Wednesday, March 11, 2009

PTSD Healing: Join the Right Crowd, Or: How To Choose A Good Online Support Group

My parents met when they were 18 in their first month of college at the University of Georgia in 1959. They’ve been together ever since. (Well, except for the 2 weeks they split up because my father thought they were falling in love too fast. Men.) My brother and I grew up hearing the most wonderful and fun stories of my parents’ years together at UGA. The excitement of football games (Go dawgs!) and sock hops and, most of all, the fabulousness of Greek life. The parties, the camaraderie, the sorority and fraternity houses… this was the lore of Eileen and Gary’s college romance.

No surprise I grew up thinking my college experience would be the same: meet the perfect guy my first month of school, fall in love, join a sorority, root for a nationally celebrated football team. Aaaaah, fantasy.

I did fall in love the first month – with a guy who was utterly controlling and chauvinistic (don’t ask what I loved about him, PTSD makes you love for all the wrong reasons). And I did go to football games, but the school was incredibly academic and the football players were…. at any other school the kids who spent too much time in the library – not an exciting bunch to watch.

Finally, too, I did join a sorority. With my mother’s stories tucked into my mind, I became an AEPhi sister and --- HATED EVERYTHING ABOUT SORORITY LIFE. I’m not much of a girl’s girl. I’m not interested in talking about men, relationships, makeup or shopping. I’d rather talk about literature, the philosophy of identity and the theory of quantum mechanics than the latest shoe sale. I don’t care what shade of lipstick is the next hottest thing; I want to know what you think of Wislawa Szymborska’s poem, ‘Under One Small Star’. (No, really, I do want to know, so leave a comment if you read it, it's one of my all-time favorites.)

The point is, I joined the sorority because I’d heard it was such a great thing to be a part of, and then I discovered it wasn’t the group for me.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about how important it is to reach out in the healing PTSD process. The PTSD experience is isolating, the symptoms make us feel awkward and ‘other’. It’s important to bridge the gap between ourselves and the rest of the world and joining a support group is an important aspect of this BUT: it has to be the right group.

The group referrals I give in these posts are ones I’ve carefully vetted. I’ve visited a lot of online sites and I’ve developed a sort of system for deciding how they rank:

1 – Is there a moderator looking over my shoulder every 5 minutes? I don’t like feeling like someone’s judging what I’m saying even as I’m saying it. I want to be trusted. I’m honorable and respectable. I take care of other people’s feelings and am sensitive to what might upset or offend. This isn’t high school. I don’t want a proctor while I’m writing from my darkest gut.

2 – Are the people in the forum of the right background? I need to be in a group where people have had similar experiences to me. A group full of people who experienced one trauma that has nothing to do with mine is going to be a potential waste of my time. I need a group who's all experiencing what I'm experiencing today. Otherwise, it’d be like going out with a group of people who’d all gone to a different high school. They’ll talk about the good old days and who did what to whom and I’ll sit there waiting for the conversation to get to the good stuff.

3 – Are the people in the forum of the right personality? I dated a guy once who had anger issues. When we were just colleagues, I didn’t notice it so much. When the romance began and I was brought deeper into his world I met his friends and guess what – most of them were hard, angry, abrasive people, too. What a surprise, huh? If the survivors in a forum are angry, agitated people that’s not going to do you any good. The forums in which I participate are full of emotionally aware yet for the most part centered people. This means we all feel good being around each other day after day.

4 – Are the people in the group of the right mindset? One of the first things I did was join a group for people who survived my exact trauma. It’s a rare illness, so the choice of groups is incredibly small. There’s, like, one. So I joined and thought I’d really find support. What I found instead was a bunch of people committed to holding on to their trauma. They live in fear the illness will occur again, they exhaustingly try to keep up with research to figure out why it occurs at all, and they indulge each others’ sinking into the muck every second. I hated it. I grew to dread going into the forum. Once there, I had to steel myself to read every post so I didn’t get triggered. When I left the site I felt slimed. It was nerve wracking. I dropped out.

When I recommend the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder support group it’s because I’ve been in there long enough to know many of the most active members and to see where and how and why the focus of the discussions evolves. I can honestly say that this is the only group I’ve found that is proactive, empathetic, compassionate, supportive, educated, not self-indulgent, and above all, healing.

[For military persons, I can say the same thing about the Yahoo! Combat Vets with PTSD group. A truly phenomenal group of men and women, survivors and caregivers who are hurting, helping and healing. Not only are they hip to the emotional side of things, but there’s also a great knowledge base there for navigating the VA system and supporting significant others of PTSD vets.]

When you begin your reaching out effort carefully consider what group(s) you join. Evaluate the people, their attitudes and intentions. Choosing a support group now is like joining a group in high school; be careful what crowd you fall into.

(Photo: Olivier Colas)


The Blue Morpho said...

Hello Michele: I've read many past posts on your blog, and it has been very helpful! I'm going to link it up to mine as a great resource for PTSD sufferers looking for both information and healing. I read the poem "Under One Small Star", and I agree it is wonderful. But I'm of two minds about it, the first is one that shares the desire to apologize for all that I cannot do, like the idea in the poem of bringing water to the desert. It's moving and poignant. The second, though, is a desire to claim my real faults and mistakes for what they are; to mindfully ensure I'm neither ignoring what I really do have control over nor apologizing for things that are truly not under my control. It reminds me of your post on boundaries - I guess the poem poked me there because I'm only really in the process of understanding what my emotional boundaries really are, and how to support them. Either way, the poem certainly made me think.

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Blue Morpho -- Hello! I agree, the poem can be seen in many different ways and our reactions and interpretations just as many, too! I think that's what makes a good poem, plus how much it makes us think. :)

Glad you stopped by. I've added your blog to my roll, too; I like your positive attitude!