Easier Said Than Done: Progress After Trauma

It’s all about keeping busy. Staying on the go. Or at least that’s what I and so many others assume about dealing with traumatic moments. If you can’t think about it, it isn’t real. If it isn’t real it can’t hurt you. Not the traditional moments found on police blotters and in the paper but the insignificant things that make up a day to day. 

I moved to New York from Georgia in the summer of 2020 to attend SUNY New Paltz and that’s when things started to feel difficult. I was lonely in a new place with no connections beyond a family that I had, by design, seen infrequently for most of my young adulthood.

That feeling of isolation coupled with my own little bag of self destructive activities seemed to make some abnormal things seem well, normal. To wake up at 5 a.m. to start drinking so that I would go to my 8 a.m. in a less hostile mood seemed to make sense. It definitely had the desired effect. I was polite, I was studious; I would regularly miss deadlines but in my department and especially during the mid stages of the pandemic that was considered spilt milk.

By all means, I meant to taper down my running around and thirst for oblivion. The odd mature moment was always something that I was capable of. I was slowly cleaning up. Then I met someone. We’re all in college. We go on dating apps during bathroom breaks and try to find something to do with our nights. It’s hardly novel.

I didn’t like her very much at the beginning in all honesty. She was young and from Long Island. Immediate disqualifiers if I was in my right mind but I almost never was. She seemed sincere, kind enough to hold open doors, genuinely interested in things and I liked that. 

The problem was she got to know me. She didn’t like what she saw. 

I didn’t and still don’t blame her because that was the logical move. I was a mess and if she wanted to fulfill her dreams, I can’t say in good faith that I was a good character to have in her story. 

2 a.m. phone calls aren’t something you can budget for if you want to run campaigns. 

I wasn’t sure what to do until I thought back a little. The last time I was in a similar situation I buried myself in work. I’d always been, in spite of an alleged high intellect, a mediocre student. 

It’s by definition easier to do less work than to do more. The grades that result from that approach aren’t inspiring, sure, but they were enough to literally get into college. Enough to flunk out too.

In Georgia, I had gotten caught up with someone a year before I planned to move.

She was the girlfriend of someone I was close to and I knew better and so did she. I think we were both so amazed at finding someone who also felt so alone we didn’t really worry about what that meant or the repercussions. 

She came to her senses before I did or wanted to. I ended up seeing her again at a little hole in the wall in Bushwick after she got out of work. She was different. The way that part of me had seemed to wither away after she left seemed to have been her aftermath too. Rather than mourn me the way I mourned her she seemed to have lost a mental loadstone in the form of me. 

The thing that stuck with me was that I told her how I remembered things. She said, “ it wasn’t the same for me.” She was never a liar that’s probably why I loved her.

I spiraled pretty dramatically after things cratered. I lost an alarming amount of weight and my motivation to leave the house. Anything above the effort level of weed smoking and playing video games seemed barbaric. 

For some reason, I threw myself into coursework. Nothing distracts from an aching heart like Greek tragedies or examining media trends with a fine toothed comb. I felt terrible all the time but it was hard to process emotions with four hours of sleep. It was hard to remember to button my shirt all the way for that matter.

I had a 4.0 GPA in the end, which for me was insane and possibly the fulfilment of wasted potential. I was too busy missing someone to feel proud, even when my acceptance letter for SUNY New Paltz came. The confetti dropped in the email and I honest to god felt nothing. It seemed like it was happening to someone else. 

Back in real time, when my abortive girlfriend decided she could use her time better than being with me, I reacted by signing up for 36 credits over the next two semesters and picking up two more shifts at my job. I wanted to grind myself into dust so that when it got late at night I didn’t have to reckon with whether or not I deserved to be loved, or if I cared. 

I can’t answer if it worked or not because I’m still doing it. 

Alstair Campbell, the former Communications Director for the UK’s Labour Party for over a decade, had a nervous breakdown during his career as a journalist. It occurred while covering a campaign as it went along the country. Trying to outrun depression with drink, he behaved so erratically he ended up dumping a car in a dockyard. He became sober, but still reports waking up and needing to rate his day from one to 10 on a scale of suicidal ideation to pure happiness.

Malcolm Tucker, the character based on Campbell in the BBC’s “The Thick of It” gave a stark reminder of what this method of coping can look like. Preceding his dismissal and arrest he goes on a tirade to his assistant and explains that the job has emptied him out and now tells him what to do. He says that, “He has no real friends.”

I often wonder if that’s the best case scenario. My being absolutely spent by middle age, bereft of any close relationships, hobbies or interests. Just a guy who wakes up, does a job reasonably well, and stays out of trouble whenever possible.

I’ve always secretly craved success or at least respect from people I respect. I know now after some self development and maturity that the way you achieve that is from hard work but it’s not clear to me whether or not I should be enjoying that process. Even so, it’s the closest thing I have to a goal. Being in the club. One of the people that are good at things. 

I can’t tell if I hate that or if it would be a relief. What I do know is that if I could go back in time I’d probably make myself develop better coping mechanisms. Or really any life dictum that didn’t base itself on pop psychology, indie rock lyrics, or the collective works of Richard Linklater. Putting a foot forward one at a time isn’t failing me as a strategy nor is maximizing my success. The issue I’ve found is that I don’t remember what it is exactly I’m running from or what I want to reach. 

I just keep waking up and calling that progress.