Thursday, April 30, 2009

Meandering Michele's Mind: Transforming Our Perception of PTSD Recovery

My approach to my own PTSD healing was all wrong. I thought I could force it to happen, cause it to occur overnight and then, poof!, 25 years of undiagnosed PTSD and all the memories and emotions tied to 1 life-threatening trauma would just evaporate. Just like that. Wasn't I optimistic?

OK, so now I’ve learned it doesn’t happen that way. Back then, though, I didn’t understand all of the work that needed to be done by me, that no one could do but me, and that no one could just bestow recovery upon me like a title.

As I started and stopped, succeeded and failed, I learned the hard way that PTSD recovery is all about our own evolution as people. We evolve constantly in our relationships, careers and other activities, how could healing be any different? As survivors we are trying to move from one identity to another, that takes time and devotion.

Eventually, I learned that we must be dedicated and passionate and accept that healing comes in increments and that we must fight for what we wish to achieve, regardless of the bumps along the way.

What I wish I had learned while I was healing was that a lot of how we progress has to do with our perspective. I never looked at my healing as an exciting event. I did not perceive it as an adventure but more as life on a chain gang and I didn't know when my sentence was scheduled to end. The PTSD mindset is prisonlike. We need to learn, as prisoners do, to imagine something else; what our lives will be when we are released.

A lot of trauma healing has to do with reframing events, perceptions and memories. I've come to understand that this applies to the healing process, too. We need to reframe our idea about what we're doing when we attempt recovery. For example:

Last week I was on vacation in North Carolina. Some friends and I stayed in a house on a lake up in the mountains, but each day we chose a different small town to go into for supplies and lunch. One of these excursions took us to Hendersonville, a tiny, one street (Main Street, of course!) town about 3 blocks long. After lunch at a cute American Bistro we took a stroll up one side and down the other side of Main Street.

On the corner of one block was a municipal building, in the basement of which is housed The Mineral and Lapidary Museum. Down the main stairs and into a small room, the museum is about 500 square feet. The walls are lined with artifacts and geological samples for sale. In the center of the room are glass displays of all kinds of stones, rocks and other mineral oriented stuff.

The major attraction of the museum, however, is its geode cache imported from Chihuahua, Mexico. Geodes are small round balls that, as the theory goes, are formed from volcanic bubbles. They are unremarkable to look at, like this one:

However, geodes are a little like the earth’s version of clams: Many contain beautiful crystals inside so you never know what to expect when you get one open.

‘Cracking a geode’ as the process is called, is done with a large machine that basically puts the geode in a chain link choke hold and then applies pressure until the outer shell, well, cracks. This is a main attraction in the museum. When my friend Laura decided to buy a geode the news whipped around the museum and brought everyone, shoppers and staff alike, to come stand by the machine. ‘She’s cracking a geode,’ was whispered and told to anyone who walked in, telephoned, or happened to be standing by.

In a group we all gathered around the machine as the Head Museum Volunteer positioned the geode in the chain and an assistant pulled the lever that applied the pressure. Silence enveloped the room as we waited for the geode to release its resistance and break open. And then it did, and now in Laura’s office on her desk she has a beautiful crystallized sensation that looks a lot like this:

As I watched this whole process I couldn’t help thinking how similar it is to PTSD recovery. We feel ugly, hard and trapped inside an isolating, impenetrable shell. And then we begin healing – we put ourselves into a position of incredible pressure until finally, that outer shell cracks and inside is revealed the beautiful crystals of our real selves that have been hidden for so long.

(Photo: a winner)


Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. For the longest time, I literally expected 'time' to be enough. All I thought I had to do was wait it out. Eventually, time would make things better, so I thought.

What I didn't (and couldn't) realise is that with something like PTSD, the more time that goes by without getting treatment, the worse things get. The more compacted and painful.

I like your analogy with the geode, too. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Michele, I was lead to your blog via Laura Roeder and felt inspired by this article and the excerpt Laura quoted. Im not sure I have PTSD but I know I need to deal with my feelings towards my parents and anger at them for not protecting me while I was younger and through years of sexual abuse by my step farther. Its a long road and you've made me see I can make it an adventure which is what I beleive deep inside me it has to be. I love life and know that this would not have happened to me if I were not to use it and help others. As I heal I am also finding ways to help others and your blog has just helped me get back on the path with mine. THANK YOU so very much, my blog incase you have time is - with thanks Tanya

Michele Rosenthal said...

@svasti - It's funny, I think part of being a brave survivor is that we do believe that with time we will heal and we're OK. And then the irony is that such bravery actually works against us. F

or myself, I felt I would be weak if I admitted I was really struggling. I didn't want to be a coward; I wanted to be a hero. Heroes handle stuff.

I had to reframe my perception of surviving to include being affected by trauma. That didn't happen for over 20 years and by then... You're right! Time only makes things worse.

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Tanya - Welcome to the wonderful world of healing, where it is, in fact, possible to escape the PTSD experience! You have a great attitude; I look forward to hearing more from you and will definitely check out your blog.

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