Thursday, May 7, 2009

Meandering Michele’s Mind: The Secret About PTSD Recovery

Here’s what they don’t tell you about healing PTSD: the healing journey doesn’t end when the nightmares cease, or when the insomnia goes away and the anxiety ebbs. The yellow brick road to recovery doesn’t run straight into the Palace of Oz when dissociation takes a hike, hypervigilance lies down, emotions unnumb and the intrusive thoughts fly away on a monkey. No, what happens when you heal PTSD is that you come to the end of one path and must make the leap to continue traveling down another.

PTSD robs us of our identity. Part of healing is getting it back. When I was healing, the development of a post-trauma identity was critical to my learning to define myself outside of my trauma; in the present instead of the past; in terms of today instead of yesterday. I used the exercise of building a post-trauma identity as a way to ground myself in the moment, make choices about who I was and wanted to be, shed the survivor self that continued to imprison me in trauma mode, and begin to explore the life I would lead if I had a choice. I didn’t think about things beyond those immediate goals.

But now I’m discovering there’s a whole world beyond that mindset. I worked hard and built my post-trauma identity through the series of steps outlined in the BRIDGE THE GAP workshop. Through inhabiting my post-trauma identity I found a way out of the PTSD madness. And now, even though I’m into my second year of being 100% PTSD-free, my healing journey continues to develop and expand. Today, here I am, still unfolding and learning to fully grow into that new identity not for the purpose of healing but for the fun of it.

Which is not, exactly, how I thought things would go. I thought I’d heal and just live happily ever after content in my post-trauma identity. But no, now that I’m healed I’m realizing there are possibilities for that identity. Healing doesn’t end when symptoms cease; when we become symptom-free that’s when a whole new phase of healing begins. Whereas initially my post-trauma identity was merely functionable in order to get me to a healthier place, now I’m in that healthy place and that identity can really breathe. Every day it comes more and more to life and here’s the odd thing: I’m surprised and startled by it, and unprepared. I was only coping when I constructed this new identity, but in the more fluid place of health an identity has legs and it can grow in so many directions. There are more choices to make and I keep being caught off guard by the new me and the options it offers.

The biggest chore I’ve encountered is saying I am and realizing that simple phrase doesn’t refer to what it used to. Not, I am a survivor; I am struggling with PTSD; I am a trauma victim. These are easy to say, they fold around you like a really warm blanket and you snuggle in and say, Ahhhh, yes.

Saying, however, I am healthy! takes courage, you have to leap for it. You have to reach out and grab I am whole. I am happy. I am healed. I am joyful. I am free. The positive I ams have more spunk. I am a dancer. I am a company founder. I am an advocate. The positive I ams are playful. They make you engage in the game of catching them. They make you run down a new path with a skip in your step.

What we take from one healing path to the next is this concept of I am. Part of constructing a post-trauma identity relies on redefining the old I am. Continuing to develop that identity when we’re healed means continuing to explore the new I am. This is a conscious exercise. We have to practice it. In PTSD we see ourselves in the negative and, if you’re like me, see ourselves from outside the self and very, very far away – that is, in the moments we can even see ourselves at all.

The healed I am is an unmapped road and it sits patiently beneath our feet. It can lead anywhere. I am is our compass. The more we practice and develop a comfort level with it and the possibilities it presents and represents, the stronger our post-trauma identity grows.

98% of what we think and do daily occurs by habit. Meaning, beyond the purely psychological and physiological aspects of PTSD, that condition also becomes habitual. When we’re healing and when we are healed is a time to choose and build our own new habits, to put in place fresh, supportive habitual thoughts, responses and actions that further enhance our wellness process.

It takes 21 days to develop any habit, which implies we can develop good habits as easily as we can bad just by making the choice and performing the dedicated exercise.

Starting today, my mantra for the next 21 days is I am, just to remind myself to continue discovering who I am now, today. It’s never too early to commit to building an I am habit. Anyone care to join me?

How do you practice the idea of ‘I am’? Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

(Photo: D3)


Anonymous said...

As I am in a process of healing, I am also greatly inspired by yours. I am just about moved to tears, feeling so much emotion well up inside me with this realization that real healing, actually arriving at that new place with a new identity may be possible! Like you said so well, often we are so defined by our past and our diagnosis or labels like "trauma survivor", that it becomes all to comfy and we stay there, almost paralyzed. It takes great courage to heal and to become who you truly are.
I am blessed to know you through your blog and twitter, what an inspiration you are!
I find myself in this limbo land right now. . . having had trauma start at an early age and sometimes it feels as if I have experienced too much trauma for too long . . .that my chances for healing are slim. This is just a negative tape in my mind playing, and I must turn it off and turn on a new one, starting with "I am" statements, like you have shown by example.
Thank you. Bless you!
Amy (@Abeeliever)

Anonymous said...


There are a lot of powerful ideas in here and a lot that I can relate to.

In order to get through the court case it was very much a question of "Who do I need to be" and I became that person.

In working on the PTSD healing it has been very much the case of "Who do I need to become next".

At some time over these last few years I came to realize that "Who do I want to be" is an arbitrary and free choice that I can make.

Once you know that your identity is not a fixed thing - and PTSD rams that lesson home hard - then it's easy enough to learn how to build new identities.

Then like you say it becomes fun. You enter the realm of "Stars in their eyes".

I tend to think of it all like a big box of Lego - you can build whatever shape you want from the bricks that you have. When you are bored you can knock it down and build a new shape.

Most people even in the Zen communities would struggle with the concept that you write about here - about consciously choosing and building an identity.

I've written about this sort of stuff on a deleted blog in the past.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, you'll not get the cultural reference Stars in their Eyes was a UK TV series where people dressed up and sang a song and pretended to be someone else.
The catchphrase would be "Tonight Matthew I am going to be ........"

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Amy - Boy, do I KNOW limbo!! And also, the fatigue of coping for so many years that it seems we never have been and never will be free.

But the more I experience, study, learn and am taught by colleagues' perspectives the more firmly I believe that we all possess the ability to heal. How long we have struggled is not an indication that we cannot be free.

In my experience, I became free when my desire to be so rose up and overwhelmed the fear that always shadowed me. Which is not to say that happened overnight!

We are always in process; evolving be degrees until the therapuetic experiences we have and our own internal desires finally mesh in that extraordinary way that catapults us to a new strength.

Don't give up believing or striving or trying new things to heal. The foundation for our strength comes from our perceptions of ourselves; a strong post-trauma identity is the crux of it all. Keep building and one day you will bridge the gap!

halline said...

However you should avoid a heavy dress and those high low dress embellished dresses. Those simple and light wedding dresses make you high low dress feel easy on the beach. Wedding dresses with flowing high low dress