Friday, November 28, 2008
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.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
The stress I felt before the holidays even began was just as bad as the stress I felt during their occurrence! During my PTSD years I tended to dissociate a lot; the holidays only made this happen more. Plus, a lot of my stress made its presence known by settling in my stomach, which made it very difficult to hide: No way to avoid everyone’s curiosity on Thanksgiving when you refuse to eat any turkey!
But there are definite coping strategies we can use to make those stressful days easier to deal with. Dr. Marianna Lead (author, speaker, workshop leader, transformational coach, clinical hypnotherapist and hypnosis instructor) was generous enough to converse with me about stress-reducing techniques. Here’s what she suggested:
“First,” she says, “recognize that it’s normal to feel stressed. Sometimes, it’s a sign of being alive.”
(As PTSDers, I believe, we can actually use stress as a way to ground us in the moment. I had a tendency to always drift away inside my own head, to observe myself and everyone from outside of myself, from somewhere much removed. But: while stress can induce this, we can also see stress as a way of attaching us to the moment we’re in, which is a good exercise for us. Normally, I was rarely connected to the moment as it was happening. Stress has the ability to force us into the moment as much as it can induce us to escape through our PTSD mechanisms.
This year, take your holiday stress and use it to your advantage. Recognize it, honor it, own it, feel it, get close to it – and then control it. Bring it back down to size. Literally, stress is defined as ‘the importance or significance attached to a thing.’ Well, guess what? We determine what gets us. We attach the importance. We decide to be ruffled, riled or at peace. We can experience, or transcend. We decide to be undone, or to rise up against something with all of the strength of ourselves. Use this year’s holiday stress to practice the development of your Superself.)
“It's important to remember,” Dr. Lead continues, “ that our perspective gives meaning to events and people around us. So, stay positive and exercise your sense of humor!"
Dr. Lead also suggests that we figure out what helps us most to manage the stress we feel.
Here are her Top 5 Stress Management Tips:
1. Listen to your body and allow yourself to have rest when you need it. Sometimes, you may need only a few minutes of having your eyes closed and some deep breathing.
2. Exercise regularly and eat healthily. Make your own self-care an on-going and rewarding experience despite the holiday interruption to your routine. Get up a little earlier to go for a walk or a run; slip away to the gym while everyone watches the big game.
3. During the holiday continue to do things that make you feel centered and grounded. Take a hobby with you (ie. knit, crochet, jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, a book etc.) or a pet who will need care so that you have something upon which to focus and distract your mind from the stress you feel.
4. Learn relaxation techniques before the holidays begin. For example, learn to meditate and then slip into a quiet bedroom for 15 – 30 minutes of restorative practice.
5. If you have an ongoing stress, ask yourself what is the root of it. Awareness is the first step to changing our responses. If you know where your stress comes from you can anticipate it, prepare to manage it, and interrupt it.
OK, don’t roll your eyes and sigh and tell me, “Easier said than done, Michele.” I know that! My own out of control PTSD stress drove me crazy for 25 years.
But if we always see the tough part, if we only focus on the negative difficulties of healing, then we ourselves make healing impossible. It takes only one positive thought, one positive effort to launch us on a path toward healing. That’s not so much to do considering all the bad things we do for and to ourselves that negate our healing efforts.
Now, one last tip before I fly off to California for a family holiday in which I am going to eat lots of turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie, and during which I am going to laugh and participate and be present in the moment because I can, because I choose – every day, by determining the focus of my mind – to not let PTSD get back in control of me:
In regard to managing stress Laura King, my hypnotherapist, suggested this to me about a year ago: Think of a place where you feel at peace. Now, DO NOT GO THERE IN YOUR HEAD, but take that feeling and hold it close to your heart. Immerse yourself in that feeling as if you are experiencing it right in the moment.
This was tough for me to do at first. I was so used to escaping the moment by going somewhere else in my head that it was difficult to go there without, well, going there. But I began to practice: I love the beach. I feel at peace at the beach. In moments of stress, instead of escaping to the beach in my head I began to summon the beach to me in the moment. It takes time, but we can develop any skill. By utilizing this summoning technique we learn to use good memories and places and feelings to instruct ourselves in the moments of bad ones. We learn to take charge of the moment. We learn to rise up and tap an inner strength. We exercise power over the parasites.
When we choose, we control. When we control, we progress. When we progress, we win!
Monday, November 24, 2008
But he did more than that. J. wrote some other interesting things I think are worth sharing, on the topic of the value of distracting our minds, putting our plight in perspective, proactively determining the people we surround ourselves with, and what can bring us healing feelings. As I did before, I’ll let him tell you in his own words:
I also got very involved with [a military] newsletter and was Co-Editor. It all kept me very busy. That was a very big part of helping my mind.
Eventually I met S., my fiancee. She became a major factor in my life and that is basically what has happened. S. is a very positive person and that is very important. My mother is not a positive person at all. I can tell you for certain hanging around a person that is positive gives you hope. Hanging around a negative person can take you down. So here I am now, relocated in another state with a person I love very much. S. got me involved participating in a PTSD group. She is very upbeat and the most wonderful person I ever met in my life.
She also last May as a gift, purchased a rescue dog. Her name is A; she was found with her puppies walking on the outskirts of the Desert: surviving to feed her puppies. Rescue had her for about six months. Other families took her puppies. A. is my friend and a beautiful and loving friend. She had a rough back ground and so did I. We are the two pieces of the puzzle that simply fit. A. needs me, and I need her. I am involved with the [PTSD group and some military groups] and between it all, I seem to be doing about as best as possible. I have my days and I deal with it. The bottom line is, while entertaining in the hospital, I saw folks that had it a lot worse than I did. That opened my eyes. The trick is keeping busy.
The truth is, there is always someone who has it worse than we do. Take my friend B., for example, now into his second round of radiation for what the doctors originally thought was lung cancer that has turned out to be everything-cancer. After chemo earlier this year, and radiation on two places where the cancer had gone into his bones, now he’s in radiation again on his cerebellum. Wouldn’t we all take PTSD over this kind of pain and poor prognosis?
Perspective is key - and that includes the perspective of ourselves as well as those around us! PTSD, while horrible and awful, is not a condition without its progress. There is always the hope of overcoming it, and the certainty that aspects of it can be alleviated. Best of all, unlike cancer and other such illnesses, much of PTSD progress comes directly from what we do about it. The treatments we try, the contacts we make, the communities we join, the commitments we choose, the actions we take, the decisions we put in place, the ideas we hold, both about ourselves and our condition. All of these are within our control.
Now there’s an idea: Rather than be controlled by PTSD we can take back control. Hmmmm. A little at a time, not all at once, but just a smidgeon each day. How about, for example, going through just one day seeing it from outside your PTSD experience? How about looking at the world through a perspective divorced from our darkness? How about today you choose to be someone else in how you approach the world? Think of someone you admire. What qualities does he/she have that you wish you had? How does he/she approach the day, ie. with gusto, hope, goals, excitement? Emulate that person, just for an hour today. Too much? 1/2 an hours then; 15 minutes. Do it again tomorrow. After a year of this sort of positive, small step-taking process, where do you think you’d be? I can guarantee you'd be farther along in your quest for PTSD freedom. Care to place a little wager on that?
Listen, Norman Cousins cured a life-threatening neurological disorder simply by laughing; he rented funny movies and laughed himself back to health. Shouldn’t we be able to do that? I mean, after all, we only have to cure coping mechanisms that have gone astray, not a disease.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
If there's anything worthwhile that helps that you may not have thought of I just wanted to turn you all onto it:
They are committed to all combat related issues, including PTSD. As their Mission page states:
In addition to the physical injuries sustained, countless servicemen and servicewomen have experienced psychological symptoms directly related to their deployment. According to a RAND report released in April 2008, over 18 percent of troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan--nearly 300,000 troops--have symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression. At the same time, about 19 percent of service members reported that they experienced a possible traumatic brain injury. And let us not forget: millions of Americans belong to the families of these servicemen and servicewomen. Spouses, children, parents, siblings, and unmarried partners of military personnel are all being adversely affected by the stress and strain of the current military campaign.
If you make use of this site and find it helpful, let me know!
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Luckily, I had 3 of them archived, so I’ve added them back, although not in their own original posts; Blogtalk doesn’t let you backdate. And I’m going to rewrite the other post because I do have all topics archived, so I’ll repost it at a future date.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a post and can’t find it, email me. I know where they are even if I don’t know how to make sure I never delete them again!
Oh, and if any of you are archiving posts, I’m missing the one about the right mindset for hypno; the subconscious vs. the conscious; the 88% vs. the 12%; the metaphor of me retraining Baylee as similar to the way we have to retrain our ourselves re: PTSD. It was dated around 11/7. If someone would restore that post to me I would be eternally grateful!
I’m feeling a little the way Hemingway must have felt when his first wife lost a suitcase full of all the rough drafts of the stories for his first book. He had to rewrite each one from scratch, all the while with Ezra Pound egging him on to see this as a blessing from God. I can see how Papa was peeved by this remark.
Which reminds me…. Have you decided to pursue joy? Have you been considering it, just a little? At least tell me I’ve got you thinking.
If you’re still not sure you can trust me, how about testimonial from someone else? J. is also a vet and someone who has made great progress in his own healing partly by following something that brings him joy: magic.
J.’s Desert Storm tour of land duty ruined his feet so that he can no longer bear weight on them for any extensive period of time. After 6 years and 11 surgeries he is disabled and PTSD, and yet: defining a new life for himself. He has used the pursuit of his joy of magic to progress his PTSD healing. I’ll let him tell you in his own words:
I was a magician and asked to make a trip to two VA hospitals to do magic for the veterans. It was more or less close-up magic and going from room to room. I thought the idea was great and I can do comedy like you would not believe. The first hospital we went to we visited a hospice unit, spinal cord unit, and a unit for veterans that were ill and too old to be at home because they did not have anyone to take care of them. That was one of the biggest emotional roller coaster rides of my life. I noticed when we went room to room that the folks were enjoying the bed to bed magic and laughing. That was like a major turn on for me. I left the hospital that day feeling better than I ever did. Since I was in the middle of all these surgeries at the time, my comrades pushed me around in a wheelchair. I was not allowed to place any weight on my feet.
The next step was to go to a hospital where I knew was going to be a lot different as we were going to visit the warriors that lost legs and arms. For me it was both educational and once again, the magic proved to make these folks laugh. I was doing very blue humor and some great close up magic and these folks were eating it all up. As selfish as it sounded, the magical entertainment was as therapeutic for our warriors as it was for me and I was getting a real boost.
One of the major impacts of the pursuit of joy is the fact of its ability to distract us from our PTSD demons. It's not enough just to be busy. We're all busy with work, family, friends, etc., but it doesn’t always do any good. Sometimes the stress of being busy can complicate things further. For myself, I was on a crash course of busyness for a long time, thinking that if I kept running I could leave the demons in the dust. Let's just say, that didn't work so well. Demons are faster than the speed of light. And they're tireless, so while I crashed and burned each time and then sank deeper into PTSD, they shook with hysterical laughter that I actually thought I could escape them.
Stop running. We cannot escape PTSD through a score of medications and destructive behaviors. We can escape it by transcending it; that begins by finding another focus for our minds. It begins with turning our attention toward the present and the future in a positive, self-supportive, joyful way. It means engaging with the untraumatized self. That self can be brought back to the forefront of who we are. It lurks there, in the shadows of fear and it is up to us to coax it back out into the light. Joy can do that. Joy is like offering a kid a lollipop – the eyes light up, the mouth waters, there’s an uncontrollable energy that bounces in the body.
Do something that reminds you who you were before the trauma occurred. The pure you. The unafraid, inexperienced, uncynical you who looked at the world as if it were good and held tremendous possibility. Can’t think of anything? No problem. I can't remember much of my pre-trauma self or my life before either. In that case, it's time to construct the new you. Do something that brings you joy – pure, unmitigated, face-stretching smiling joy. Walk toward that other self you know can - you want - to be.
Move toward the experience of that ascent of the spirit, even if it’s just for a second. What will you do? What makes you feel giddy and indestructible? Take a (small) step toward that. Act on it. Begin NOW.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Even though I’m healed, I still reinforce this attitude on a weekly basis. I’ll give you an example: John and I dance 3 – 4 nights a week. It’s part of my joy habit. It’s part of my commitment to being well. The upcoming weekend looks like this:
Friday night: La Fonda in West Palm Beach; a delicious Cuban restaurant that turns into a latin nightclub after 10pm with the best music mix of salsa, bachata, merengue, valenato, cumbia and tropicale.
Saturday afternoon: Salsa Fest! An all day outdoor salsa party with such greats as Victor Rojas and Eddy Herrera; an event that combines my love of dance with my love of community events that bring together so many different people for one shared passion.
Saturday evening: Milonga (Argentine tango dance party) in Deerfield Beach. Our favorite Argentine tango instructors are teaching a class and then hosting a party until the wee hours of the following morning.
Sunday: We’ll drive down to Pompano to dance in a 10,000 square foot ballroom; 5 – 8pm is all latin, 8 – 11 is all ballroom. What a spectacular 6 hours!
OK, maybe dance is not your thing. And maybe you don’t have that much time to devote to joy. That’s just fine. It isn’t the activity or amount of time spent, it’s the quality of joy you derive. You can do something for an hour a week and that will be enough to remind you that joy exists. You can do something for ½ an hour and that will be enough to ignite the desire for more. The main purpose here is threefold:
1) to remind you that you can feel joy (I know, I know, it doesn’t seem possible, but just try it. You’ll be surprised how possible it is).
2) to begin developing a habit of joy that increases your positive attitude, which will in turn support your PTSD healing.
3) to ignite that spark - that I want to LIVE! spirit – that DESIRE to be well that is the crux of PTSD healing.
Don’t tell me it can’t be done. I know it can because I have done it. It was tough. It seemed like an idiotic, insurmountable, useless task I put before myself --- until it worked.
And don't tell me I was not as badly PTSD as you, because I was at least as bad as you, if not worse. Don’t be fooled by my positive attitude. For 25 years I was (to put it bluntly) a mentally and physically dysfunctional mess. And then I decided to do the work.
I’m asking you, I’m begging you, for the sake of your own happiness – DO THE WORK. Make the commitment. We can get there together.
Wouldn't it be great to be part of a community of healed PTSD experiencers instead of a group of PTSD acceptors? I think it would. Let's shoot for that.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
It begs the question this morning, How badly do you want it?? For a long time I would have said that I did (and I sort of, halfheatedly, would have meant it), but it wasn’t true. I didn’t really feel a burning desire for wellness. I wanted relief from the pain, but I didn’t really care if I was PTSD-free. Largely this was because I didn’t even know I had PTSD. And also, because in the state of my mind at that time, I really didn’t believe I could feel completely better.
But what I’m discovering from all of these other sources is that I’m not so unique (as much as my ego hates to admit this) – none of us are. I am not the only one who is healed, and I am not the only one who believes healing must have a source within. The cat’s out of the bag, my friends. There are other PTSD soldiers who have come off the battlefield knowing it’s their own strength that got them there.
So there’s the secret, underpublicized fact about healing. You can’t solely purchase it through therapy or medication. We can talk about our traumas forever. We can wail about the unfairness of it all. We can demand validation, remuneration, and exaltation for our suffering. We can cry for someone to do something to deliver us from all this pain (and for a time we should, we absolutely should!!). We can pop a mixed cocktail of pills, but in the end no one and no thing can provide the final relief if we don’t do something first. Before there can be the ultimate healing, we must develop desire. A burning desire to be well is the first step toward finding freedom. Desire is our battered soul striving toward the light of a joyful day. It is the powerful strength that fuels our progress toward the ultimate PTSD liberation.
Do you feel that desire? Today you must consider this question.
Sit very still. Listen for that small voice that says, I do! If you don’t hear it, sit still longer. Listen harder. Speak to it and don’t move until it answers. Ask yourself, Do I like the way I feel? If there is no answer, or if the answer is (gasp!), Yes… then go back and read my October 27 post, ‘Are You Ready to Let Go of Your Trauma/PTSD Identity?’
Consider whether or not you feel that burning desire to be well. If you do, decide what you can do to give it breath. What action can you take to honor, develop, support and entertain it?
If you don’t feel that desire, then spend a long time taking a good look at yourself in the mirror and demanding to know why it is that you do not want to be well, healthy, joyful, happy and free. What is PTSD giving you that you don’t want to let go? How are you benefitting from it? How good is it making your life? How much is it enhancing your experience on earth?
If you can really come up with some good answers to this - ones that have true, substantial merit - please email me! I would love to hear them.
If you cannot honestly say that PTSD is making your life so much better than it could be without it, then you need to take stock and decide: Am I going to live this way forever? Am I going to let the trauma win? Am I going to remain a prisoner of experience? Or am I a hero? Am I, by myself and/or with the help of others, going to pull myself up out of this rotten, dark hole and get out into the light? Am I going to wallow in this post-trauma trauma forever, or can I today begin to define a new way of living? What one thing can I do today toward a new, PTSD-free self?
In order to heal we must ACT. Thought follows behavior; emotion follows thought. We must act in a way that fosters the right thoughts to foster more positive emotions to foster courage that fosters healing. It’s a simple equation. And it’s not that tough to do. I do it through the pursuit of joy, which I find in dance (See the posts labeled ‘Dance’.), but there are other ways. Find your way.
What can you do today? What one action can you take to honor and develop, support and maintain your desire to be healed, your wish to escape PTSD?
Go do it! And report back, you soldiers of freedom!
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
But that’s not the strange thing that’s happening. The strange thing is this: During my second decade of PTSD my physical symptoms became so severe that at times I was completely bedridden. My body was wracked with pain. My organs malfunctioned. I was weak and weary. The brain fog was almost impenetrable. The depression almost insurmountable. Hope completely unfathomable.
Whenever it was plausible, I forced myself to carry on despite the extreme physical and mental pain I was in daily. I pushed and pushed and pushed myself until I collapsed. Summers were the easiest season to muddle through. The heat, the humidity, the warmth of New York City crept into my bones and subtly energized me.
And then the fall would hit and the humidity would evaporate and immediately, my body curled inward upon itself. It always began in September: the leaves would begin to turn and the days would develop a slight chill and right on cue the aches and pains would increase and I could feel my body cowering as if from a physical blow. The muscles contracted and tensed. I was incredibly fatigued and everything ached as if I’d just completed a triatholon without training. My head hurt, my eyes hurt. Beyond insomnia I looked like I hadn’t slept in 20 years. I stayed in this state throughout the fall into the winter and until the first few days of spring when my body seemed to begin thawing at the same time as the earth.
I guess I should divulge that my trauma happened in September. I guess I should say that I’d had a really wonderful summer before it occurred. I guess I should mention the fact that I had no pre-existing physical ailments that would be worsened by weather.
I’m embarassed to tell you, it never occurred to me that my reaction to the cold weather (more accurately: the season of my trauma) was part of PTSD. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t like the cold, but now we get to the strange thing that’s happening:
I went for my first hypno a little over a year ago on October 10, 2007. Right away that night a slew of my PTSD symptoms ceased – insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, etc. (For more on the effects see the post ‘After Hypno, Part 2’). It took five more sessions before I felt PTSD-free. The interesting thing is that I didn’t know how free that could be. I thought that the relief of immediate symptoms was all it would be; a lifting of depression, an absence of flashbacks, an elimination of triggers – you know, that sort of thing. But here I am all this time later and I’m still discovering new nuances of freedom.
For example: it is 50 degrees and windy today (and has been for the past few days) and I am not, at this late hour of the day, still in the bed. I am not dragging around a pain-riddled body. I am not deep into a head fog. In fact, I feel terrific. My thinking is clear and I am full of energy and while the cold is annoying and I miss wearing my flip-flops, that’s all the cold is: annoying. A simple atmospheric fact. It is not translated into my own physical or mental condition.
Interestingly, my hypnotherapist, Laura, and I never discussed the cold or my physical symptoms because of it. I took it for granted that my body was weak. That’s it, end of story. But that was not it. My body is not weak. My body was not betraying me, it was speaking to me, and I didn’t understand the language.
So, here’s the beauty I’m finding about healing: When we get to the bottom of our PTSD, when we root it out at the core, other suprising healings spontaneously take place because our bodies and minds want to be free. They want to be healthy and they will, with the proper support and guidance, do the work.They will strive toward joy. All we need to be free is the right attitude on our part – the full commitment to wellness even when we don’t believe it can be achieved – combined with guidance from some hand who’s either been there or knows how to do that.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
On Saturday morning, in a medium sized auditorium at the Book Fair, McGrath unassumingly assumed the podium. He is tall and sort of soft spoken with a slight English-sounding accent. Wearing a jacket and slacks with his silver hair slicked back he made a joke and then proceeded to read Chapter 5 from his latest work, Trauma. Narrated by Charlie Weir, a psychiatrist living in New York City in the 70s, Trauma is the story of Weir’s own family related drama, plus his work with patients, including those suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
That’s all I can tell you for now because I haven’t yet read the novel. I picked it up Saturday and am savoring the idea of it for my holiday trip across the country next week. However, I can tell you this from the chapter I heard: McGrath gets us. He gets trauma and the insidious nature of it. He gets the cyclical vortex of PTSD and its way of consuming a soul. He gets the heaviness of the past and the drive-you-crazy activity of memory in the present. He gets how an event can happen and virtually stop time. Most of all, he’s sensitive enough to get the nuances of how traumatic memory can entirely refocus an identity.
The interesting thing is that McGrath is not a PTSD sufferer himself. His is a view in from the outside. In our conversation after the reading, I asked McGrath how he had prepared to write about PTSD. He mentioned a list of research efforts that included reading the PTSD Bible, Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Herman. He also spoke with several psychiatrists, as well as veterans in order to obtain a completely rounded view.
I’ve been thinking that in all of the PTSD reading we all do that is directly, research and non-fictionally oriented, perhaps it would be a nice break, an interesting perspective to retreat to the world of fiction for a while where the characters act and we simply observe; where the author tries to ferret out the details and next steps while we allow someone else to do this kind of work for a change; where we look at PTSD outside of ourselves, as if it were someone else’s problem and not our own. I'm wondering what kind of perspective might we gain then....
When I have read the novel I’ll get back to you with a review. Until then, here’s what other reviewers are saying about Patrick McGrath’s, Trauma:
Michiku Kakutani, INTL. HERALD TRIBUNE
“…revealing about the peculiarities of the human psyche.”
Hilary Mantel, THE GUARDIAN
“Patrick McGrath is a writer of proven imaginative scope, dark in his concerns, vigilant in his methods... the easy conversational tone of Trauma is effective in its restraint, and the intertwining narrative strands are handled adroitly. The novel works beautifully as a sober, tightly written character study.”
Sven Birkerts, SUNDAY NEW YORK TIMES
“Trauma is the tortuous, often gripping, account of [the narrator’s] collapse in the face of various long-denied recognitions, of the destructive guilt caused by the inadvertent consequences of actions that have not been completely understood… What gives McGrath’s novel its complexity, its shadowy dimensions, is the fact that [the narrator] has the training and the insight to see what’s happening.”
Boyd Tonkin, THE INDEPENDENT
“… has all McGrath's mastery of looming dread: not of what's to come, but of what has been [as the characters] seek ‘some means of escape, some portal through which we could flee the past’.”
Monday, November 17, 2008
And then at 5pm as the sun set in soft greys and purples over the skyline, we found ourselves on a rooftop overlooking the city, listening to the sound of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band of bestselling authors. Picture a large, square rooftop with hundreds of people lounging around small tables and on the concrete floor. A free BBQ was provided; people milled around with plates piled with ribs, chicken, corn on the cob and biscuits. A few of us danced. All of us clapped and sang and cheered and laughed at this band of quasi-musicians, some of whom were definitely tone deaf, but all of whom were people who, regardless of musical talent, daily seek to connect to the world and entertain, not only in isolation at computers and typewriters across the country, but here, in this Miami moment where they could sing and dance and play together for all of us.
For you book junkies, this band included Dave Barry (on lead guitar), Amy Tan (on vocals in a platinum wig), Scott Turow (who actually has a terrific voice), Mitch Albom (who came out dressed as Elvis and wasn’t a bad imitation either), Frank McCourt (looking his trademark downtrodden even while playing the harmonica), Ridley Pearson (sort of singing), Carl Hiasson (playing a mean guitar), Matt Groening (wandering around the stage unable to find his niche), Kathi Goldmark (who really can sing and writes some funny country songs), and Roy Blount, Jr. just to name a few. For a few songs, Richard Belzer haunted the stage with his odd, surreal presence. To give you a real feeling for the hominess of this band, Dave’s wife and daughter came on stage to sing ‘La Bamba’, and his future daughter-in-law belted out the Joan Jett classic, ‘I Love Rock ’n Roll’. It was a groovy time.
As I was dancing along there in the crowd my favorite poetry mentor strode by – there, in the flesh, my old pal Billy Collins. I have not seen Billy since I left New York City over three years ago. In the flash of our hug and greeting something flipped in me and I remembered myself as Billy met me 6 years ago, a haunted, struggling, depressed, brittle, scrawny woman trying to cope with PTSD without even knowing it. It was a difficult time for me, one of those times when you are in the dark and really, really conscious of it. Not that Billy knew that because of course, you can be so close to the edge and hide it from just about everyone. I had applied and been admitted to a Master class Billy was teaching at NYU. To Billy, I was cheerful and fun and a writer of humorous, whimsical (read: not my true voice) poetry. We hit it off and became good friends.
And now here he was, a remnant of my past strolling through my present. My, I thought, How far I’ve come! Because here I am happy and free and real and healthy and singing along with Amy Tan’s rendition of ‘Leader of the Pack’ feeling such gratitude to be alive. Six years ago I never would have imagined this moment was possible. In the PTSD dark it always seemed like there was no possibility of light, as though the Hades of trauma had claimed me and I, unlike Persephone, was not allowed to spend any time back in the real world.
But that’s what’s funny about fate. One minute you’re fine, and the next you’re a tragedy; one minute you’re a victim, and the next you’re your own superhero. The flip can come, sometimes out of our control, and sometimes within it.
The band played through the sunset and into the evening. As they prepared for the last tune (not, as someone in the crowd suggested, ‘Freebird’), I looked around the smiling faces and felt, as I always do, how important it is to get out and be one of the masses. It’s so easy to become lost in our own problematic vortex, but there is – to quote Kevin Spacey to Judy Davis in The Ref – “a world outside our problems”. And it is really, really, really, good for us to remember that. It’s incredibly uplifting and soul satisfying to participate in a large group event where our isolated past is not the focus of the day, where instead, the present connected moment is all that matters and sweeps us up in it because we are not doomed and destined to the underworld. We have suffered, and we deserve to rejoice.
On glum days in Manhattan when I felt myself being pulled under I frequently and deliberately sought the outside world. I would walk myself over to Central Park to hear a classical music concert, or to Bryant Park to watch a movie in the midst of a sea of picnickers. I would go to the plaza in Lincoln Center to watch people dance, or I would walk down to Battery Park City and sit with all of the other people harbor watching and staring at the Statue of Liberty. On those days it grounded me to be out, around other people who knew nothing of my tragedy, and to connect to them and their lives and the rest of the world as a way to give myself a thread, just a thin, fragile strand that would guide me back from the edge inch by inch. It was good to be out and see that the rest of the world was continuing and functioning even as I became more dysfunctional; it was good to remember that functional, somewhere, could survive. It was good to remember that my problems were microscopic in the context of the world.
I haven’t lost my love for these mass communal events. I use them differently now, but their uplifting effect is still the same. I am still buoyed by the collective energy. And I still love the idea that on that day, at that time, all of us strangers decided to participate in the exact same experience. It reminds me that none of us are ever so isolated as we think. It reminds me that community is only a drum beat, a heart beat, a step away.
Friday, November 14, 2008
To be entirely accurate, it should be explained this way: despite my GI problems, I could eat, just not very much, and not a very wide variety of things. Vegetables, mostly, and some soft protein. That’s it. No dairy, no carbohydrates, no sugar, no fat. None of the things that help a body that’s lost weight due to illness put it back on for health. My small intestine didn’t work the way it should, which made my stomach not work the way it should, which made a whole host of other organs – liver, pancreas, pituitary, thyroid – not work the way they should. My body, it seemed, was in an all out revolt. And then it began to pirate itself: blood leached calcium from bone to make up for the nutritional deficiency. Guess what happens when it does that? By the age of 36 I was diagnosed with an aggressive state of osteoporosis.
To find a cure for these issues, I visited specialists all over Manhattan. I even went all the way up to Yale’s Center for Digestive Diseases. I sat in the waiting rooms of gastroenterologists, liver specialists, endocrinologists, internists, parasitologists and allergists. I submitted to their pokes, prods and needles and waited for them to cure me. When Western medicine offered no answers I turned to alternative outlets. On Mondays I took the subway to see Dr. Ng in Chinatown who sent me home with packets of herbs and pills and a disgusting concoction of roots and fungi to brew into a nasty-tasting tea in a special Chinese teapot I bought from the front of her shop. On Tuesdays I saw an Upper West Side psychotherapist who focused on cognitive behavior therapy and tried to help me undo the reactions that my childhood medical trauma put into place. On Wednesdays I visited a homeopath in Chelsea for an IV vitamin drip. Thursdays I had a standing appointment for reflexology on Park Avenue South. Fridays I saw a new age chiropractor just below 14th Street. His favorite thing was to manipulate my back to “release negative emotions.” Although the physical pain he caused reduced me to tears, he assured me this was the path to wellness. In desperation I even tried to work on the phone in New York City with a healer in Hawaii.
Are you surprised when I tell you: None of these treatments made a difference?
My life became my illness; management of illness became my life. Still, no one could define what, exactly, was wrong with me. I dragged around a bony, exhausted and pain-filled body in the years I actually had the strength to drag around at all. I tried to keep up with graduate school and teaching duties at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but slowly everything unraveled. I was exhausted. I was losing even more weight. I was in pain. I could not focus. My body was lost in a chaos of its own and my psychological self was on the brink of destruction. My life was full of undefined illnesses that lead to more directly defined illnesses. My primary identity: patient.
I look back at those years now and wonder how it’s possible not one single practitioner over the period of ten years recognized my classic PTSD symptoms.
If anyone had suggested my maladies were all related to PTSD, if any single practitioner had asked the right questions, I might have been lead to my PTSD diagnosis much earlier, and then to healing. If I or my care providers had been educated about and aware of PTSD I would not have suffered so horribly for a full decade. My mental and physical health would have been healed and I would have moved on to a happier life instead of completely crashing the way I did.
But OK, it’s fruitless to perseverate about the past since there’s nothing we can do except LET IT GO.
Here’s the upside to what I’ve learned:
We – you and me and all of us here on the blog and in the LinkedIn PTSD support group (email me if you’d like to join, you do not need to be a LinkedIn member to participate) – can spread the word so that we and other people suffer less and heal sooner. Knowledge on any of our parts can immediately aid ourselves and/or those we love. As the old adage goes, “Knowledge is power.”
The nice thing is, we’re not the only ones doing this work. Check out this interview with Dr. David Clarke on Alicia Sparks’ Mental Health Notes blog (posted on 8/18/08). Entitled, They Can’t Find Anything Wrong!, Dr. David Clarke’s book speaks directly to the PTSD community about just our kind of physical symptoms and ailments. He covers "5 Types of Hidden Stress" and also offers "7 Keys to Understanding, Treating and Healing Stress Illness". (You can read the interview by clicking the title of this post.)
The bottom line is: We need to educate ourselves, and educate those who care for and about us. PTSD is the ghost in many examination rooms. We can bust it if we work together! First, we need knowledge. Then, we need to share it. Finally, we need to heal. And after that…. We need to advocate. We need to exit our isolation and speak out loud.
Talking to people (even those who do not have PTSD) helps educate us all. Plus, it has the added benefit of being an exercise that bridges the gap between PTSD isolation and the rest of the world. Choose one person to explain it to today. Who will it be?
Thursday, November 13, 2008
I will warn you that on the air the interviewer added to the original outline; the first 30 minutes are a detailed description of my trauma, Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis Syndrome.
Rather than subject you to this horrific and graphic description, I encourage you to fast forward the time stamp to 32:54 minutes; this is where the PTSD discussion begins. Or, all the way to 76:26, which is when the discussion turns to my ideas on healing PTSD.
One of the topics we didn’t get to discuss on air is the importance of PTSD education. Since this is an aspect of healing PTSD that I deeply believe in – the education of ourselves and of those living with, caring about and for us - I’m going to tackle it here today….
In the category of “Ooh, if only I knew then what I know now!” Or, “Why didn’t anyone ever mention that?” I offer the following story:
From the age of twenty-three to thirty-seven I was besieged by major illnesses. Epstein-Barr virus. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Celiac Disease. Mercury poisoning. Multiple sinus infections that finally lead to emergency surgery when the infection reached the brain barrier. My body was a host of various, uncontrollable problems. Then I took an antibiotic for a sinus infection and suffered an extremely adverse reaction to it.
Let’s pause for a moment here just to be clear:
In 1981 I took a routine antibiotic and suffered an extremely adverse reaction to it. Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis Syndrome is a rare illness (.5/million people annually); most doctors have never seen it, they do not know how to diagnose it, and it cannot be stopped. Once the illness begins there is no treatment for it; in worst case scenarios like my own, the victim becomes a full body second degree burn patient. We are given burn victim protocol and allowed to ride out the illness. The mortality rate is 40 - 70%. The biggest difference between life and death in this illness is the level of care.
In 1997, while the antibiotic adverse reaction was not as significant, it laid me up for a week. Just long enough for those parasites in my mind to go wild with an ecstatic source of their own nourishment. Another antibiotic, another reaction, another medical surprise, another fear, another trigger…. It was like a drunken frat party in my head.
While the reaction finally ceased, something in my body had been triggered and things were never the same. After that the annoying chronic illnesses went deeper, right into the organs that allow us to thrive. For the next seven years I suffered from a mysterious gastrointestinal disorder. I could barely eat. A part of my small intestine (we could see on the x-ray) had virtually shut down. In addition to that, my liver enzymes were skyrocketing, who knew why?
As the years dragged on my condition continued to defy medical knowledge. No one could find a cure for the host of food allergies I developed, the nausea, the cramping, the bloating; the incredible permeability of my gut that allowed no uptake of nutrients. I ate, and my body retained nothing. I was put on seventeen vitamins and supplements and prescription medications designed to nourish me and digest my food for me, and still, my calcium and magnesium remained dangerously low. My liver enzymes soared worrisomely high. Vitamin B counts barely made it onto the charts. I was at the borderline of anemia. My hair thinned. Test after test returned and now there were two kinds of bad news. The first, was some concrete problem. The second, was no problem at all, which meant there was nothing to cure although the problems persisted. Regardless of the hundred tests I was subjected to, I found no one to fix the systematic disintegration that brought my life down to a focus on calorie counting and wishful thinking. I was a medical anomaly, alone, a freak. Again.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Hello, Readers! Today marks my internet radio debut on Passionate Internet Radio Voices (PIVTR). I’ll be the featured guest on E. Everett McFall’s internet radio talk show, THE VETERANS FORUM. Join us today for a positive, proactive discussion about coping with and healing PTSD. Topics will include:
-- Educating sufferers, caregivers and careproviders about PTSD
-- Building a PTSD resource community
-- Necessity of sufferers participating in the healing process
-- Constructing a post-trauma identity
-- Committing to the pursuit of joy
-- Benefits of hypnotherapy
-- Living a joyful, PTSD-free life
The show airs live from 3:30 – 5:30pm EST, and can be downloaded at any time via the November 12 link on the PIVTR website.
To listen live: http://www.pivtr.com/
To download later: http://www.internetvoicesradio.com/Arch-Everett.htm
We will be taking on-air callers. If you wish to participate in the show, you may phone in toll-free at: 1866-977-4887.
I hope you'll call in and talk to us about bridging the gap between PTSD and a joyful life!
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
At a bridal shower this past weekend I met Becky, a vet who had been a nurse in Vietnam. We spoke at length about PTSD and the lack of public knowledge and awareness. We also spoke about how universal is ‘The PTSD Experience’. And we discussed something else that really shocked me to read recently, which is this:
"the V.A. requires that a Veteran has achieved one of several service ribbons in order to get PTSD benefits i.e. the Combat Action ribbon, Combat Infantry badge, Purple Heart, Bronze Star with V to name a few. However, for those that don't merit such an award by the military’s standards they are doomed to have to reconstruct their in-war stressor to prove they witnessed a horrific sight or came under fire."
This hardly seems fair. As all of us PTSD sufferers know, a trauma can be subtle, almost invisible to the human eye in some cases. To send our men and women into battle and not offer them equal support when they get home as we should be giving them on the battlefield is a horrible way to thank them for risking their lives. To demand that they prove they have been traumatized is criminal and ridiculous.
I was encouraged this morning to hear on the news about RESET, a new program being implemented by the military to offer psychological readjustment programs to returning soldiers and their families. Does anyone have info on this? I can’t find anything concrete and would like to know more. As we’ve all experienced, during trauma we do what we must to survive, but the cost of that to us afterward can be almost (if not more) psychologically damaging than the original trauma itself. Developing a program to directly address this issue would be of great benefit to military personnel as well as their families.
Finally, combat-related PTSD is getting a little bit more exposure, and from sources that could really help sufferers. Our new president elect, Barack Obama, was the co-author of a 2007 letter to Secretary Gates requesting an accounting from the Dept. of Defense on the number of psychological injuries sustained by service members since October 2001 and how the military reports on and invests in treating these less visible psychological injuries. The letter specifically mentions PTSD. The full text may be found here:
In the past year alone there have been several reports that diagnosed military PTSD cases jumped significantly, as much as 50% – that’s over 40,000 newly diagnosed military personnel, and that’s only reported cases. Here are links to 2 articles on this topic from May 2008:
Finally, Dr. Matthew Tull wrote a brief but good recently historical overview about PTSD in the military. Click here to view:
As I read these articles I’m wondering how military personnel feel about the care they receive, and also, how they feel about the experience of PTSD itself. Do they feel differently than we civilians do? It must be so difficult to survive the theater of war and the power of the enemy, only to return home and be undone by the power of your own mind. If any vets are willing to share their thoughts, please email me anytime.
Recently, I accepted an invitation to join the creative team of a new PTSD organization: Dream Peace Foundation. Launching in January 2009, the mission of this organization is the same as mine: to spread the word that PTSD is eminently treatable. I’ll write more on Dream Peace when it actually gets off the ground. For now, I’ll just add that a large part of its focus is to reach out to vets with combat-related PTSD. I’m hoping that some of our advocacy work will eventually include breaking the barriers to all military sufferers, regardless of whether or not their stressor meets military standards.
Tomorrow I’ll be the featured guest on E. Everett McFall’s internet radio talk show, THE VETERAN’S FORUM. We'll be discussing healing PTSD. The show airs live from 3:30 – 5:30pm EST, and can be downloaded at any time via the November 12 link on Passionate Internet Radio Voices (PIVTR).
To listen live: http://www.pivtr.com/
To download later: http://www.internetvoicesradio.com/Arch-Everett.htm
We have a lot of work to do, my fellow survivors! In order for us all to get the care we need and work our way toward a trauma/PTSD-free life, it’s imperative that we begin using our suffering toward a better end. We can do this by uniting together, whether through public organizations or our personal actions within our own worlds – or both! What can you do today?
Monday, November 10, 2008
In all sectors of society our traumas are individual (and yes, we are oh, so very special in our tragedies), but the more I talk to and hear from people of all backgrounds, the more I’m realizing how united we all are, despite country, culture, age, race, social orientation, etc. PTSD is an equal opportunity invader. We are all experiencing the same things in PTSD land: we have the same symptoms, the same distresses, the same weariness. Which means, we can find more strength and support in each other than I ever suspected. Our stories and experiences cross any perceived boundaries; regardless of the origin of our traumas, there are no state lines on the map of our suffering.
This has been a fascinating discovery for me. For the 25 years of my PTSD I felt so alone, so isolated and freakish in my symptoms, my dissociated fog, my psychologically and physically impaired functioning. And now… I’ve been approached to write about PTSD for a law enforcement newsletter, plus do an interview for a military radio show. I’ve been asked to write articles for other general PTSD websites, and I’ve been approached for an interview by a mental health writer. Do you see what I’m seeing here? We are a large, non-partisan, non-denominational group. We are not alone in our suffering – and we are not individual in it. We are walking around and through and past each other every day without even knowing it.
Recently, I read that the American Psychiatric Association did not formally recognize PTSD as a legitimate psychological affliction until 1980. But in the intervening years to 2008 not so much has changed in terms of how well prepared the medical and psychiatric industries are to help us. We can help them help us (to use a by now cliché Jerry Maguire reference) by being proactive about what our symptoms and suffering are, mean, and how they manifest. The more we reach out to each other and the world around us the stronger we will all be. Each of us can contribute to the collective good (and, by the way, bridge part of the PTSD gap between victim and society) by educating ourselves and everyone around us. That means learning as much as we can about PTSD’s symptoms, effects, treatments and cures so that we understand ourselves, and also, educating those who interact with us, which includes family, friends and the medical community.
Together we have pull. We have power. We have strength. If our voices rise up we can be heard. If we advocate for ourselves others will begin to advocate for us. Together we can bring PTSD to the forefront of medical and psychiatric thoughts, which would hopefully lead to more proactive, immediate, and deliberate treatment for all of us, including those who follow after.
Part of healing PTSD comes from reconnecting to the world at large, coming out of our trauma induced comas and resuming life with purpose, passion and promise. How can you do that? What one thing can you do to reach out today? How can you begin to bridge the gap?
Saturday, November 8, 2008
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.
“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.
Monday, November 3, 2008
“It was nothing! I can’t be hypnotized,” I conclude as Rich spoons homemade chicken and turkey meatball soup into my bowl. We are sitting in the lanai that overlooks the pool behind their house. The October evening air is cool and slightly stirring so that the pool water gently ripples. Baylee, plus their Maltese and Morkie, lays stretched out beneath the table. “I didn’t feel anything. It was a complete waste of time.”
Rich affects a dubious expression. A retired cop from New York City’s canine unit, he’s a strange combination of the best cook I’ve ever known, the most sensitive man I’ve ever met, and your typical bald-headed muscle man. He looks tough and sour, but he talks a lot and is comfortable with revealing himself and his emotions. On this topic, however, he’s uncharacteristically quiet.
“Tell her what you told me,” Carol prompts. She is the perfect pea in Rich’s pod. If ever there were two people who belong together, it’s these two. Their chemistry and love are visible. They have seen each other through some very tough times and are totally devoted to, in love with, and trusting of each other. When Carol suggests something, Rich listens.
“When I went for hypnotherapy,” he begins, “I didn’t feel some big shift either. The hypnosis itself seemed unexceptional. But I never did have another panic attack. I went once, and I never had a panic attack again.”
“Maybe it just takes a while for things to settle in,” Carol offers. “This woman is a professional, Michele. Trust that she’s done a good job.”
Carol is one of those people who are always optimistic. I don’t know how she does it. She knows suffering, and she knows tragedy and while I have become immersed in them, Carol rises above them despite these facts: When she was forty-two she lost her first husband (her high school sweetheart) to the long demise of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Two years later her fiancé died in 9/11. Her mother succumbed to Alzheimer’s a year after that. Then Carol met and married Rich, who had a stroke in the first few months of their marriage. All of this tragedy was in the space of five years.
“Don’t be too quick to judge,” Carol says. “Have faith. Wait and see.” Carol might possibly be the only person who can say this to me and I will acquiesce.
“Maybe,” I say. “OK.”
Of course, my submission might also have to do with Rich bringing out one of my favorite dishes that he makes: a baked, nut-crusted tilapia with mashed sweet potatoes in a sweet pepper sauce. I’ve already glimpsed the parfaits in the refrigerator for dessert. As I break off a piece of steaming, right-from-the-oven cornbread and slather it with butter, it’s pretty easy to set any doubts aside.
That night I crawl my overly stuffed self into bed with the usual resignation. I accept that the nightmare will come; I only hope I’ll be able to fall back to sleep afterward. Oddly though, I sleep deeply and undisturbed for seven hours straight and awaken the next morning feeling completely rested, as if I’ve just slept for a century. This strangeness continues for five nights. On the sixth morning I wake with an extreme feeling of profound mental and physical peace. I hasten myself to full awareness and take stock, trying to recall what would cause this feeling, but I can’t identify a specific fact. I have, it seems, just woken up feeling incredibly safe and secure. Unlike my usual immediate morning self, I am not already scanning my environment for what could go wrong, will go wrong, has gone wrong. I am not immediately surveying possible dangers, bolting shut the door to the past because something keeps pressuring the hinges, threatening to push through. I am not tense and anxious. I feel….. good. And also, optimistic in a vague, non-specific way. It has never occurred to me that everyone doesn’t wake up feeling the ominous fear I usually do. I’ve been waking that way for so many years I’ve accepted it as universal fact. But here I am after a single hypnotherapy session and suddenly all of that junk is gone. I am not afraid. I am not already feeling driven to produce something of meaning. The day begins; I am awake. That is production enough. I have the sense that everything is OK. More than that: it is OK for me to be OK. What the hell is going on?
I’m so peaceful that I spend the day walking around in a weird state of bliss. It’s occurring to me that my perceptions of what is normal are really, horribly off. There must be people everywhere who wake up this at peace on a daily basis. I could really start to groove on this new kind of existence.
Except that almost immediately this strange state of being makes me incredibly, exceedingly anxious. I feel like I’ve forgotten something very important and I’m going to remember it too late. Each morning I get out of bed slowly and go through my strength training workout waiting for the familiar rush of tension, but it doesn’t arrive. Instead, I spend the day in a state of suspended calm that continues into the following day and the day following that until all of this incredible calmness begins to really freak me out. I call Laura on her cell phone.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m feeling very strange.”
“This is going to sound crazy, but I’m feeling very, in my body, I mean, in my limbs – at peace. I feel more present in myself. I feel more comfortable in my own skin. As if I am who I should be.
As if I’m doing exactly what I should be doing. As if I don’t have a past that matters.”
“And this is bad?”
“Well, I’ve never felt this kind of serenity before.”
“That’s not strange, that’s good!”
“But I never feel at peace. I never feel as if everything’s all right. And now, somewhere deep
inside, this weird sensation of peace is radiating. I feel calmer than I can ever remember.”
“That was the goal.”
“I know, but all of this tranquility, it’s making me nervous.”
“How long will this feeling last?”
“I’m afraid it’s going to go away, so I don’t want to get too used to it.”
“Michele, everything you’re saying is completely normal. Hypnosis causes some immediate and some slower changes. We’re restructuring the 88% of your brain. You are going to begin noticing alterations in your behavior and your attitudes, in your beliefs and actions. Everything is all right! You should feel at peace! How are the nightmares?”
“I haven’t had a single one since I saw you.”
“Then relax and enjoy this new state of being! Get used to it; this is the new you.”
I tread carefully in my new self. I don’t trust it. I wait for it to abandon me at any moment. I am suspicious and disbelieving. I don’t imagine that you can be one person for twenty-five years and become another overnight. That defies the laws of sameness – or does it? Am I not a different person, but just a freer one? Am I the same person as I always was, only after 1981 I was carrying a lot of baggage and now I’ve relinquished some of it? All these years have I been the same self only hidden in trauma’s disguise?
This new sensation of calm stirs up a bunch of questions and possibilities. To begin formulating some answers I take my own pulse. While I feel completely different, I am not unfamiliar to myself. A quick run down of my likes and dislikes reveals no stark changes. A quick overview of my hopes and fears reveals they are all intact as well, although some of those fears have changed. I am still afraid of what the next medical mistake will be, but now it is a hypothetical fear, not one that I feel physically. So, maybe I am the exact same person, just with a different point of view. Maybe that’s all I’ve ever been. Maybe trauma causes a break in the narrative and when it resumes, the protagonist sees herself in a different way although her characteristics are still essentially the same. Or, maybe in my case, she sees herself for the first time and, having nothing to compare it to, gets lost in the fear of that perception when really, what she is seeing is only more of whom she was going to develop into had the plot not hiccupped along the way.
As Laura promised, it seems that hypnotherapy has already changed the perceptions and beliefs housed in my subconscious. It has, in effect, realigned me with my authentic self, the self I was before experience caused my perceptions to get muddled up. Maybe Laura has put me on the path to reclaim the essence of who I am – not a Before or After self, but an Always self that was never gone, only trapped behind, beneath, beyond, between the impressions of trauma.
Maybe all this time I’ve been searching too superficially for who I am. I have been evaluating physical signs and intellectual thought patterns, but the real evidence lies in some realm beyond the quantifiable. If the subconscious is the seat of the self, and if its natural state is a sort of omniscience, then all of these years I’ve been making a horrible mistake. I’ve been seeking myself in the entirely wrong place. I’ve been trying to get back to who I was before I was aware of myself, or trying to untangle the nervous self that resulted after trauma. Perhaps both of these are constructs of the good old ego voice romanticizing the girl who was vaporized in the hospital, and promoting the insanity of the woman who got lost in the mechanisms of how to cope. Perhaps a real identity is only found in the moment – the ever-changing moment responded to by a pristine, fundamental emotional cache housed in the subconscious mind. A cache that is instinctual; therefore primal; therefore everlasting.
Despite severe trauma, then, some untouched part of us always exists, locked up and shivering in the subconscious mind. The trick is to remove the chains and bars of experience so that the original, enduring self can come forward; so that we can supersede the warped self and reclaim whom we always have been.
Two weeks go by and I see Laura again. We continue rewriting my scripts, reprogramming the subconscious to stop protecting me and instead allow me to live wholly and fully, believing that I am healthy both physically and mentally. I begin to feel strange rushes of emotion. I am going about my business when all of a sudden I feel a surge of what I can only describe as happiness times ten, accompanied by a chaser of gratefulness for this new life I’ve carved out: for my house, for my family, for dance, for John, for my own determination to put an end to my suffering. As often as in the past I have been on the verge of spontaneous tears, now I’m on the verge of skipping and singing a psalm of praise for the sun, the beach, Baylee, Laura. It’s ridiculous and over the top, but I can’t help myself. What has Laura done to me? If this is who I am when the 88% is released from trauma, then identity really isn’t about finding some quality of sameness or a throughline but rather, getting back to basics; removing the shroud of experience and choosing who to be in any moment because the fundamental self remains constant and intact.
Two months pass. By Christmas I have seen Laura six times. The effects of her work deepen each week. After the initial settling of calm I began shedding, not exactly the past, but bits and pieces of armor I donned to protect myself from it. To remain unchanged by trauma is impossible, but hypnotherapy teaches me it is entirely possible to live without the effects. I am starting over, unifying the essence of who I was Before with whoever I might choose to become Now. I see myself as the human version of a tel, every persona building upon the one that came before, all unified through geography. Inside this dedication to joy I have excavated a buried self who so deeply believes in freedom and the possibility of its attainment that she is finally emerging and taking control. The war is ending. I feel my survivor self beginning to back down. I sense her retreat into the shadows. She is at peace. She will remain with me, but she has relinquished control to another self who desires to feel and experience and create joy.
In life as in dance, there is a lead and a follow. Since 1981 I have refused to respond to any lead at all. Every action requires a reaction, but my only action has been acceptance, which is really no action at all.
“You are responsible for yourself!” my dance instructor has been telling me lately. “Regardless of the lead, whether you like it or not, whether it is good or not, you must perform to the best of your ability.”
I have long known that I am responsible for my own healing, but the overwhelming pain sapped me of the strength it would take to perform the ritual of letting go. Joy has given me back my strength. That strength is finally setting me free.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
In a different, low and throaty voice, she says, “Close your eyes and listen to the sound of my voice.”
Laura hypnotizes me the same way that TA did in college.
“Move your body into a comfortable position and, Relax. In a moment I’m going to tell you to open your eyes, and then close your eyes. This will be a sign to your body to let go and relax. OK. Now. Open your eyes. And close your eyes. Feel your body letting go. Release all tension from your muscles. Feel your toes relax. And your ankles relax. Your shins relax. And your knees relax.”
Slowly Laura relaxes everything up through my scalp to the top of my head before she counts backward from 100 to 93. In my head, I am to repeat the numbers as she says them.
Next she says, “I want you to picture a room with an open roof. Place two chairs in the room. I want you to sit in one. In the chair facing you, place a repository box that has a red helium balloon attached to it. In the box I want you to put, one by one, all of your fear related to your illness, all of your anger, all of your sadness, all of your negative and disturbing emotions relating to 1981 and any health problems you’ve had since then. Put your pain in the box. Put your terror in the box. Put anxiety in the box. Put suffering in the box. Put all of those feelings you’ve had over the years into the box. When the box is full, close it and then let it lift up, through the open roof and watch it float away.
“Now, see you in the chair opposite. You are facing yourself and I want you to look at you and forgive yourself for all of the negative emotions you have felt about your illness. Forgive yourself for the pain and terror and fear. Forgive yourself for the sadness and illness and all other sicknesses. Forgive yourself for not being able to find a way to let it go. And I want you to tell yourself that it is OK to forgive anyone and everyone who has ever participated in causing these negative things that you have felt. Forgive your mother and your father. Forgive the doctors and the nurses. Forgive everyone who has knowingly or unwittingly contributed to your suffering. Now, I want you to hug yourself real tight, and then let yourself shrink up to an inch and land in your heart.” When Laura says the word ‘heart’ she touches two of her fingertips to my upper arm.
This whole time my eyes are closed and I am lying back in the recliner. I am disappointingly awake. While I did not expect to be asleep, I thought I would be at least in some state of altered consciousness. Instead, my mind’s critical factor seems hard at work. With every new image I work hard to create in my mind, the whole time I’m thinking this all seems like a childish and ridiculous exercise. My conscious mind is not at all fooled. This is all very nice, but I am still fully alert in a very critical way. In fact, I’m so critically aware that I’m thinking this is all some hoax; hypnosis is a sham. How can Laura effect anything when I am so totally and critically conscious? What happened to all that stuff about setting aside the conscious mind? I thought I’d be, as Laura informed me, awake and alert, but also, I thought I’d feel different somehow. Instead, my mind is still its usual busy self, coding and decoding all the information of every second. It is still focused enough to know that I’m listening and critiquing everything Laura says. It is still alert enough to conclude that this is not working. Shrink up to an inch? Put emotions in a repository box? Come on, lady, I want to say, bring on the good stuff! And then it dawns on me that maybe this is the good stuff and the problem is that I really am, as the TA decided all those years ago, unhypnotizable.
Laura, however, doesn’t seem to notice that things have gone astray. She continues to guide me into one visualization after another. Between each instruction she advises me to “Go deeper, and deeper, Relaxed.” She chants for a little while “attitude of gratitude, attitude of gratitude” and touches my arm. I find myself wondering what that’s supposed to mean. I’m on the verge of opening my eyes and saying, “Hey, we didn’t discuss this attitude of gratitude. What’s it about?” But I keep my eyes and mouth shut. This is all turning out to be a lot like the guided meditations we had in the playwriting course I once took where we laid all over the floor of a room, eyes closed, body relaxed, and invented characters based on the guided visualizations provided by the instructor. “Your character has a scar,” he would say, and we baby playwrights would dutifully imagine a scar somewhere on this hypothetical character’s body. So, I’m just in another guided meditation. I decide to accept it for what it is and resign myself to the role of simple observer. I’m disappointed, but I’ll just let Laura do her thing
Eventually Laura says, “The color for today’s program is the color red. Every time you see the color red in any shape or form today’s program is revitalized and reinforced. And any time you see the color red the effects of today’s program are doubled in your subconscious mind. In a moment I’m going to count to the number three. When I reach the number three and not before you will open your eyes and feel awake and alert and wonderful in every way. One. Feel the energy return to your body, moving up from the soles of your feet. Two. Your eyes feel as if they’re being bathed beneath the water of a cool mountain stream. Get ready now. Three. Open your eyes. Feel your body refill with a wonderful energy. You are awake and alert and feeling wonderful and marvelous in every way.”
By the time it’s all over hypnosis has been a very pleasant and (forgive me) relaxing, experience. Since I’ve been so conscious the whole time, I’m surprised, as I open my eyes, to I feel as if I’m waking up from a nap. My eyelids are heavy and I feel a little disoriented in the room. I feel the urge to stretch. I look at Laura. She smiles.
“That was very good,” she says, patting my hand.
“It was. We did some good work.”
“I thought I’d feel something that would make me know we’d done such good work.”
“How do you feel?”
I shrug. “A little groggy.”
“How long do you think that hypnosis session lasted?”
I check my infallible internal clock. “About fifteen minutes, maybe less.”
Laura’s smile gets wider. “It was almost forty minutes. Under hypnosis your usual critical faculties don’t function normally. Your sense of time, for example, is impaired.”
But I’m not convinced. Maybe I was just tired and drifted off a little while, although I’m pretty sure I remember everything Laura said. Anticipating this meeting I imagined there would be some physical, mental or emotional experience that would signal a huge turning point in my healing process. I want a sign. At the very least, I thought I would feel like I’d been hypnotized. But I don’t. Laura has turned on the overhead light now and I am pretty sure I feel exactly the same.
Laura, however, seems pleased. As she walks me out of the building she is full of cheery support and encouragement. When we say good-bye she envelopes me in a huge embrace, hugging me with sincere affection.