Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Survivors Speak: The Dance of PTSD

You all know how much I love to dance, and how I have used it to progress my PTSD healing. Today's post is written by Mike H who's also using dance as part of his self-empowered efforts to heal.

The things that freak you out – that’s what you have to do to get better.

Before The Trauma there weren’t many things that freaked me out; after the trauma there were lots of them – going to the mall, small spaces, being in a crowd, guns, noisy places, people in uniform, being physically near strange men and women, aggressive voices, some shapes of men and women, some accents….

Over the last five years I’ve been slowly crossing things off that list – it’s called “trigger desensitisation”. It sounds harmless. It means repeatedly doing the things that freak you out – until they don’t.

For example in the early days (2004) I’d go to the mall and being in a mall would cause me to have a panic attack – my heart would be racing, I’d be full of fear, I’d have lots of intrusive memories, I might be shaking with adrenaline overload, I’d feel like I had to run away RIGHT NOW and become safe. I’d let it happen. I’d pay attention to my breathing and tell myself “I’m safe. Nothing is going to happen. My emotions are lying to me”. I’d stay until the anxiety passed – as long as it took. Sometimes that was 2-3 hours. I’ve worked through the full list like this – one at a time – over five years. What’s left that triggers me is very hard to find in everyday life.

I’ll give you another example of how I’ve used this kind of therapy to heal: In 2007 I had a second post-Trauma attempt at learning to dance LeRoc, a version of Modern Jive.

Learning to dance is by far the most difficult therapy I ever had – worse than Judo - because I didn’t have total control, needed lots of concentration (and you lose that with PTSD) and it meant having a woman physically near to me. It was using up so much brain-power that I often couldn’t stop intrusive memories and feelings returning and at worst it would feel like I was falling apart into panic. I stuck with it.

In the early days I’d prepare for a dance class by doing some meditation and thinking happy thoughts. A one hour dance class was exhausting for me. A dance class would be followed by a bad night’s sleep and a bad day as things surfaced and were faced.

Towards the end of 2008 I felt ready for the next step – “dancing freestyle in class”. Freestyle requires a lot more concentration and that meant I had less available to stop the anxiety and the intrusive memories. I kept at it and it got easier over the weeks and months. Dancing became more like fun and less like therapy..

In the middle of 2008 I set myself the next goal: “Go to a weekend dance”.

To prepare for a weekend dance I might have a relaxing day enjoying the sunshine or drinking coffee in a mall and reading. I might go and buy a new shirt or some new cufflinks. During the day I’d spend a lot of time thinking happy thoughts – visualising myself at the dance enjoying it and dancing with attractive women who were enjoying dancing with me.

At the first dance I lasted a couple of hours before I was starting to have too many intrusive memories and become too anxious and had to leave. A dance would still be followed by a bad night’s sleep and a day or two of recovery and ‘processing’. Eventually I could stay for the whole dance.

My next big goal in late 2008 was: “Go to the New Year’s Eve Dance”. I perceived each dance before that as a stepping stone.

For the New Year’s Eve dance I designed and made a nice waistcoat. I spent the day sewing and imagining how good I’d look at the dance and how much fun the dance would be. (Sewing was also meditation for me).

My final goal was to go to a dance and just enjoy it. Finally, last weekend I went to a dance without bothering to prepare for it and without needing to recover from it. For the first time ever I danced the night away. It felt wonderful. I could have fun dancing. That was the fulfilment of a dream I’d had six years ago – before The Trauma, before the PTSD.

It’s taken five years of hard work and 18 months of dancing, but I am at last able to dance like everyone else – without suffering intrusive memories or anxiety attacks.

To the many nameless women who said “Would you like to dance?” and helped me to heal, Thank you! I couldn’t have done it without you.

'Survivors Speak' is a weekly feature written by or interviewing a survivor and PTSD experiencer about some positive aspect of healing. If you would like to participate in the series (anonymously if you prefer), please email me thoughts, ideas, and topic suggestions: parasitesof.themind @ yahoo.com.

(Photo: Corin Rathbone)


Alicia said...

Facing our fears and our triggers really can be beneficial, and Mike showed such admirable determination. I hope his story is an inspiration to everyone who reads it.

What an excellent guest post - kudos to both you and Mike for sharing it with us :)

Elizabeth Stanfill said...

Yes! What a wonderful inspiration to me and what great stories.

Mike, thank you for sharing. You show that we must truly work at healing and that it can be done.