God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference
The Serenity Prayer is one of the most important things I have ever learned in my life, beyond the mystic law of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, and it has gotten me through SO much. I know many people think that it’s just granola bullshit, but learning to control what you can and let go of the rest is, genuinely, one of the hardest and most important lessons one can ever learn, and you must learn it over and over again.
Everything boils down to control or lack thereof.
When you are getting over a trauma, the very first thing is to look at what you can control about your situation, from the tiniest things to the biggest things. Taking control of what you can is the way to take back your life and to help you feel some sense of self-determination in a situation where you feel helpless and vulnerable.
If your room is a mess and it’s giving you anxiety, clean it.
If something in your environment is reminding you of your trauma, work to minimize your contact, or work with a professional for exposure therapy if it’s something that’s hard to avoid.
If you have too many responsibilities and it’s overwhelming you, work with someone to limit what you have to do. Be honest with yourself about how much you can handle.
Reach out to people who can support you. Don’t be ashamed of needing guidance. People have been in your situation before. If you’re talking to well-trained professionals, there is nothing nothing nothing you can tell them that they haven’t read about before, seen before, talked to someone about before. You aren’t going to scare them, shock them, horrify them. It is their job to help you, so don’t hold back. If they need help taking care of you, they have colleagues, professional networks, ethics committees all dedicated to helping them provide good care. Do not be afraid to overwhelm them; lean on them.
TELL THE PEOPLE WHO NEED TO KNOW. Don’t wait until your performance or relationships suffer or try to go it alone. Unless your bosses or professors are monsters, they would prefer that you tell them why you’re off-kilter so that they can adjust expectations, give you extensions, pull you off projects as necessary. It’s not shameful to be a human and to go through hard times. And at the end of the day, your performance is their problem and it’s their ass on the line if you wipe out and fail, so be kind to them too – make sure that THEY don’t have to answer to their boss because you just, like, ran off to Australia because you didn’t ask for help and now that end of year project is in the toilet.
And I know I say this again and again, but you can control how likely you are to get stuck or not, by whether you stop or keep going. You MUST KEEP GOING. Do not give into the temptation to take weeks and weeks off work and school. Don’t. Unless you physically need to heal, I wouldn’t even take more than two or three days off. Stay connected to the world. Go outside. Do not let depression grab you by the ankle and gnaw your foot off. The best antidote to depression is staying out of bed, resisting the temptation to call out of work or school and staying going. As I mentioned, the day after my sexual assault, I went back to school. So many people were shocked to see me there, but I just had to make myself go: what would I do at home? Cry? Hide in a corner? It was so much better to be in a place where I felt safe, where I could see people I knew and trusted, and remind myself that life goes on.
I have fibryomyalgia and bipolar: I know how tempting it is to just take 400 mental health days and sleep every day away bu,t you are going to get stuck in that bed forever if you do and it’s even WORSE. I did the Emily Dickinson shut-in thing for half a year and it was so horrible: I literally cried when I’d have to go home because I missed the outside world so much. Your bed is a BEAR TRAP if you are depressed. I don’t care if you look and feel like a zombie, drag your zombie butt down to Starbucks and order yourself a venti latte with ten shots and walk around the block until you finish it. Just. keep. going. You must keep going.
And then … you need to let go of the things you can’t control.
You can’t control your overpowering physical and emotional reactions to trauma. There are simply elements of trauma, handled by your sympathetic nervous system, which are totally beyond you. A week after my assault, I was walking to my car, and I had a massive panic attack out of nowhere and broke down sobbing for about five or ten minutes in my car before I could leave the lot. I had been mostly fine throughout the day, but the experience of being back in the dark parking lot, where I’d met the man who assaulted me, just triggered a fight-or-flight response in my nervous system that I was helpless to control.
Don’t be angry with yourself, judge yourself, or deride yourself as being “weak,” “silly,” or “overdramatic” for these responses. Your mind and body are replaying what happened to you and flooding you with stress hormones that cause very powerful physical reactions: sweating, crying, shaking, heavy breathing, the whole gamut. These are literally beyond your control, below conscious thought, and all you can do is be kind to yourself as your body disperses these hormones and works through their effects.
If you were harmed by someone else, you can’t control what happens to them. You can file a police report and go through the legal process but ultimately, there’s no guarantee whatsoever that they will go to jail, get the death penalty, etc. Do not depend on a certain outcome for your healing. Don’t tell yourself that you’ll feel better when they’re in jail, when they’re dead, etc. Don’t use fantasies of them dying or being jailed or whatever to fuel your healing. It will lead to terrible disappointment if you find that they’re happy and alive and nothing ever happens to them. In fact, why focus on them at all? Focus on yourself. Life isn’t fair, terrible things happen to good people, bad people get to live splendid lives, and we must just make our own happiness as we can. You will feel better when you feel better. Don’t let them have that control over your healing.
You can’t control how other people react to your trauma. Some people who you thought would be wonderful and caring … will not be. Some people will just disappear out of your life because they can’t handle it; some people will turn on you (especially if you were hurt by someone they know); some people won’t believe you; some people will want to pretend nothing happened; some people will have other reactions. People who you didn’t think would be supportive will be. Most of this has absolutely nothing to do with you and is purely about their own issues, their personality, and their experiences. Yes, it hurts when people who you thought cared about you, or who you thought were kind and loving turn out not to be so, but you have no control over them. Focus on those who stay and who love you. Let the others go. Their life has diverged from yours. They have their own path to follow.
Ultimately you are entirely in control of your healing process and never let anyone tell you otherwise. Do not victimize yourself by telling yourself that you are incapable of getting better or that this is going to destroy you. You’re shooting yourself in the foot before you’ve even passed “Go.” Tell yourself you’re going to get better. Tell yourself you’re going to go on. Do something productive every day, no matter how small, no matter how insignificant.
A beach is made wave by wave, licking seashells into grains of sand. Nothing is done in a moment. You will heal.