Wednesday, February 11, 2009

PTSD Healing: Getting the Story Straight, Or: 3 Tips For Outlining Your Story


With PTSD our minds are all over the place, ricocheting like pinballs from one memory to the next, from one trigger to another. In order to stop the blinking, flashing lights and the (really annoying) pings, bloops and squawks, we need to take control. We need to have a plan. In every aspect of healing it helps immensely to have an outline of what we’re doing so that when the ruckus gets distracting and overwhelming we can go back to the plan, refocus, regroup and relaunch our healing mission.

Today, a plan of attack for telling the story.

First, let’s just get out of the way how difficult it is to imagine telling the story at all. I know that. You know that. But we can’t heal if we can’t speak. And we cannot speak to someone trained to help us if we cannot speak to ourselves. And we cannot speak to ourselves if we can’t organize the thoughts, memories and emotions into a coherent, controlled stream. Learning to fulfill PTSD Healing Resolution No. 2 means we will have to first learn to tell the story in the privacy of our own minds.

The goal in the BRIDGE THE GAP healing workshop is to construct a post-trauma identity, one that will replace the survivor, PTSD self, with a resilient, strong, healed, forward-instead-of-backward looking persona. Who do you want to be? Who might you have become if trauma and PTSD had not got in the way? We’re here to bridge those gaps together and begin a new life in a direction created by you.

In order to build a solid foundation for your post-trauma identity, you need to see the whole picture. You need to see your Before, During and After selves. This is a convenient strategy for learning to tell the story, too. There’s no need to jump into trauma head first or to end it with a bang. We can work our way up to it and then slowly come down from it.

Traditional plot structure (per Aristotle, in case you’re interested) looks like a triangle. It begins with rising action, hits the peak of climax, and then coasts toward denouement, which is the final resolution of a dramatic event. You’ve been working for the past week or so gearing up to put the story together. Well, the moment is here: It’s time to take the memories you’ve been flirting with and get them in line.

Here are 3 convenient ways to push the plot along to help you learn, frame and tell your story:

1 – Who you were before your trauma occurred? Think carefully about yourself before your traumatic event. What do you remember about life Before? What do you remember about who you were? Visualize what you looked like the day/hour/moment before your trauma. Don’t worry if you don’t specifically remember. (I, actually, have very few specific memories of myself Before.) These can be vague impressions or specific recollections. Try to flesh out a picture of your personality and traits. If you were too young to have a clear idea of any of this, imagine who that small child was. Our memories do not have to be perfect; they correlate to feelings and it is those emotions that are our guide and the crux of where healing needs to begin.

2 – Who were you as your trauma occurred? Who did you become During the event? What did you do? Put the chronology of events in order, moment by moment as best you can. Include your own actions, thoughts, and emotions. You survived, there’s something very heroic in that. Don’t forget to include in your recollections the fact that you endured. If you look at the event from this perspective – your heroic survival – you may begin to gain some objectivity that could lessen the intensity of emotion and allow you the comfort of distance in telling the story as it unfolds. Try thinking of the whole experience in the third person first. As in, "she ran out of the room" instead of "I ran out of the room". You can come back to first person language later.

3 – Who have you become since you survived? Who are you After? Telling the story doesn’t culminate just with the trauma itself. In order to get the help we need to heal we must be able to coherently explain what we struggle with. This means how the trauma continues to affect us. We all know the usual symptoms of PTSD – insomnia, emotional numbing, nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance/hyperarousal, avoidance, intrusive thoughts – how are these things manifesting in your life today? Take a good look at yourself and identify what about the trauma is causing these reactions. It’s easy to say, “It’s the whole trauma”, but that’s too simple. There are always specific moments that embed themselves more deeply than others. For example, I felt myself leave my body. That single moment changed my life forever. It is a memory that haunted, terrified and drove me (insane) on a daily basis. To just say that my trauma caused my flashbacks would not correctly pinpoint the what about my trauma that did that. The more specific we can be in telling the story the more practitioners and therapists will be able to help us, and help us more quickly.

[If you can already tell yourself the story, take it one step further: Flesh out the details of the most traumatic moment. Until we have no more symptoms of PTSD we are still in process and that means there’s more work to be done. Dig deeper. Look closer. Get to the nitty-gritty of what has a hold of you.]

I know this is a lot to do. I did it myself, so I know it’s tough and you need to sort of think about it for a while before you actually make the move. That’s okay. Part of healing is thinking things through. That’s a power; that’s a strength. We’re developing new muscles of control – that’s a good thing! Don’t shy away from it because it’s difficult. Healing trauma means making peace with experience, which means being able to reframe and reperceive it in a way that is non-toxic. This is a process we must move through in order to get to the next level of healing. Look at it this way: We are detectives in our own healing case. Getting the story straight gives us clues to what and where we are most in need of investigating. Getting a good look at these details can break the case wide open.

Go on. You can do it. I believe in you.

(photo: saxsolrac)

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

What a great exercise. We can truly see how the symptoms become who we are if we do not address them. At first they are symptoms and if they linger too long they become who we are and that is why it is sooo important to heal.

Thank you Michele.

Elizabeth