How Can Trauma, Depression, and Panic Help you Hold On and Let Go?
by Jenna Kohler
Fall, 2009: Brakes
Brake lights simultaneously lit up as our vehicles scattered slightly, avoiding collision with one another on the crowded three-lane interstate, our cars coming to screeching halts. I watched a small parade of dump trucks off to the right pull over, a driver with long grey hair quickly emerged from the door of his rig. That’s when I noticed the small black car, idling behind them in the shoulder, empty, with the driver’s side door wide open, parked perpendicular to the now heavily-congested roadway.
It took a few dozen seconds until my brain processed what I saw. A crumpled pile of clothing; twisted skin. Contorted and impossible—until my close view confirmed my dreaded suspicion. I inched my vehicle past the pile of lifelessness in line with traffic as I shrieked. Then came an uncontrollable, steady flow of tears while my shaking hands attempted to steer the wheel.
In that moment, and for days thereafter, all I wanted was for time to stop so that I could process what I’d seen. The imagery refused to leave my mind. He was a complete stranger, yet the depth of emotion I felt for him was something I had never before encountered.
This was my first experience with invasive thoughts. They knocked at my conscious, constantly, often preventing me from doing other things or thinking about other things clearly:
- Why would this man do this?
- What family did he leave behind?
- Why there… on the highway?
- What was the dump truck driver experiencing?
- What IS death?
- Why am I internalizing this so much?
- How do others cope with these experiences?
Unbeknownst to me, this experience was a foreshadowing of sorts…
Spring, 2013: Explosion
An urgent email signaled a request for me to join my boss and other colleagues in his office. On his computer was a live news stream from a location a mere few miles from where we safely sat in pressed, formal work attire. Black patent leather flats and grey slacks with a plum blazer. I sat down, unprepared for what was to come. Under caffeinated, but jittery from the adrenaline that had begun to flood my body, an all-too-familiar, yet wildly uncomfortable feeling emerged.
The company I worked for had many employees and affiliates present at the event, which had quickly become a target of an unspeakable terrorist attack. As we sprang into action, sending emergency communication to appropriate personnel, I was clouded not only by the sheer violence of the scenario and the victims involved, but by the thought that I had been at the finish line of the Marathon less than 24 hours prior. At that time, I was smiling brightly, admiring the blue and yellow banners and signage. I was immediately stricken with guilt. My brain cycled through similar memories I had as a teenager, when the dreadful 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred a short car drive from my home in Northern NJ and my community devastatingly lost loved ones. This time, though, I was in a place that didn’t quite feel like home. My family was 4+ hours away. I lived alone. And I really didn’t have many friends nearby at the time.
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The days that followed involved community lock-downs and constant, terrifying news footage. My eyes were glued to my tv, anxiously awaiting confirmation of some sense of safety where there was seemingly none to be found. The violent images were quickly unbearable to continue watching. I was indeed safe and physically unaffected from this horrific attack, yet my brain yielded scarring thoughts and memories that would weigh on me heavily.
This began the gradual onset of a lingering panic. The experience continued to break down an already fragile emotional state in which I was living.
- Why would someone do this to innocent people?
- Where does hate this strong originate from?
- Why was I spared?
- What is death?
- How were we supposed to react to a tragedy of this magnitude?
- What do you say when you have no words?
- Should I be scared? Will this happen again?
Spring, 2014: Choke
I was abruptly awoken by the frantic voice of my father, calling for me from downstairs. It was a cheery early Spring day in April and the birds were chirping as the world began to come alive from slumber. Simultaneously, my dear sweet pup, Maiya, was gasping for air.
After springing up from my bed, and running downstairs, I found my dad with Maiya, who was struggling to breathe. She had been unwell for nearly nine months prior to that, but the veterinarians were unable to officially diagnose her condition or provide therapeutic interventions. We learned that morning that her trachea had collapsed. A slowly narrowing airway had begun inhibiting her normal breathing and eating months before and grew worse. Until that morning. A few nibbles of her morning breakfast would ultimately be her last experience with life.
My dad and I frantically tried to save her—performing CPR, attempting to clear her airway. I watched as her tiny 8 pound body heaved and slowed, turning purple, then a pale white, as she collapsed on the floor in front of me, and then again, finally, in my arms. In a sheer state of panic stronger than anything I had ever felt before, I shook in emotional agony and sat hopelessly unable, incapable of saving her life. She left us much too soon. And, furthermore, she was one of the most important living things I shared with my then deceased boyfriend… and now she was gone too. One of the greatest sources of comfort for me had left me.
With Maiya gone, my will to continue fighting for a happy life left, as did my appetite for anything and everything—food, sleep, work; everything. In addition to the endless stream of daily tears, 25 pounds of body weight seemingly fell off my already slender frame in a matter of weeks. I was depressed. I was anxious. My fragile nervous system finally failed. I couldn’t confront any more stress. I was filled with panic and paranoia. My insides seemed to just stop working. I couldn’t sleep. I had no appetite. I was nauseas. I felt incredibly brittle, as if I could simply shatter into a million pieces at any moment. Sometimes I wished I would shatter because it would make it stop. It would make it ALL stop.
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- Why did she have to leave me this soon, this way?
- Why did she die this way? THIS way? THIS WAY?!
- Is there anything else I could’ve done to avoid this?
- Could I have saved her?
- Why didn’t I save her?
- She could have been saved.
- I didn’t save her.
Fall, 2010: Departure
It was early afternoon at the office and I was sitting at the desk in the corner of my cubicle, monotonously typing out emails and looking forward to 5:00pm. My phone buzzed with an alert. It was a message from my boyfriend’s brother: “Jenna. Please call my mom asap, regarding Jason.” My stomach sank. Somehow my intuition knew that bad news was coming.
Jason and I had met over a decade prior, where we attended high school together. I was immediately enamored of his quiet, gentle demeanor, gentle personality, and cute smile. It wasn’t until six months after high school graduation that he and I began dating, when we both confessed our longtime crushes on one another. From there on out, we talked daily, despite living several hours away from one another.
Jason had joined the military following high school while I opted to go to college. At one point the distance between us was about a five hour drive. This made it quite difficult to see one another, and so our relationship grew via phone and the exchange of printed photos and letters mailed through the post office.
This relationship blossomed into love and, as the years passed, our commitment to one another grew stronger, despite periods of time where we were disconnected, unsure how to continue making things work from afar. But Jason supported me through the many achievements and milestones: graduation from college and graduate school, landing my first job, buying my first new car, and earning two promotions. We, from time to time, talked about marriage, children, where we would live, etc. Jason always expressed his homesickness to me, and the fact that he missed the dog we had gotten together.
Now, in late September, sitting at my desk with a terrifying feeling lingering in the pit of my stomach, I learned that Jason had taken his own life. Not only was I speechless, but I was in a state of mind and being that was almost non-functional. I remember bits and pieces of the days and weeks following the tragedy: speaking at his funeral, kneeling before his casket at his viewing, visiting his burial site, informing my employer that I was unable to accept a big job promotion overseas due to my heavy grief, lying in bed crying until there were no more tears, sleeping hours upon hours to escape reality, laying next to my grandmother while she held me and sobbed alongside me, going into work looking completely disheveled, heaving heavy sobs into my phone during late hours of the evening while I struggled to fall asleep, speaking with a few friends who were willing to listen.
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- Why did he leave?
- What happened?
- Why didn’t he get help? Did he get help?
- Why didn’t someone help him?
- Why didn’t I help him?
- I failed to help him.
- I should’ve known he was struggling.
- How could this happen?
- This should have never happened.
- I miss him. How can I live without him?
- Will I carry this sadness forever?
- How can I carry this sadness forever?
Fall, 2014: Arrival
Four years had passed since Jason left this earth. Nearly half a year had passed since Maiya had left this earth. With them both gone, I was dissolving into a pile of lifelessness myself. I knew how to take care of myself, yet I was unable to do so. I had dreams that it was all fake. Some days I would wake up and think it was all a hoax, beginning to dial Jason’s number, and happily running downstairs to give Maiya a hug good morning. My mind still functioned in some way because I was (barely) able to hold a job, but I felt my nervous system shutting down completely. I was very underweight, experiencing cardiac arrhythmias, was constantly dizzy and extremely fatigued. The physical manifestations of mental illness had completely overcome me and were no longer something I could manage. Emotionally, I had deteriorated. Nothing was enjoyable. I stopped seeing my friends because I didn’t want them to see my current state of being and I also couldn’t handle the interaction without taking breaks to hide in my car or the bathroom. My body shook all of the time. My brain felt the same sensation. It was spinning out of control. I was spinning out of control. I had never met anyone who claimed to feel this way and I was beginning to fear that I was in need of hospitalization- that I was completely losing touch with my mind.
That’s when my first appointment in my entire life with a psychiatrist was booked, and I went, terrified and shaking, at 29 years old.
After an hour evaluation, my doctor deemed me well enough to return home and continue monitoring my feelings, health, and progress. My recovery plan involved several medications to combat my diagnoses of Major Depressive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Panic Disorder. It also involved weekly cognitive behavioral therapy sessions with a skilled clinical social worker.
Winter, 2018: Transparency
Life today is much different. I have found balance and tremendous emotional peace. Of course, the traumas do cross my mind regularly, but now in a manner that is not invasive. I now only cope with panic attacks on very rare occasions and am better able to manage their length and intensity. I am able to maintain a vibrant social life and positive relationships with family. My friendships- new and old- are now stronger than ever.
Ultimately, sharing my story has been a key step in my recovery. As I write this, I realize how far I have come. Transparency has allowed me to stand in my truth and not be ashamed of my experiences with mental illness. I am motivated in my life to help break down the stigmas surrounding mental illness, to make others aware that mental illness comes in variety of forms and manifests differently in different people. Today, I hold on.
For anyone who is reading this and struggling, I hope my story provides you hope. Hold on tight, my friends.
*some names included in this story have been changed to protect privacy*