Coping with Traumatic Anniversaries

This weekend marks seven years since I was involved in a particularly traumatic incident. I won’t say what happened, the cause of the trauma is irrelevant to this post, but it was something that went on to change me irrevocably.

Anniversaries of traumatic events are often painful years after any bruises or scars have faded. I must admit to being wildly optimistic and naive for the first few years, expecting it to get exponentially easier each time the date inevitably swings around again. However to my dismay I have learned it doesn’t work like that.

The first year was undoubtedly the worst. I had no point of reference, I had never experienced something so traumatic and had no idea what the anniversary of the date would hold or how I would react, I also had the date burned into my brain so I knew there was no way to trick myself and forget which I thought was an option as so many people told me to “leave the past where it belongs” and not to “be morbid and mark it” because they perceived that as unhealthy and wallowing. So I expected the worst case scenario, quite typical for someone with PTSD, and to be fair I wasn’t far off. I used the day itself to go back through some old diaries and mementoes from that time hoping to find some news clues or perhaps even some closure. This proved to be a mistake, I didn’t find doing this particular activity at all healing until several years later. But that’s me, always trying to run before I can walk. Hell I never expected to develop PTSD in the first place and somehow believed I could just “get over it”, that is wasn’t a “big deal” and move on unaffected.

As the years pass my trauma symptoms diminish but never truly go away. What was initially like an all consuming fire inside me lessened. In the immediate aftermath I was a wreck, I was convinced that my trauma was burned onto my forehead so that everyone could see, just by looking to me, what had happened. Thankfully the flashbacks waned until they were once every couple of months at most, not multiple times day and night. In fact there have been periods of whole months where I have not thought once about that day.

In more recent years I have at times completely forgotten that date, the one I thought would be forever etched in my memory, burned into my grey matter.

Some years I felt I had an obligation to mark the date, some years I have been more than happy to let it slip by with little or no recognition, in fact one year I didn’t remember until several weeks after the date.

This tricked me into believing that all was well and I was putting my past behind me, laying my demons to rest. Unfortunately as I know objectively, but can often forget, trauma doesn’t work like that.

This will be the seventh anniversary and in recent weeks, by total coincidence something was brought up in my group skills class that hit a very painful and well buried nerve that I thought was beyond reach. It sparked the biggest resurgence of PTSD symptoms I have had in years; multiple vivid flashbacks through the day, nightmares, increased hyper-vigilance, trouble getting to and staying asleep and some very physical reactions. For example I unfortunately and accidentally caught a glimpse on television of something that for me is a particularly strong trigger and immediately I was running to the bathroom throwing up bile and shaking like a leaf for the next hour.

This year the anniversary falls on a Sunday so for me this is a real opportunity for me to live by my words and have a bit of #SelfCareSunday. I tend to find either total distraction or total relaxation is the only way to go on the anniversaries and this year I have opted for the latter. My partner, who has stood by my side for the last five anniversaries is well versed in what not to say and how to support me.

So this is how I intend to spend the day:

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We’re planning on having a lazy day, not setting our alarms but letting my SAD light wake us up, staying in bed to read comics before watching films. I won’t want to leave the house which he understands so we will stay in and cook together. I have got a Moogle to make me smile, Dreamtime tea for the evening to keep me calm, my Buddy Box, a heatable Bagpuss , lots of loveliness from Lush and my ongoing game of Final Fantasy XII which Ryan and I have been playing. The day, I hope, will pass without incident.

So there we have my take on surviving traumatic holidays from a personal point of view, what I would recommend, if you are unlucky enough to be in  a similar situation is this:

  1. Let people know – it doesn’t have to be a public blog like this but I always think it’s important that someone close to you knows that there is a day approaching that may be difficult for you, that way if you do need any support it can be planned in advance, that way if you need it, it’s there.
  2. Go with your gut instinct – sometimes it’s totally okay to absolutely ignore the anniversary and sometimes you will feel like doing nothing more than hiding under the duvet with your phone switched off. Reacting to trauma is entirely unique to the individual and we often at a gut level know what we need even if we may struggle to express it verbally due to high levels of distress. If it’s a week day you may feel being at work or university and being distracted is better or you may want to take the day off to reflect or because you’re struggling in which case taking a day of annual leave is a good idea.
  3. Remember: This too shall pass. As I learnt it doesn’t get exponentially easier each year but it changes. Some years are better than others and there is no roadmap to healing from trauma or official “end date” as much as that would be helpful. All I know is that although this year has been bad I have had much better years in the past and I have faith there will be better days to come.
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