In trauma, the mind can become fixated on the negative. It's frozen in an agitated and aroused state, so the brain perpetually looks for the threat, the danger, the risk. It thinks it will die soon. Life becomes harder to enjoy because many positive aspects can be easily drowned out by the darkness. I feel like I've really turned a corner considering I was sexually abused as a child and faced years of emotional abuse.

During one of several panic attacks this week, I tried a few of my coping skills. Reading my blog post from a few weeks back, I started working my way through the list: drinking tea, lying down, having a snack, listening to music, taking a break from work. However, at a certain point, it wasn't quite enough to calm things down, so out of the blue, I tried being grateful. I started running through a different list, of things that made my life better.

Focusing on the positive is hard. You can see evidence of this in this blog's Archives, where my writing focuses on what's going wrong but only highlights when a few nice things happen. It hasn't been all horrible, but focusing only on the negative aspects has skewed perceptions. I feel like I'm always complaining when in fact I also have lots to be grateful for.

A couple weeks back, I had a conversation with an old coworker. They've known for a while about the various challenges I've faced, and they've been very good about hearing me out and empathizing through the years. So after catching up on the latest developments, they surprised me by saying "Ya well, everyone has problems." Normally that wouldn't be cool because that's a minimizing and invalidating thing to say to someone who's sharing their pain, but I found it oddly comforting. Everyone has problems. While I process my emotions out loud, there's a tendency to maximize my problems, so sometimes things can get out of control.

Sometimes creativity and imagination can be more harmful than helpful. We mentally simulate scenarios with likely outcomes in order to prepare for the consequences, but a lot of times, the results are merely in our heads and rather imprecise. Life can be stranger than fiction. Like in Westworld, we're programmed to follow certain narratives. The vastness of the void, the chaos of reality, they're too unbearable for our little minds. We can only process so much information at a time, so creating models, simulations, and forecasts helps us to simplify the problems. That's all to say that I obsess about different situations, what might happen, and all the crazy things I'll have to do in response, when in reality, none of those things might happen at all.

This whole month has been predicated on the possibility that I might not continue receiving medical employment insurance after the 27th. I submitted my claim September 27th, so I received four months of income support. It was shorter than regular EI because it was guaranteed; there was no fact-finding investigation done by the government. Lower risk, lower reward. I wasn't sure if I would qualify for regular EI after my medical EI ran out, so I geared up for the scenario that I would have to find work if I wanted to continue paying my bills.

When people lose work, I've seen anecdotally that there is a bit of fallout that follows. One friend was laid off, but within a month, they had injured their leg and also got into a car collision. Another friend left their job willingly, but had multiple deaths in their family within about two months. I personally hit rock bottom this past August after I took sick leave. My experience of trying to return to work has been similarly difficult. When people lose work, they're usually just focusing on work alone, though there are ripple effects like pressure on their relationships or mental health issues from the stress. I think it's fair to say I've had quite a few ripples that have increased the pressure significantly. I'd like to see the Venn diagram of people who have to simultaneously juggle counselling for childhood trauma, support and be supported by a spouse in school, and having numerous close friends move away within a few months. It's a lonely intersection.

That all being said, I have lots to be grateful for. So far, this post titled "Gratitude" has focused on a lot of negative things. Let's make a list of things I'm happy to have in my life:

  • I married my best friend. I couldn't go through any of this without her.
  • I have amazing friends. Even though I'm mourning the loss of a few close ones to great distances, it's okay because I can still see them and I also have other friends who can fill in the gaps.
  • We own our condo. We didn't have to move when we bought it. It's in a lovely area. It's protected me countless times from this cold world.
  • I'm still employable. I have an education, so while the local economy slowly recovers and people become more optimistic, I still have a chance to find meaningful and rewarding work later.
  • I'm even grateful for the family that I had. I wouldn't be the way I am without them, despite all the negative things. There are some great values that my parents instilled in me. I'm glad I had siblings to grow up around and share life with. There are people who grow up as the only child or with worse siblings.
  • I was approved for regular EI benefits. This was huge news for me this week. That means I get up to eight more months of support, so I don't have to focus on getting a retail job in the immediate future. Instead, I can look for corporate work and retool my skills at the same time. This is a huge relief. Thank God. This removes a lot of stress that I'd been experiencing this month. We still won't be able to pay all of our bills, but Carrie finishes school in three months and at least I won't have to work a minimum wage job while I look for a better paying job.
  • Being Vietnamese. I like our food, and our culture and history is very interesting. People are nice to me because they love phở.
  • My body works pretty well on most counts, except for my tinnitus. (Special note from my friend who's an ENT doc. It's pronounced tĭ-nīˈtəs or "tin it iss". It does not rhyme with arthritis. The suffix "-itis" means inflammation. Sterling Archer is spreading misinformation about the pronunciation of this word.) My teeth were crooked when I was young, but I'm grateful that my parents got me braces. If those are the worst things, I'm super fortunate. My legs work, and so do my neck and my back. I have 20/15 vision. I'm very healthy except that I have a bit more belly fat than I'd like. People are even starting to compliment me on my looks since I started going to the gym three months ago. My face looks thinner, and my arms are starting to look bulkier.
  • I'm a straight cis male. I think being queer would be very hard because it seems like everyone wants to attack you for being different. Being a man affords me much privilege that I take for granted. I'm able to state my opinions that would not be allowed if I were a woman.
  • I have a car. I have a driver's license. It's easier to get to resources that can help me, like seeing friends in Edmonton or picking up fried chicken.
  • I'm young. Almost pushing 30, but I still have my whole life ahead of me. I didn't have a great start, but I'm on track to do well for myself.
  • In light of recent news, it's nice to live in Canada.
  • I have a great family in law. We have a nice weekly meal together and play Mario afterwards. Love it.
  • I have the nice things that make my life easier. I always get a new iPhone every year, I have a colour television, fast home internet (even though TELUS fibre isn't coming anytime soon 😡), and I stocked up on American Apparel t-shirts for my long torso before they shut all their Canadian stores. I have audio equipment that I like, we have a comfy bed with nice sheets, we got a nice IKEA loveseat.
  • I have fun hobbies. 3D printing, audio electronics, computers.
  • I have video games that I like. SNES, N64, Wii, PC.
  • I'm able to access delicious food. We can afford for me to eat out when I feel like it, but we still cook and eat good stuff. I loves me some Jasmine rice, and the farmer's market always has great produce.
  • I have this blog where I can share my problems and receive feedback from friends. It's an interesting type of conversation because it's not often that people both share their experience and that others pay attention. I don't always know why people keep coming back to read more, but it's very validating to know that it's helping some people out there. A lot of personal blogs these days sell out to increase their audience and receive sponsorship or endorsement deals with big brands. Some start podcasts or share makeup tutorials on YouTube in order to bring in money and influence purchasing decisions. Right now, I'm writing for people who have a tough go in life, and I get to control what I say. It may not seem like much to some people, but that's huge for me. It's not easy being honest on the internet where your defensive perimeter needs to be infinitely wide.

Can gratitude be reduced to merely saying "it could all be worse?" Does that make for a fulfilling life? On the flip side, is it satisfying to always focus on what you don't have? I think most people tend to focus on the negative, but as a victim of trauma, I'm physically and chemically predisposed to focusing on the negative. In order to have a fuller perspective, I need to take stock of the good things in my life and make a practice of reminding myself of them.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le