beliefs. You probably feel a lot of fear, self-resentment, and dread as you ponder 1) how you’re incapable of dealing with what you’re feeling right now and 2) how you imagine that developing into a mental illness tar pit in the future.
"After I was doing so well for so long, this fuck-shittery can still take over my life? I was doing everything right. I was seeing the light. I was acting the way I’ve always dreamed of being. And now it’s all ruined. I’m right back where I started. Why did I even go through all the effort in the first place? Will I ever be able to do those things again? What’s even the point of trying? Obviously, I’m destined to be miserable."
Annnnd now we’re wallowing.
We've reached our final head-spinning destination: Feeling like victims. Imagining that a negative mindset, mental illness re-emergence, and body response can last forever.
I’ve got good news for you, Fuckers, nothing lasts forever.
How to cope without years of mope
Yep, I’m here to spread the good word. There is a better way to deal with your bad days.
Just convince yourself of a few things - make some new thoughts and run them on repeat when your head starts defaulting to the old doomsday narrative. You’d be surprised how massively your thoughts will affect your… everything. You know, unless you’ve listened to the rumination episodes.
First of all. Recognize that nothing lasts forever.
Literally. Nothing. Your bodily sensations are no different. Those chemicals? They can’t persist indefinitely. That anxiety spiral you’re in? Your body will have to return to homeostasis at some point. Those poopy thoughts? Well, they can be enduring if you want them to be… but you also realize that your focus will inevitably have to shift at some point or another. Even the most attentive Fuckers in the world will get distracted from the subject of their laser-focus, whether that’s taking on a massive engineering marvel or watching a dog video.
So, recognizing that this is a temporary phase of your life, you might as well try to push your thoughts in a new direction right now. If you're not feeling capable of that, you can just let this happen. Let the disaster run its course. The engine will run out of gas at some point, there’s no point in yelling at it while you exhaust its energy. Chill. Nothing lasts forever; if you don’t give up, you’ll live to see another relatively brain-balanced day.
Secondly, give your biology some credit.
You know my take on things… The biological understanding behind these trauma conundrums really matters for me, personally. I like to know that there’s a reason for all the unreasonable things I’ve been through and continue to do to myself.
As I’ve already described, this apparent trauma relapse isn’t baseless. Trauma works like a poorly stored file in your head. And remembering that information in a bad moment can really help you to cut yourself some slack.
Just tell yourself, you probably had an old, unprocessed memory spring towards your consciousness in the past day or so. Maybe something that happened in your world reminded you of a past event or pattern in your life, or maybe it was a spontaneous recovery. Even if you aren’t fully registering the underlying information, realize that you don’t need to in order for your body to start responding.
I'll repeat that again. Even if you aren’t fully registering the underlying information, realize that you don’t need to in order for your body to start responding.
Like I mentioned earlier, there’s a bit of threshold differential between your brain’s response center and the recognition shuttle. As in, your system might start reacting to a stimuli without ever sending the data over to your prefrontal cortex - they have an on-again-off-again communication pattern that makes this sort of mismatch happen. You can have stress hormones shooting around your body without your head ever knowing the cause. And, with those heavily worn survival pathways and pre-programmed responses having been drilled into your brain for 20 or 50 years, it’s all too easy for your physiology to start reacting in the ways that it knows best.
Rewiring your head is no small task. Convincing your body that it doesn’t need to burn the place to the ground every time there’s a perceived risk - from the present or two decades in the past - is even harder. Biology gone awry. What a well-meaning dumpster fire.
Thirdly, pretend you don’t hate yourself.
I use the word “pretend” very purposely here, because I’m pretty sure none of us can suddenly shift from one end of the self-despising spectrum to the other.
When it comes to self-forgiveness and faith... Uh… for Traumatized Motherfuckers, the well ran dry a long time ago. We are experts at telling ourselves to suck it up, suck it down, and then do your best to stop sucking so damn much.
But that’s not what we would ever say to someone else during a hard time, yeah? If your pal called you and said they were having a bit of a rough patch, I sincerely doubt your response would be, “What did you do to cause this? Why weren’t you taking care of yourself? This isn’t allowable. Seems like you brought this on yourself, somehow. And, oh, by the way, I bet that this is going to stick with you forever.” But, sure, that’s our go-to narrative when it comes to processing our own experience.
So, try to consider, if you were speaking with someone you didn’t want to bury, how would you respond differently? Telling them it’s alright to feel like shit sometimes? Reassuring them that this isn’t going to be their new way of life until the sweet kiss of death finally drags them to hell? Making sure they realize that what they’re going through is a normal part of life and it’s okay to feel?
Right. Do that in your own head. Or, fuck, say it out loud. It’ll be more effective, in my experience. Repeat it until you believe it, even a little.
And now we’re on the last bit of information that you need to hear, apparently from me, because we don’t want to say it to ourselves.
Lastly, hear me when I say that this is normal and expected.
Motherfucker, please don’t freak out.
It’s taken me about ten years to realize that this is just a naturally recurring cycle in the trauma life. You have periods of growth and clarity, and you have periods of doubt and confusion. You have days when your brain soars and weeks when it would rather crawl in a hole to waste away.
I know, fuck me for simplifying the dizzying experience of a recovery backslide. But it really is a straight forward fact that you need to accept. No matter how hard you’re working, no matter how good you’ve been feeling for months, no matter how confident you are that you can take on the weight of the world without being crushed… there will come a day when your old ways of thinking, being, and fearing come rushing back into the picture.
And it’s okay.
It’s normal to still be rooting around in the dirt and uncovering new trauma artifacts. It’s unrealistic to expect perfection when you’re contending with a less than perfect history. It’s okay to experience your experience.
Plus, you need to know… you aren’t the only one. We’re all in the same chaotic water park, trying our best to scale that waterslide from the bottom up. Somedays, it’s a nice sunny adventure. Other days, we’re just doing our damndest to avoid the floating turds that pop out of ignorant kiddos who are splashing with utter unawareness all around us. Plus, there are the times when we climb backwards up that waterslide, only for some Fucker to slip on their own ascent and wipe us right back down with them. The slipups of your social contacts can easily turn into tumbles of your own.
That's why, on a particularly down in the brown day, I recommend that you abandon your lofty goals of dodging other people’s shit as you scramble up slippery slopes… and take a spin around the lazy river for a while. Take a break, give yourself permission to isolate until your world is righted again, and let your brain process all the screaming in the background before you re-enter the adult swim.
Trust me. Nothing lasts forever. You’ll be back to paddling with all your might again soon.
That’s it, y’all. Just a difficult post about having difficult days. I know that it’ll never be easy to see your mental health take a downturn, but at least try to recognize that it isn’t the end of your recovery effort or the end of the world.
If you’re feeling disheartened during the days and weeks when depression, exhaustion, and general restlessness seep back into your being, I hear you. It is head-spinning to feel like you were moving along at a nice clip only to trip and fall on your fucking face. But you have to recognize that 1) it’s going to happen, 2) it’s not your fault, 3) it’s not going to be forever 4) there are good reasons to abruptly feel bad.
The key to keeping your head out of trauma territory during basically any challenge in life is not to let your thoughts wander back to the old black-and-white thinking pattern of assuming that doom and despair are always headed your way. I know, it’s always easier said than done.
When your life so far has been filled with upset and chaos, you expect it to proceed as such. There’s no reason for your brain to extrapolate bright, shiny times ahead when every previous memory is rooted in dark, dank days. As such, we tend to take a bad day or seven and turn them into fortune-teller predictions about how the rest of our time on this planet is going to be marred with misery and resistance is futile.
You cannot let your head go there. It is a trap. Letting yourself get worked up about a bad time is going to activate all your worst programs, effectively pushing you into the very situation you’re afraid of. You have to remain calm. You have to have faith that it’s going to get better. Everything is fleeting, and this mood is no different... unless you freak yourself out enough to make it persist.
I also want to say, as a pre-ramble to the next podcast…
This trauma-reemergence coping is all a lot easier to do when you aren’t running around like a chicken with your head cut off, taking care of everyone but yourself and trying not to fall victim to the dangerous thoughts fluttering around in your brain.
Taking a few steps backwards is painful, disappointing, and worrisome. Finding yourself in a trauma mindset after months of success keeping your head above water can call everything into question. Feeling out of control again is absolutely terrifying, when you consider how things have played out in the past and how swamped you are in the present. But none of that strife necessitates beating yourself up or freaking out. These self-regulating attempts to bash your brain into socially-acceptable shape are only going to make everything worse. Your recovery doesn’t require you to hate yourself for having a hard time.
What it does require is time. Nothing lasts forever and it's okay to feel how you're feeling.
Annnnnd if this project is doing anything to improve your life outlook, therapy efforts, or general self-regard... consider hitting up that Patreon account? No doubt, I need your help to keep this grassroots project going. Plus, it's a whole hell of a lot cheaper and more accessible than emergency sessions with your therapist. Right? Hit me up at patreon.com/traumatizedmotherfuckers Quite literally, every dollar matters.