Thursday, December 11, 2008

Phases of Healing PTSD, Part 3: Making Progress

Healing takes a while. And so does this topic! Here’s one of two final installments on the parallel between learning a new skill (in my case, dance) and healing PTSD:

Phase #5Making ProgressSalsa and Argentine tango became my passion and I set goals for developing my dance skills. I put in the effort to educate myself, plus to practice so that I mastered the forms. All day at work I listened to salsa music on Pandora so I could learn how to find the beat without looking for it. Every night after work I came home and practiced the special tango walk until I could do it in a straight line without wobbling.

It took about six months for me to really learn to dance. For me to understand the lead/follow relationship, learn how to follow, learn what it means to embellish on my own, to interpret the music on a second’s notice, to place that extra heel tap, to perfectly distribute my weight. It was six months before I could get out on the floor and feel like I not only knew what I was doing, but I was doing it well and with some level of technical expertise.

During those first five months, however, there were experiences that let me know I was making progress. There was the night I found out what to do with that extra salsa beat (kick, tap or roll!). There was the evening I finally (finally!) executed a perfect tango molinete. On these nights I’d leave the dance floor flush with exhilaration that I was getting better and better!

It took a little longer to develop my expertise for healing PTSD. It took 3 full years for me to heal, start to finish. Three years of research. Three years of writing out the whole story: all of what I could remember about the original trauma, and then all of what PTSD turned my life into after that, symptom by symptom. I tracked who I had been before trauma, who I was during, and who I became after so I could find the kernel of my real self, and then coax her back out. It took me three years to untangle what was trauma and what was chronic PTSD and to understand their impact on me and my life. Three years to find the right practitioner to help me achieve what I could not do alone.

[NOTE: I’m not recommending this technique of writing it all out to everyone. It worked for me. It may work for you, but it’s a tough way to purge the poison. Deliberately writing, remembering and examining provided many triggers along the way.

While I do believe it is critically important (as Jean-Martin Charcot and Pierre Janet dictated) to integrate all of our traumatic memories into our current selves so they do not exist separately, this writing process itself can be traumatic and there are other treatments that can help. Unfortunately, I had tried every other treatment except medication and I was still seriously suffering. (If you’re interested in trying this writing tactic, let me know. I think it’s best to structure your approach and I’d be happy to offer more details of my own effort so you follow a planned path.)

During those 3 years of healing, though (and this I can recommend), I came up with the idea that in order to heal PTSD and get beyond my trauma it was necessary to begin to imagine myself outside of PTSD and trauma. By this I mean, imagine who I was, wanted to, or could be without all the junk of experience.

In the middle of all this research and looking at the past I began doing little things in the present that would move me into a new future. I began taking pilates so that I started rebuilding strength and trust in my broken down body. When I was well enough I started learning to dance because I wanted to be every day that joyful person I was on the dance floor any night.]

Because at the outset of my healing journey all of my PTSD symptoms initially intensified, it seemed at first that I was on the wrong path, as if I was doing something more harmful than good.

And then there came the day I could look at photos of my illness and my stomach didn’t turn.

There was the day I read a piece of writing that described and explained all of my PTSD symptoms and I recognized myself and no longer felt like such a freak.

There was the day I wrote about the most horrible aspect of my illness and afterward felt a swell of relief, like, Whew! Now that’s out!.

There was the day I realized all the joy I felt dancing was giving me the courage to slog through the rest of the muck, and so I felt it was possible to get it all done and finally be free.

Little by little I could see myself developing a strength to cope with this ominous thing, to bring it down to size, to use my own power to contain it and developing myself to make it shrink so that I enveloped the past instead of the other way around. The goal in trauma/PTSD healing is to contain experience within the larger scope of who we are; to flip the balance of power from our being controlled by the past, to our controlling it in the present.

The more we develop ourselves outside of trauma/PTSD the stronger we become. I clung to each moment of progress and believed - every time it all came crashing down again - that those healing moments were my truth. I reached toward them. This belief in myself inspired me to get up and carry on.

After trauma, the hardest thing to do is believe in ourselves and yet, this is the most important thing we have to do.

(Photo: Jim Donaldson)

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