Flashbacks and intrusive thoughts

Content warning: self-harm and suicide mentions

I started the day with anxiety feeling like a hole in my chest, and disgusted by this body of mine and the person I am. But I had things to do and a train to catch, so I got out of bed to get on with the day.

I felt the anxiety, the self loathing and self hate, the frustration and anger of rationally knowing those feelings don’t necessarily represent reality while still feeling them, and then the fear that maybe this is all there is.

I spent an hour or so first thing in the morning afraid of myself and sobbing uncontrollably. Irrelevant detail, but this caught me while sitting on the toilet doing my business. Mental illness is anything but pretty and cinematic and I want to acknowledge that, embarrassing as it may be.

I first had flashbacks of the day I tried to kill myself. The desperation, the guilt, the anxiety, the pain… All the feelings as fresh as if I was right back there sitting on my bed on that day swallowing handful after handful of tablets. Then the other intrusive thoughts. Graphic images that I don’t want to see and urges I don’t want to act on, but they show up and even with my eyes open I just see those realistic images playing in my head. Some are things that haven’t even happened at all, or have happened but to a much lesser extent. Most involve self-harming in various ways where the result would range from needing some medical attention to straight up lethal, but no need to go into specific graphic details here.

All of this accompanied by the feeling that I’m just so unworthy of everything, that I’m a burden, that I’m not good enough or just no good at all. My brain forever dysfunctional and my body forever incomplete. Feeling ashamed of these things I have gone through and still go through, while also getting frustrated because rationally I know there’s no shame in having a mental illness and having specific difficulties or needs because of it.

It’s difficult to sit with the feelings by kindly welcoming them, reminding myself it makes sense that they would surface sometimes and that it’s ok and it doesn’t mean I’m going right back to square one. It’s difficult not to judge myself or beat myself up for having them. The dissonance between what I’m feeling and what I think I know to be real only creates more distress. I get angry at myself for still having such feelings and thoughts because I know they’re not true, and then I doubt myself and think what if I should actually listen to them? I get even angrier at myself for daring to question whether those negative thoughts are representative of reality.

And then I thought what I needed was to have a drink, or perhaps take a couple more painkillers than I need, just enough to take the edge off and numb things down. But I didn’t because I know better.

I just stayed where I was and I kept crying, hoping my mind would eventually calm down and stop the intrusive thoughts trying to get me to hurt myself and to convince me that all I am and all there is to my life is being ill. I find that with this as well as with panic attacks, it helps to just let it run its course gently guiding myself out of it rather than forcing myself. I wouldn’t say “just stop” to someone going through the same thing, so I try to be kind, understanding and patient with myself as I would with someone else.

I try to regulate my breathing slowly instead of trying to jump into a 7-11 rythm immediately (that’s 7 seconds breathing in, 11 seconds breathing out). Physical ways of grounding myself are also helpful, and the unhealthy methods I used in the past were self-harming and punching walls until my hand was all swollen. The healthy ways I then found are mainly using a weighted blanket by folding it as many times as possible to concentrate all the weight on my chest as I lie on the floor or in bed (don’t do this for too long!), or by sitting against a wall and pushing against it as hard as I can (if I have something I can push against with my legs that’s even better). I have tried other things suggested to me such as shocking myself by splashing cold water on my face or biting into a lemon, and those don’t really work for me.

What most professionals I’ve seen in my life failed to address was the importance of aftercare. You don’t just pull yourself out of it and get on with the day as if nothing happened. Sometimes I do have to carry on as soon as I can, for example if I’m at work, but it’s still important for me to make some time later in the day to at least check in with myself. Again, if this was someone else I would still keep supporting them after the worst of it is over. I’m getting used to always asking myself how would I treat someone if it was them and not me going through whatever I’m going through.

Today this meant that instead of rushing to get showered, pack my back and run to catch a train, I rescheduled for a later one. I got ready without rushing, left early enough to not have to walk really fast, and found myself a quiet spot on the train. I allowed myself to acknowledge the sadness and frustration instead of immediately trying to distract myself with something else. Over time I’ve learned to recognise when it’s safe for me to engage with some of the thoughts and feelings that arise, and when I actually need to find a distraction before acknowleding them so as to avoid triggering myself back into the same state. Then I got to my destination where I had planned to do certain things, but instead I rested at the hotel for a bit and then went on a quiet walk.

I can’t always drop everything to do some self-care and self-soothing, and more often than not I have to carry on with what I was doing without much of a break. But it’s always possible for me to re-think what is and isn’t essential in that moment, and to re-adjust things things to the extent that I can in order to make life a bit easier for myself. I still feel selfish doing this, even when those adjustments don’t really affect anyone else.

If I really don’t have the time for anything right away, I still find a few moments at some point to just see how I’m doing, think about what’s happened and whether anything triggered it, see how I feel about it now and leave space for those feelings, see what worked and didn’t work in the moment, and see whether there’s anything I can do for myself that would help now.

It’s a learning curve and I always remind myself that no matter how helpless I feel in the moment, it will always pass and I just have to ride it out as best as I can. But this isn’t always easy and I don’t always believe it.

And going back to the fear I mentioned at the beginning of the post that maybe this is all there is… Where does my unaltered self end and my mental illness begin? I don’t think they’re separate. My self is mentally ill. There’s no “before” where I wasn’t affected by mental illness or a weirdly wired brain in one way or another. There’s no future where I will be free of it. It makes me have a lot of gratitude for every day I get through where I’m stable and content, but deep down it also just terrifies me feeling like there’s this ticking bomb inside me and one day I won’t be able to extend the timer any longer. I’m confident in my coping skills at present and my medication is working really well, but there’s no guarantee that will never change. What if the stability of these last two years has been just a fluke? I know episodes will still happen at some point to some extent, and with medication and the right support network I will be able to get through them… But what if I can’t? That terrifies me.

Little achievements

Having to be late to an interview and keeping my emotions in line with my rational thinking, rather than having a panic attack.

Changing my shirt in a locker room without going into a stall because I don’t get anxious or scared if someone sees my scars anymore.

Letting toxic people go and having the confidence to not let them sneak back into my life.

Making a nice tea after a stressful day rather than grabbing a beer (and another and another…)

Father’s Day

The last time I saw my father for Father’s Day he was at the bar. That was the place to find him. I didn’t like going in there, but I went in to say Happy Father’s Day. I don’t remember his reaction or what I did after.

In a way, I never really felt like I had a father. I never lived with him. Most of the time I spent with him was out of obligation. His presence wasn’t comforting, it ranged from awkward to threatening. I knew how much he had hurt my family.

As a kid, it was black and white for me. I didn’t see the nuances of how some people become bad people, I just knew they were bad. There were many times of wishing he was different, wishing we could be like other families. At one point I hated him.

But there were good times. He taught me how to draw, how to paint, how to play chess, how to identify animal tracks. He’d record home videos where I’d pretend to be a news presenter. He’d tickle me to make me laugh and he’d let me paint on his back with sharpies. He showed me his small collection of fossils and he took me to the little mountains bordering our town to show me the marks previous water currents had left on the rocks. He taught me not to litter the countryside. He taught me to leave bugs alone even if they scare me.

When he was kind, he was kind.

When I found out he had taken his own life, I couldn’t cry. I felt numb for a long time. I was also told not to discuss this with anyone because suicide is something shameful, so no one should know. I was alone with my already existing suicidal thoughts and now my father’s suicide, while the ones who should’ve supported me instead questioned my ability to care about or to love people.

It took me a couple of years to actually start grieving. At this point I was around 16 and I blamed myself for my lack of previous grieving, for my lack of understanding the complexities of his personality and his actions, for not trying to build a relationship with him. I still haven’t entirely forgiven myself for not reaching out when I did feel like reaching out but felt it was the wrong thing to do, or felt it went against what was expected of me. But I was a child and I can’t blame myself for not looking past his abusive behaviour to see the childhood trauma, the alcoholism, the mental illness.

It was only after my own diagnosis that I found out he most likely had bipolar disorder too. I didn’t know him well enough, or long enough, to notice this.

From the moment he died, I was certain that would be how I go as well. It was the moments I was the most suicidal in my 20s that made me feel closer to him, experiencing first-hand the suffering and desperation that pushes a person to that point in a way I couldn’t fully understand in my teens, despite already having suicidal thoughts.

I would never justify any of the bad things he did, or convince myself it was inevitable for him to end up that way because of his upbringing, that he had no choice in doing the things he did. But as many people with mental health issues do, he never had appropriate support or help to move towards more positive and healthier behaviours.

I wish I could go back and talk to him, try to have a relationship with him. The people he hurt forgave him, it’s not up to me to carry that resentment when it wasn’t mine in the first place. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I really think there was a potential for him to move past his bad actions and become a better person.

He left no note for me. I have very few memories with him, and so many of them are negative. I only have two pictures of him from when I was very little. I knew him, but I didn’t know him. At times it felt like I hadn’t lost anyone at all. Can you lose someone who wasn’t there?

I now hold on to the good memories I have, and I let the negative ones remind me of who I don’t want to become. I may have inherited this dysfunctional, self-destructive brain, but I don’t have to become the same person. I hold on to the knowledge that he was ill just as I have been, that just as I was emotionally neglected as a child, he had a probably even worse childhood. It just so happened that life took us down different paths through our illness.

I still have frequent dreams where it turns out he’s been alive all along. But the past is what it is, and I can’t go back and fix it. I don’t know if I can miss someone who wasn’t that present in my life, or if I just miss the ideal of him, or the ideal of a father.

I just wish things could have been better for him. Not just for me to have a father, but for him to have a good life.