“Anniversaries aren’t just for couples, and some aren’t so happy. The anniversary reaction: it’s the annual echo of a trauma or loss such as the death of a beloved, a nightmarish experience like sexual assault, a near-fatal accident, or military combat.
Regardless of what happened, the anniversary reaction is specifically timed (hence the name), emotionally invested, and truly distressing. Moreover, it’s common; some researchers think the anniversary reaction should even be an official symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But despite the patterns being predictable, the reactions themselves are as varied as the individuals experiencing them. Sometimes, the mind remembers, even unconsciously, and a psychological reaction—like a spike in depression or PTSD—can be triggered by the weather, the light, or other seasonal reminders like back to school or the first signs of spring.”
After I sent in my report to Title IX in April and informed my parents of what was going on, I carried on and graduated college. I felt lighter, a huge burden lifted. I had a really great support system that was there for me any time I needed them. After graduating, I took the summer off from school and work, dedicating more time to therapy and healing. I went on vacations and trips to visit friends and family and had a relaxing summer. I was still struggling with my panic and my eating disorder but it actually felt manageable, almost under control. I felt relatively okay.
I moved to Mississippi in the middle of July and started my new job as a graduate assistant with Ole Miss Campus Recreation. It felt like a fresh start, a blank slate. I loved being at work and staying busy. Work was a safe place to me in Arkansas and I had lost that in my past experiences. But I felt like I had a happy, safe place again here in Mississippi. No one knew what I had been through. I loved work and felt so much grace in this new chapter I had begun. I received praise and support even in my first few weeks and realized that I was valued and respected there. And I got so lucky with my amazing roommates and coworkers that became support in this new time.
But my move to Mississippi was also me running away from the things I’ve been through and trying to forget them. Even though I had written about everything I’d been through, I still refused to really talk about any of them with anyone, sometimes even with my therapist. I felt like I could just put it all behind me and move on. That’s all I really wanted. I wanted it to all go away.
I started feeling a lot more like myself and feeling good about myself. I threw away all of my laxatives and diet pills and vowed to never use them again. I started to write more and ended up creating this blog. I felt safe enough here in this new place that I felt safe sharing my story. I felt so empowered and inspired after posting my blog, I went almost two weeks without any eating disorder behaviors. I’M CURED! I’m healed! I’m all good now!! Let’s empower others! I decided not to find a new therapist in Oxford and just go on with my life, pretending nothing happened. I tried to do it all on my own and label myself as healed.
However, I quickly learned that changing my environment does not change my past or what I’ve been through. Avoiding thinking about it does not make it go away. It doesn’t keep a wall up for all of the bad things to stay out. No matter how amazing an environment, the stuff on the inside is still there. I just let it all build during that first month in Oxford, only focusing on the good and the grace, ignoring the pain and grief. The little triggers would happen and I’d cope with them by controlling some of the few things I knew how to – food, exercise, my body, and my weight. I’d throw myself into work. I’d binge watch Gilmore Girls for the 115th time. It was manageable.
But then the messages started coming in of what was being said about me after I posted my blog. There were lies and hurtful things that hit me pretty hard. I had a setback but then tried talking myself back up. I wrote about it. I told people how I was feeling. I decided to just move on and remember the things being said don’t define me. This felt like a big step forward. I focused on my class assignments and on work to keep my mind busy.
My birthday quickly approached the first weekend in September. My birthday was on Labor Day this year so I had the day off of work and school. I spent the weekend feeling kind of off. And when I woke up that Monday morning it just felt like something was very off. I felt spaced out and disconnected. I took a morning walk on the trail with one of my roommates and Beau, which was nice. I went on a trip to Memphis with one of my friends from work and I had fun. However, I still felt very out of it, quiet and panicked. I honestly can’t even remember most of the day now.
When I got home I felt so panicked, sitting alone in my room. I wrote in my journal, “It was such an amazing and fun day. Why am I freaking out right now?” I started crying and spiraling. Why am I feeling like this on my birthday? Where did this come from?? I called Lauren and she gave me words of encouragement and said I was probably just homesick and its a big change to have on my birthday away from home. But I knew what homesick felt like. This was not homesick. It felt like pure fear and panic.
I was re-reading my journal entries from the entire semester and I can see I thrived in my first month in Oxford. I wrote about challenging myself and my goals. I focused on what I was thankful for and wrote down prayers for myself and others every day. But after my birthday I could see myself spiraling and struggling more and more each day in my writing. After my birthday I was so panicked and on edge that I didn’t consume a single calorie of food for six full days. I lived off of coffee, diet coke, and little packages of pickles that said 0 calories on the nutrition label. And then at the end of that week, the second I let myself have food, I felt out of control. Which lead to me eating too much and the guilt drove me to force it back up. And the bingeing and purging proceeded to become the worst its ever been before.
Even though I loved going to work, I started having flashbacks and disassociating at my desk. I felt like I was back in Arkansas, sitting at my desk there, terrified he would come around the corner on his way to the pool. I felt like I was in the HPER, staring motionless at my computer in complete fear like I used to do every day last spring. I sat in Oxford at my new desk and kept looking behind me in case he walked in front of the glass window into the office. I logically knew this would never happen considering he is over six hours away from Oxford, but it felt so real. I felt like I was back there, stuck and trapped and on edge. I would have one on one meetings with my boss and I was so panicked and scared being alone with a male that I don’t remember almost anything about what we talked about. Again, the rational part of my brain knew nothing would happen and my boss is kind and funny and harmless. But that terrified, traumatized side of my brain kept me on high alert in flight, fight, or freeze mode. During one meeting, we talked about my goals for the next few years and I couldn’t see past this moment of terror. Planning for the future felt impossible because I felt so scared and hopeless. I couldn’t see a future because I didn’t want to live like this. It didn’t feel like me anymore.
I started having nightmares and bad dreams that left me feeling even more panicked. So I did not sleep much at all, adding to the decline of my mental health. I started taking 6-8 Benadryl some nights just to knock me out so I didn’t have to sit with all of these thoughts and fears. I wanted so badly to rest. One night, out of desperation and exhaustion, I took 14 Benadryl just trying to shut everything off.
I started skipping all of my classes. Being in higher education/student affairs requires vulnerability with strangers, which felt terrifying to me. And I would sit in my room at home and try to do my assigned readings for class and I found that I couldn’t even read. My brain was on such high alert that I couldn’t focus or process or think about anything else. Many times I found I couldn’t even speak at all. It felt like my brain was completely shut off, protecting me from anything that may make these awful emotions come up. I felt so stuck, I couldn’t see any way out of this fog. It was debilitating.
And my eating disorder was completely out of control again. I was scared to even get in my car to go to class because every time I did I wasted so much money on all of this unhealthy fatty food that I was just going to force back up when I got home. Some days I spent over $100 on fast food and junk and binge foods. And it just added to the guilt, thinking of all of this wasted time, energy, and money. I was a complete mess. I felt disgusting. My journal entries in September are full of math where I was trying to calculate how many calories I had burned and how many calories I needed to burn to get back down to my goal weight. I didn’t write any actual words, just math and calories and weight and numbers. I called a treatment facility that my therapist suggested, but chickened out after the first call. I ignored all the other times they called until they stopped. I couldn’t imagine leaving school and work and having to tell people I was struggling AGAIN. What was I going to do?
And then the Ford and Kavanaugh hearing happened and it was the trigger that sent me over the edge. I started having full on hyperventilating panic attacks and felt so out of control. My professors suggested that I take a medical leave from school since I was so behind and suggested I become more “stable” and then come back. One professor told me that even when I did attend class, he could see me visibly uncomfortable and anxious and that I never talked. He said I can’t be this way within the area of student affairs and higher education.
So the week of October 1st, I officially started my medical leave from school. I had to also say goodbye to my GA position since it coincides with school. I found myself sitting at home alone, scared to get out of bed or leave my house, feeling hopeless, with no job or plan, stuck in a deep fog. How did I get here? Everything was okay and manageable just a little over a month ago. How did it get this bad so quickly??
I applied to a few jobs around Oxford, but also revisited the idea of getting more treatment for all of this. I wanted to be done with it. I was desperate for the idea of change and hope for a fuller life than all of this fear and panic. I realized I can’t do this all on my own. I needed help. One of my friends at work told me about a place where her sister works and she had them call me. We scheduled a phone assessment for October 8th.
It took about two and a half hours to do the assessment with an intake coordinator at the Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, FL. At the end of our call, she suggested that I go into the residential level of care. I was surprised and confused that she would suggest such a high level of care. But I booked my plane ticket, dropped Beau off at my parents, and spent 7 weeks working to get better.
And in a session with my therapist there, I was telling her about this same timeline I just wrote out. How I started spiraling on my birthday. And she said, “Of course you did. Your brain told you that you can’t celebrate and it isn’t safe.”
“Sometimes, the mind remembers, even unconsciously, and a psychological reaction—like a spike in depression or PTSD—can be triggered by the weather, the light, or other seasonal reminders like back to school or the first signs of spring.”
And after hearing her talk about this, it all made sense. The entire spiral. The entire spike of post traumatic stress and depression on my 23rd birthday. It all makes sense.
On my 22nd birthday last year, I celebrated and then started seriously struggling with my mental health. I remember texting Lauren multiple times throughout these months telling her how badly my eating disorder was getting. I made an appointment with the nutritionist on campus that following October, but kept canceling and rescheduling and never went.
And on my 21st birthday, one of my longest, closest friends got me incredibly drunk and then came into my room and got in bed with me. It all makes sense. My body and brain remember this birthday and remind me every year that I wasn’t safe then, so I’m probably not safe now. And these anniversary reactions can last for a few weeks. It. all. makes. sense.
I am so grateful for everything that I learned at the Renfrew Center of Florida. It could fill a novel if I sat down and wrote about everything. So I’ll share the insight and wisdom here on this blog that I’ve gained along the way. And the things that I will continue to gain as I work towards a full life free from post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and an eating disorder. I’m so grateful that I went and did the work because now I feel so much better than “relatively okay.” I feel strong and powerful and optimistic. Because this is an entirely new chapter of this journey for me that I’ve been fighting for a long time.