How do I heal myself while Planet Earth is dying?

This post includes my thoughts about how I will continue to heal from complex trauma as I integrate my understanding of the implications of the current ecological breakdown for us, as humans, in our lifetime, into my life going forwards – how will I continue to heal and grow whilst around me the world as we know it is being destroyed?

I’m putting a trigger warning at the top of this post – I am writing about my struggles to come to terms with what I now deem to be likely, perhaps even inevitable, near-time societal collapse and the possibility of human extinction due to climate change and loss of biodiversity. For some people this will seem a ridiculous and fantasy-based thing to be writing about, akin to the many claims of impending apocalypse we’ve seen throughout human history, but for others who may already be teetering at the brink of this awareness, as I had been for the past six years until it hit me full in the face two months ago, it could be enough to send them over the edge and this would seem unfair given that this is primarily a blog about therapy and healing from complex trauma and dissociation and triggers of this kind are not anticipated. I am also disabling comments on this post as it has taken me a long time to feel brave enough to express my fears and grief openly here, and I know I am vulnerable to getting triggered on this issue.

I want to write about the current environmental breakdown in the context of my personal struggles and how it has triggered my (almost)DID system into a state of panic and despair, and to think about what I will do with my life and how I will continue my healing journey as I integrate this new awareness, but it is impossible to do this in a way that doesn’t engage with the scientific consensus or the research by human geographers, engineers, political theorists, sociologists and so on who have taken the science and started to work out what it means for us, as humans, in our lifetimes and that of our children. I am struggling greatly with how I continue to work on my own healing, how I will be able to feel better, whilst around me the world as we know it is being destroyed. I ended up so terrified on Friday that I text K at 6pm and asked if we could speak – we did a half hour phone session and one of the things she said is that this will become part of our work every week from now. She said whilst it is outside of the bounds of ‘normal’ psychotherapy, it is important for us to make it part of our work, and the way I see it my healing and the well-being of Mother Earth are inherently connected. As a starting point we’ve each ordered a different Joanna Macy book which we will read and swap – Joanna is a Buddhist scholar and activist who writes on ecological awareness and, through the concept of ‘active hope’, has created a framework for personal and social change. I hope her work will be helpful in my own work of grieving what we have lost, will lose, and preparing for the future, whatever it will hold.

I don’t think the fact that we are experiencing dramatic climate change and alarming loss of biodiversity, or that we are killing ourselves and non-human life with pollutants and toxins, is open to dispute anymore (by anyone credible at least). It is clear that we are in the midst of catastrophe – the recent devastation caused by Cyclone Idai, unprecedented wildfires, floods in the US, loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rises, loss of habitats (including human ones), insect populations decreasing by 60%, intense heat waves, children dying of air pollution, plastics found inside people and non-human animals, news reports that a tonne of plastic waste is being dumped in the ocean every minute, the list goes on. The past 22 years have seen the hottest 21 years on record, globally, with the past four being the hottest yet. What scares me most is that all the ‘worst case scenarios’ predicted for 2020 in the 1990s are now coming true – things are at the very worst of the worst they were expected to be, worse even, and still the burning of fossil fuels and industrial agriculture continues. And climate change is non-linear, with tipping points and feedback loops and a huge number of unknowns that could accelerate the warming to the point that the earth is uninhabitable by the end of the century. Whilst some of this is common knowledge, what is less commonly acknowledged is that climate breakdown and ecological collapse threaten our existence; we are in the sixth mass extinction and this isn’t just ‘a pity’ for the species involved – the ecosystems we are dependent upon for food and survival are dying, and with them – so will we. Our current way of life, unbridled neo-liberalism and free market competition, the constant quest for “growth” and “development,” are threatening our existence and yet the powerful elite do not care as long as their riches are protected. As David Attenborough said recently, ‘we are in terrible, terrible trouble’ and ‘time is running out’ – the patriarchal, capitalist separation of humans from nature, of our existence from that of ‘the environment,’ has masked this threat. We talk about ‘saving the environment’ without realising we are the environment and it is ourselves we need to save.

We are nature

Climate change has been on my radar since I was a little girl. From the age of 9 or 10 I would lie awake at night worrying about “the state of the world” and I was really passionate and outspoken about environmental issues, telling my family and anyone who would listen that there was nothing more important to worry about, no point fighting for justice for humans if we had no planet to live on. And lately it’s really hit home to me that climate change and ecological breakdown is not just an environmental issue, it’s a human rights issue, it’s an issue of justice – those who have contributed least to the catastrophe are already paying the highest price, and the most vulnerable in our societies also, those with the least resources and support, will be hit hardest when the crisis accelerates (at the beginning at least). Having been vegetarian since I was 6 or 7, I went vegan in 2013 because I realised that we had no hope of reducing climate change without eliminating the meat and dairy industry. (Of course I care about animal welfare hugely too, in fact I see us as no more important than any other species which is why, probably, I find the likelihood of human extinction easier to contemplate than others do – we are not special and if other species can go extinct, so can we). The winter of 2013/14 was especially stormy and wet and unpredictable – it was frightening and I spent much time with my two best friends at the time talking about climate change, and about the skills we would need to help us in the turbulent times ahead. It’s come up in therapy quite a lot, along with fears and anger and frustration over our consumerist culture and over-consumption and how it is destroying our quality of life and the planet, but for the past few years I’ve been taking time to heal myself and my concerns for Mother Earth have been sidelined (though my work is still on related issues of justice so it’s not that I ever stopped caring).

The UK heatwave in February and first round of youth strikes for climate on February 15th triggered me hugely and before K’s break in March parts were really worried and there was a lot of writing in our parts’ journal about the threat of climate change and what it would mean for us and the creatures dependent on the earth for their survival. Whilst she was away we read a lot and really came to understand just how serious the crisis is, and that it’s not a future problem or a problem for people far away, it is a threat to our way of life and our existence right here, right now. Nina and I went on the youth strike for climate on March 15th and after this, rather than feeling hopeful and inspired, I felt utterly defeated and isolated – it all felt so real, seeing thousands of young people fighting to have a future, and yet the strikes just felt as though they were much too little and much too late. For a long time I’d written off my anxiety over climate change as part of my PTSD, pathological in nature, and something that I needed to deal with by staying present and focusing on my own life and security. That evening I googled ‘anxiety over climate change’ and found absolutely loads of resources to help people dealing with their fears and grief over the breakdown of the environment and the implications it will have for human life. Whilst it was a relief to know I wasn’t alone in my fears, it suddenly made the whole issue even more real. It turns out people are going into therapy to deal with fears and grief over the ecological breakdown, and it is known that climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’ (this is how the military refer to it, stating that it increases stress on water, food, and energy systems, that can then increase the likelihood of conflict  – domestically and internationally)  so whilst the effects of climate change are causing depression and anxiety, and PTSD for people already directly affected by climate disasters, the stress of climate change awareness also intensifies existing mental and emotional health problems. This is part of the issue I’m having, and unsurprisingly there is nothing written on how to support young alters with climate change – the problem is they know more than I would reasonably tell a child, and are completely freaking out about what it will mean for them. And it is hard to tell scared young parts that the worst things have already happened because I am no longer sure that is true – ‘does starving to death hurt more than being abandoned as a baby?’ they want to know, and I do not have the answers to that.

I’ve been confused and lost for many weeks now, reading reports and journal articles and absorbing myself in the science, the academic research that has grown out of this science, what the activist movements say and, whilst there are different interpretations of what we should do based on the scientific knowledge we have, there is consensus that we are in a dire predicament. And I think, basically, I am starting to come to the acceptance that it is probably too late to avert climate catastrophe, and that with food scarcity in the Northern Hemisphere (another two summers like the last one we had here where grain production dropped by around 30-40%, and we are in extreme trouble from a food production perspective) and drought and famine in the Southern  Hemisphere, will come mass migration, wars over resources, and probably societal collapse. The World Bank reported in 2018 that countries needed to prepare for over 100 million internally displaced people, here in the UK due to rising sea levels as well as further afield, due to the effects of climate change, and this is not including millions of international refugees. 

And so the question for me now is how do I move forward with this knowledge in a way that is meaningful but does not involve getting lost in denial (which includes most types of activism and a lot of lifestyle politics – apparently going vegan and not flying are the only two things that really make a difference, the rest of the changes needed are all things that can only be implemented by world leaders, and I’m already committed to these two things). I don’t have the answer to this question but it is something I will talk through with K to help me begin to forge a path forward out of this madness. I don’t want to fall into depression over this because, as my very wise daughter said, if we worry about it all the time now then it may as well be really bad now. It is more important than ever to stay present and enjoy the safety and security and peace we have now, because things are likely to change drastically sooner than we ever expected. I also don’t want to lose sight of the healing I need. In fact it becomes more important than ever that I become as strong and resilient as possible, and am able to build relationships and community, in light of what is ahead. This is something I struggle with – I want to reach out and find new people who are also awake to this, but relational trauma makes this so very hard. I am scared I won’t be accepted in new communities, even though logically I can see that the types of people aware and fighting for climate justice are likely to be kind and open-hearted.

Despite all the unknowns, what is clear is that change is coming – either this will be an end to global capitalism and neo-liberalism and humans will once again seek out deep and meaningful relationships with each other and the natural world of which we are a part, or it will be societal collapse, catastrophe, mass starvation, and possible extinction. Much as I despise capitalism, it is still this system which enables me to work with K and enjoy a good standard of living, so it is hard to envisage life without it. I asked K a while ago what would happen if the economy collapses and we move to a barter-based system – would there be another way of paying her? She said absolutely, that we would work something out, and it was such a relief that she took the question seriously. This was momentarily comforting, as was her saying on Friday that we are both committed to doing this work no matter what, and so, barring something huge and unexpected, we would be working together with the intention of keeping doing this work. So even if there is war over resources, or no power, or not enough food, we would still keep meeting, in fact especially then as it would be so needed whilst bad things were happening all around. None of this alleviates the creeping fears though. If there is societal and economic collapse she won’t need to work to feed herself. If life becomes purely about survival she won’t gather me close to her as she will her own children. And there is nowhere I feel safe like I do with her. It is that never-ending painful state of knowing that your attachment figure is not your mother – that free-floating state which is uncomfortable and stark and a bit-too-real – rearing its ugly head again. Why is there always something that will take her away from me?

At times it feels like I am lost in a horror story, a nightmare of humanity’s own making. It doesn’t feel possible that we have a fight for survival on our hands in our lifetime. The youth climate strike two days ago felt so surreal – how could I be there protesting to get government to take action to save humanity, to enable my daughter to have a future? How is that necessary? The science is clear now so how are we needing to protest this stuff? It is infuriating and absolutely heart-breaking that corporations are allowed to destroy the planet and the ecosystems we depend upon and we are powerless to do anything. How is this happening? How is it being allowed to happen? How has the wealth of the elite few been allowed to threaten the future of the whole planet and all who live upon it? And what was even more scary on Friday were the looks of confusion and bewilderment from passers by, who have no idea of the ecological crisis or what it will mean for them. I’m not sure where I will go with my activism now, if I want to give up hope and move to the Deep Adaptation agenda of Jem Bendell, or if I want to get active with Extinction Rebellion who share a similar outlook but still think we can mitigate the worst impacts, or if I want to fight system change in some other way, but I know that incremental fixes and individual lifestyle changes are utterly insufficient, and I know that part of my work now will be to raise awareness and focus on getting governments and the media to tell the truth about this crisis. It feels utterly abhorrent to me that as a species we are facing a catastrophe of this magnitude, that humanity is under existential threat, and yet the vast majority of people know nothing about it because it is not on the news or talked about in Parliament. People have a right to know, they need to know, so they can choose how best to spend the time we have left and start to give up the things we cannot carry with us as civilization changes, either by choice and action or by us destroying our home to the point where it can no longer sustain life as we know it.

The only thing that really seems clear and certain is that we don’t know what will happen, there are too many variables, too many unknowns – it is bad and it will get far, far worse, but we don’t know exactly when or how. Sitting with uncertainty is hard. It is something humans are bad at generally and for those of us who grew up in abusive and unpredictable environments it can be especially hard. No one knows what is going to happen or what the best thing to do now is. Should we continue to fight or just enjoy the time we have left, making sure we express gratitude for our comfortable existence whilst thousands are already dying and starving due to climate change? Ultimately, the past few weeks have led me to confront my own mortality, which is something we must all do at some point of course, but beyond that it has forced me to confront my own vulnerability, and the fact that I may not live till old age or be able to protect my daughter from what is ahead. We all live with the vague and uncomfortable awareness that we could get injured or ill or have our life cut short in some way, or suffer a loss we find it hard to recover from, but we have no experience as a species of living through a period when our time on this planet may be coming to an end. It is hard to know what to do. If some of the predictions are correct and there will be a societal collapse within a decade then fuck it, fuck debt, I’m going to rinse loads of credit cards and have a lot of fun with Nina (without flying of course). But if things just get progressively worse and the cost of food rises astronomically due to shortages then having debts will add to my stress, and ultimately could stop me being able to afford to feed us both. So it seems wise to be cautious, whilst at the same time knowing it is impossible to prepare for what may come and that there will be no point being angry with myself in the future for making the wrong choices now.

I asked K on Friday if she was frightened and she said she was, but not like I am. She thinks it’s the presence of young parts making things so difficult, although equally I do know other people who are also crying every day and feeling absolutely petrified by what is to come, so I do think it is a very tough reality for anyone to absorb. We talked about how I couldn’t find any resources for people like me, people with DID and complex trauma, and we agreed that it is unusual for people with such complex mental health needs to be so absorbed in and aware of the environmental breakdown, at this point in time at least – this will change as mainstream media and the public come into awareness I’m sure. This is not meant as a criticism or a suggestion that people don’t care, but, like I was for so long, people with these complex issues are often focused just on survival most days and, deservedly, focused on enjoying their own lives on days where things feel okay. So whilst I could find recognition that climate change threat worsened existing psychological issues, there wasn’t a lot about what to do about this or whether it is realistic for people like me to be able to get involved in activism without losing their minds completely as I seem to be doing regularly at the moment.

I do know that however hard things get financially my therapy will be a priority for as long as possible, even though it does prevent me getting out of debt and saving for the future. I know sometimes I get frustrated that it takes so much of my salary, that it means less money for fun stuff,  but ultimately it is what will help me cope with what is ahead and will help me build the relationships I need to support me in the dark times ahead. On Friday there was an older teenage part thinking that killing myself and Nina was really going to be the only option to save us both – I’ve been there before and I don’t want to spiral into that place again, especially when we don’t know what is ahead, not for sure. And I also know I want to continue to heal and let go of some of the guilt that I could find joy and peace and contentment in my heart whilst our beautiful earth is dying. I know I want to make the most of every precious minute with those I love. I know that spending as much time as I can with my friends who don’t live nearby whilst train travel is still possible is hugely important. I know I want to avoid town and supermarkets because I get triggered by consumer culture. And I know I want to spend as much time as I can in places that are still wild and relatively undisturbed, remembering how beautiful the earth is and how deeply connected to it we all are. And I know it is important to me to live in a way that aligns with my values even if they will not, by themselves, enable humanity to avoid what seems to be coming – avoiding plastic, eating locally-sourced food, reducing waste, reusing as much as I can, buying second hand clothes and other things, not allowing Nina to become absorbed in fast fashion, not flying or driving unnecessarily. And it is important to keep in mind that even if these things don’t help the bigger picture, they are part of me living the best life I can, whilst at the same time accepting I have to be part of this capitalist, patriarchal society – I have to ‘make a living,’ I have to let Nina have new things so she is not bullied at school, the pressures of our society that I resent still constrain me and do not allow me the time I wish I had to live in a way that further minimises my impact upon the Earth. I cannot escape the things that are destroying our planet, however much I wish I could.

When I think about what I want to prioritise in the months ahead, it is clear that they are things I would want to be doing to heal anyway – yoga, meditation, wild places, cycling, time with people I am close to, saying no to things I don’t really want to do, living gently and recognising what is important to me. I want to lead by example, like I do with veganism, and show a different way of life not based on mass consumption and exploitation of the earth’s resources and creatures is possible. Maybe we will not move away from global capitalism as a society until it is too late,, but at least I will have shown it is possible to live and not be consumed by material possessions and the constant quest to buy “the next big thing”. I want to live a gentle life – in many ways the type of life that is necessary for someone healing from developmental trauma is the type of life needed to heal Mother Earth also. In some ways this new level of awareness has helped me shift my reactions and occasional resentment around ‘my busy life’ – I want to gift Nina her joy of swimming for as long as possible, I want to see her glowing face when I collect her after training and she talks excitedly about swimming techniques I know nothing about, I want her to feel strong and secure as we face the unknown together. And I want to find a better balance with my work, work which is important but not enough to save us from what is ahead. I want to keep work in perspective, something which is important to do anyway of course, but the need for this feels even more pressing now. I want to get out of debt as soon as I can at the same time as still enjoying life now. I want to take action but not let it consume me or stop me absorbing and grieving the reality, which is that planet earth is dying, and we are running out of time.

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