The body may keep the score, but it’s the brain that remembers what day it is.
The second half of February always sneaks up on me. And each time, I forget that it’s coming. February is like the little cousin to January, the second-chance at a fresh start of the new year. Excitement carries over as new activities have become habits. So long as we keep pushing, the year really starts in March—in time for the equinox and longer days (in the Northern Hemisphere).
But for me, something in the back of my mind knows to keep the calendar clear. Even when I do, I often feel exhausted and stuck behind everything, like those dreams of running through quicksand and not being able to quit the race. Then it hits like a dump truck: oh, yeah, you definitely remember this. Your brain has not forgotten.
This year was no exception. In fact, it was worse.
It started mid-month. I experienced one of the inevitable outcomes of American healthcare: I couldn’t refill my Adderall prescription. No thanks to the avoidable and deliberately-manufactured national shortage.
The first day without a refill was not bad; by day three, I was fully symptomatic again and wholly unprepared for it. As someone with a recent diagnosis, the memories of how untreated ADHD could impact me hit full force and in some cases were triggering. Finally refilling and resuming medication was a relief. Yet those days reliving my old life without any control over it were taxing.
The days ticked on and I realized how unproductive and listless I was and how powerless I felt about it. My moods swung wider than Miley Cyrus’ wrecking ball. I could be giddy one moment, excited about an upcoming trip and despondent the next. After spending hours researching activities and neighborhoods with glee, swollen tears would well without warning and plop onto my keyboard. In the moments between I was externally disengaged. A million thoughts in my head while a thousand tiny essays poured onto the paper of my mind. Yet I could get nothing out or remember long enough to write it down.
Gaming became a preferred coping mechanism. The most accessible escapism I had. Feelings are bad? Fire up Tetris. Need instant stimulation? Go hunt ghosts. Can’t deal with real-life family history? Create another Sim life. I could deal with feelings later, when there weren’t so many that make me shut down.
The days rolled later and later and finally: the 24th stared me in the face, and I understood what was going on. Three enormous things had all piled up on the calendar. They awaited their turn to show up and explode in my face like a pinata full of used diapers.
Every year around this time I slow down. I say “no” more often. I withdraw in one way or another, become contemplative and moody, and I can never figure out why until it strikes me in the face.
My best friend, Sadie, died February 24, 2014. Her story has been forefront in my mind recently. It’s something I want to tell in a way I’ve never shared before, but I’m not ready yet. She, her story, and her memory deserve the treatment I envision in my mind, but I have to be in a space to create it. When her “angel date” (a term her mother coined) rolls around, I can’t do it then.
Two days later, the 26th, is my mother’s birthday. Most years, this day passes with little to no consideration for her. But after getting my ADHD diagnosed and managed, and committing to a ton of therapy to process blocks rumbling in my gut for years, she has also been present in my thoughts. It’s challenging but I have made leaps and bounds in processing the trauma wrought by my very-much-alive mother.
Last but not least is the first international vacation I’ve had in over 10 years. My departure from LAX races toward me at lighting speed. I got myself a great birthday gift; a week in Ireland. Who wouldn’t love that?
The trip overlaps still-raw wounds of what took place just the year prior. I found out by circumstance I had unwittingly been the other woman for two and a half years with someone. Someone that is very much alive, that I miss and still care for, even in such a painful situation. Things are further complicated by breakthroughs in what I call “mom stuff” therapy, unearthing and exhuming emotions I forgot—or never knew—I could even experience.
It’s not lost on me that the trip is as much self-care as it is distraction. This event rattled me to my core so deeply I have to fling myself to the other side of the planet to be away from it. I’m willing to drop a couple thousand dollars to have an adventure and the fun discomfort of being in an unfamiliar place on purpose. I just hope that no one will look at me sideways if a few tears slip into my Guinness.
Not a single one of these are small-fry events. They are, in mental health speak, “big-T trauma.” We don’t get to choose what is and is not traumatic to us. Dealing with it in real-time when it happened was hard enough. Its aftermath certainly explains my behavior the past few weeks. I understand well now why it all flew by in a blink even if I felt I was slogging through a foggy swamp.
I’ve been experiencing what’s known as the anniversary effect. Our subconscious has a knack for combining the dates of traumatic events with our waking life as they roll around. One way or another our brains convince us that the threat or impact of that specific trauma is around the corner to be re-lived.
A popular portrayal of the anniversary effect shows up often in media (social, visual, or otherwise) as one’s “personal hell.” A personal hell is when a character is banished to purgatory where an experience, event, or theme that is specific to their negative feelings and experiences runs on a loop. They are powerless to this predictable, painful, and upsetting thing. They find themselves overcoming it only to be baited back into it, again and again. For eternity. They know it is always going to happen again, and it will never stop.
In real life, we aren’t always aware of the anniversary effect, but our brains are. And they kick in their protective measures to save us, most often from a memory we are not yet ready to fully process. It knows we are still wounded in some way and works to prevent further harm. Our brains are nifty like that.
What did I do when I realized this was going on? First: I heaved a sigh of relief. It all made sense. Nothing was actually wrong in my waking life, my brain just expected that something would go wrong the way it did before. It decided to pull the plug on all non-essentials in my life. If I wasn’t working, caring for myself, or preparing for my trip, it wasn’t going to happen. And for that, I’m thankful.
The second thing I did was immediately forgive and absolve myself of any obligations I had not met. None were particularly high stakes. Still, I empathize with those on the receiving end of excuse messages like mine: “Gah, so sorry! Dealing with bad brain stuff. Took a few weeks. I’m here now, though, didn’t you have a spreadsheet to share with me?” But those that appreciate, understand, and care for me know that it’s not personal and I will pick up where we left off.
Thirdly, I leaned into observing and feeling my emotions as they arose. It’s a skill that I only learned how to do correctly in the past year. Before, I would let myself get stuck into a negative loop of reinforcing my core beliefs. I thought picking at emotional wounds like a gnarly pimple was the way to heal them: dumping more guilt, pity, or resignation on myself.
But I learned how to let them run their course, after recognizing and acknowledging what the feeling was. As someone with inattentive presentation ADHD, the most psychologically hyperactive moments for me were the most quiet. On the outside I was often calm. But on the inside, I let a swollen river tear through old-growth forests and flood cracked deserts. And I found that when I did, my interior ecology began to heal and regrow, a little bit at a time.
I share this because we put too much pressure on ourselves: to not feel, to disconnect, to detach, to ignore the signals our own bodies show us. When we’re tired, there’s a reason. When we’re happy, there’s a reason. When we’re sad, there’s a reason. Often, those reasons are not far-fetched or even complicated. The experiences we endure have deep, lasting impacts. Learning to trust our own bodies and minds are some of the steps toward feeling better—for a reason.
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