Wednesday, June 3, 2009

PTSD Symptoms: Deciding to Seek Help, Part 2

For a long time I thought I was stronger than my trauma. After all, I had survived it, so that meant something, right? I was tough. It wasn't going to beat me twice. It wasn't going to beat me once - I was done with it. Over it. Fini! Oh, those symptoms? They're not trauma related...

I would have gone on suffering and struggling forever if I hadn't reached a day that something broke in me and I accepted the fact that I could not continue the way I was, and that I could not get where I needed to go alone, and that there was definitely a psychological snag that was hanging me up.

While the circumstances of the day we each decide to seek help are different, I think what we may have in common is the fact that we reach a turning point. Something in us shifts, something happens, someone points out something, asks the right questions, makes the right comment, and if we step 0utside the pain for a minute - or go deeper into it than we usually care to go - we recognize the fact that trauma is bigger than we are, and that we need some help, guidance, intervention, philosophy, method, plan or strategy to map out how we will rise up and overcome it.

That day for me came in December 1998. I'd been physically very ill for a year and a half. After an allergic reaction to a medication (if we're looking for triggers, yes, that was one of mine) something had gone very wrong with my stomach, small intestine and liver. I'd gone from 130 pounds to 105 and was continuing to lose weight with no end in sight. My organs weren't functioning properly, my body could take in no nutrients and this condition was mystifying the medical community. Despite seeing multiple specialists in New York City I was wasting away in a desert of medical support. And then came the day I met with a world-famous doctor, someone on whom I pinned all my hopes for salvation.

After an entire day of tests at Dr. A's center, we met to discuss the results. He made a bunch of suggestions and referrals, all of which I'd already tried. Finally, he fell silent, shuffled my file on his desk and knit his brow.

Then he sighed and said, "I haven't seen a case this difficult in.... seven years. I'm afraid I'm stumped."

I stared at him in silence.

"I wish I could do more," he said, standing up. "I'm sorry."

I knew I was supposed to stand up, but I couldn't. I was stunned. I was used to doctors not having answers. I was even getting used to them having answers that were wrong. But I was completely unprepared for one who would not even try to suggest something that might bring me relief.

"I'm afraid that's all," the doctor said as he moved toward the door. He opened it, and then stood waiting for me to walk through.

In a fog I stepped out of the office into the December cold and walked west. The city was already mounting its huge display of holiday cheer. The electric snowflake sparkled above Fifth Avenue. Saks' windows hosted those signature motorized scenes that I'd loved as a little girl. This year, however, it all annoyed me. There were too many people jostling me in the street. The air was too cold, the wind too searing. Holiday promotions were highlighted everywhere and the city was bustling with an influx of happy tourists and I -

I shivered beneath five layers of sweaters, two scarves, thick gloves and a hat. Irrational and unstoppable tears spilled onto my cheeks. As I walked Grinch-like in the early dusk toward Park Avenue I imagined myself wasting away to a skeleton. A single thought plagued me: If the top doctors in New York City could not help me what would become of me? How would I survive? How could I survive if no one could figure out what was wrong or how to cure me? How could I exist if I kept losing weight? I saw nothing in the future except my slow, starved deterioration. There was my body, with its skin hanging loosely over its skeleton; and me, wandering the streets searching for a cure. There was my body, once again doing something no one could understand, diagnose, or treat; and me, again, alone and sick and frightened.

As I turned south onto Park Avenue I couldn't help myself. The tears poured out. Too tired for embarrassment, I stood there watching the after work crowd shuffle by with heads down into the wind. At first I remained motionless and let the tears flow. But then I got so comfortable I really let myself go and sobbed until I was completely worn out.

Finally, I went to the nearest pay phone. I was only a few blocks from my father's office where he and my mother worked together. When my father answered the phone I burst into a fresh round of tears.

"Michele? What's wrong? Where are you?"

I couldn't answer and then my mother's voice was on the line.

"Michele, what's happened?"

"He can't help me," I said between sobs.

"Oh, honey...."

"What's going to happen to me? What am I going to do?"

"Maybe it's time for you to get a different kind of help."

It was at that moment I realized she was right. I did need psychological help. I could no longer endure these symptoms on my own, nor could I pretend that I was stronger than the shadow hovering over me.

I shifted.

The next day I sought help.

And then my world broke wide open and the path to healing revealed itself: It was my mind that needed to be healed, not my body. (As a side note: the physical symptoms all vanished as the invisible wounds were tended.)

Sometimes, the thing we fight against most - seeking help from ourselves, friends, family or professionals - is exactly the thing we need to heal. We aren't meant to overcome trauma all alone. The more we fight this fact the further we move from freedom.

What moment shifted everything for you? If you haven't yet made the decision to seek help, what's holding you back?

(Photo: Ansy)


Anonymous said...

Your blog has helped me make a real shift. Because you are brave enough to talk so openly about having PTSD I have been able to find the courage to do the same. The isolation you feel having PTSD is horrible. You have helped me find the words.

Ellen said...

Lucky you Michelle to have had family support. Thank God you had that.

Well, as to things that are stopping me from seeking treatment? It's a list:
1. Money issues

2. Anger with a doctor who didn't help me.

3. The distress of having to talk about the worst thing that ever happened to me to a stranger.

4. Uncertainty about what would be the right kind of help.

5. Fear of the telephone (I have social anxiety and it's one of my fears.)

6. Not knowing which therapist might be suitable.

Phew, quite the list! But I have been making some calls on my own behalf lately. I have one more number to call tomorrow. Cheers

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Kelli - I'm so glad the words are starting to flow! I don't think we truly heal unless we can speak. Shout it out, lady!

@Ellen - Whoa! Can I relate to #2 - multiple times!! There were times I just flat out refused to seek anymore help because the whole process was just so demoralizing.

About your other reasons..... Don't you think sometimes it's easier to tell a professionally trained stranger what we went through? S/he doesn't have any preconceived ideas or judgements. I felt really liberated when I spoke about it to my shrink. I didn't have to play a role. I could just tell it like it was and all of my reactions to it without worrying about what he thought. Is that just me? Is there no liberation in the unfamiliar?

The right kind of help.... a therapist you find and build a bond of trust with would be able to direct you toward the other less traditional, more subconscious oriented therapies, which would be a really good combo for healing. For starters, a trauma trained therapist who practices cognitive behavior therapy, plus is trained in the information processing modalities would be a great way to get an overview of treatment that syncs together.

Congratulations on taking some steps to heal today!! The first are always the hardest. Once the ball gets rolling you might find the desire grows stronger.

Let me know how it goes.... I'm also looking into building resources for low/no cost therapy. I'll let you know when it goes live.

Anonymous said...

I too, got help once physical symptoms became over-powering. And then I was amazed as they dissapeared once I started talking and getting the help I needed.

The two therapists I've had have both really helped me. In fact, I was referred by my first to the second when the first realised she couldn't get me any further down the track. Her methods weren't helping and she did the responsible thing and suggested something else that she thought would help - EMDR - and OMG, it really, really did!

I can relate to Ellen's comment about money. Luckily in Australia we have a scheme to support those dealing with anxiety/depression that makes getting therapy affordable (thank goodness!).

But even if money is an issue, do whatever you can, I say. It is possible to beat PTSD. Getting help literally saved my life.

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Svasti -- Isn't that the most astonishing thing? That symptoms could heal themselves just because we heal our minds is so exciting to me. It indicates the extreme power of our minds, which makes me feel it's possible to utilize that power in many ways to heal several aspects of PTSD.

Ellen said...

Thanks Michelle for the good advice. I'm continuing to take small steps to at least get on waiting lists.
Re - easier talking to a professional - for sure, but my choice is between telling no one and telling a professional. Denial kind of was working for me. When I try to talk about trauma it opens up huge messy feelings and to do it again if the person can't help me is not something I look forward to.
I'm definitely getting the message from your blog though that this is a good risk to take. Ellen

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