#joanna kay

The Phantom Pain of Trauma

Photo Credit:  Joshua Fuller

Photo Credit: Joshua Fuller

Let’s talk about trauma.

Not all trauma looks like a war veteran who hits the ground when a car backfires. (Although that is very real and very frightening).

Some trauma looks more like scar tissue. Or like a vine that has wrapped around a tree trunk. It grows with you, shapes you, distorts the way you branch out into the world.

Over time it becomes a part of you. You barely even feel it anymore. There are only subtle traces of it — maybe a nagging ache in an otherwise happy moment, or a dark thought that surfaces from seemingly nowhere.

Not feeling is not the same as healing.

It simply means you’ve accommodated it, made just enough room in you for the two of you to coexist. (Often, trauma pays its rent in drugs, alcohol, or food.) But the result is that you move through life without ever knowing why you act the way you do. Why you never managed to grow out of that propensity to self-sabotage or self-destruct.

Trauma, left untreated, changes who you are and how you look at the world. (After all, trauma by definition is a type of damage to the mind that occurs in response to an event that exceeds one’s ability to cope.) Your primary goal — conscious or not — becomes shielding yourself from experiencing that perceived threat ever again. Even if it means withdrawing from the people around you. Or turning to booze, drugs, food, sex, and whatever else can dampen your overtaxed emotions (or the opposite — can dissolve the fog and let you feel something).

The pain of trauma doesn’t always come from the content of a memory or flashback. Sometimes the pain you’re trying to “escape” (as the doctors say) is the accumulation of bad choices you continuously make to regulate yourself. The pain of loneliness after intimacy became too risky. The pain of self-doubt when your thoughts and feelings seem alien. The pain of chronic stress and anxiety that churns your gut because, if the trauma occurred early enough, you didn’t develop the coping strategies that other people use to manage life’s normal oscillations.

Trauma isn’t always nightmares and intrusive memories. Some trauma is more insidious. It’s not the direct pain of an open wound, but the phantom pain of growth that never occurred. And until you deal with it, your movement will be forever restricted.

I’m learning to move freely through the world.

Joanna Kay is a New York City writer and social media professional in recovery from a 14-year battle with anorexia. She is the author of The Middle Ground, a blog that chronicles the period between completing treatment and reaching full recovery. Having encountered many hurdles accessing treatment, she also writes frequently about insurance coverage and other urgent issues facing eating disorder patients. Joanna is a mental health advocate with the National Eating Disorders Association and writes and speaks widely about the recovery process. Visit her blog.

More Than Weight Has Been Gained

Image Source: Pexels

Image Source: Pexels

The Road to Residential

Two years ago today, at 5 a.m. on a frozen Tuesday morning, my fiancé and I rented a car and drove 100 miles from New York City to Philadelphia, where I would be entering residential treatment for anorexia. I’d been in a day treatment program for a little more than seven weeks by that point, but it had become clear that I needed more help. My weight, already dangerously low, hadn’t budged, so my treatment team determined that my best chance at recovery would be in a 24/7 care facility.

I had no idea how long I would be gone. I didn’t tell anyone what was happening. With the exception of my fiancé, my mother, and my therapist, everyone assumed I was safe and sound in New York City going to work and planning my wedding. Not even my bridal party — who by January were finalizing dresses and accessories — knew that their texts to me were, in fact, being answered by my fiancé, because I was not allowed to keep my cell phone at the treatment center.

I worried that I wouldn’t be discharged in time for my bridal shower and I’d have to find a way to explain my absence. I worried what would happen when I arrived at my first dress fitting with vastly different measurements than the ones that had been ordered for me months earlier, while my weight was plummeting.

Nothing was certain other than the fact that we were on the road and there was no turning back. From the passenger seat, I watched the city skyline recede in the side mirror and tried not to think too much about the radical action I was undertaking.

More Than Weight Has Been Gained

When I wrote about this day last year, I was only just starting to realize how much I had lost to my eating disorder in the eleven years before I walked into treatment. I felt sad thinking about the frightened, confused, empty young woman I was.

Now, in this second year, I’m conscious of how much I’ve gained throughout this recovery process. I’ve gained physical health, emotional wellbeing, and mental strength. I’ve gained friends and community, as well as meaning and purpose. Perhaps most important of all, I’ve gained a more intimate and honest relationship with my husband, which I wouldn’t have been capable of having if I were still preoccupied with my disordered inner life.

For all of this, I feel immensely grateful to the team of people that has helped me along the way. These treatment providers — therapists, nutritionists, psychiatrists, counselors, mentors, and more — are truly heroic. I am alive because of the care I’ve received from them.

In this spirit, I want to share an interview with you, because I think it demonstrates what I’m saying here. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. David Susman, a clinical psychologist who runs a website dedicated to mental health, wellness, and recovery from mental illness and addiction. Dr. Susman regularly posts “Stories of Hope” on his site, and he was kind enough to include me in his latest installment.

Click here to read the Q&A, “Living in the ‘Middle Ground’ of Recovery.”

(Thank you again, David!!)

The Only Way to Heal

Along with the gratitude, I can’t help but re-experience some of what I was thinking and feeling about on this day last year. The thing is, I don’t feel these emotions as sharply as I did then. I’ve spent a solid amount of time in therapy feeling and processing and then feeling again, because that is the only way to heal.

Leaning into these feelings seems to be working. Each day, I feel a little less angry that anorexia is part of my life story. A little less afraid of a future without weight loss as my go-to coping mechanism. A little more convinced that this eating disorder will be a chapter of my life and not my entire story. I’ve begun to make peace with this whole ordeal.

Thank you for joining me on this journey.

Joanna Kay is a New York City writer and social media professional in recovery from a 14-year battle with anorexia. She is the author of The Middle Ground, a blog that chronicles the period between completing treatment and reaching full recovery. Having encountered many hurdles accessing treatment, she also writes frequently about insurance coverage and other urgent issues facing eating disorder patients. Joanna is a mental health advocate with the National Eating Disorders Association and writes and speaks widely about the recovery process. Visit her blog.