I’m trying to deal with a lot of unprocessed grief at the moment and wanted to share a couple of things that I’ve found helpful.
This little video, Why grief is not something you have to get over offers a perspective that really makes sense to me. The counsellor in the video talks about how the therapeutic model for working with grief is shifting, from seeing grief as something that gets less over time, to something that’s always there, but that other aspects of your life can grow around. So, while the grief doesn’t go away, it isn’t so all-consuming. But you can dip back into it at certain times, which brings me to the next point.
@hallygrace posted a long thread on twitter about the concept of re-grieving. Hallygrace makes the point that grief can be a life-long emotional process and you are likely to experience it again and again, especially at significant moments (anniversaries, life milestones etc). Here’s the tough bit, you have to re-process it every time. It’ not a good idea to repress the feelings or shame yourself for having them.
Slowly, self-care has moved from “doing the things you need to do to keep functioning” to “buying loads of luxurious stuff and pampering yourself”. In doing so, it’s stopped being helpful for the people who need it most – having a bubble bath is lovely, but if you feel crushed by your own sadness, it’s not going to make you feel OK again.
I was very interested to find out about exercise bulimia, not least because I believe that I suffered from it for years. It’s reassuring to have a term for this kind of eating disordered experience. When I stopped showing the more conventional symptoms of bulimia, I thought I was better, but then I started engaging in exactly the kind of behaviours described in the article above. I exercised compulsively in my late twenties and early thirties, and my experience of exercise is still hijacked by my eating disorder. I find it very hard to exercise without making it into a sort of penance for eating. It’s a difficult condition to address because we tend to view exercise as being always beneficial.
This devastating article about boarding school trauma helped me to better understand my father. He was sent to a brutal Catholic boarding school and suffered from a lot of the symptoms described on the survivors website. He was a workaholic and terrified of abandonment. He struggled to maintain friendships outside of the immediate family circle and couldn’t give up the cigarettes that eventually killed him. He was sent to boarding school at eleven, which is older than most of the men featured in the article, but what makes my father’s case so horrible is the fact that he was abandoned by his mother at the age of five. I just can’t imagine the trauma of that second abandonment by his father’s family. On reflection, I’m surprised that my father managed to be as functional as he was in life.
Content note: description of self-harming behaviour
For a long time now I’ve felt deeply ashamed about some of the things I did during the time when I was experiencing the worst of my mental health problems. I’ve tried very hard to forget but I still find myself lying awake at night in a cold sweat of shame and horror, replaying it all in my head.
When I look back at that time in my life, I can see that it was characterised by an absolute inability to identify and cope with the strong emotions I was experiencing. I still struggle to identify emotions, but back then, well, the phrase “emotionally illiterate” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Because a lot of my emotional responses were based on past trauma, they were disproportionate to the events that were triggering them in the present. I was sort of aware of this at the time, but I didn’t understand what was happening or why. All I knew was that I was experiencing unbearable emotional pain. I felt like I had a volcano inside me that was always threatening to erupt and, when it did erupt, that I was utterly in its power. I couldn’t seem to control either the emotions I was feeling, or my own behaviour in response to them. The experience of being driven by emotions that you can’t even name is quite terrifying.
Depression snuck up on me and took over my life these last few weeks. I had so many things I wanted to do, blog posts to write, books to read, people to catch up with. Instead, I just about managed to do the essentials at work and stagger home in the evenings to sit on the sofa and watch Star Trek.
This particular bout of depression got me thinking about how to identify that I am depressed and then how to support myself through an attack. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that my own depression is probably transposed anger. Rage always seems close to the surface when I’m depressed, which suggests to me that it’s the underlying emotion in my case. Growing up, I had a lot to be angry about in my life, but middle-class girls are not allowed to express anger in healthy or assertive ways, so like a lot of them, I turned my anger against myself and, inevitably, depression, self-harm, and eating disorders followed. I hate the depression, but maybe it’s easier to cope with than facing up to my anger and the causes of that anger. Right now I’m dealing with the emotional fall-out from a very difficult holiday period which brought up a lot of issues around my family. In fact, I think I’m just starting to really get to grips with what really happened in my family, something that has only started to become possible since I’ve lost the buffer-zone represented by my father.
The second Christmas since my father died and I feel like all my attempts to manage the situation have come to nothing. I find myself plunged into grief again. I realise now that my mistake lay in imagining that I could “manage” the situation in such a way as to avoid experiencing painful emotions because, let’s face it, that’s what I really wanted to achieve, even if I didn’t admit it to myself at the time.
Content note: death, bereavement, grief