Sanctuary for the Abused
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Potholes on the road to recovery
from Douglas Larsen, About.com
One of the more common potholes on the way to emotional healing are the memories brought back by anniversaries of traumatic events. Even if you're not consciously tracking these anniversaries, your subconscious is.
A few basics
After a traumatic event of almost any kind, as you work to recover emotionally, anniversaries of the day of the trauma will take you by surprise. In the first year of healing, a feeling of pain or anxiety will usually strike at the 3 month, 6 month, and one-year anniversaries of the event. For some reason, a 9-month anniversary reaction is relatively rare.
After the first year, you will tend to have one-year anniversaries. Years Three and Four will be less intense, and you will start to feel that maybe the memory of the event is fading. But then, at the 5-year anniversary, you may have a more intense reaction.
Then, generally speaking, things calm down until the 10-year anniversary comes around.
Basically, your subconscious keeps sort of a calendar/diary of bad things that have happened to you. At each year's anniversary, things are usually very similar to how they were when the trauma happened. The sun is in the same place in the sky, the weather is usually similar, your yearly activities are generally similar, the smells and sounds and foods you eat are similar to the time when the trauma occurred. Anniversaries during the Christmas holidays are expecially powerful, because the sights and sounds and smells and food are so unique to that part of the year. All of these inputs will trigger memories of the trauma.
You may not even be aware of the memories that are being triggered by these inputs. Most people just feel unusually sad, unusually anxious, or both. Anyone who has been battling depression or Post-Traumatic Stress will feel like they are sliding backwards as their depression takes on new strength. The feelings will vary according to the feelings you had when the trauma occurred. Some survivors don't feel sadness; they feel extreme anger. Some sexual assault survivors have extra trouble being around men, even men they trust implicitly. However you felt immediately during and after the trauma, your anniversary feeling will feel like the bitter dregs of that.
A personal example
I'll offer a personal example to illustrate this phenomenon. Recently, I went through a very painful anniversary process related to my battle with cancer. It took me completely by surprise, because it was the twentieth anniversary! My fifteenth anniversary had been unremarkable, although my tenth had been rough. But twenty years later? I was amazed.
Another twist was what the anniversary was about. It was not the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. It was the anniversary of my first chemotherapy session. Things are much better nowadays, but twenty years ago, chemotherapy deserved all of the fear and dread that its reputation held. The drugs would hit me like a brick tsunami, making me vomit continually, not letting me breathe, leaving me almost choking to death on my own vomit. It was unbelievably horrible, and I am still sort of surprised I survived. I remember one morning, my wife said we had to get going so we'd be at the hospital on time for the chemo, and I refused to go. "It's too horrible," I said. "I'd rather die." My wife had to drag me out of the house and stuff me into the car.
I did thank her for doing that (although not for awhile), but it wasn't until two years after I finished chemo that I decided that it had been worth it; that it had been better than dying.
Twenty years later
And then, twenty years later, there I was, feeling sad and anxious, worrying about death in general, jumping at unusual noises. I finally asked my wife if there was an anniversary, and she remembered the start of my chemo. As soon as she said it, I knew that was it. It felt exactly right; it was just that after twenty years, it all seemed like a bad dream I had once had.
The big anniversary numbers tend to be the most significant. I will probably have a similar experience on my twenty-fifth anniversary, but with our current understanding of psychology, most professionals figure I won't have a significant anniversary reaction again until my fiftieth. My thirtieth and fortieth anniversaries ought to be fairly mild.
How do you handle them?
The thing about these emotional reactions to anniversaries is, they don't come with a label. You just discover that you're feeling lousy, and if you've been charting your progress at all, you begin to feel pessimistic about your chances of eventual recovery -- "Geez, after this much time and this much therapy, I still feel this cruddy?" you will probably think.
It's hard to believe, but placing a name and label on your feelings will make an enormous difference. You're not regressing, you're not sinking into madness, your meds aren't suddenly losing their punch. You are simply remembering what it was like back then. And now that you have it labeled, you can attack the bad feelings with the logical part of your brain. Some of it will come naturally. As you realize that this is all about a past event, you will quickly note how different things are now. In this case, the bad feelings and painful emotions are pretty weak. They are easy to kill with proper logical attack, as you identify the "hot" feelings and attack them with "cool thoughts" as described in Dr. David Burns' excellent book, Feeling Good, which I wish everybody would buy.
In my case, as soon as I had identified and labeled my lousy feelings, I had a considerable sense of relief. Within a day, I was able to kill off the hardier "memory feelings," and was feeling normal again. This was quite a victory. If I had not identified and labeled my bad feelings, I wouldn't have been able to isolate and attack them, and they would have stayed with me for quite some time, slowly fading away when the external cues finally changed. But that is a long, slow process, and you feel lousy for a long time.
You and I, we've already put in plenty of time feeling lousy, right? So try checking on anniversary dates the next time you feel really in the dumps. It might save you a lot of grief.
P.S.: And if you're not in therapy, go get into therapy!