Friday, March 13, 2009

PTSD Healing: The 5Ws of Reaching Out

I had a friend in college, her name was Sarah. Sarah was always depressed. We were friends because we had a class together, and she was also the friend of a friend. She was a nice girl, really willing to be helpful and a good study partner, so for a while we spent a lot of time together – until: Until her depression was oozing so much over me I couldn’t stand being around her.

Does that sound harsh? It really isn’t. I’m the first person to say we all need to be present in our emotions and face them head on. And I’m the first one to sit down and listen, or lend an ear, a hand, a shoulder. But with Sarah her depression was all consuming. She never stepped out of it for even one second. Being with her was like spending time with Eyeore. Soon, I began dreading getting together because by the time we parted I felt like the weight of the world sagged on my shoulders and the skies were black as tar.

I didn’t need to feel this way. The problem was that I lacked the skills to erect boundaries that insulated myself from Sarah’s dark mood. How does this relate to PTSD healing? I’m so glad you asked….

When we approach the step of reaching out we have to do so while consciously putting in place boundaries to keep ourselves safe. A few thoughts on The 5Ws of reaching out:

We choose whom to connect with, when, where, why, what to discuss and how much. Before we go into any new situation or interact with any new people or environments we have to have clear boundaries in our own minds about the lengths to which we will 1) reach out, 2) let other people reach in. Think about these things before you become involved in any group or community.

Who – Your time and your mind are precious. Reaching out is not a free for all where anyone can be involved. Choose the type of people you want to connect with by considering:

1 – background: seek people who are like you, ie. if you are sober, find a community who is also addiction-free. The last thing you need on your healing path are people whose actions are impediments to their own and your healing progress.

2 – experience: find people similar to your situation today, and/or yesterday’s trauma. It’s necessary to be around people who understand you. If you struggle with PTSD, find others who do, too. You can also join a group related to your particular trauma. The more people we have who can inherently understand us the more free we feel to express our experience.

3 – perspective: Don’t surround yourself with a bunch of Sarah’s. Join groups and interact with people whose vision is one of healing and positive growth. You will not heal if you are in the midst of others who are dedicated to preserving and chewing over their traumas instead of learning how to move on.

When – Life is all about balance; so is healing. There’s a time to:

1 – connect: Schedule a certain amount of time each week to participate in online forums or in person support groups. This is the time you set aside to focus on healing in this environment and exploring your emotions and thoughts with others.

and also a time to

2 – disconnect: Much of healing takes place alone while we process what we have discussed, learned or experienced. This time is valuable and needs to be regarded and honored with care. Reaching out is great; reaching in is necessary, too.

Where – The actual location of your connections is critical to the success of this part of the healing process. It’s very important to do this in an environment in which you feel safe. If, for example, hospitals are a trigger for you, joining a support group that meets at the local hospital may not be the best place for you to seek connection. Likewise, if you’re in a cyber café, that may not be the best time to enter an online forum. I received a quick note from a survivor yesterday: ‘In a public place, so I can’t write much.’ If you feel like people may be looking over your shoulder you’re not going to be comfortably or wholly engaged. What’s the point then, of reaching out?

Why – Remember you have a goal in this reaching out process: it’s to bridge the gap between yourself and the rest of the world by engaging in conversations that illuminate the universal experience and also allow you to talk about your own personal journey so that your healing may progress. Don’t get distracted from your goal. Each time you engage in a group session or online forum approach the connection with questions you want to ask, information you wish to collect, experiences you want to share. Healing is about focus. Keep yours.

What – There are limits to what you want to discuss; map them out for yourself ahead of time. For example, you’ll notice I never discuss my illness. I refer to it, but I never go into detail. Why? It’s not because I can’t talk about it; I have evolved to the point that I can freely chat about all of its gruesome details. The reason I don’t is because that’s not where I want my focus to be. My focus is on healing; I don’t want myself or anyone else distracted by delving deep into my trauma. You can do this, too. You are in charge here; it’s your decision how much or how little detail you divulge in any group setting. It is important to engage and be open enough for people to have a person with whom to connect, but it is not necessary to relinquish details you’d rather not highlight. Focus, again, becomes key. How you focus your conversation is where people will follow. Be clear in your intention.

How much, how often and how far you will go into any discussion is entirely up to you. You can join a group and never speak at all for the first few months. You can speak often but withhold your most deep thoughts. Or, you can plunge headlong into letting people immediately know you thoroughly. You have to decide your beginning comfort level and then increase your engagement as your comfort grows.

There’s a lot to think about at every part of the healing process. Take your time. Look at each piece slowly and observe how you feel and what your opinions are. We’re so often lost in a PTSD brain fog; developing the ability to imagine, observe and assess our thoughts and feelings is an important exercise. Applying it to the reaching out process is a simple way to begin moving to the edge of the mist and then one day, stepping out of it.

(Photo: Imapix)


gynophile said...

Boyy !! Quite an insight !!

Michele Rosenthal said...

@gynophile -- at least suffering comes with knowledge, otherwise it would be completely unbearable afterward!

gynophile said...

The suffering part generally overshadows the knowledge one except if you've survived this ordeal of suffering. We seldom realize the sensibilities and knowledge that comes with the sufferings. Even I'm too busy counting the bruises. But then maybe God made us this way !!!!

Elizabeth Stanfill said...

Hi Michele,

This is really good advice for the healing of PTSD and the healing of many other disorders. In fact, setting boundaries is excellent advice for the general population, personally and professionally.


Michele Rosenthal said...

@Elizabeth - It helps us destress, doesn't it, but creating a space that's just our own...

Michele Rosenthal said...

@gynophile -- or, maybe we get to a place where we stop counting the bruises and start recognizing the knowledge and then use what we've learned to help us heal. it could happen that way, couldn't it? That's what I finally did.

giving up is not an option! said...

really good insight and advice; thanks michele!