Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Healing PTSD Symptoms: Our Stigma Against Seeking Help

Why does it take so long for us to accept the fact that we need help?

Why don't we know and admit immediately that we're living a life that's not exactly whole?

For years and years I existed in a sort of psychological bumper cars, accepting the constant full-body crash of the PTSD symptoms insomnia, rage, hyperarousal, hypervigilance, emotional numbing, dissociation, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks -- as if that's all in the course of a regular day, for everybody.

I look back on those years now and....

  • I'm struck by the sadness I thought my life was meant to be.

  • I'm in awe it didn't occur to me that I needed help.

  • I'm shocked I didn't think specific help existed for survivors, or that our situations absolutely require it.

  • I'm amazed I believed trauma could be self-contained.

  • I'm proud I was tough;

  • Not so proud I forced myself to suffer.

  • I'm impressed I determined to cope alone;

  • Not so impressed I never recognized that idea wasn't the greatest I'd ever had.

  • I'm a little annoyed that my Ego -- so determined to keep me isolated --ran the show for so long;

  • Not so annoyed that I don't appreciate how it helped me survive survival by propping me up.

  • I'm stunned by the all-encompassing idea that if you survive trauma you must be strong enough to survive what comes afterward;

  • Not so stunned I perceived 'help' as admission of weakness.
Our psyches are designed to do whatever they can to protect us. Dissociation, for example, in all of its forms, is a coping mechanism - a survival mechanism - that kicks in whenever events threaten to overwhelm us. Not such a leap that that very same protective part of us steps in and starts directing traffic on our road to recovery. Healing is rife with jack-knifed tractor trailors of our emotions and memories. The psyche polices it all so that we feel safe.

But as in most instances of the PTSD puzzle, this overprotection actually hurts us more than it helps. It provides us with limiting beliefs about ourselves, recovery and how we're going to live. For a long time my own erroneous ideas about 'help' stopped me from moving toward wellness.

It took many, many (metaphorical) head-banging years for me to understand: NOT seeking, finding, accepting, receiving help is the WEAKNESS. The ultimate strength is not surviving or coping and managing symptoms but commiting to overcoming PTSD so that it does not rule our lives.

Those of you in various stages of healing know what I mean when I say, healing is much tougher than living with PTSD. Living emotionally numb is a picnic compared to enduring the excruciatingly slow peel of the onion that, for example, allows emotions to gradually return. Living in a dissociated state is so incredibly easy compared to the (initially) magnified intensity of being present in every moment.

We have to be tough. We have to have courage. It's takes guts to seek help because that can be the beginning of the end of PTSD and that means redefining a whole self to live in an entirely new way.

Our stigmas against seeking help may be designed to make us feel safe, but it is our actions against them that are the heroic acts we take that eventually bring us to a place of emancipated security.

It's so very much easier to live in the darkness than to force our eyes to adjust to recovery's blinding light. In order to heal we have to get over our own stigmas about seeking, asking for and finding help. We have to stand, that little bit on our own, and say/shout/scream/mutter/whisper - to ourselves first of all! - those three magic words: I NEED HELP.


At every stage of the healing process there are times we resist help. From before we admit there's a problem, through our 5th or 6th or 7th year of therapy we hit blocks that stop us from saying, "I need help". We can't move forward until we identify these moments, recognize what they're about, and commit to getting around the natural blocks our psyche puts in our way.

Today, consider where you are on your healing journey -- beginning, middle, near the end? Sit very still and allow any resistance to the process to come up and make itself known. Say hello to it; and then book it with mug shot and fingerprints. Our aversions to getting help are the criminals running around the neighborhood of our recovery. They've got to be apprehended and sentenced to life. In order for our lives to progress we've got to eliminate the stigmas, ideas and misconceptions that keep us from seeking the help we need, both from new people and those already in place.

Wherever you are in the healing continuum, there's going to be resistance. Think about where you are in the process. What ambivalence do you feel? What ideas are you chafing at?

What remains your biggest fear about healing?

What's holding you back from seeking (more) help from new or already existing relationships?

Get control of all this stuff swirling around. Write it out:

1. Make a list of 5 things stopping you from asking for help.
2. For each item on the list, write an explanation about why you're feeling this resistance.
3. Determine one action you can take to override that resistance.

(Photo: digitalgopher)


Lille Diane said...

Thank you for this post. When I first read what you said about still healing in your 6th or 7th year I admit I tensed up. In a drive through society I want my healing and I want it now. I relaxed after a minute and was able to say thank you to the universe for at least showing me my "pain" had a name. PTSD.

Thank you for your dedication to survivors everywhere. There's comfort knowing I'm not alone and I have resources--choices.

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Lille -- Your response makes me wish we could go get a cup of coffee and talk things over!

Since we can't let me say this: for some the process of healing is quick. I know a rape victim who was done with her PTSD recovery in 6 months.

For others, the process is longer. The nature and length of the trauma, coupled with our own personalities and perceptions imapacts healing. After my diagnosis it took me 3 really grueling years to finally become PTSD-free.

In this post I left a wide margin so that anyone would feel comfortable. Less pressure = more hope. I'm sorry it made you incomfortable!

I hope these posts make you feel better:

Shen said...

I have to agree... when I read the six, seven years part I thought:
wow, I really have been at this for two years already...

Of course, my trauma was very buried and we only got to the bottom of it this past January, so in a way I've only been working towards recovering from that trauma for five months.

Either way, even though it has been every bit as hard and scary and grueling as you describe, it has had one amazing benefit over working alone -I DON'T HAVE TO WORK ALONE! My therapist has been amazing and has walked with me through all of it, and that is what made it work for me.

I'm writing about my own journey in my blog, which you can find at:

I will add yours to those I follow. It's good to hear about others who are making it.
Thanks for posting.


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