Grieving the Person You Could Have Been
There’s something noble about healing in adulthood. It’s hard for childhood to leave you unscathed, but that’s especially true for people who have experienced significant trauma. Breaking that cycle is one of the most daunting choices a person can make. Tending to the wounds of your inner child is not easy. You can’t just take a “not-sad crash course”, or rationalize your hurt away. And, while things like inspiring TED Talks and yoga can make you feel better for awhile, that’s nowhere near the nitty gritty of what facing your demons actually looks like.
I was 23 when I started on my healing journey. After numerous unsuccessful hospitalizations and years of fruitless therapy sessions, I decided to try getting better for real. A lot of it I expected. The relapses, the sadness, the good days, and bad days. The breaking of generational cycles, positive self talk.
One of the things that I wasn’t expecting was the pure, unadulterated rage that I felt. I was mad at everyone. My parents, the world, that one dude in Home Depot that commented on my tattoos when I was having a bad day. I was all consumed with a constant irritation that I couldn’t explain.
What I didn’t realize was, that anger was part of my cycle of my grief. Not grief of a person, or a relationship, but the grief of realizing what I had lost because of trauma.
One of the biggest shocks I got as I first emerged into adulthood was learning that people actually enjoyed their childhoods. Nostalgia wasn’t something that ever really spoke to me. Sure, I remember things like The Lizzie McGuire movie, and that purple Heinz ketchup, and neglecting my Tamagotchi, but none of that had anything to do with my personal memoires of my childhood.
That kick started my process of grief, without me even realizing it.
First, shock. I’d been in the mental health system for years. I’d been diagnosed with everything, from “impulse control disorder” to bipolar. At the age of 23, however, I was diagnosed with CPTSD (otherwise known as complex post traumatic stress disorder). It genuinely blew my mind figuring out that I had long term abuse. It blew my mind figuring out I was abused at all.
Second, denial. Everything I had lived through felt like a lie. “You’re just being dramatic,” I thought to myself, at least ten times a day. I felt like everything I did, I was lying about. It was easier to think that I was a terrible person, a catalyst for every problem I’d ever had, than to admit I had trauma.
And, underneath it all? The anger. If that’s what I was going through, why didn’t anyone stop it? Why didn’t anyone notice? And, why would people treat me like that if I didn’t deserve it? I wanted to scream every second of every waking day. Nothing made sense, and the world was cruel, and everyone was a bad driver. I was thirsty for vindication.
Still, after realizing what I had lost, the years that I had wasted, I tried bringing back the version of myself I could have been, and the life I could have had. I worked in the same line of work as my mother. I focused too much on finances. I travelled. I had fun. I also ignored my issues, drank myself into oblivion. I only did things just because of the dated expectations I created for myself.
I tried convincing myself that I just needed to try harder, to reset my mindset, to be grateful. I thought that everyone was as miserable as I was, doing the bare minimum, conforming to what people thought you were. So, I was miserable. I thought that my entire life I would be miserable, and that would be fine.
Of course, that didn’t work. I never would be that girl that wasn’t touched by adverse experiences. Catering to that girl’s needs, trying to do and be what other-me would have done, I was denying myself the chance to be happy in my own way. The way that I wanted.
Depression, although a stage of grief, is probably something that you’ve experienced if you have a diagnosis of PTSD, and especially CPTSD. Being unsupported in your formative years can lead you to unstable relationships, attention seeking behavior, self destructive behavior, not being able to accept or give love. It can leave you with a warped self image, suffering from both god-complex-like feelings of invincibility, and a deep rooted self hatred. Many people feel like a burden for existing, for having needs and feelings.
That’s why healing can be so hard. Just like the grieving of a loved one, none of these feelings are mutually exclusive. And in terms of trauma, especially if it’s something that you’ve been dealing with for an extended period of time, it can feel easier to not grieve.
But, here’s the thing. The stages of grief are called stages for a reason. You cannot get to the next stage without sludging through the first, and the second, and the third. There is no reconciliation without anger, no acceptance without denial.
Loss is hard. Even loss that you don’t understand. Even if other people will never feel or see that loss. A loss is a loss.
This type of grieving is different than the grief you might feel after losing a loved one. You’re grieving something, someone, you didn’t even know. You’re grieving a life you will never have.
We tend to live in a world where our feelings are not a good enough reason to do anything. There’s always something more rational, logical, or productive we could be spending our time on. “Life isn’t fair,” is an adage that left its mark on many of my core memories.
It would be easier to say life isn’t fair, to keep filling your time with things and people in an effort to forget that fact. But, catering to your feelings, understanding and mending your internal wounds, is necessary to become the people we are. We will only ever be the people that we are. Without being who we are, we’ll never be who we want to be.
It’s okay to acknowledge the fact that you’ve experienced the loss of yourself. It’s okay to miss a happier version of yourself, even if that version of yourself was only ever hypothetical.
Trauma has many layers. It is not just anxiety, or hypervigilance, or flashbacks. It’s losing yourself, losing the life that you formerly knew, and your parents, friends, lovers, losing the version of you that they knew. It’s hate, and hurt, and loss. Sometimes, it’s toxic patterns and bad habits and running away from your problems.
Just with like any loss, trauma will permanently change you. And, although the person you are now is different, the person you are now is still as worthy of happiness as the person you were before.
If you’ve lost the person you were, the person you could have been, just know it will get better. Healing will come, whether you want it to or not. And when it does come, don’t run from it. Go through the stages. Grieve yourself, your childhood, your body, your interests, your friends.
The journey will not be easy. It will be messy, and long, ongoing for years, if not your entire life. But I hope you take that journey. I hope that you’ll laugh, and cry, and hate yourself, and hate everyone else, and smile, and fall in love with life again.
Regardless of who you end up being, or what you end up doing, only by putting together the fractured pieces of your past can you honor the you that could have been.