The Power of Life-Changing Anniversaries

Dec 8, 2021

As we enter the Holiday season, it's hard not to notice how many memories come flooding our way. For our mental health, it's important to sit with these memories and understand fully the emotions that they trigger. Our team recently spoke about a memory recall exercise that helps you do just that. Check it out here.

The Holidays are really an anniversary, a yearly event that we hope is filled with peace, joy, and family and friends. There are dates on the calendar that simply mean more, and this is a good time to dig into what these anniversaries mean to us. Many of these annual events are happy. Many are not. But each one affects our mental wellbeing in one way or another.

We collectively experienced a big one this year as our nation marked the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  Every time I see footage from that day, my gut hits the floor and I’m flooded by emotions of anger, sadness, horror, and lost purpose.

Each year, I feel a similar range of emotions in the summer. My injury occurred on the 26th of June, 2006. After drinking too much, I passed out in my truck with my head against my sternum, and I woke up some eighteen hours later in the ICU, paralyzed from the neck down. Over the course of months, I regained some arm function and wrist extension. After time in Atlanta at the Shepherd Center, I re-enrolled at The University of Memphis in June 2007. Because of the calendar working the way it does, the 26th came right on schedule. Leading up to the day, I felt myself becoming more and more withdrawn. I couldn’t concentrate, I had a short fuse, I was quick to cry, and I generally felt completely overwhelmed. I was consumed with thoughts about my pre-injury life and the hopelessness which I saw as my future. I went through what could be deemed as typical stages of grief. I was angry at myself and guilty over what I had done leading up to my injury. I bargained with my ancestors, God, the universe, to whomever I could appeal, to lift the burden that I had placed on myself and my family. Needless to say, my petitions were not granted. When the 26th finally reared its awesome head, I broke down completely. My family attempted to alleviate my pain, but I was emotionally and psychologically unavailable.

Anniversaries can be focused on the death of a loved one, any significant loss or ego blow, or some other annually-remembered event. They can focus on a diagnosis or other new onset disability or condition. Generally speaking, these annual remembrances cause a form of distress and an avoidance of the thoughts, feelings, or sensations associated with the memory. Anniversaries can also often be celebrations, and that is where you can find peace, even on terrible annual memories. This, admittedly, is not an easy place to get to, and celebrating a mournful anniversary can often feel as though you are abandoning the person or condition. However, honoring instead of weeping is not forgetting. It is remembering the strengths and fondness you had for a person, condition, or stage of life. If the anniversary still proves difficult or overwhelming, remember your support system: family, friends, trusted colleagues. Find people that you can confide in and with whom you feel safe sharing. 

The role of your support network deserves some recognition. As wayward and distraught as I was, my family had it arguably just as difficult. My parents, brother, and my then girlfriend sat by largely helpless to assist me out of the darkness in which I found myself. Each of them had just supported me through a year of ups and downs, only to see their son, brother, and boyfriend absolutely fall apart. However, for some unknown reason, they each stood beside me, helping me navigate the darkness. As of today, I have endured 14 additional June 26s, all right along side my family. I mention this support in a humble way because I know how lucky I am. But, I am also attempting to convey the critical role support can have year-round and especially during times of extreme stress, for instance, around anniversaries. Support doesn’t have to come from immediate family or family at all for that matter. Friends, neighbors, or trusted colleagues could all lend emotional support.

Isolation is generally the enemy. If you cannot be around people, even one, try to engage your mind. I don’t mean a television show or movie that you have seen dozens of times. Try a new experience. Branching out a little might help you get away from obsessing on a past that you cannot change, a present that will not last forever, and a future largely out of your control. A final note on supporters: be kind and patient. Chances are that they’re really trying to help you and they might be scared too.

Read more about Overcoming the Perils of Isolation.

I have noticed that with each subsequent anniversary of my injury, I spend less time focusing on what I have lost and more on what I have gained. Now, I’m not saying it's all peace, love, and sunshine every June. I still mourn the fact that I cannot walk or flex my fingers. It saddens me year-round, but especially on my injury anniversary, that I can’t play catch with my nephew or put my niece on my shoulders. Despite these unobtainable fantasies, I remind myself that I have a niece and nephew, my family is well and safe, and I’ve been married to my then girlfriend for going on nine years. Perhaps you are a year into your loss or injury or diagnosis. Maybe it's been ten, or thirty. I wholeheartedly believe in the power of gratitude. However, maybe it’s your first anniversary; perhaps you currently have very little, if any, support, or suppose you have no family. In those cases, I recommend opposite action. For your first anniversary, see if it feels right to have some sort of celebration or remembrance. A celebration of what you still have and hope to have or remembrance of what happened, why, and setting a resolution to improve your life going forward. If you have little support or family, perhaps expand your horizons by finding one or two people to go out with. They do not have to be close friends, and they don’t even have to know about what you’re going through necessarily. Just go have a nice evening. 

Anniversaries can be shared by a nation, or they can be intensely personal. Just because your problem was probably not on the scale of the 9/11 attacks does not make it any less significant. Regardless of your injury or diagnosis, anniversaries of such events can be very powerful, and the brief suggestions offered in this post likely will need personalization. It is possible to persevere through these difficult times. It is easier with support, but you have options of supportive opportunities.

If you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of suicide or harming themselves, please call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Click HERE to learn more about the Wellview services available to you. We can’t wait to work with you!

– Richard DeBord, M.S.

Mental Health Specialist | Email Richard

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