Friday, February 13, 2009

PTSD Healing: Wrestling With the Words

It’s great to organize all of the troubling thoughts and memories in our heads. That's the whole point of the work we’ve been doing with PTSD Healing Resolution No. 2. Gaining control over the things that swirl is the first step toward freedom. But that’s only the beginning.

Next, we need to pin down the memories on the mat. To conquer the past we must prove ourselves stronger that it is. And we are stronger – even if it doesn’t feel like it! We are in the present. The past only continues to affect us because … Well, the truth? Because we let it, subconsciously or otherwise. Creating your future means consciously choosing to move beyond trauma and build a new life. Learning to speak about the past is a major step toward that action.

Once you have a general idea and ability to conjure and organize the memories, it’s time to get them out of your head (that’s the ultimate goal anyway, right?). Step #2 in our I WILL TALK resolution is to begin putting it all down on paper. When people want to communicate clearly and effectively they don’t just ramble off the top of their heads; they write speeches so that in the moment their thoughts are focused and follow an explicit order. Today, that’s your task, too: begin getting the words out and down.

The key here is to solely focus on retelling the story of your trauma itself. Take some time today to sit down and write it out. Use details. Set the scene and then in plain language explain what happened. Utilize the flowing structure of the writing we’ve done in the past and just begin to write. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or syntax. Begin writing and let the words flow and don’t edit yourself – we’ll do that later. Don’t set a timer for this exercise, but do give yourself a boundary. Say, 60 minutes. Know that you will have a completed draft by then and force yourself to stick within the limit. (Of course, if you get going and need to go beyond the time limit, keep it up! But know that within 60 minutes you must have put something of the whole story on the page. If your trauma lasted over a series of days or years you may need more than one writing session to get the whole overview done. Working in 60 minute intervals will control the amount of time you spend in the past.)

Plan ahead: When you’re finished writing, give yourself a reward. Go to the movies. Meet a friend. Call a buddy. Listen to your favorite music. Watch television. Read a book. As you would cool down your body from exercise, do this for your mind, too. Get close to the memories, and then put something between you and them. Writing out the story is not an easy task, but it is the beginning of regaining your power. Word by word you can take back yourself, your life and your future. Do it gently and pamper yourself.

If this exercise seems too difficult, trust me – you can do it. Sit down. Try it. If you can’t follow through the first time. Walk away. Think about it. Go back the next day and try again.

When I’m in pilates class the teacher always shows us the most difficult position, and then offers a modification of it. So, here’s a modification if you’re not ready for the advanced position yet:

Don’t write in the first person; write in the third person instead. Remove yourself from the event and it will be easier to look at and write about. Instead of saying, “I walked down the street,” say, “The young girl walked down the street.”

Changing to a distant pronoun is a way to ease into taking an objective look at yourself and your circumstances. My entire graduate school thesis – a book of poems dealing with my original trauma and PTSD – was originally written in the third person, about a man because I just simply could not get that close to myself. That’s okay. These things take time. Eventually, you’ll be able to write out the whole story.

Need an example to get started? Here’s an excerpt from my own:

The hospital staff remained woefully behind predicting or salving this rare illness’ progression. Ultimately, my parents became the primary managers of my care. They were the ones who ceaselessly researched and predicted; who turned my quarantined room into a burn unit through sheer instinct and will.

They worked as a team, my mother inside the room, my father in the domain beyond the door. My mother directed the staff and devised creative ways to get things done. To move me from one position to another, to avoid the insertion of a feeding tube, or to insert an IV when there was no unaffected skin in which to stick a needle – my mother was the presence in the room that figured out how to do the impossible with the least amount of pain. Meanwhile, my father corralled doctors, hired burn unit nurses, and tracked down leads and medications. My parents didn’t panic. They didn’t cry. They didn’t wail, moan, carry on or wring their hands. Instead, they got to work and became my advocates and nurses; the cheerleaders whose voices would guide my way.

The first two nights in the hospital were uneventful. My parents set up cots in my room so they could sleep beside my bed. We were waiting. I was taking massive doses of Prednisone and Benadryl in an attempt to stop the allergy from escalating. My parents met with doctors and hired nurses to care for me around the clock. Specialists examined me. Everyone prepared for what he or she thought might come.

Mostly, I lay in bed with my eyes closed. The headache had become so intense that the smallest noise was too much. The blisters on my lips and torso continued to develop, but they were small, still only the size of chicken pox, an illness of which I had fond memories since my brother and I had it together and spent most of our days at home driving my mother crazy by jumping on the beds and blowing up balloons that we let fly around the room while the air escaped and we doubled over with laughter.

The word bulla was never mentioned.

The words possibility of infection were not spoken.

I lay in my standard issue hospital bed thinking these little blisters and this big headache were as bad as things would be. And then things happened that made me understand otherwise.

See? Not so tough in the end. Focus on the details and let them guide your way. You’re a detective, remember? Writing about a scene. Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts. Just you, the facts, and a pen and paper. Nothing so scary about that. You are in a safe place. You are creating your future by exorcising the past. Think about that, and then get to work!

(Photo: CrotchSplay)


Elizabeth Stanfill said...


You truly are an inspiration. Thank you for sharing and leading the way.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your very kind comments about my dealings with C's PTSD.

After browsing your site for only a few moments I see I will need to start at the very beginning and read every ounce of it.

Information is the key. Know your enemy.

-chris, aka greyrabbit