Wednesday, December 3, 2008

PTSD & Family: How To Heal the Gap, Part 1

An important part of PTSD healing is getting out of the isolation it builds. I think it’s good for us to let our voices be heard. I also think it’s good to hear the voices of others. We know what we’re thinking, feeling, dealing with, etc.; it’s good to see that we’re not alone in our thoughts. It’s good to hear how people are processing anger, depression, triggers, flashbacks and the rest of the PTSD symptom gamut.

Often, it's easier to do this with strangers than our own families. But to truly heal PTSD we must heal those rifts it has caused in our family infrastructure. Not always an easy task. Luckily, I have largely alluded the stress of it because my family has always been so supportive of me, even when I was acting insane. Even so, on my road to recovery I have actively engaged my parents and brother. I have read them excerpts of articles, medical definitions and parts of my own PTSD memoir. I have been open in discussing my discoveries, education and evolution with them so that they understand the reasons for my behavior and see that there was a root cause for it. I think this is crucial for their healing -- which is not something we always think about. We're so often focused on our own pain we don't always consider how we're affecting those who love us.

Last week Bret and I traveled to San Diego together from South Florida. On the plane I was working on an article I've been asked to write: '10 Things I Wish My Family Had Known About PTSD'. I asked Bret what was the most difficult part of my PTSD for him. He answered, "There were three things. First, watching you hurt yourself by all of your distorted behaviors. Second, your denial that there was anything wrong. Third, the fact that when you sought help you didn't get it. There were never any answers and I so much wanted you to be well and happy."

During our healing process we need to think about our relationships with others who need to participate in our healing so that their own experience of us is soothed. In my situation, since I was so young at the time of my truama, my family has been with me every step of the way since then. They know why I have behaved so horribly and erratically. But what if they hadn't? What if the people in your life have not known you since before your trauma? How do you fill in the gaps for them?

In addition to hearing testimonials about the experience of PTSD, I think it’s also good to see what someone is doing about healing it, which is why I’m going to share E.’s story with you.

E. is a 65 year old woman, married with 3 grown children living in the Pacific Northwest. From the ages of 7 to 18 E. was sexually abused by her father. While she has had PTSD symptoms for several years, she’s only now gotten to the point that she is actively working toward totally healing it. I’ve been listening to her over the past couple of weeks as she’s gathered her strength, ideas and focus for how to explain her past to her children as it illuminates her behaviors toward and around them. Until recently they did not know about her abuse. Now that she has told them, new opportunities are arising in the (re)development of their relationship. I’m impressed with the innovative ways she’s reaching out to them. Here are her words:

I had originally asked my children to get together and pitch in to get my car detailed for Xmas as my sweet car is dying for spa treatment...but today I changed my mind...

I wrote them an email and told them that this year I was saving them money...All I wanted was for them to spend the next year making an effort to get to know me as a "real" person, not just the person they have known in the "role of mother."

I asked them to ask ME about my childhood and adulthood and why I did the things I did, and make or didn't make certain choices and get to know what really influenced me as a separate human being....

Man, after I sent it, I was happy I could be so real and honest with them to bear my true longing...and I am hoping they will like the part that they get to save money too....

They are all old enough to make the effort to learn what made/makes me tick and I am helping to move that process along and think a good push in this direction could be priceless.

Is E. inspirational, or what? She’s so brave and unafraid to be vulnerable and to explore her past in order for it to heal those pasts that have been affected by her PTSD behavior.

How can you use E.’s story in your own life? Regardless of the type of trauma, we all have people who have come to know or not know us because of PTSD. We all have people who know us only in our distorted state. But what if we invite them to get to know who we are beyond that? Part of constructing a post-trauma identity includes presenting that identity to those we love, care for and respect.

Who can you invite to (re)meet, (re)know who you are? Who can you connect with by using a new level of truth, honesty and openness?

Choose one person today, or make a list. Start thinking about how you would open the conversation. The results can be liberating as you’ll see when I post the rest of E.’s story.

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