Wednesday, October 22, 2008

PTSD & The Power of Joy

For many years I lived in New York City, that thriving metropolis that teems with life and crowds. And although I was often out and about in what the Italians call, the corsa della gente, I felt so alone, so isolated in my trauma, my PTSD, my continuing pain, depression and angst. I saw all of these other people leading happy, productive lives and that only made me feel even more alone and cut off. You know what that feeling's like. It's pretty grim.

It's hard for those who love us to watch our struggle. We're in it, so we don't always look outward. But they're out and always able to see into the shifting plains of the desert in which we wander. Once, in an effort to cheer me up, my brother, Bret, took me to a concert at Madison Square Garden. First let me explain: Bret and I are still stuck in the 80s when it comes to our musical nirvana. Oh, we appreciate the rock of today, but it's Depeche Mode, INXS, Ministry, New Order, Thompson Twins, Erasure and that whole set of imported musicians that still gets us at the heart.

So, when Depeche Mode came to NYC on October 28, 1998, Bret got us great seats and we went down to the Garden for the show. At the time, my PTSD symptoms were so bad that my body was weak, unreliable and always in pain. I could not dance. I could not sit still for very long in one position. I could not stand for excessive lengths of time. The very idea of being at a concert almost overwhelmed me with fatigue. But Bret was so excited to take me, and I love the band so much that I went determined to enjoy what I could.

When we arrived at the Garden the opening act was just about to begin. The place was packed, every one of the 20,000 seats were filled. We filed through the crowd and found our seats in the 7th row. The band began and: within a few songs my body was aching with the volume of the music and the tension of standing in the crowd. I took a bathroom break and as I wandered through the long hallways, jostled by other people scurrying back and forth, I wondered how I would make it through the concert. My body was already in so much pain I was on the verge of tears.

But then I resumed my seat and Depeche Mode took the stage and -- I forgot about my body entirely. I was swept up in the music and my passion for it. I began to sing along with every song. I stood up. If I couldn't really dance, I swayed to the beat. Infused with the joy of the sound my body relaxed. The pain became a vague nuisance but not the focus of the moment. The past became an unfortunate memory, but not the headline of the day. This joy, of being with my brother (one of my favorite people in the world), of seeing one of my favorite bands, of being surrounded by this mass of humanity all of whom was feeling the same excitement I did, was evolutionary. It reconnected me to a pleasurable side of myself, and also, to the world at large. For an evening, it bridged the gap between me and the rest of the universe.

It's so easy to forget that a whole world continues outside of our PTSD world. And so important to make sure that we do remember that it does, every now and then. It's so easy to get lost in our own isolation. And so necessary to take the action that bridges the gap between us and the corsa della gente. Identifying something that makes us feel joy can do that. Pursuing it as much as we pursue some end to this constant PTSD suffering is a valuable, necessary, imperative ACT. If we hope to develop a life that looks forward instead of constantly being dragged down by the past we must commit to doing something ourselves. For so long I looked to doctors and therapists and said, Heal me. And some were helpful, and some were not. No matter what they did, they did not cure what ailed me. Therapies alleviated the intensity of my PTSD problems, but did not eradicate it. And now I know why: Because healing begins within ourselves, within the real, tangible desire to feel something other than what we do. It's hard in the midst of PTSD defeat to imagine that things could be otherwise. The experience of joy reminded me that it could.

For weeks after the concert I thought about that night again and again. I thought of the joy I felt and how close it seemed. I was surprised that in the emotional coma in which I lived any experience could actually engender such a strong and pure response in me. I thought of how terrific the band was and how much fun it was to share that night with Bret. I thought of how I seemed to shed my PTSD self and participate like every other normal concert goer. I thought of how I wanted to be that person again.

I kept the ticket stub on my desk so that on all of the future bad days I could look at it and remember that, even if only for one evening, I transcended all of the bad and found something really, really good. The ticket stub was my talisman of hope. It gave me the idea that there might be a very small light at the end of the long, dark and windy PTSD tunnel.

What's your joy? Go find it. Participate in it. Take an action toward the future you.

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