I just woke up from a four-year slumber. I’m a Rip Van Winkle of sorts. I know the exact day, place, and time I stumbled into this unconscious state. It was coming for several months prior, but this event tipped me over into deep depression. Then, the pandemic put the icing on the cake. From my current awakened consciousness, I can honestly say that I’ve been asleep for the last four years and sleepwalking through my life.
On October 2, 2017, I was on my way to work with a quick stop at Starbuck’s to pick up my usual breakfast and coffee to start off the day. It was a very typical Monday. The news on the car radio informed me that there had been a mass shooting the night before in Las Vegas, Nevada. Fifty-eight people were killed and 411 were injured by a shooter who got off 1,000 rounds aimed at concertgoers who lined the Las Vegas Strip for the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival. The shooter was positioned in a hotel room in the Mandalay Bay Hotel. One thousand rounds!
Not quite suddenly, but in that moment my earlier sense of upheaval was solidified. Nothing felt safe; nothing felt reliable; nothing felt consistent. The world as I knew it had changed. I’m not sure why it felt that way in that instant. There certainly had been other senseless mass shootings, but from that point forward, I was in “high alert” mode. I didn’t have the desire to buy a gun and learn to shoot; I didn’t take self-defense classes, though these can be reasonable responses. I remained at high alert for four years. I’m not quite sure what the mechanism is to be able to be at high alert and sleepwalk at the same time, but I did it.
In that time, there were many news events that reinforced my belief that I needed to remain on high alert. And I further reinforced that belief by watching the news for hours every day. With the quarantine and working from home, I had ample opportunity to do so. Also in that time, I lost two brothers-in-law who were greatly loved, lost and gained a business partner at the yoga studio I owned, sold the yoga studio, lost my second business partner, and developed my fledgling psychotherapy practice, all while working three days a week at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center as a mental health therapist in the Eating Disorders Program.
The truth is that it has been difficult to hold it together at times. My primary focus has always been to provide the best therapy I could for my patients and clients. Thank God for my yoga and meditation practices. It took every bit of my energy to be present with my patients and clients, so I was depleted in every other aspect of my life.
I am now so exquisitely conscious of how stress and trauma insidiously affect our mental status, our physical health, and our souls. I was functioning throughout all of this – almost fairly well! That’s the scary part. We function, so we don’t think we meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, or we don’t think we’ve experienced trauma. But what we know about trauma now is that there are different forms of trauma. Acute trauma occurs in response to an event such as a car accident, or a shooting, while chronic or developmental trauma occur over a period and depending on when and for how long it occurs in one’s life, its recovery may be more complicated.
I remember spending a lot of time sitting in my favorite chair in our den when I had free time throughout the day when I was doing primarily telehealth sessions from home. I would watch the news which was always bad and having the thought that I needed to keep up to date on all world events because I would have to figure out how to protect my husband and myself from danger. I wasn’t sure what exactly the danger was or how I would go about protecting us, but I would know it when it presented itself, and I would take action. In reality, there wasn’t much I could do to change things in the world, though I marched, got involved with social justice organizations, wrote letters, and tried to have my voice heard among millions of other voices. It was something. Nonetheless, a deep sense of futility set in and deepened my “sleep.” I stopped caring, stopped cleaning, stopped cooking, stopped most creative outlets. I shut down those parts of my life that I could so I could focus whatever energy I had on my work. Needless to say, it made my husband’s life pretty hard, too. Not only was he dealing with me, but he was also going through his own struggles and grief for the passing of two of his brothers within five months of each other. But he is a resilient, committed, and amazing man. God bless him.
How did I wake up? I’m not completely sure, but I don’t feel like I need to scan the horizon for threats on a daily basis. I’ve let go of things in my life that I can let go of. I am retiring from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in December and feel a lightness in that aspect of my life, while being invigorated with the process of expanding of my psychotherapy/yoga therapy practice. I have agency and autonomy, and that feels fantastic!
I began – very, very slowly – to develop healthier habits. It’s called habit stacking. The idea is to develop consistency with doable routines. We already habit stack and don’t realize it. When I come home from work, I first drop my bag in the same place every day, take out my phone and place it on the counter; then, I empty my lunch bowls into the kitchen sink and rinse them. Same routine every day. My new habits started with five minutes of yoga/meditation in the morning and then five minutes of writing. You may think, “Really? Five minutes!” But it is doable, and the point is not, at first, to get in a fabulous yoga practice, but to actually develop the habit so I will practice routinely. Then, increase my time at this routine in a slow and stepwise fashion. In a week, each of these habits increase to 7 minutes, then to 10 minutes the next week, 12 minutes the next, and 15 minutes the week after that. It’s a good idea to pause there for a while and see if you want to stay with that or increase your time at these activities even further.
As a result of some GI problems and a few trips to a specialist, I changed my eating habits, too. I increased my consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, reduced my consumption of snacks and wine, and try to eat quality proteins. I am not a vegetarian, but we do have meat-free days. I believe that each of these new habits has improved my mental status, physical health, and connection to the Universe or the Divine or God (whatever you call her/him/them).
Oh, and I also began to declutter my house. What a lightness and simplicity this ongoing project has brought to my clarity of mind! I take a closet, or a dresser, or a kitchen cabinet, remove all the articles in it, sort what stays and what goes, then tidy and rearrange their placement back in these storage places. Again, I am not sure why that helps, but it feels great and just adds to my motivation to keep going. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.
How do you know if you are doing too much, over your head, emotionally shutting down, physically exhausted and in pain, or spiritually burned out? Listen to your body. No, really. Listen to it closely. And, then move. The body holds on to all our thoughts, emotions, and memories. We process our depression, anxiety, and trauma in two ways: from the top down; and, from the bottom up. Top-down therapies such as psychotherapy are helpful, but bottom-up therapies complete the recovery because as Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist and trauma specialist, is known to say, “The body keeps the score.” [also, the name of his bestselling book].
Throughout my career, Bessel has been my teacher at conferences and in trainings. My first introduction to him was at Psychiatry Grand Rounds at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center many years ago. He was an inspiring guest speaker who I followed from that point on – like a fan girl. Currently, I am taking a 7-month course with him on Trauma Stress Studies and Interventions along with several other teachers including Stephen Porges, who developed the polyvagal theory and who continues to explore how the autonomic nervous system controls the reactions and behaviors of individuals affected by a wide range of traumatic experiences. What sealed the deal for me in my admiration of Bessel van der Kolk was his research and endorsement of yoga as a complementary intervention in the treatment of trauma, and his inclusion of yoga [via David Emerson] at the Center for Trauma and Embodiment in Boston, Massachusetts where he started out working with veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
My best piece of encouragement and advice is to start very, very small with one or two things you can change in very small ways and then keep doing it – even if it is to make your bed in the morning. As you feel comfortable with each new habit, decide whether you would like to add another – or not. It’s really quite simple, but I assure you that you will feel great with whatever changes you make.
And, of course, if you think you are depressed, anxious, or dealing with trauma, find someone you trust and talk through some of it, and move!