Wednesday, March 25, 2009

PTSD Healing: Alone in a Crowd

Two years ago my neighbor’s husband passed away. J. had nursed him through 18 months of a traumatic illness and now here she is, middle aged and suddenly alone. Adapting to this loss and her new status as widow has been difficult for her. She doesn’t like being in the house alone. She keeps the television on 24 hours a day so she feels like there’s another presence in the room. She doesn’t sleep – mostly because the television is on, but she can’t stand the silence when she turns it off.

The first year after the death she says, “Is just a fog. And then it takes the whole next year to hate what life in your head has become. And then,” she says, laughing now, “It takes a whole other year to figure out what to do about it.”

J. doesn’t have PTSD, but she is having a very tough time grieving and her experience is PTSD-like, even down to the fibromyalgia she’s developed from the stress of what goes on in her head. Not that you would know any of this if you met her. She is always showered, dressed and put together. She cheerfully walks her Shitzu around the neighborhood and chats with a smile to anyone she meets. But as she told me last night, “Just because I’m not crying doesn’t mean I’m well.”

Her words hit a powerful chord with me. Outside of my family, people who have known me for years were shocked to discover I’d had PTSD since the first day they met me. Like J., I covered my pain for the public. I laughed (hollowly, but strangers can’t know that) and joked around and smiled and entertained and carried on and moved forward without anyone suspecting the hell that was going on in my head. I didn’t seek to alleviate the pain. I learned to mask and deal with it.

J. is not like that. While I concealed my issues to the world and to myself, J. keeps up a good front to the world and is taking really good care of her private self. She sees a hypnotherapist. Even though she’s Jewish, she goes to a healing ceremony in a local church once a month. She attends healing lectures and has developed a wide base of friends in the healing industry. She surrounds herself with others who have a positive healing perspective. While I isolated myself in my pain J. has constructed an entire healing community. Last night she invited me into it.

If you know anything about equinoxes you know that last night was the vernal equinox. Means nothing to most of us, but to healers and shamans it has important mystical and healing properties. When J. asked me to accompany her to a Vernal Equinox Healing Ceremony I saw this as an opportunity to learn more about how people can heal together; how when we reach out and join the crowd our healing can progress.

It’s not easy to join a group you don’t know. It’s especially hard to walk into a room full of strangers when we’re not feeling 100%, but there’s something you should know about the healing community: when you identify the right group to join, it’s like coming home. You don’t walk into a room full of strangers; you walk into a room full of friends you haven’t yet met.

J. and I drove about ½ an hour to Wellington, FL, which is horse country. We arrived at a ranch style home that opens out to pool behind which is a canal. The interior of the house was softly lit and mystical music was playing, the kind music that is found on rainforrest CDs. The house is owned by Bob and Marla, a husband and wife team who run the Wellington Hypnosis Center. Marla is also a shaman. They're both former school teachers from New York City.

I won’t go in to all of the details of the evening, which included 'smudging' (Marla waved sweetgrass and sage smoke at me with a feather to cleanse my aura), plus a group meditation, drum circle and fire ceremony. OK, I'll be honest here: I’m skeptical about these things. The idea of group ritual makes me uneasy. I’m not into manufactured healing and I’m not much of a team player anyway. By nature I’m a loner, so the group aspect of things is something I usually stay away from. If you're thinking that smudging sounds a little out there, I'm with you all the way.

But, I enjoyed last night’s organized practice. First of all, there was a great sense of easy camaraderie in the group. Everything was low key. No one was proselytizing their path to wellness. Instead, the minute I walked into the house people spoke to me as if they’d only just seen me yesterday and we were picking up the conversation where we left off. I did not at all feel new, judged or unfamiliar in the group structure.

Second of all, no one discussed why they were there. Everyone had his or her own reasons and it was fine to keep them private. Third, this was not some wacky, way out group or extreme ritual or cult-like experience. Since I felt completely at ease I could focus on what was happening rather than preparing to make a run for it. For the first time I understood the group meaning of ceremony and it happens to be something I’ve loved my whole life: The tacit agreement of a bunch of strangers to willingly experience the exact same thing in the exact same moment. It's what I love about theater, concerts and sporting events - that feeling of all these anonymous people choosing to come together.

What I realized last night is that the ritual group ceremony isn’t necessarily designed to indoctrinate us into something so much as it is to create an experience in the moment in which everyone transcends what’s in his or her head to experience something collectively. That’s it. Nothing hokey about that. It grounds us in the present and gives us some time away from the past. As I sat as part of a circle shaking a gourd with a sort of hairnet of beads while we each with our separate instruments created a rhythm together without any musical direction, I realized that the point was to be in the moment and connect my energy and my intention with this gourd, to the rest of the group.

Later, we all took turns kneeling in front of a fire, waving the heat of the flames toward our solar plexus, heart and third eye chakras and then putting into the fire a piece of paper on which we’d written our intention about something we’d like to change. Sounds odd, yes? Sure it does. But as we stood there in a circle outside and the wind blew through palm trees and rippled the pool, we were each separate in our thoughts and intentions but together in our focus on healing.

And this is what reaching out can all be about. It’s about being allowed to retain your privacy and individuality while becoming a part of something greater and beyond the world that’s in your head. It’s about feeling you’re not alone, and about seeing other people who are also struggling and doing something constructive about it. It’s about bridging the gap between yourself and the world, yourself and other survivors, your isolation and the friends who are waiting to meet you.

After the ceremony we all hung around having a bite to eat and talking about…. Anything. Work, experiences, goals. We were all easy friends, and so I learned another value of the group ritual experience: it gives you a common, unspoken bond with perfect strangers. Everyone is respected for the private journey and regarded with esteem for being on the path.

And so here I am this morning wishing I had figured out all of this when I was really in deep PTSD pain. Despite the inevitable resistance that I would have mounted, I wish that I would have forced myself to go and watch and participate at any level I felt comfortable until I could relax enough to fully engage.

A survivor friend of mine is just now beginning to learn to meditate, which we hope will alleviate her stress and help her find a way to reconnect with her essential peace. She wrote me yesterday, “Meditation is so HARD!” to which I replied, “Yes! When you begin a new practice it is difficult, but it’s like any exercise: you have to stretch and limber up the muscle before you see improvement.”

This is true about any practice of healing. We will resist it. We are not limber. We are emotionally brittle and out of shape. But if we force ourselves to go to the gym, our bodies become flexible. And if we force our minds and emotions through the exercise of reaching out and expanding our healing world, we get more flexible in this practice, too.

As I knelt in front of the fire last night, all by myself, with the group in a circle watching me, I felt disconnected and a desire not to connect. I went through the motions of pulling the heat to the chakras, ending with the third eye when you put your hands on your forehead. And as I pressed my cool fingertips against the skin it felt good and peaceful and I lingered there for a few seconds feeling the pressure of my own hands and also, feeling the protection of the group as they silently stood around me. And I thought, “This is why we reach out; to be protected by the presence of others while we reconnect with our own inner self.”

(Photo: Swren)

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