How Can I Be My Old Self Again?

Reader’s Question

I am 49 now. About 12 years ago, I went through a traumatic experience: my little brother committed suicide, 6 months later my Mom died from breast cancer, and 2 months after that my Dad committed suicide. I also lost my first Aunt and Uncle during this time — five funerals in 10 months. I was gone from home for almost the entire year. After I got back I was very depressed. I started taking Paxil, and am still on it. I lost touch with my friends and several years later my husband left me, which I am still having trouble dealing with. I was completely alone and isolated for many years, most of which I don’t remember.

Before this all happened I was very happy with my life. I had lots of friends and a great relationship with my husband. I had goals and looked forward to the future. I was young and full of life. I was pretty, with a decent figure, long blonde hair, nice complexion and a good personality. Not to sound arrogant, but I turned more than a few heads in those days.

Soon after the deaths in my family I gained about 40 lbs and my hair turned solid white/silver. I have wrinkles and bags under my eyes, and apparently my personality has turned bad or just nonexistent. The changes seemed to happen practically overnight. It’s as if I woke up one day and looked in the mirror and said, “Whoa! What the H— happened!”.

I finally started going out and socializing about 4 years ago. But I can’t seem to make any friends, male or female. I never get invited to any parties or social events. I even tried having a Christmas party a couple of years ago and not one person showed up. I have been doing online dating for about 3 years now and I get quite a few dates, but almost never a second date.

I try to be upbeat and happy. I never bring up my past. I’ve lost some of the weight and started wearing a little make up now to make me look better. I don’t think people really dislike me, they just don’t like me. They forget I even exist unless I’m right in front of them.

What’s wrong with me? Why am I ignored and passed by all the time? I have become re-acquainted with a few friends I knew from before, and I’ve asked them if they have noticed any changes in my personality and they all (3) say I seem the same to them. But I don’t really know how honest they are being. Even they tend to ignore me now. How can I figure out what I’m doing wrong? How can I be more likeable?

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Thank you for any advice you can provide.

Psychologist’s Reply

Emotional, social and physical trauma does change people — and in almost every way we can imagine. The changes created by trauma are often represented by a clinical diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. In most situations, people are traumatized by a single experience such as a physical assault, automobile accident, being the victim of a criminal act or natural disaster, having a severe medical crisis, etc. In such cases, the individual has no problem remembering how they were before the single traumatic incident, and that memory is often used in the recovery of PTSD.

Over the years, clinicians have recognized that a different form of PTSD is present when the trauma is both intense and continues over a period of time. The diagnosis of Complex PTSD is often used to describe a psychological reaction to prolonged traumatic circumstances. Examples include a lengthy period of childhood or adult emotional or physical abuse, being a prisoner of war, incest in childhood, exposure to combat for many months at a time, etc. In your situation, you’ve experienced one year of intense bereavement followed by perhaps several years of gradual recovery from those events.

The trauma associated with PTSD always creates Emotional Memory (EM) — strong memories of the traumatic situation that contain both the details of the events and the feelings made at the time. Recovery is quicker when the PTSD is created by a rare event or a situation not often encountered in daily life — such as being traumatized by an air flight, roller coaster incident, or tornado. Even in these rare traumas, such as a tornado experience, the EM is frequently triggered by similar events such as thunderstorms, high winds, watching the Weather Channel, news reports, sirens, etc. In Complex PTSD, you have two or more years of trauma that occurred in normal life — producing thousands of Emotional Memories that can be triggered on a daily basis, such as 1) someone mentions their brother/father/mother at work, 2) a suicide is on the news, 3) discussions about family, 4) holidays, 5) anniversaries, etc. I’d recommend reading my article on Emotional Memory on this website for further explanation.

Repeated exposure to trauma over a prolonged period creates significant changes in our personality as the individual attempts to survive the experience. We become physically and emotionally exhausted. Our stress level remains very high, as every day we are bombarded by Emotional Memories of those years and experiences. What can we do?

  • Improve your understanding of how trauma memory works and how Emotional Memory can be managed by reading my article on the subject. Practice the techniques I offer in the article.
  • Recognize that you are probably clinically depressed. You have most likely been prescribed Paxil from a family physician or OB/GYN, and these professionals tend to prescribe at a low dose and keep the same dose for many years. At your level of stress, you may need something stronger than your current dosage of antidepressant.
  • I’d recommend professional therapy or counseling. While your friends are helpful, they are probably not 100% honest or accurate in their assessment of your personality state. An objective, professional opinion would be very helpful.
  • Socially, you’re getting ahead of yourself…putting the cart before the horse as people say in my area. You’re inviting people to Christmas parties and dating online when you haven’t developed and recovered the skills needed to make friends. Return to the basic “Making Friends 101” class and learn how to talk, chat, interact, joke with, and relate to others again. Scan the internet for hints on making friends and developing good social skills.
  • When we have a traumatic history, we often project our history in our face, our behavior, and our mood. When co-workers ask “What’s wrong”, have a humorous “press release” available, about five sentences that don’t mention your trauma history and end with “My day isn’t very exciting today…how about yours?”
  • Remember that you have a trauma background that is beyond the social skills of most friends and co-workers. If we think about it statistically, most people can talk about a speeding ticket, a smaller percentage have a story about a drunk driving arrest, but a very very small percentage can calmly discuss the loss of a child in an automobile accident. The traumatic loss of your parents, the suicide of two family members, etc. is beyond most people. They will actually avoid talking to you in the fear one of those topics will surface in the conversation. It’s sad, but if you have a traumatic death in the family, people will often avoid you in the grocery store.
  • As you describe, improve your physical appearance to rebuilt your confidence. Also improve social skills such as maintaining eye contact in conversations and being able to discuss current events.
  • Once you regain your social skills, as evidenced by more people talking to you and going to lunch or dinner, then move the horse in front of the cart and return to dating and making new friends.

Returning to your old self is a process, not a single behavior. The combination of increasing professional help and practice on your part should return the old you, although you’ll always be subject to Emotional Memories as I describe in my article. Good luck and get to work…

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