Saturday, November 8, 2008

Overcoming PTSD: Thoughts on the Superself

I feel so often we forget (as Dorothy did in the Wizard of Oz) that, to paraphrase Glinda the Good Witch, we have the power within us all along. It’s great to find sources of strength anywhere we can in the outside world (in friends, caregivers, organizations, religions) but it’s most important to know that we have a great store of power within, despite our traumas and our struggles afterward.

On the blackest day of my illness, when I was convinced I would die – indeed, in the moment I felt as if I was, in fact, finally dying – I said good-bye to my parents and announced my imminent demise.

To which my mother coolly (because no matter what, my mother never loses a grip on her own strength) replied:

“Listen to me, Michele, you will not die. You will live through this.”
She brought her face close to mine so that we were eye to eye.
“I can’t.”
“You can.”
“It’s too painful.”
“You can do it.”
“I don’t have the strength.”
“You do. You just have to find it.”
I began to cry. “It doesn’t exist.”
“It does. So, you go down further, further into yourself than you’ve ever been, and you find it. You find the strength to pull yourself through.”
“I can’t do it.”
“Courage is a choice, Michele. Make it.”
My mother’s eyes were big and black and unrelenting.
There was no way to disobey her.
I closed my eyes.
I sank into my body.
I went in search of my strength.
I did as I was told.

I believed in my mother’s belief in me. But the strength we find in the outside world is only a reflection of our belief in the strength we think we’re being given.

Let me say that again: The strength we find in the outside world is only a reflection of the strength with which we’re seeking.

Meaning, all of that strength lies within us and we’re responding to some external source coaxing it out.

[If this sounds heretical, I’m not attacking religion. In the vein of “God helps those who help themselves” I’m suggesting that we help ourselves most when we believe in ourselves.]

So, the source of strength is our own. This is very important to consider because it means we are never as powerless as we feel. The foundation for any power we receive externally comes from our internally generated belief system. Think about that for a second. It’s a powerful thought. It puts the power squarely in our laps. Which is exactly what’s been missing all of these PTSD days, weeks, months, years, decades. We’ve been rendered powerless by our traumas – the experience of them and their aftermath. We have become even more powerless in the grip of PTSD. But we can choose to regain our power.

In the most horrible year of my PTSD I could barely get out of bed – not from depression but from the physical debilitation of my body. Finally, I resolved to enter trauma therapy. This gave me a purpose and the beginning evolution of healing tools. It also gave me the beginning of a plan that I participated in and which, over the years, eventually brought me to my PTSD diagnosis and ultimately, here today, where I am healthy, well and full of joy.

Many of you have already taken that first therapeutic step, so the process has already begun if you have made the choice to believe in it; if you’ve made the decision to use therapy as a way to regain some of your own power. That choice to take back what belongs to you (a healthy, happy life) is the voice that summons the Superself, which may lazily and groggily awake, but when it finally stands to its full height is you – even bigger, greater, stronger, more powerful than you’ve ever realized you could be. It’s you on your very best, most transcendent day. It is that dormant part of ourselves that we reserve for only the most necessary, emergency situations.

Healing PTSD is one of those situations. It’s time to go in search of your Superself.

Have you looked inward lately and considered the good, positive, strong aspects of yourself? With PTSD it’s so easy to get locked into seeing ourselves as victims and sufferers.

But there is another self lurking in the shadows. Have you imagined who you could be? Have you attempted to connect with your own inner strength? You survived a great trauma. It took superhuman strength to do that. Where is that strength today? Have you caught a glimpse of your Superself lately?


In the midst of my PTSD I wrote and published the following crown of sonnets. If you’ll indulge me for a brief poetic interlude (I hold an MFA in poetry, so these come over me now and then!), I’ll share it here because it metaphorically symbolizes the entire arc of my struggle and my conceptualization of the Superself.

[For those of you not familiar with the idea of sonnets, or a crown of sonnets: A single sonnet is comprised of 14 lines with a prescribed rhyme scheme. Sonnets are structured around a thesis/antithesis formula where the poet examines an idea and reaches an enlightened point of view. The crown form was devised in the 1500s in the Italian court. It was meant to symbolize the jewels in the royal crown. In this form, all of the sonnets are linked by exploring aspects of the theme suggested in the first sonnet; and also, by the repetition in the first line of each successive sonnet by the last line of the one preceding it. You’ll see what I mean!]

Secrets Of A Samurai

The tragic myth is this: when you least expect it
You’ll be called upon to cut your heart out,
Place it somewhere way beyond your reach, without
The body whose warmth the organ learns to covet.
When this is done, a vocal chorus will suggest that you commit
An act of self-repelling heresy: believe – beyond all doubt –
One frayed tassel of God’s robe descends about
Just far enough to fully stuff and wholly fit
The aperture of your soul, which bleeds.
Today, you must choose one of two extraordinary deeds:
Accept God’s gracious fingers dangling
A piece of cloth He doesn’t mind you mangling,
Or shove your own hand into that small cavity,
Pull up the stronger man you’ve always meant to be.

Pulling up the stronger man you’ve always meant to be
You strain an unexpected muscle in your back.
In bed the next day with an attack
Of nerves, you think you can foresee
How this one act will freeze a curve in your identity
That leaves you maimed, gross as an old hunchback
Who shuffles down the street, some sad elegiac
Shell of familiarity who fades at dusk into a full transparency.

Well, isn’t that your smooth Ego’s joke and trip?
To make you doubt the worth of your own craftsmanship
He flips the order of the ground and the sky,
With a snap of slim fingers trains your eye
On all the fissures in the cracked concrete,
Which threaten to cripple any hint of self-conceit.

Threatening to cripple any hint of self-conceit
You drag yourself up from the rumpled bed,
Vow to continue as you were, instead
Of body building – after all, you’re no athlete
Who seeks a new, recordable feat
Of form and discipline. No, it’s said –
And you heard it – man needs one solid figurehead,
So you decide: belief in God should be complete.

Except, there exists this old, distressing, dark expanse
Of time: you gave God one, then another chance
To reveal Himself, or even, just fill up a room
That gagged and choked on its own doom.

But not a single presence came, and the rasping gasps abated,
Only because you held your breath, and so were liberated.

Because you held your breath and so were liberated
From all dependence, you chose the latter
Deed to guide your way. Now the matter
Staring you in the mirror you half-hated
When you hung it by a string: this weighted
Fact – it’s an intangible thing you’re after:
The smallest voice whose silken chatter
Flutters like an object excavated
From the dusty, cobwebbed caves of time,
An artifact so old and fragile, green with grime,
Pulling it through your lost-heart’s hole
Might crush to dust what you trust to your head’s control.

Stare down that glass upon the wall, and think,
I am a hero; heroes never shrink.

I am a hero; heroes never shrink
You leave the bathroom sink at 8 a.m. reciting
This brand-new mantra, repeatedly inviting
The rhythm of the words to get in sync
With how your body moves, provide a link
Between your mind and spine. You’re writing
I am a hero… 100 times, inciting
The curve to straighten out; it’s on the brink.
You pause the chant to think, So easy!
That’s when slick silence slams you like a fist.
You’ve kissed your last I am good-bye,
Now you’re feeling a little queasy;
Thought your heart had not been missed –
But the beat, when you reminisce, begins to magnify.

The beat, when you reminisce, begins to magnify.
Its taunting music begs for you to give
Some focused thought to how you’ll live
In such a stupor where instincts stultify.
In absentia, your heart can’t hope to gratify
Even the slightest impulse to forgive
Sad history. Reclaiming your pulse will be imperative,
But you cut it out in a place you can’t demystify.

Retrace your steps toward the sound of the pump?

The sky goes black, a cat screams, you jump
And spin, try to run in the opposite direction,
But your feet root, respond to the deep inflection
Of a voice that’s calling from the concave hole –
You know that sound, that pitch, that tone: it is your soul.

You know that sound, that pitch, that tone: it is your soul.
The moment’s come to follow through
On actions begun before you knew
The exact price for such a priceless goal.
Afraid, you doubt you’re strong enough to behold
The bloody mess of such self-surgery. Then, strange déjà vu:
Your fingers itch with a wish: let them pursue
That imprisoned man who howls and hungers for parole.
You do. Up from your body’s darkest crease,
He leaps to a precipice of bone and works to slip
Your heart back in its space. Piece by piece,
He explains how reinstallation will benefit
Your struggle to find, from tragic myth, release
– which, he winks, happens when you least expect it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I LOVE this poem. I read it aloud and it reminded me of when I used to enjoy reading good poetry aloud. You are such an excellent writer, thank you for sharing your gift.

As for your mother, and her incitement to find courage, I wish I could thank her too - and I'm a bit jealous. I'm jealous because my mother stood by my bed when I was closest to death and told her I was afraid and said, "Everyone dies." And she stared blankly. "But, it's true, you're young." That's it.

And then I had to dig inside myself for that courage, that vigil with God, to stay alive and to hold on, until morning, and to heal.

I thought my mother didn't care if I lived or died, but she later said she doesn't fear death but thought my youth might save me.

I know now that she fears my experience, perhaps more than death.

So I'm jealous of your mother's love but maybe I should see it as a gift that I know I could be my own inciter of courage, embrace myself and when my hands grew weary, I was sustained by God - a word I use but cannot peg down.