Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Healing PTSD, Resolution #1: How To Build Self-Belief

On the worst day of my traumatic illness I felt myself dying – and I was happy about it. I no longer wanted to fight against what was happening to me, I no longer believed I would or could win; I no longer had the strength to rise up and resist the powerful flow of horrific events that were rendering me powerless.

And then I did, because my mother demanded that I try. She did not accept my non-belief in myself. She did not accept that I would let myself be carried away on a tide to non-being. She challenged me to believe in myself and in response to her unrelenting belief, I developed my own; some Superself in me rose up against what was happening and I survived.

And then I spent the next 25 years believing that that moment of surviving defined me. Believing that moment with my mother engaged some powerful self I never could engage (much less daily live as powerful as) again. I was so unconfident in myself that I constantly devised little tests to see if I could reach that extreme state of strength again. You can imagine what a sick way to live this became.

So, when it came time to heal PTSD I wasn’t exactly a candidate who was so grounded in her own self-belief that healing was a sure and easy path. I had to develop my belief. I had to find ways to increase it little by little. One thing that really helped me was to develop a new perspective about myself in my trauma. For example, instead of seeing that Superself as an aberration of me, I saw her as a part of me. I began to think of her as this dormant force I carried in me to be called upon and used whenever I really needed her.

Also, I began to see my ability to survive (and carry on and achieve a higher education, a career, etc.) as a strength. All of those PTSD years I felt like I was just coping, but I was also getting an MFA, carving out a career in New York City and managing to keep my PTSD insanity just controlled enough so that I continued to function (albeit not always well, and not always up to the pace, speed and standards of the rest of the world).

The point is, in order to heal we need to believe in ourselves and our own strength. Because trauma and PTSD rob us of good feelings about ourselves and our own power, it is necessary to proactively build back self-belief. Here’s an exercise designed to do just that:

1. Make a list of things you have done since your trauma. What have you achieved? Really think about this – and think outside the box. Careers and money are not the only achievements that matter. Perhaps you’ve raised a family, or taken care of an elderly parent. Maybe you’ve just held yourself together and averted a complete psychotic meltdown – that counts! Maybe you’ve coped with PTSD and still found time to volunteer somewhere. I don’t care what you put on the list. I do care that you make a list. Take some time to make a timeline. Begin with the date of your trauma and go until today. List everything you've ever achieved. For example, my timeline would look like this:

1981 Survive trauma
1986 Graduate high school
1990 Graduate college; land first job
1994 First stageplay produced
1998 Enter trauma therapy
2000 Launch new career
2001 Publish first trauma poem
2004 Graduate graduate school
2005 Relocate to Florida; receive PTSD diagnosis
2007 Heal PTSD

2. Stop to think about the strength you can already see you possess. What does your timeline look like? We are all so busy coping we forget to appreciate what we’re doing while we’re coping. We hold jobs, kick addictions, seek help and never stop to think about the strength it took to do any of that. But we should! Every small thing we do, whether it’s getting out of bed, finding a therapist or closing the deal of the century, is a measure of the strength we have. And where there is a little bit, there is a whole reserve that can be tapped. Look at your timeline; next to each achievement write down the positive traits and characteristics it represents. For example, mine would look like this:

1981 Survive trauma -
will to live, strength, courage, ability to transcend
1986 Graduate high school -
ability to focus & follow through
1990 Graduate college; land first job -
ability to achieve, desirable job candidate
1994 First stageplay produced -
creative, team player
1998 Enter trauma therapy -
realistic, brave, hopeful
2000 Launch new career -
resilient, daring, curious
2001 Publish first trauma poem -
accessing quiet voice, ability to speak out, unnumbing emotion
2004 Graduate graduate school -
multi-tasker, self-developing, stretching beyond comfort zone
2005 Relocate to Florida; receive PTSD diagnosis -
seek new experiences, good at life overhaul
2007 Heal PTSD -
work hard although frightened, push through

Look at the good traits I’ve had over the years! But guess what? I never saw myself that way. I saw myself as psychotic, depressed, unable to be happy or live like those around me. I saw myself as damaged beyond repair and in a perpetually necessary cycle of having to repeatedly test myself to see if I would be (both physically and emotionally) ready to survive again.

Beginning my path to healing made me recognize that I could not be well if I did not believe in me and the power of my own self. You need to do that, too. After surviving a trauma we are so stunned and paralyzed we don’t realize the immense STRENGTH it took to survive, which means we are innately strong – strong enough to do anything. Strong enough to heal. In fact, healing may take longer than the trauma, but it will so much easier than what we originally survived. It will require more work but will transform us into better people in the exactly inverse proportion that trauma transformed us into less.

Make your timeline today. Start to appreciate who you are beneath the veneer of PTSD. You are a survivor. You are a force. Use that to your healing advantage. Use it to believe in yourself and your ability to heal.

(photo: jimmiehomeschoolmom)


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Michele Rosenthal said...

@ Susan - Hello! Thanks for stopping by. If you've jetted around the blog you've seen how deeply I believe in hypnosis. I think healing must be approached on both the conscious and subconscous levels. By using methods for both I finally was freed.