2016 wasn’t a tragic year – good things happened, great things even – but damn did it also suck beyond the telling of it. I pretty much covered that in my end of year review. I faced kind of my darkest times personally since 2010. You know when things just feel unbearable – not in a dramatic way, but in a “Oh my God, this is too heavy” and your knees buckle from the load you’re carrying and then life piles on that much more? That was my June-December.
I spent a good part of that time trying to keep it together. I was depressed because of crippling anxiety. And I say crippling because it made me not do things – leave the house or see family and friends. I wasn’t sleeping and constantly felt like I was going crazy – like certifiable. When you are in a constant state of panic that your body seems to be vibrating, sometimes violently, it’s official – you need help.
I won’t get into all the personal stuff – been there and done that – but for me my physical and mental health was really chipped away at this year. My Complex-PTSD started to go off the rails. I thought it was random, though I am coming to see the triggers that were behind most of it. It wasn’t necessarily one thing, but a combination of things that by themselves seemed like “small contributors” but together really made a perfect storm of sorts.
As far as my physical health, I have been feeling incredibly sick and in pain since… I seriously don’t remember when it started, maybe February or March. But by July I knew something was very, very wrong. I was losing weight; it was difficult to eat due to stomach pain. Imagine the hardest gut punch you have ever felt (or could feel) and I’m talking an actual physical punch. That was how I felt only the punch was coming from the inside out. The pain was so intense sometimes it was hard to be active, and so I stayed couch-bound (which really didn’t do much for morale). I weighed less than 118 pounds and nearly lost twenty pounds before I finally had some answers. A few procedures and several tests and three specialists later – and I have my answer. Dozens of ulcers and erosions in my stomach and some other stuff. We’re still chasing how/why the ulcers developed (even with my PTSD I have never had a single ulcer so stress really doesn’t make sense, particularly when we’re talking about this many, plus there are some other things that point to a “something” versus a fluke). I’ll be on meds and other treatments for a few months but hopefully I’ll begin to feel semi-human again soon. (When I try to describe the pain, I think back to the Alien movies. It feels like I have several of those bastards trying to break free. Not fun.)
But here is the thing, even with nothing actually resolved and me still in the midst of physical distress and mental – the thing that isn’t okay but a step above distress – lately I’ve been feeling a kind of high. Like I’m finally ready to get back to me.
The me who is fierce. The me who has been described as a force of nature. The me who is a warrior and social justice crusader. The me who never lets up. The me who is a protective pit bull. The me you want to get behind or get out of the way. I keep hearing the words, “The bitch is back” and it makes me smile. Because I finally feel like I am, or I’m going to be very soon.
Ironically, I can’t thank meds of therapy or a more controllable stomach for the turnaround. My stomach is still evil (hoping by late January, it’s less so) and I’ve only been to two therapy sessions due to scheduling and other conflicts – and I’m not even sure I am clicking with my therapist. And the only medications I am taking are for anxiety and night terrors/nightmares. But the latter isn’t working so I am mostly likely going to discontinue it and the other medication causes me to get sick so I’m only on a quarter of the smallest starting dose possible, so my doctor doubts that is having any effect whatsoever.
This is just my process.
My favorite show in the world is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For me it was more than just a show – I related to it – one person feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders, keeping secrets, protecting others without their knowing, fighting what seemed to be unstoppable forces – even if mine were of the human/hate/abuse variety. Anyway, a few times throughout the series Buffy took on a new baddie that royally kicked her ass. She was at this low point where she doubted she would defeat the menace because she didn’t know how she could – the world closed in and she was alone. But then a switch was flipped. Whether it was from a strength she pulled from reserves she didn’t know she had or something else, she came back to fight again and annihilated said baddie like it was nothing. (Plus, she is the only one I can share the “I’ve been dead multiple times and am still standing” street cred with. That counts for something, right?) For me the cliché “it’s always darkest before the dawn” is true. Whenever I feel I hit bottom, I regroup and burst through, coming back stronger and fiercer and louder than ever.
I didn’t reach bottom this year. I sought help before I ever made impact, still hovering a few stories above, but still it was the closest to bottom I’ve been in six years. And so I rise.
So why the turnaround before anything is actually better? I don’t know for certain why the curtain was lifted early, but I think I finally figured out a decent theory. For me, control is everything. I spent nearly two decades at the mercy of other people, absolutely powerless – control over myself and my life is the foundation of my hierarchy of needs. But I haven’t been in control – at least completely for several months. It’s the worst feeling in the world. The feeling in and of itself is my greatest trigger. But the last few weeks of doing self-work under my own guidance I’ve been thinking and reflecting. And it clicked after reading an essay I wrote during recovering from the last time I hit bottom. It was this empowering epiphany that felt like the simplest answer for everything in my life in that moment, and a lot of my life in this moment: Fighting is not the answer.
I’m a fighter. It’s more than just being a survivor. I’m the kid who stood up to the bully three times his size, who was picking on someone else. I led campaigns against violent campus “gods” and bigoted teachers – I turned the tables on my abuser when I was thirteen. I have led political protests since I was fourteen and been on the front lines of social justice causes. When my shunt breaks and I need surgery (that would be brain surgery) I have to be in fight mode. You have to fight with your everything. It’s the way you survive and in some cases the only way. But not everything is a fight. Some things are the opposite. With some things, you need to surrender yourself and embrace what you’re fighting. It’s scary and terrifying because you’re not only relinquishing control, you’re also letting go. It’s also called acceptance.
I have always been all about the transformative power of truth. It’s the foundation of my approach to life and self, and how I made it through my PTSD and violent childhood to be an agent of change – for the better. It always starts with yourself. For me, I felt out of control. I felt anxious – terrified is more accurate. I felt sad and angry and like a loser. Like something was wrong with me. What was wrong with me???
What’s wrong with me is that I’m human – though it’s not wrong in the first place. Vulnerability was exploited as weakness growing up, but in adulthood, I see beauty and courage in vulnerability. Because it’s honest and it’s human. While the stigma of mental illness is a problem that needs to be addressed – it’s never been a problem for me. Because I really don’t care what people think of me. But what I think of myself is another thing altogether. I need to be strong, impenetrable; in other words something other than human.
Part of the reason I spiraled like I did is because I didn’t just embrace – “Something is wrong – you need help.” I didn’t do it with my stomach. I didn’t do it with my PTSD. I tried to power through. I tried to use all of my past coping mechanisms that obviously weren’t working. I tried to adapt to my stomach pain and defy it as much as possible. I sucked it up, when I should have just let go. In November, I finally did that – I let go and stopped fighting and realized I needed to go beyond myself to get better.
Even though everything is now only “in progress” – progress is better than where I was before. Progress births hope and when you find hope after going without it, you feel invigorated and have a natural high. I’m experiencing that now – the natural high, just like I did every other time I beat something back and came back better, smarter and stronger for it.
For this reason, I feel ready to take on 2017 and everything it wants to throw at me. With 2016, there are not enough “what the fucks” to show how I feel. I feel like it fucked us all, even those who don’t realize it yet. But that’s okay, because if there is one thing about Michael that is consistent through the years, it’s that he fucks back twice as hard. So be ready, 2017… Bring it!