The layered experiences of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) were heavy for me.
Food was tasteless, laughter seemed pointless, the only thing I could find to wear was existential crisis in every shade imaginable.
Days became distorted. The passing hours were stressful, angry and bewildered. Nights were worse. Anxiety accompanied me closer than my own shadow.
But there was something worse than the obvious depression.
The scariest symptom was the inexplicable retreat of my brain.
Events blurred around me, trapping me in an invisible fog. I struggled to make sense of the conversations around me. My voice froze in my throat, unable to find sentences that would allow me to participate in human connection.
I was trapped in a glass jar, my smile muffled, my shell of a being, unable to communicate with a world that seemed so vibrant and fast-paced and alive.
And my short-term memory fell over completely.
I forgot what people had told me days or even hours before. I couldn’t remember upcoming events or plans. I lost track of what I had agreed to do or say or be.
My thoughts, previously so quick and smooth, became fragmented shards of pain. Bouncing around my own skull and causing distress and confusion at every turn.
Social gatherings became a monumental effort. Naps became a daily necessity.
Losing the ability to think coherently is terrifying.
Does this sound familiar?
Cognitive dissonance is a real thing, brought on by stress and anxiety. And 2020 has abounded in both.
Because, while we’ve collectively found ways to pull through – #2020 memes, ridiculous humour, family kitchen dance videos, extra hugs, or simply baking 500 chocolate cakes – the aftereffects of such a wild ride are still very weighty.
It is perfectly normal to feel like your brain suddenly has 50 personalities. Or none at all. Or a dubious grip on reality. Or a tendency to quack like a tantruming toddler the second you ask it a reasonable question.
It is also normal to become quite disoriented by this.
Self-help is a valid and vital practice, but it’s hard to figure it out when you’re struggling enough as it is to remember how to make a sandwich.
And so, based on bits and pieces of advice I received, plus personal research, trial and error, I can now make this non-professional yet all too experienced suggestion:
Watch a movie.
But not just any movie. Start with a children’s movie, or even a TV show. Something simple, light, and with a definitive and obvious narrative.
Let Rapunzel or Spongebob or even Spider Man delight you with the comforting wonder of traveling a story arc that has a beginning, a middle and an end.
Hear me out.
Following well-known characters and predictable plots is soothing. Allowing your brain to settle into the familiar pattern of a narrative means that it relaxes its panic-button grip on your reality.
My life was chaos, but the story of Cinderella was already known to me and therefore not a burden to absorb.
And then I moved onto books.
Children’s books at first, then adult cartoons and short stories.
After 12 months of not being able to comprehend the print in a book, I decided to try again a proper adult’s book.
I chose “The 100-Year Old Man”, working my way through with slow yet careful tenacity. I followed the story of a single character with determination. I let the narrative lead me forward, without my having to plan or problem solve the situation.
And it worked. I read a whole book! (It took me five weeks to read what normally would have taken me two days – but I did it.)
So here’s my gentle advice for your carbonated brain.
Step one. Put away the social media.
The harried and constantly evolving world of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are the opposite of the strong and steady narrative that your overwhelmed mind so desperately needs to take the reins.
Step two. Put on a simple, light-hearted movie or show.
And pick one that YOU feel comfortable to enjoy. Even better, pick one that might make you smile or hum along or even laugh.
Step three. Pick up a book – any book! Novel or cartoon or Postman Pat.
There are plenty of medically backed reasons for diving into books.Reading can lower blood pressure, build empathy, slow cognitive decline and alleviate stress or even depression.
But sometimes you have to work your way towards the healing you need. Give yourself permission to start with Asterix if you need to.
Story is not only entertaining, but healing.
The narrative thread of a fable and the familiarity of unfolding themes, can literally soothe a tortured mind. At the very least, focusing on someone else’s tale for a while, and hopefully laughing along the way, will be a much-needed burst of lightness.
Your brain may be tired and cranky, traumatized and anxious, or utterly discombobulated.
But it’s also fightingly resilient.
So give it the nudge it needs to begin to settle, and allow yourself to explore healing in new and different ways. Your fears are valid, but so too is your courage.
You’ve got this.
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Emma is an Italian-South African with a New Zealand passport and an international heart.
She spent years training student choirs and co-running a puppeteering business, before working for a humanitarian organisation in New Zealand (7 years) and Papua New Guinea (3 years).
Currently a nomad living between various countries and towns, Emma’s deep joy is in writing, music, cooking up an Italian storm, and taking time to listen to people’s stories.