Friday, November 28, 2008

The Importance of PTSD Community; Or, START TALKING!

I’ve been talking about PTSD this whole holiday weekend. Not that I planned to, it just seems to keep coming up. Someone knows someone who knows someone, etc. Or someone is struggling with _____ and there I am, smack in the middle of explaining PTSD, what the symptoms are, treatments and healing possibilities. And I’m wondering why, all of those years that I suffered, why did PTSD never come up in conversation? Why did my family and I never hear of it, how did it not find some way to float into our lives and offer some explanation and relief? Why was there no one who looked at me and said, “I know just what you’re dealing with; it has a name”?

And then I remember: I wouldn’t talk about what was wrong, not with my family or anyone else. I didn’t talk about the insomnia, the flashbacks; my constant dissociated state. I didn’t confess that I was daily haunted by this horrible thing that had happened, or that I was terrified in every minute that it might happen again. I didn’t bring up, around any Thanksgiving table, how I could not lift myself out of a dark depression that threatened to swallow me whole. I didn’t express how I could only see myself as ‘survivor’ and nothing else and how that perception was really dragging me down a very bad rabbit hole.

No, instead of talking I sank in to a deep internal silence and faked the rest with a chatty, fake external persona. Friends I haven’t spoken to since college are reading what I write here and contacting me to tell me they are shocked, they had no idea. And suddenly, I’m realizing: it’s my own fault! I did not reach out for help. I didn’t admit that I was weak, vulnerable, psychologically frail. I thought the brave thing was to carry on alone, learn to cope, manage, be stoic and internally heroic. I thought no one could possibly understand what I was going through, and that there were no words for it anyway.

But I was wrong. There are a ton of words, we just have to make the effort to access them. We have to allow ourselves to consider that we are not freaks, we will be understood; if not by our immediate families and friends by others who are as we are. PTSD is not a Jonathan Livingston-type seagull; it is not one in a million and rare. It is everywhere. Estimates predict that 10% of the U.S. population alone has PTSD – that’s 30 million people, multiply that by X for the worldwide number. There are plenty of people to approach who speak our language, and the growing awareness of PTSD makes the opportunity to find people to talk to even more simple and available.

Which is not to say that bearing up on our own isn’t an important component. I do still think that my “I will endure” attitude was the right one. Breaking down or melting into a pool of butter doesn’t help at all. But I am thinking today that my journey would have been easier, my path more straight, my healing sooner if I endured and at the same time reached outside myself to connect to something else. If I had bridged the gap between my isolated state and, for example, others like me, I might not have been so devastated by PTSD. If I had reached out to a therapist, if I had asked for help in finding a community – if I had done ANYTHING to help facilitate my own healing – my pain could have been shared and thereby diluted and the burden lessened.

So, after spending a large amount of time last night talking to someone who wanted to know how I had been healed, I’m thinking today about how important it is to TALK. The woman who asked me about my own healing was emotionally and physically abused by her parents for all the years of her childhood – and it still continues today. She is still on her path to healing and she is reaching out for guidance, support and information. You have to admire someone who’s all about doing the work.

It’s so much more comfortable to cut ourselves off – and so much more necessary to turn ourselves on to a dialogue with others, both those who have PTSD and those who don’t. Think about who you can reach out to today, this weekend, or next week. Not who you can educate about PTSD, but who you can contact who can relate to your own PTSD. There’s comfort in shared experience. You might begin with an online group. One of my favorites is Daily Strength where the PTSD community is alert and active and seeking progress. We are a positive bunch always helping each other out, offering support and seeking relief.

I think also that in-person connection is important, too. Taking the step toward finding the right therapist can be critical to healing. When we look someone in the eye and discuss our troubles then the troubles themselves shrink down to size. This can also be done very economically in a group setting. Where I live there is no local PTSD group, so I’m in the process of organizing and founding one. But there are many places that do have trauma, abuse and/or PTSD groups. Think about joining the community, not just online but as an act you make outside of the realm of your own home.

Recently someone explained to me the benefit of participating in a local group this way:

I have attended 4 groups, I love groups, I find this is where I got my biggest shifts in my recovery, where I got tools to help with the PTSD, and where I met others in a similar boat to me. For me it was confronting work, very deep and really scraped the bottom of the barrel, but I was in the right place to deal with it: I was with facilitators/counselors that lead us through it…

We learned how to find our own 'guide' in our head to empower us when we needed inner strength; this is also powerful, it does not have to be a person, it can be an eagle, a sword, a mountain, etc. just whatever comes to us at the time. We learned deep breathing, self talk, recognition of our body functions so we could recognize our body’s behavior BEFORE a fight or flight response. We learned how to listen, recognize and diminish the negative voices in our head...

That’s some of the things we did, maybe yours will be different, I don't know. In all honesty, what you put into it, is how much you will get out of it, every piece of work they do in the groups is another part of your path to healing, so to take it as that, embrace it and find a way to use it to the max, find in yourself how it is going to benefit you. If you are not ready then you don't have to participate in any part, you can sit out of the circle and watch, or participate in the parts you can manage.

Do some research. Get involved. Speak up. Speak out. Begin to move beyond. My father always taught us, Action puts fear to flight. In the case of PTSD that can often be true. When we act we take back our own power. Over a period of time and through a series of actions PTSD becomes weak and we become strong.

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