An Intimate Look at DTD: Down Days
Updated: Feb 12
Hi. You don't know me yet -
Or maybe you do.
Maybe you're reading this here because I've finally decided to channel this energy into one big blog instead of scattered social media posts and disappearing stories.
I'm starting out by telling you - the internet, always full of support and criticism in near-equal measure - something very personal for me. Please be gentle.
My name, for all intents and purposes on this blog, is K.
And I have had a recent DTD blow-out, followed by a down day.
What am I talking about? Read on.
What is DTD?
Developmental Trauma Disorder, or DTD, is sometimes otherwise known as Complex-PTSD (C-PTSD). DTD was only proposed as an addition to the DSM-V in 2009, largely because of the work of Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk (you can read more about his incredible work here) - yet it was not included in the 5th edition, and is thus not an official DSM diagnosis.
In short, DTD is a term used to refer to the Complex Trauma experienced by many survivors of childhood chronic abuse, neglect, and other harsh adversity experienced in the home*.
Those with DTD have a triggered pattern of repeated dysregulation in response to trauma cues (i.e. emotional, physical, psychological dysregulation after triggers), as well as persistently altered self-attributions, expectancies of others, and sense of trust (i.e. negative views of onesself, distrust of caretakers, low or loss of expectancy of others to care for you, loss of trust in social agencies to protect you, and high chances of revictimization).
*Abandonment, betrayal, physical violence, sexual assault, threats to bodily integrity, coercive practices, emotional abuse, witnessing violence and death
This repeated dysregulation after trauma cues coupled with altered views of self and others often results in functional impairment in education, family relationships, friendships, and vocational success.
What is a "down day"?
A "down day," as I'd describe it, is the physical, psychological, and emotional recovery period after an episode of intense dysregulation in response to trauma cues. For those who are familiar with Bipolar Disorder, a "down day" is like a very abbreviated version of a depressive episode - a massive dip in energy, feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and emptiness for no apparent reason, and loss of interest and/or energy for activities that you usually like.
For me, it is a complete depletion of energy, coupled with headaches, lack of appetite, feelings of sadness and hopelessness, immense shame and guilt, and a constant feeling of fatigue.
Something like that.
Now that you know the basic definitions of DTD and a Down Day, I want to share with you about a recent episode of dysregulation.
I need folks to know that I don't share this because it's cute or fun - I don't want to share it for attention or to receive some sort of sympathy from people I've never met - there isn't really any social gain to be had from telling the world that you suffer from a serious disorder.
I began to share some of my experiences years ago for one simple reason -
I have spent years navigating these waters feeling completely and utterly alone.
I had no answers, no community of folks with similar diagnoses, and a circle of supporting friends and family who were relatively perplexed by my bizarre cries for help and extreme responses to seemingly benign irritations.
I don't ever want anyone else to feel so alone as I did for many years - so if me being open and honest about my experiences in a public way can help someone else, even to just feel less isolated, that's worth it for me.
So back to the episode.
I've shared before on social media how I've grown in recent years in my interactions with the kitchen (ah, the dreaded kitchen!), so I'd like to just start by saying that change and progress is possible - it just might not happen all-at-once like you'd hope.
I've been stressed out for the better part of the last 10 years of my adult life, but the pandemic has really highlighted a new flavor of stress in me. Being an extrovert, the isolation caused by quarantine, social distancing, and travel restrictions has made my life a living hell - note, I am still abiding by all of the rules and I plan to keep it that way because my social comfort is worth far less than someone's actual life. Duh. Anyway, it's been very difficult to cope for so long under the circumstances with no outlets and no support system beyond my partner (bless his heart, he tries).
I guess earlier this week that stress just boiled to a head -
I have two rescue cats at home (pictured here), the little winky one is a wonderful, young, energetic holy terror.
He occasionally gets what we affectionately call "the zoomies" late at night, where he begins to run up and down the hall in an extravagant display of top-knotch cat parkour, knocking everything and everyone out of his way as he goes.
He was in such a state that he was chewing cords, bumping his head into everything, running like a cheetah headfirst into whatever was nearest, sliding around corners, etc. I was exhausted from a long and difficult day at work, trying to brush my teeth before bed when he slid straight into me on one of his rounds. It's fine. That's fine. Go about your business, cat.
Less than ten seconds later, he charges me again, but this time leaps toward the sink, grabbing my dental/cosmetics bag and taking it down with him as he fell. Somehow in the middle of it all, he also managed to knock the toothbrush out of my mouth and onto the floor - the entire contents of the bag were all over the bathroom floor and in the small trash can by the door, toothbrush on the ground, toothpaste all over the ground, razor head broken and floss everywhere.
And I just saw red.
There was no time to think, no time to calm myself down, no time to use logic - it just came.
The physical surprise of it all paired with my exhaustion with work AND my exhaustion with the cat and all of his shenanigans just lit up an immediate trauma response in me. Suddenly, I was not dealing with a cat being an adolescent dufus, but my bodily integrity and well-being were directly under attack. Faster than the blink of an eye, I moved from stunned to frenetic rage.
I grabbed the cat by the scruff and put him low to the floor and I just yelled. I yelled like a grown-ass woman yells at another grown-ass adult. Except I was holding a cat. A cat who didn't understand, who had no context for why I was suddenly terrifying, who doesn't have the ability to tell right from wrong.
[Pausing the story for a moment to just let you know that the cat was not physically harmed. Thankfully, I've had cats for most of my life and know how to hold them by their scruff to not harm them - but he was certainly frightened. The entire moment lasted less than 20 seconds.]
He skittered away to safety under the bed when I let him go, and I was immediately filled with immense shame and remorse. It was like suddenly I could see again, I could think logically again, I could see myself from outside of my body, looking down on a momentary monster.
It only took about 3 minutes until I was in full-blown tears. I tried to just "buck up" and pick up the contents of my bag and move on but I was like an unsuspecting deer in the headlights about to be hit by a wave of grief and shame.
By this time my partner had grabbed the cat, gotten him into his sweater (he wears sweater to help with his anxiety), and brought him back out into the hall, where I was crumpled and starting to sob.
I am eternally thankful that cats have short memories and that animals are forgiving.
We do not deserve them.
I held him and apologized to him for frightening him, I pet him to calm him and told him he was alright, told him I loved him and that I was so sorry, all the while I am barely holding myself together.
This moment brought me face to face with the reason I am terrified to have children.
I am terrified that the effects of my disorder will scar them.
I am terrified that I will frighten my children.
I am terrified that in a moment of trauma response, I will lash out and they will never forgive me. And in my mind, I would deserve to never be forgiven.
As I'm sitting there holding my cat, I sob because I want children so badly but I don't want them to become a victim of my own trauma; I sob because so often when I was a child no-one apologized to me when they lashed out; I sob because for years of my childhood, teen-hood, and early adulthood I was put into positions where I could not fight back, where I had no say, where I had no voice and no control and it has now made me into this person who sees red at the tiniest trauma cue - some days it feels like all I know how to do now is fight back. I sob because I am ashamed; I sob because I wonder if I will ever get better; I sob because I've made so much progress in other areas but I can still find myself in this state over a cat being a cat; I sob because I don't want even my cats to have reason to fear me; I sob because I have been told that I am a terrifying person before.
I sob until the tears stop coming out.
The cat has long forgotten what happened, he is now curled up in my lap purring. My partner doesn't know what to say, and all I can hear inside is "you are a monster."
I talked to my partner about my fears. I journaled. I took my usual regimen of sleeping supplements. The adrenaline from that one split second of rage coursed through my body even as I laid down for bed - I didn't fall asleep for at least 3 hours, even though the episode had left me debilitated.
When I woke up the next morning, my head throbbed.
My eyes were puffy, hair a mess, I felt like I had lead in my veins.
I trudged through my morning with a cup of black coffee that repeatedly went cold. Microwave. Rinse. Repeat.
I can't ever finish a damn cup of coffee on days like this.
Work was difficult. All I wanted to do was crumple over and sleep for an eternity, preferably an eternity where my anxious brain was turned completely off. But I had spreadsheets to cover and phone calls to make and new hires to onboard. There's no time in the workplace for a down day.
And by 12:30pm, my body had had enough.
In my regular weekly call with my therapist, which happened to be that same day, I couldn't stop crying. I recounted what had happened the night before with the cat. I was disgusted with myself. I was monstrous. I wasn't fit for civilization. I was a hopeless cause and saw nothing of worth inside of myself.
She gently reminded me of all of the progress I've made in the area of emotional regulation over the years, and told me that it is ok to have a down day. I feel like someone else needs to hear that right now -
It is ok to have a down day.
When we go through these episodes, when we have these intense moments that suck the life out of us, when our bodies immediately kick into fight-or-flight mode with no time to reflect, just react - it is natural and expected that we will require recovery.
Maybe for some people it's a half day.
Maybe for others it's a few days.
Maybe a few hours.
For me, it's usually between 6-18 hours of absolute depressive episode recovery. If I could allow it every time, I would sleep for 13 hours on my down days.
But since more-often-than-not I can't, here's what I can do -
Have some patience and empathy for myself.
Do small things for self-care on a down day - eat what I want. Take a short nap. Put on some comfort clothes. Listen to soothing music while I work. Only give 60% at work instead of 120%.
What I have learned from my therapist when it comes to down days is this -
Your body needs them for recovery, and
The world will be ok without you taking care of it during your recovery.
And what I've implemented for myself, given that I do work full time and don't have a lot of opportunity to just take a personal day every time I have an emotional dysregulation episode, is that I communicate clear boundaries with my coworkers, letting them know where I am at.
I don't have to say "Hey, I have Developmental Trauma Disorder and Complex-PTSD and I need to recover from losing my mind last night so I'm gonna be offline,"
I can just let them know using simple, clear indicators of boundaries -
"Hey, I had a rough night and I'd like to reschedule our meeting, if possible. Are you available tomorrow instead?"
"Hi team, I'll be working but prefer to keep video chats to a minimum while I finish my current projects. I'll be more available for chats tomorrow."
"I am actually not available for a last-minute chat right now, can you put something on my calendar for Friday?"
If we can't take the day off for recovery, we have to advocate for ourselves when and how we can to get the rest that is possible.
After setting some clear boundaries for the remainder of the day with my team, hashing out the last of the strong emotions with my therapist, and deciding that I wanted to do something creative in the evening for myself instead of only focusing on the needs of my partner, I was able to muster up just enough strength to write this story for you.
You, reader, are allowed to take a down day.
You, reader, are allowed to make mistakes.
You, reader, are human and fallible - and that's ok.
And you, reader, might be somewhere on your road to recovery like me.
And if you are, I hope that today you can breathe in a little more empathy for yourself and exhale some of your inner critic.
I hope that if you do snap that you are able to learn from it, make amends, and move forward swiftly and in good grace.
I hope that you can learn to integrate in recovery, that your body, mind, and soul fully heal from all of the trauma that you carry, and that you hold your head high with dignity not in spite of your trauma, but because of your strength and resilience.