Friday, October 17, 2008

Even with PTSD Some Days You Find a Gift

It is New Year’s Eve 2007 and my thirty-ninth birthday is only one month away and I am such an emotional PTSD wreck that I am about to burst into tears in the middle of a massive New Year’s Eve party at the Breakers Hotel on Palm Beach Island, Florida.

The Breakers on New Year’s Eve is a rocking, international, black tie, high society party. Mom, Dad, and my brother, Bret, and I attend every year. There is a large floor show, fabulous band and five course meal. Dressed in their finest tuxedos and ballgowns everyone is dancing and tooting horns and throwing party hats in the air and there I stand, surrounded by falling balloons and confetti and happy faces fighting back tears that threaten to stream down my cheeks like their own New Year’s Eve display. It’s pathetic. I can’t step out of the PTSD grip for even just this one night.

Somehow, it’s always when I reach the seemingly lowest point, when I see myself and cannot stand what I see, that I find the strength to decide to pull myself out of the hole I’ve sunk into. Tonight is no exception. It’s New Year’s Eve; resolutions are in order. As I wipe a stray tear I resolve: By the time I am forty, I will be finished with all of this.

I have no idea how I am going to satisfy this mandate. Nothing has changed. I am as confused and distraught as ever. But something about making the resolution gives me a clear focus. Now, I have a deadline and a view toward the ultimate freedom. It makes it all seem plausible, even if I don’t yet know how to make it possible.

"Let’s dance!" I pull Bret from the table. "Forget about dessert!"

Bret has been my steady dance partner since I was six and he was three. We shared our first dance in a restaurant at the top of the Polynesian Hotel in Disney World. I vaguely remember holding his hand and showing him how to (sort of) bop to the beat. There was one other couple with us on the floor. In their forties, they had obviously been dancing together for quite some time. They partner danced and moved together in one seamless flow of body and beat. They took a shine to us. They asked my parents if they could invite Bret and me to their table for a drink. My parents allowed us to sit with them a few tables away and Bret and I chatted them up as we sipped Shirley Temples.

Since then, Bret and I have danced all over the world together. On beaches in the Caribbean, in nightclubs in Israel, Italy, France, England, and of course, our hometown, New York City. We slip into a simple symmetry when we get on the floor. Give us a beat; we’ll give you a groove. We dance with each other although we are each on our own. Sometimes we mirror each other’s style; sometimes we do our own thing. The three and a half years that separate us are purely chronological. We look so much alike many people mistake us for twins which, in spirit, we are.

Since we began dancing before Bret was old enough to lead, whenever we do any partner dances – which we do sometimes make up on the fly – I always lead. This has made me very aggressive on the dance floor and Bret pretty laid back. When we got old enough to be equal partners, we tried to get out of the habit of my leading, but it’s been a tough habit to break and since Bret doesn’t mind, I still pretty much control our moves no matter what the style of dance.

On the dance floor tonight all of my pent up anxiety pours forth into a transformative freedom. Something about moving my body to music is magical. It settles my soul with a subtle strength and veracity. My body relaxes and my mind suspends until I become only the feeling of every dance, only that soaring, surging feeling of liberty that courses through me when music demands a partnership with my limbs. Suddenly, everything else ceases to exist and the present, happy, carefree moment seems all that survives in the wake of traumatic experience. When I dance, pain and fear and depression appear wholly within my capability to transcend – as if all I have to do is give myself up to the magic and then embrace and embody this way that I feel.

So now Bret and I are dancing and I am floating in a bubble of this unfamiliar, surging emotion. When I dance I usually enjoy drifting on it while it lasts, but I don’t think twice about its ending. Tonight, however, is different: I am enamored with the magic and I don’t want it to abandon me. I cannot remember when I last felt this excitement to be in my body and in the present moment. And then I do remember: it was last New Year’s Eve, when I was dancing here with Bret.

Tonight, I listen to the music with extra attention. I feel the beat in my bones with added clarity. Something strange is happening. I am waking up from a very long, deep sleep and the phrases of music are luring me back to consciousness. I want to run and leap and shout and laugh and sing. I try to calm down and describe to myself what it is that I’m feeling, to give it a name, to pinpoint exactly what it is so that I might find a way to grasp and hold on to it because whatever it is, I NEED MORE.

Can I choose to feel this way more often? Can the simple act of deciding to do something that will make me feel this sort of crazed freedom unite me with a new self? I am tired of taking things apart, of analyzing and researching and dismembering what went wrong and how it has distorted me. For a change, I’d like to put things together, to feel a definite wholeness rather than a complete separation.

The band is banging out a Black-Eyed Peas song and I burrow into myself to consider this dancing sensation. While my body sways and moves I allow whatever emotion this is to nestle up to me and it is then, when it climbs into my lap and rubs itself against my chest that I recognize exactly what’s brewing in my heart: I feel an exorbitant joy. I’m not used to this feeling. I’m not sure what to do with it.

And just at that moment I realize that this is the answer to how I will fulfill my resolution by the time I am forty. I will free myself from the angst of the past through the pursuit of joy in the present. Not the same maniacal sort of pursuit I’ve been waging up until now, but a sanguine, languid focus that will, if it works, allow me to release yesterday because I have found joy in today. Perhaps it is time to define my identity as who I am not and then allow that to lead me to whom I am. For example, I am not an invalid. I am not a patient. I am not a thirteen year old girl. I am not a victim. I am not only 'a survivor'.

I am a woman on the verge of becoming purely herself. I am a woman taking charge. I am a woman strong enough to set herself free. I am a survivor who has moved on.

It is after midnight. 2007 has begun. If I am to replace all of this bogged down fear and depression with the thousand unbound effects of joy, I will immediately need to find a way to bring more of this joy into my life. I will need to dance. A lot.


Anonymous said...

It's two years after this post, but I just started reading the blog. I have complex PTSD and love reading your writing.
I related so well with freedom through music. That is my major release!
Thanks for sharing

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Anonymous- Hey! Glad you like the post. And isn't dance the most wonderful way of bridging the gap between past and present, body and mind, sadness and joy?

If you continue reading you'll see that I continued dancing (sometimes up to 7 nights a week!) throughout my recovery. And that I still do dance 4 nights a week now.

Would you be interested in sharing your experience (ANONYMOUSLY) with the blog's readers?

I'd love to hear how you find freedom from music. The 'Survivors Speak' series (see the label on the side) is written by survivors. I'd love to include your perspective. If you're interested email me at