Working at a child advocacy center, I have learned a lot about trauma. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) isn’t just something that war veterans have, it’s something that can result from many different situations. A lot of the children I work with end up having PTSD as a result of the abuse they have experienced. You might have PTSD from childhood trauma, a car crash, an abusive relationship, the sudden loss of a loved one, or any number of different scenarios. I’ve also learned that what defines “trauma” is different for everyone. Two people may experience the same thing and react completely differently. There are tons of things that factor into trauma.
It seems like trauma and PTSD are popular topics in the media today. I hear it mentioned all the time in the various videos and podcasts I listen to. The reason I want to talk about it today is because I caught myself feeling guilty about not having experienced any serious trauma in my life. Let me explain. I’ve always kind of considered myself a mess. I feel incapacitated by anxiety and neuroticism most of the time. However, I have heard so many stories of people that have gone through so much more than I could even imagine that seem to be coping with life better than I am. It makes me feel ashamed of myself, quite frankly.
It almost feels like I don’t deserve any compassion or sympathy for the issues I am struggling with from myself or anyone else. I often joke with my coworkers that the kids we meet are still higher functioning than I am, even though I’ve had such an easy life so far. I genuinely can’t understand it. Combing through my memories trying to find some kind of event to explain my poor mental health only makes me feel worse as I realize that I’ve not even had many minor forms of trauma in my life.
When I caught myself feeling guilty the other day, I tried to imagine what I would say to myself if I were a good friend. (We should all be our own good friends anyway, right?) I would have told that friend that they don’t need to justify or explain why they feel the ways they feel. It’s their experience and that’s enough to make it valid. This isn’t the trauma Olympics. Not all people who have anxiety or depression or any other mental illness have to have had a traumatic life experience. That’s why the DSM distinguishes between PTSD and other anxiety disorders, for instance. Not every mental illness has to be trigged by a particular life event. Not all traumatic life events have to lead to mental illness.
I often fall into that familiar trap of black and white thinking. Just because other people have it worse, doesn’t mean that my suffering doesn’t matter or that I’m not allowed to experience it. We each have our own shit to deal with. There is no need to compare ourselves to others in any way, let alone when it comes to mental illness. It’s not as if I choose to feel this way. Just like others didn’t choose to experience traumatic events or the aftermath that comes with them. You should never feel ashamed of something that is out of your control.
I would never want anyone to feel ashamed for not being able to “justify” their mental illness. That’s like being ashamed of having cancer because you never smoked and lived a healthy lifestyle. It makes no sense at all. In fact, even someone that does smoke cigarettes, resulting in lung cancer, still deserves compassion and sympathy. Despite all of my psychology education and social work experience, I can’t seem to let go of these nonsensical perspectives when it comes to myself. Even though I know mental illness is just as real and valid as physical illness, I can’t seem to shake the idea that it’s somehow my fault that I manage it so poorly. Even when I really am trying my best.
It’s amazing to me how much easier it is to offer love and understanding to others, while it feels impossible to extend the same kindness to myself. So this post is for all the other people like me out there, beating themselves up over things they can’t control. If you are unable to say it to yourself, I’m here to say it for you. No matter what you’re going through, no matter what you’ve gone through, no matter who you are, or what you’ve done, YOU deserve love. YOU deserve compassion. YOU deserve happiness. YOU are enough. YOU are worthy. Don’t forget it.