Learning to Prioritize Mental Health and Self-Care through a Traumatic Experience
by Andrea Turrentine
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In May 2021, a man grabbed my rear on a bus. It happened while I was on my way to work. The world turned white. All sound stopped. What should have happened was simple. He should have moved his legs so I could pass him by without unwarranted touching. I had taken the bus for years. Most people stand up. I decided to step over him. I simply bent my knee a big giant step as if I was playing Mother May I.
That’s when he grabbed me. I yelled, “Don’t touch me.” I thought about hitting him. That’s what he deserved. However, my emotions came flooding in followed by questions. I questioned if my Japanese was good enough to express what I needed. Would they believe me? Would I go to jail? What happens next? I ran off the bus and arrived at the spot my coworker and I had designated to meet. That’s when the thoughts started. The thought that what happened to me was not a big deal. I went to order a large latte. I walked to work. Then, I threw my latte. I cried and went home. The anger started, rivers of anger.
I remember that trauma every day. I went to work after the incident, remembering my trauma twice a day; I took the bus twice a day to get to and from work. I went to the police. I knew they would not catch the man. So, I just grit my teeth and smiled. Until one day, my employer asked me to not come back to work.
I understood why they asked me not to return after a few days. The experience of not being submerged in rage felt drastically different now that I didn’t have to take the bus. I can only imagine what I must be like to other people I interacted with as I was caught in the dysregulation of my trauma responses.
The anger returned. It was just one more thing in my life that that disgusting jerk took from me. After the conversation with my employer, I told myself, “It’s fine,” then, I told myself, “don’t be angry.” I thought about my kids and how I didn’t even get to say goodbye to the students I was teaching. I thought about how their smiles were stolen from me. So, I told myself to think about the gift of time; caring for myself, doing the things I love. I was given the gift of time.
The stigma surrounding mental health issues is problematic for various reasons. First, it perpetuates the idea that only certain people can have mental health issues. I remember hearing adults speak about a woman who had a “breakdown” with disdain. She was ridiculed for being broken. Consequently, I thought it was wrong of me to acknowledge my damage. This is dangerous. I suppressed my own trauma by telling myself to think about my work, work gave me a purpose, so I hyper focused on something outside of my mental health.
Imagine getting cut deep, let’s say, on the leg. Not a scratch, but a serious laceration. You need medical care, but ignore it. The more you bleed, the weaker you become. The cut on your leg suddenly affects all of you. All your body systems, all your major and minor functions. Eventually and swiftly your body shuts down. Emotional trauma requires just as much care and attention as physical ones.
We rarely can see ourselves accurately, even on our best days. Soon after what I simply call the incident, I lost the ability to see myself at all. My anger and sadness were apparent. I knew I felt bad, I could barely look at my own face. My managers were bombarded with questions from my coworkers expressing worry and concern. Then, of course we needed to think about my kindergarten class.
I was so focused on lying to myself that I was fine. I felt my constant rage was in check. Sure, I lashed out in intervals, but they were minor compared to the anger I felt brewing inside of me at all times. Would you want the Incredible Hulk walking around your school? Sure, you would be fine with Dr. Bruce Banner, he’s in a much healthier mental place at the end of his journey. At the beginning, he was a literal monster.
I was a monster. I looked in the mirror, I could not recognize myself. I think my eyes changed the most. I hated looking at them. I didn’t take care for myself during these days. I stopped enjoying food. I could only sleep for a few hours at a time as rest was often interrupted by nightmares. I felt like I had to keep going because that meant I was strong.
Finding the Right Professionals
Prior to being asked to take leave from work, I attempted to seek help. The first doctor did not speak English; I live in Japan. I moved to Japan in January 2016. I recall being depressed about the move. It was a culture shock at first, but with time I adjusted to my new lifestyle.
There were things I noticed about the doctor that I just did not like. He colored his hair; he should have had salt and pepper, but he was wearing boy band brown. I told myself, I did not like him because of this.
The truth was deeper.
He went to my company website and printed off a picture of me. I found that highly unusual. I did not know if it was a normal procedure for him, but it horrified me. He brought in a woman counselor who staunchly asked if this was the best situation for me, by this I meant receiving counseling via a translator as opposed to a fluent English speaking professional.
I agreed to the counseling session via translation because I figured any help was better than none. The doctor said it was fine and the counselor disagreed. The counselor pointed out that things get lost in translation. She could tell that it would be a challenge for her. I felt like an oddity to this doctor. I wound up crying and stating I wanted to go back to my apartment.
This doctor and I were not a good fit. He diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. I took the medication, but I did not return for a refill. I hated the feeling of being an oddity. I didn’t think the doctor could help me.
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I languished for a few weeks without any medication while waiting for an appointment at another clinic. I documented the changes I noted within myself, keeping note. I could not control any of my emotions. It was a terrible time for me, but also it was a terrible time for my coworkers. I had become unreliable. What was worse was that they all knew something was very wrong, but they had no answers.
This became a turning point for me. I realized the medication did change me. It was scary and eye opening at the same time. This helped give me a positive outlook for my future appointment. The medication helped me to feel more myself.
The Controversy of Medicine
The topic of medicine for mental health, and for physical health, is a known controversy. The vaccine debate rages on. I am from Tennessee. It is not the most progressive state in the Union.
The opinions regarding mental health and mental healthcare are often rooted in shame. It is not uncommon to learn that some families have additional children or relatives that remain “hidden” because said relatives have mental health problems or disabilities. It is also a part of the Bible Belt. There are hundreds of churches that will tell you that all of those mental health issues are curses or banes from the Devil. Some, even chastise you for seeking help outside of the church. Concurrent with these strong opinions, is an opioid epidemic and strong mistrust of the government.
Despite my upbringing and community, on my own I had enough evidence to know, I did not want my depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder to go untreated. I also had enough proof that prescription drugs are a slippery slope.
As a result, I knew that I did not want to take any drugs that were habit forming. I had a lot of skepticism that these drugs could help me.
It is very important that people prescribed medication educate themselves in regards to how the medicines work in their brains. I kept a journal until I was able to keep mental notes. It was the only way I could give the medicines a fair chance. My new doctor noted that the medicines impacted me heavily so we cut the pills in half, reducing my doses. After a few visits, we got the medicine aspect worked out.
Unfortunately, medicine is not enough to treat my diagnoses. So, I was placed on medical leave to allow me to focus on my mental health. I was still experiencing extreme sadness, anger and depression. I felt so heavy. The incident on the bus carried into my daily life. I had to develop coping mechanisms to manage my PTSD.
Breaking Through to the Truth
At the time, management approached me to go on medical leave, I felt I was being fired. Even then, I could not see how much I had changed since the incident. The truth was, I did not think I was worth all of the fuss. Leaving work to take care of my mental health? What a preposterous idea!
On the first day of medical leave, I realized how much anxiety I possessed in the simple process of getting up and getting ready for work. The mounting anxiety I had as I prepared to relive my trauma was gone. It was like swimming in an ocean of relief.
The truth was, I did not need to be at work. I was finally able to admit to myself. This allowed me to focus on healing.
I was freed from the idea that only weak people were impacted by depression. I did not have to be strong. I did not have to just get over it. I did not have to sweep it under the rug. I could surrender to a competent medical professional’s advice. I could take time off of her work. I do have support. I had a counseling session, in addition to seeing my psychiatrist. I don’t have to go at it alone.
Looking Towards the Future
So, now I have three months to focus on my mental health. While I am not at work, I am determined to not allow my depression to eat me alive. So, I have made the following contract with myself.
I will go outside every day and take a walk.
I will do at least thirty minutes of tidying up every day.
I will perform acts of self-care every day, simple acts like washing my face, brushing my teeth, taking regular showers
I will keep my counseling and psychiatric appointments.
I will allow myself to feel my feelings.
I will maintain a regular sleep schedule.
I will eat good whole foods.
There are a lot of things that can contribute to depression. I have worked since I was fourteen. Initially, I did not know what I would do with my free time. Now, I know. I feel like I’ve crawled out of a deep, dark place. I still feel bad sometimes, but I know I’m not where I was. As long as I can keep the upward momentum, I know I can continue to heal.
Remember that deep cut on our leg? The bleeding has stopped. We got stitches, but we can’t run a marathon. We probably can’t even put weight on our legs, yet. Maybe, we can make a trip to the toilet, or to the fridge. We must rest for two reasons. One, we are not able to perform at the level before our injury. Two, we must heal so we can get there. Healing requires rest. We only risk further injury by ignoring our wounds.
Resting was the best thing for me. When I was first placed on leave, I did not think so. I could not think so. As I focused on healing, I realized how valuable the gift of time is. I realized how necessary it was for me to heal and move on.
EDITOR IN CHIEF: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Laura Farrell | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
See Related Recovery Stories: Anxiety, BIPOC Mental Health Recovery Stories, Depression, Mental Health Aloud, Mental Health First Person Essays, Trauma