A look at self care, coping with trauma, and making a stressful field a little less stressful
TW: Mental illness, sexual assault
At sixteen, the human brain is entering the final stages of development. Synaptic pruning begins to die down. Neurogenesis and migration have already plateaued, but executive functioning is solidifying connections and the myelination of neurons continues to increase.
In short, a sixteen-year-old’s brain is almost done developing, but oh boy is it emotional. Everything has salience and it feels like the end of the world.
You remember puberty.
So, at sixteen, when a boy robbed me of my autonomy and justified it by citing my ass as the only redeeming quality of my intellectual inadequacy, it was a little salient. So salient, in fact, that I stopped confidently participating in classes. I stopped participating at all. It exacerbated my pre-existing mental illnesses and sent me spiraling down a rabbit hole that would make Alice prefer her own.
Like 40 million other people in the United States, I struggle with anxiety disorders. As a kid I learned to navigate it, living in between the shallow breaths of panic attacks and limited minutes of sleep. As long as I was busy and distracted, I was good. Not necessarily a healthy coping mechanism, but a coping mechanism nonetheless. For the type of problems I was having, it worked.
Until it didn’t. Because sexual assault wasn’t the type of problem that I previously had. Because, you know, no one should have that problem (despite the fact that one in three women in the U.S. do). So I repressed it, wrapping it in the stress of the event that preceded it – the reason we were working together – shoving it as deep into the recesses of my memory as I could.
I had convinced myself it was my fault. If I had been smarter, or smaller, or stronger or something, it wouldn’t have happened, that’s what my friends told me.
Naturally, unhealthy coping mechanisms turned to worse coping mechanisms — and also stress baking which was beneficial from a utilitarian perspective — until I was in therapy a year later where I stumbled upon the memory I tried so hard to bury. Words caught in my brain like a splinter, and tore the memory out.
At sixteen, I saw the quote circulating around tumblr:
Today my professor told me every single cell in our entire body is destroyed and replaced every seven years.unknown author, plenty of known reposters
How comforting it is to know that one day I will have a body you will have never touched.
This, of course, is mildly misleading. We don’t morph like Mystique, suddenly shedding our cells for a whole slew of new ones. Instead, they turnover gradually, some dying here, some dying there, but as long as we’re alive it won’t ever be every cell in the entire body. We’re stuck with whatever neurons we’ve got, everybody.
Skin cells, though? Get him off of me.
The biological inaccuracy doesn’t negate the weight of what the quote is implying.
And I know, Em, stop being melodramatic.
Except, no. Because when we’re kids, everybody warns us about the strangers out to hurt us. Not the people you know who think they deserve to know more. They don’t warn you about the self-loathing that comes after. There’s not a disclaimer that if it happens to you, you’ll feel like a stranger in your own body. Everybody warns you not to put yourself at risk, but nobody warns you about the risks you start to crave after. The nightmares, the anxiety, the triggers, the flashbacks are all listed as symptoms on pamphlets you only see after you’re able to process it happened. Only in the past decade was post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) even recognized in survivors of sexual assault, up to half of whom are at risk of suffering long-term.
The subtext of that “corny” tumblr post speaks volumes.
So, stop thinking I’m being dramatic and pay attention.
The biological process of programmed cell death, apoptosis, is a natural phenomenon that promotes healthy cell turnover. To assist in apoptotic regulation, cellular components within the cytoplasm are broken down in a tightly regulated process otherwise known as autophagy.
Autophagy also plays a super important role in butterfly metamorphosis. Do you remember being in grade school and raising butterflies from caterpillars? Remember the magic of watching them emerge after weeks of being in a chrysalis? Remember that magic?
Caterpillars literally digest themselves whilst in their goo packet…in fact, they are the goo. Then they reconstruct themselves and emerge as a butterfly. Or a moth if you’re a man I guess (haha, cryptid humor. We have fun here).
But in all seriousness, being a butterfly takes a lot of work. It’s an easy analogy to make – a metamorphosis for when it feels like the end of the world. It’s a beautiful metaphor (call it “metaphorosis”) to mask the pain-staking time and energy it takes to get through it.
But Maya Angelou, like the icon she is, summed it up best.
We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.Maya Angelou
Was she right or was she right? When was the last time you looked at a butterfly you thought was beautiful or aesthetic or whatever and appreciated its auto-digest journey?
When was the last time you looked at yourself and appreciated your auto-digest journey?
III. Apple Pie
At sixteen, I thought twenty-one was going to look a lot different. By now my brain is almost fully developed, an organ shaped by my experiences as much as my genetics. I’m a neuroscientist entering graduate school with a full-time job and thriving with the help of my incredible support system, including two cats who drag me out of bed for catnip. I do yoga regularly to practice mindfulness and bake in my spare time instead of when I’m stressed.
On this particular day, I baked banana bread. Now, I’m sitting outside with my dog at my childhood home. The way the light shines through the trees stirs a memory that regularly plays peekaboo in my hippocampus. It smells like spring and it feels so good to breathe it in and fill my lungs with it. With my eyes closed the memory is dancing in my synapses and suddenly I can see it.
The light, just like that, shining gently through the trees onto the water flowing downstream. It spotlights fish swimming below and highlights the grass in every direction. Birds flit through the air in an intricate dance. It’s quiet until I hear my dog bark excitedly that she retrieved her throw. I am happy.
I exhale and it fades away but the contentedness stays. It’s been five years since I splintered. It’s taken about as long to get to the point that I can write something like this. And getting to this point, where I can take a deep breath and say I made it, was hard.
And every day is a new trial of making it. Some days are harder than others. Some days are just about looking in the mirror and saying I made it. There are still days I can’t get out of bed because everything is too heavy, too loud, too much. And that is okay. I’m learning to make peace with that.
This is just my story, my timeline, my lessons learned. Every person has a different healing process, and that is perfectly and completely okay, too. Caterpillars take 5 to 21 days to do their thing. The great thing about healing is that there’s not a right way to do it. I baked 73 cookies one day and filled up a journal the next. I had to retake a major class after missing too many because I couldn’t get out of bed. It’s taken a lot of therapy, reconciliation, and acceptance to understand what happened to me is not my fault. Taking steps to get better is. My success is. And in the long run, if you are doing things that help you, it’s a step in the right direction.
It’s difficult going through any of this by yourself. It’s sometimes even more difficult to talk about any and all of these things with other people. There’s a stigma for everything. But your experience doesn’t warrant an explanation. Literally everything about this is exhausting, let people help you rest.
It’s not just coping mechanisms that need work. Schools, elementary to university, need to better accommodate their students’ mental health needs. Normalized abusive behavior needs more comprehensively addressed and all together changed. Self-care needs to be a priority not a privilege. The current environment, both socially and academically, boasts of advocating for self-care, mental health and sexual assault resources, which wildly exaggerates the reality. Students are forced to sacrifice their well-being to make deadlines or attend classes without adequate resources to supplement their mental health. The gross mishandling of sexual assault cases bears little explanation.
Individuals who suffer from mental health issues and sexual assault survivors have enough to worry about. Society needs to pick up some of the slack. And that means talking about it. Check on your friends. Look out for your loved ones. Say something because some people can’t. Let’s do better.
If nothing else, imagine how many of your cells have already turned over. Keep drinking water, keep feeding yourself, keep helping them do it. You’re gonna make it.