Friday, December 12, 2008

Phases of Healing PTSD, Part 4:The Achievement

So this is it, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Today’s the day we consider that PTSD can be – like the event that began it in the first place – a thing of the past.

This week began with my feeling gratitude for how far I’ve come in my PTSD healing.
And then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. All week I’ve been writing about the parallel between learning a new physical skill (i.e. dance), and learning a new mental skill (i.e. PTSD healing). We’re all just apprentices and there are phases to our education.

And then one day we graduate. We become not the apprentice but the expert. This can happen for you, my fellow PTSDers. One day, we will all be healed and enjoying:

Phase #6: The Final Achievement – It’s been 1 ½ years since I began dancing. 1 ½ years since John and I first stepped into a Latin club where I was a complete salsa failure; since we went to Argentine tango dance parties and all I could do was walk to the cross .

But that’s not how it is anymore! Now, everywhere we go John and I are regularly asked where we teach, perform and compete. Which means, it’s official: I can DANCE.

It’s been almost 4 years since I sat myself down and decided to do whatever it takes to heal. 4 years since I dove head first into my memories, and trauma and PTSD research. 4 years since I descended into a worse hell than I ever imagined existed (and what I knew and imagined before was pretty gruesome already).

What happened 4 years ago that made me take the plunge? There was a day in February 2005 when I had a complete breakdown on the jogging path that goes up the shore of the East River in Manhattan. And as I stood there in sub-freezing temperatures and cried and sobbed all of my PTSD grief and frustration, the dominant thought that emerged was one of fear. I am so afraid! was the echoing thought in my head.

I came to the realization - was hit hard by a startling discovery - that the crux of my post-traumatic stress and related behavior stemmed from this one fact: I WAS AFRAID. So very, very afraid. Afraid the trauma would happen again. Afraid I would suffer again. Afraid no one would be able to help me or save me or prevent the event again. Afraid the next time I wouldn't survive. Afraid that in the present I would completely disintegrate both mentally and physically. The list was long and the emotion sharp. Fear was such an ingrained habit for me that I had literally lived with it and thought it was normal because it had become my natural state.

And then I thought, I can't live like this anymore. It was this moment that began my healing odyssey. The recognition of the germ of all my PTSD suffering brought with it a certain relief: I knew what needed to be addressed. I knew I had to deal with that echoing thought - my fear - if I was ever going to be free.

And so I did. I went back into therapy for 6 months and then set off on my own path. After the initial black abyss I tumbled into, slowly I began to heal, little by little, small step by small step until one day I emerged from the dark into a small pool of light. Over time that small pool of light has grown progressively larger.

I think an important aspect of my healing came from the proactive path of it; the fact that I engaged in it, steered it, willed it. Healing is not bestowed upon us. We must demand it. We must accept nothing less. In our traumas we are powerless, but in choosing to heal and following through we become powerful.

The healing process itself can be just the act we need to put the demons to rest. In giving us back a sense of our own power it returns to us something that was taken away. Namely, a sense of self that trauma so rapidly destroys. We cannot wait for healing to be given to us. We must actively seek it, and not only by seeking out practitioners, but by drawing up our own strength and implementing it.

(Photo credit: Basilly)


Ellen said...

Very inspiring. I love this:
"I think an important aspect of my healing came from the proactive path of it; the fact that I engaged in it, steered it, willed it."
It's important for us to gain some sense of agency, which is what we lost when the trauma happened...
The path is difficult though, man oh man.

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Ellen - The path sure is difficult! But when we take back the power trauma robbed us of we finally begin to heal.

An interesting example of this: the Chowchilla kidnapping study 1976. The one student who ACTED during the trauma did not develop PTSD. The rest who got caught in flight/freeze did.