Tuesday, March 31, 2009

PTSD Healing Debate: What Do You Believe?

There's a debate going on behind the scenes here..... It was sparked by Mike H's 'Survivors Speak' post about his own self-empowered therapy and success in treating PTSD.

And so the question comes up:

Do you or don't you believe that self-empowered therapy can heal?

Weigh in by leaving a comment....

Last Day to Vote!


Do you think PTSD can be healed?
Add your opinion on the poll form on the left.

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)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Blog Reader's Anthem


In response to my post about my PTSD healing anthem, a Parasites of the Mind fan emailed me her healing anthem: this poem, 'Blessing' by John O'Donohue, the Irish poet/writer.

I like its quiet serenity, its sense of optimism, and its use of the word 'grace', which is tough to have in healing but such a wonderful quality for us to strive to possess.

I also really resonate with the idea that we feel free about whom we might become. Because we can choose to become anyone... Yes....


'Blessing'

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity be lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough
to hear in the depths the gentle voice of God.



Take a look at the comments to the original post for other reader anthem responses. And then add your own!


(Photo: alfanhui)

PTSD Healing: The Value of Education


When I first discovered there was a name for the condition in which I lived, I balked. I didn’t want to be labeled with a ‘disorder’. It never occurred to me that I had been ‘traumatized’, so I didn’t think I could be ‘post-traumatic’ anything.

I didn’t want to have something that’s listed in the DSM IV.

I didn’t want to be thought of as having some psychiatric (psychotic?) condition. I knew I wasn’t like everyone else – that what was going on in my body and mind was warped – but I didn’t want to be part of a group of people like that, either. I wanted to stay alone, and unlabeled. As if you can heal without looking at the problem or even admitting you have one.

I fought the diagnosis for about a month. Instead of seeking to understand it better I sought to prove it wrong. That old survivor ego surged into power and I downright refused to believe that I had survived my trauma – and was proud I had the strength to do that – and now was being revealed as too weak to put the past to rest.

Of course, this was an entirely wrong approach. I know that now. But back then it was critical to me that I be the one in charge making the decisions, choosing the labels, deciding the status of my situation.

The problem from a larger perspective is what Mike H wrote about recently: acceptance of ourselves. He’s also healing PTSD – and doing it through a Zen perspective. A few days ago he wrote: …the teachings of Buddha have taught me that it’s pointless to try to live up to anyone’s idea of how I should be. There is no way that I should be…. How I am today is how I am today.


I love this idea. I think that’s the absolute attitude we need to have in order to heal.

But back in 2005 that wasn’t my attitude at all. After banging around for 4 weeks denying it, telling my therapist, I’m not that bad, and, That condition doesn’t apply to me, I decided to sit down and educate myself about this thing that denying would not make go away.

I got online and started reading, and when I recognized myself in everything I read, I read some more, and then even more than that. I went to the local library and took out a stack of books so high I had to make two trips to the car to bring them all home. The more I read and learned the more I wanted to read and learn. I couldn’t get enough and a funny thing began to happen: instead of not wanting to be labeled or part of a group, I found myself so incredibly glad to have this label and know there was a big group to which I did belong; one that lived like I did, felt like I did, struggled like I did. I wasn’t such a freak after all!

And lo and behold – an epiphany: I did have PTSD and I was happy to say that. There’s a feeling of peace that arrives when we no longer sense an invisible thing but can actually name it, feel it, call it, describe and explain it.

This week we begin a new month, which means we’re moving on to Healing Resolution #4: I WILL EDUCATE MYSELF.

All through April we'll look at ways to learn about PTSD symptoms, causes, effects, treatment and healing. Knowledge is power. The more we know the less PTSD holds all the cards. And so, we begin to rise up and heal by taking back the power that is rightfully ours.

What have you done to educate yourself about all things PTSD? Leave a comment or shoot me an email with suggestions, links, and processes. The more we share the quicker we heal.

(Photo: dcolson5201)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

PTSD Healing: My Healing Anthem


There's a brand new blog called zebra's polkadots and plaids -- I'm in love with it already. The first post is about a beautiful song by Patrick Park that reminds us that "living in our past serves only to steal away our todays."

And it got me thinking how much we turn to and respond to art when we are grieving - for the past, for our lost selves, for our unclear tomorrows, for our abuse, suffering, and neglect. Sometimes the sound of a note, the turn of a phrase reaches out to us, clasps our heart, and lets us know we are not alone.

Zebra's post inspired me to post my own healing anthem: John Mayer's 'In Repair'. I first heard this song at an amphitheatre in August 2006 where I sat on a lawn with 9,000 other people in the sweet, dark, hot Florida summer night mesmerized by the sheer brilliance of Mayer as a blues guitartist and singer. I was struggling so hard to heal, and feeling so much like I was failing.

I was unprepared by how hard this song hit me, and for how it imprinted on me and gave me hope. Especially the last line: I'm in repair, I'm not together, but I'm getting there. Healing is a process. It may take long and we may not be ready right away, but every day we work at it we are getting there.

Here's the full set of lyrics....

"In Repair"

Too many shadows in my room
Too many hours in this midnight
Too many corners in my mind
So much to do to set my heart right
Oh it's taking so long i could be wrong, i could be ready
Oh but if i take my heart's advice
I should assume it's still unsteady
I am in repair, i am in repair

Stood on the corner for a while
To wait for the wind to blow down on me
Hoping it takes with it my old ways
And brings some brand new look upon me
Oh it's taking so long i could be wrong, i could be ready
Oh but if i take my heart's advice
I should assume it's still unsteady
I am in repair, i am in repair

And now i'm walking in a park
All of the birds they dance below me
Maybe when things turn green again
It will be good to say you know me
Oh it's taking so long i could be wrong, i could be ready
Oh but if i take my heart's advice
I should assume it's still unready
Oh i'm never really ready, i'm never really ready
I'm in repair, i'm not together but i'm getting there
I'm in repair, i'm not together but i'm getting there


And my favorite clip of Mayer's live performance of 'In Repair' at Webster Hall in New York City Sept. '06.

What's your healing anthem??? Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

(Photo: Jeff Kravitz)



Saturday, March 28, 2009

PTSD in the News: Weekly Roundup


Last night John and I went salsa dancing. When we came off the floor after a set a woman I’d never seen before reached out and touched my arm, Congratulations!, she said. I had no idea what she meant. On your dancing, she said in a Spanish accent. Your dancing: Beautiful! And with that she moved off into the crowd.

If she had seen me two years ago she would have bet good odds that I’d never be able to salsa. I couldn’t find the beat, and if I could, I couldn’t stay on it. I couldn’t move my feet that fast or follow anything but the most basic lead. I went forward when I should have gone back. The first night John took me to a Latin club I was a disaster.

My dance evolution happened slowly and now that it’s done I don’t think about it. But that woman was right: congratulations are in order!

Sometimes it takes someone from without to help you recognize and appreciate the progress you’ve made within.

And then, there are times you need to stop looking within and look without, like, say, at what’s going on in the PTSD world outside your head:

Let’s start with one for everyone:

If you haven’t caught up with Grey’s Anatomy lately, check out the Combat PTSD storyline here.


Civilian PTSD:

What is Psychological Trauma?

Scientists On Track To Erase Your Worst Fears

Eye See You: Brainspotting, A Cureall for Psychological Trauma, or Parlor Trick?

How Do I Calm Down and Deal with Stress?

Volunteers Sought For PTSD, Chronic Pain Study




(Photo: Sionfullana)

Healing PTSD: Final Note - What I've Learned About Reaching Out


I’m thinking about the sad irony of PTSD. I get so much email about how surprised people are by how good it feels to participate in groups, leave comments on blogs, and write to other survivors. It feels so good to know I am not alone, is a constant refrain.

I felt that incredible sense of isolation, too, but here are the facts: 70% of all adults in the U.S. will experience a traumatic event in their lives. Up to 20% of those adults then experience PTSD. Of all our troops returning home, 19% struggle with PTSD.

You are not alone. You are, in fact, in a very large group of millions of people who feel just the way you do. The point of reaching out is to recognize this and be supported by it in an environment that feels right and good and that brings about healing. Building and maintaining strong emotional boundaries allows us to positively and with strength reach out and discover what a big crowd we’re actually in. Erecting emotional boundaries makes the reaching out process safer. Feeling safe is what healing is all about.


(Photo: dhammza)

Friday, March 27, 2009

PTSD Healing: Why Every PTSDer Needs To Make Some New Friends


Congratulations! Today you are officially ¼ through the year long BRIDGE THE GAP healing workshop, which means you are three months closer to achieving your goal for healing PTSD. We are all individual in our healing paths, so you may have 3 months or 3 more years to go on your journey to becoming PTSD-free, but by using the BTG workshop to supplement your other therapeutic activities you are giving your healing journey a self-empowered foundation. Very cool. And also, very effective.

Part of healing means taking back the power that trauma and PTSD have stripped from us. No one can do this; we must do it for ourselves. The BTG series of posts is designed to help you construct a post-trauma identity that will confidently and with renewed strength and courage support your healing process.

This month we’ve been focused on Healing Resolution #3: I WILL REACH OUT.

This included:

1 – Learning to let your voice be heard

2 – Joining the survivor crowd

3 – How to choose a good online support group

4 – The 5Ws of reaching out

5 – Establishing emotional boundaries

6 – How to find a good offline support group

7 – How to reach out to family and friends

8 – The benefits of participating in a group activity


There is one more aspect of reaching out I’d like to cover before we leave this topic: The value of making new friends outside of the survivor community.

When I first began to construct my post-trauma identity I decided to pursue my joy of dance. I joined a local studio and went to classes every night of the week. At the studio I was My New Self. I did not speak about PTSD, trauma or my struggle to heal. I acted as I wanted and hoped to become. No one who met me knew anything about my past at all. To the other dancers I was just a woman who wanted to learn salsa, Argentine tango, West Coast swing, etc. People related to me only in the present moment, as if I was just another ‘normal’ person on the dance floor as if that were true, that’s exactly who I was. We learn things by repetition; we can relearn who we are this way, too. Every night in class I practiced dance steps and also: how to develop a self that had no PTSD strings attached. I was in the moment, of the moment, loving the moment.

This break from my PTSD identity was enormously liberating. I could be whomever I chose. I wasn’t a survivor, I was a dancer. I wasn’t struggling with PTSD, I was learning to cha-cha. I took these classes (and the socializing I did before, during and after them) as time to focus on the woman I wanted to become: a friendly, outgoing, in-the-moment person who was not constantly focused on my past.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I became that woman overnight. Nor does it mean that my past no longer existed. But by engaging in an activity that allowed me to feel joy and that distracted me from my pain – and one that allowed me to be perceived by others as something other than ‘survivor’ – I was able to take a short break every night from the overwhelming PTSD experience. This was good for me. I think it would be good for you, too. We focus on our pain a lot; we need to balance that with something other positive activity.

I hear you thinking I’ve lost my mind, grumbling that I don’t know your PTSD experience or I wouldn’t suggest this.

But that would be an incorrect assumption.

I do know. I was the biggest fan of ‘Leave me alone!’, ‘I don’t want to see anybody!’, and ‘I don’t want to talk to anyone!’ Unfortunately, these aren’t really healing attitudes.

It’s time to begin to break out of the PTSD mold. Inside of it we are not the most social animals, but we can develop that sort of behavior. It doesn’t have to be instinctual. We can condition ourselves to develop this sort of healing action. The benefits are too immense for us to overlook how getting outside of our PTSD selves:

1 – gives us a much-needed break from the rhetoric in our own heads

2 – allows us to discover what it feels like to be taken for face value

3 – puts us around other people whose energy is not struggling oriented

4 – reminds and shows us that we have not lost the ability to interact (even though PTSD can make us feel it is impossible and even though the first couple of interactions may not go perfectly)

5 – in the best case scenario puts us in contact with people whose presence is uplifting, energizing and inspirational (i.e. the dance community is full of people laughing, smiling and having a good time. Being around this – even on days my PTSD symptoms made me feel like crawling under the bed – it was impossible for it not to rub off on me in some way.)

We deserve to be happy, unhaunted, evolving, adventurous and experimenting people. It’s been 2 years since I entered the dance community. Since then I’ve constructed my post-trauma identity around the experience of joy, made some terrific friends, fallen in love with my dance partner, and become such an accomplished dancer I'm regularly asked to teach, perform and compete (which means I have a new marketable skill - always a plus in this economy! You never know where experimental healing can take you). Getting outside of my own head opened up a whole new world, one I could never have expected when, deep into my PTSD experience, I entered the studio for the first time.

Reaching out and making new friends can be like a breath of fresh air for PTSD healing. Get out there and breathe deeply. Who knows, you might just get a joy/normal/relaxation contact high. Now, wouldn’t that be nice?


BRIDGE THE GAP EXERCISE:

Make a list of 5 things you like to do. Play tennis? Like to quilt? Want to hone your drawing skills? Like to take photographs? Think about things you like to do that bring you a sense of pleasure and/or accomplishment.

Examine the list – which activity do you most want to do today?

Pick up the phone book, get online, look at your local paper: Where can you go to do this activity?

Make a plan to go to one thing at least one time in the next one week. Healing is about small steps, but we can travel great distances that way.

What outside-the-range of PTSD activities do you think allow PTSDers to get out of their heads for a little while? Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

(Photo: P Kinski)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

PTSD Treatment & Healing: The Power of the Group


In that funny way that serendipity works, this month I’ve been writing and thinking about the power of the group healing experience, and then along came a book for review and it’s all about the power of group healing!

Thistle Farms is a non-profit business run by women who have survived lives of violence, prostitution, and abuse. Thistle Farms bath and body products are hand-made by the very women they benefit. Into every product goes the belief that freedom starts with healing and love can change lives. All proceeds go back into Thistle Farms and the residential program, Magdalene, which is a two-year residential program where women become sisters and friends and support each other on the path to recovering a productive, self-supporting life.

This terrific little book, Find Your Way Home: Words from the Street, Wisdom from the Heart, is full of words of hope, experience and revelation from women who are in the process of healing, and learning how much healing can progress from the love and support of a community.

A few choice quotes from the book:

Coming into this circle is like being able to breathe again. In the circle it feels like I have come up out of the water and am tasting life.

It is not a problem to be lost. It is only a problem if you think it is impossible to find your way home.

The women of the circle were such an inspiration to me and taught me how to let go of my past, accept the mercy offered to me, and grieve everything I loved that I had lost.

The entire book is composed of snippets from over 100 contributors as they reflect on their progress from the day they entered the Magdalene community in such dire need of healing, to the day they leave when they have healed enough to function again on their own.

The book is small and short and broken into quick chapters with paragraphs contributed by various women. Meaning, it’s easily transportable and simple to read throughout the day when you need a little lift to remember that there is strength found in numbers, healing can happen, and, as the motto goes, Love heals.

For more information about Thistle Farms’ products, volunteer program or residential opportunity, click here.

Meandering Michele's Mind: Changing Your Mind Impacts the Healing Process


For years I’d heard the refrain, “The universe conspires,” and I never really got what that meant. If it was true, then the universe had a mean streak. My world was so black and depressing and traumatized. I felt so trapped in some horrible place. What kind of universe would deliberately conspire that??

And then I finally heard the second half of that sentence: “What you think about you bring more to you.” So, the universe conspires to bring you more of what you think. Now, that I understand!

At the healing ceremony the other night I was explaining to the host how I largely healed my PTSD by deliberately constructing a post-trauma identity. When all traditional and alternative therapies failed to free me, I decided to free myself. I determined that I could not see myself in the present or move toward the future if I only saw myself in terms of the past. So, I determined to alter my perceptions.

“You changed your mind!” the host exclaimed. And I thought, Can it be that easy?

And the answer was no, it was definitely not that easy. It took a hell of a lot of hard work! I started, made progress, and failed miserably several times. Years of conditioning and developing survival mechanisms don’t disappear overnight. But this guy distilled what I finally did down to its essence: I changed my perspective; I did change my mind in determining how to perceive myself, and that made a huge difference in my ability to heal. It continues to make a huge difference:

We are never finished in our healing evolution – and I mean that in the best possible way. We’ve lived so long in the shadows of the past that coming out into the light is…. Well, entrancing. My appreciation of what my new life is seems unending. I am constantly caught off guard at some new element of my healing. When we heal from trauma and PTSD we do see things differently. It’s as if everything was in black and white and now it’s suddenly in Technicolor. We change our mind and we change our world.

My mind these days is focused on helping others achieve their healing goals. Healing is the focus of everything I think about, act on, desire and do. As the foundation for my personal and professional goals healing guides and directs my every decision.

And true to the adage, the universe is beginning to conspire. The more I think about and work toward my own and others' healing goals the more the universe seems to be bringing to me more healing connections and opportunities.

This is just a reminder today that what you think about is essential to how you heal. When I held on too tightly to healing I suffocated my own energy and ability to actually make the progress I wanted. When I let go and opened my mind to new ideas – when I changed my mind about how I saw myself and worked to institute a new view - things changed for me.

I had to work very hard not to perceive myself as a survivor but as a strong person who was no longer going to let the past get the best of me. The more I pursued joy and a newly defined self the more I found both; the more I tried to whip the past into submission the more I struggled with it to no positive end.

We all need to change our minds so that we change our thoughts so that we change our behaviors so that we change what we bring to ourselves every day.

We all need to change our minds about what we think is important: Who we were and what happened to us yesterday does not have to define who we are today and who we will become tomorrow. We have choices to make; healing comes from standing up and making them. Healing is not an easy task, but we can achieve it one thought at a time.

(Photo: rbsuperb)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

PTSD Healing: Alone in a Crowd


Two years ago my neighbor’s husband passed away. J. had nursed him through 18 months of a traumatic illness and now here she is, middle aged and suddenly alone. Adapting to this loss and her new status as widow has been difficult for her. She doesn’t like being in the house alone. She keeps the television on 24 hours a day so she feels like there’s another presence in the room. She doesn’t sleep – mostly because the television is on, but she can’t stand the silence when she turns it off.

The first year after the death she says, “Is just a fog. And then it takes the whole next year to hate what life in your head has become. And then,” she says, laughing now, “It takes a whole other year to figure out what to do about it.”

J. doesn’t have PTSD, but she is having a very tough time grieving and her experience is PTSD-like, even down to the fibromyalgia she’s developed from the stress of what goes on in her head. Not that you would know any of this if you met her. She is always showered, dressed and put together. She cheerfully walks her Shitzu around the neighborhood and chats with a smile to anyone she meets. But as she told me last night, “Just because I’m not crying doesn’t mean I’m well.”

Her words hit a powerful chord with me. Outside of my family, people who have known me for years were shocked to discover I’d had PTSD since the first day they met me. Like J., I covered my pain for the public. I laughed (hollowly, but strangers can’t know that) and joked around and smiled and entertained and carried on and moved forward without anyone suspecting the hell that was going on in my head. I didn’t seek to alleviate the pain. I learned to mask and deal with it.

J. is not like that. While I concealed my issues to the world and to myself, J. keeps up a good front to the world and is taking really good care of her private self. She sees a hypnotherapist. Even though she’s Jewish, she goes to a healing ceremony in a local church once a month. She attends healing lectures and has developed a wide base of friends in the healing industry. She surrounds herself with others who have a positive healing perspective. While I isolated myself in my pain J. has constructed an entire healing community. Last night she invited me into it.

If you know anything about equinoxes you know that last night was the vernal equinox. Means nothing to most of us, but to healers and shamans it has important mystical and healing properties. When J. asked me to accompany her to a Vernal Equinox Healing Ceremony I saw this as an opportunity to learn more about how people can heal together; how when we reach out and join the crowd our healing can progress.

It’s not easy to join a group you don’t know. It’s especially hard to walk into a room full of strangers when we’re not feeling 100%, but there’s something you should know about the healing community: when you identify the right group to join, it’s like coming home. You don’t walk into a room full of strangers; you walk into a room full of friends you haven’t yet met.

J. and I drove about ½ an hour to Wellington, FL, which is horse country. We arrived at a ranch style home that opens out to pool behind which is a canal. The interior of the house was softly lit and mystical music was playing, the kind music that is found on rainforrest CDs. The house is owned by Bob and Marla, a husband and wife team who run the Wellington Hypnosis Center. Marla is also a shaman. They're both former school teachers from New York City.

I won’t go in to all of the details of the evening, which included 'smudging' (Marla waved sweetgrass and sage smoke at me with a feather to cleanse my aura), plus a group meditation, drum circle and fire ceremony. OK, I'll be honest here: I’m skeptical about these things. The idea of group ritual makes me uneasy. I’m not into manufactured healing and I’m not much of a team player anyway. By nature I’m a loner, so the group aspect of things is something I usually stay away from. If you're thinking that smudging sounds a little out there, I'm with you all the way.

But, I enjoyed last night’s organized practice. First of all, there was a great sense of easy camaraderie in the group. Everything was low key. No one was proselytizing their path to wellness. Instead, the minute I walked into the house people spoke to me as if they’d only just seen me yesterday and we were picking up the conversation where we left off. I did not at all feel new, judged or unfamiliar in the group structure.

Second of all, no one discussed why they were there. Everyone had his or her own reasons and it was fine to keep them private. Third, this was not some wacky, way out group or extreme ritual or cult-like experience. Since I felt completely at ease I could focus on what was happening rather than preparing to make a run for it. For the first time I understood the group meaning of ceremony and it happens to be something I’ve loved my whole life: The tacit agreement of a bunch of strangers to willingly experience the exact same thing in the exact same moment. It's what I love about theater, concerts and sporting events - that feeling of all these anonymous people choosing to come together.

What I realized last night is that the ritual group ceremony isn’t necessarily designed to indoctrinate us into something so much as it is to create an experience in the moment in which everyone transcends what’s in his or her head to experience something collectively. That’s it. Nothing hokey about that. It grounds us in the present and gives us some time away from the past. As I sat as part of a circle shaking a gourd with a sort of hairnet of beads while we each with our separate instruments created a rhythm together without any musical direction, I realized that the point was to be in the moment and connect my energy and my intention with this gourd, to the rest of the group.

Later, we all took turns kneeling in front of a fire, waving the heat of the flames toward our solar plexus, heart and third eye chakras and then putting into the fire a piece of paper on which we’d written our intention about something we’d like to change. Sounds odd, yes? Sure it does. But as we stood there in a circle outside and the wind blew through palm trees and rippled the pool, we were each separate in our thoughts and intentions but together in our focus on healing.

And this is what reaching out can all be about. It’s about being allowed to retain your privacy and individuality while becoming a part of something greater and beyond the world that’s in your head. It’s about feeling you’re not alone, and about seeing other people who are also struggling and doing something constructive about it. It’s about bridging the gap between yourself and the world, yourself and other survivors, your isolation and the friends who are waiting to meet you.

After the ceremony we all hung around having a bite to eat and talking about…. Anything. Work, experiences, goals. We were all easy friends, and so I learned another value of the group ritual experience: it gives you a common, unspoken bond with perfect strangers. Everyone is respected for the private journey and regarded with esteem for being on the path.

And so here I am this morning wishing I had figured out all of this when I was really in deep PTSD pain. Despite the inevitable resistance that I would have mounted, I wish that I would have forced myself to go and watch and participate at any level I felt comfortable until I could relax enough to fully engage.

A survivor friend of mine is just now beginning to learn to meditate, which we hope will alleviate her stress and help her find a way to reconnect with her essential peace. She wrote me yesterday, “Meditation is so HARD!” to which I replied, “Yes! When you begin a new practice it is difficult, but it’s like any exercise: you have to stretch and limber up the muscle before you see improvement.”

This is true about any practice of healing. We will resist it. We are not limber. We are emotionally brittle and out of shape. But if we force ourselves to go to the gym, our bodies become flexible. And if we force our minds and emotions through the exercise of reaching out and expanding our healing world, we get more flexible in this practice, too.

As I knelt in front of the fire last night, all by myself, with the group in a circle watching me, I felt disconnected and a desire not to connect. I went through the motions of pulling the heat to the chakras, ending with the third eye when you put your hands on your forehead. And as I pressed my cool fingertips against the skin it felt good and peaceful and I lingered there for a few seconds feeling the pressure of my own hands and also, feeling the protection of the group as they silently stood around me. And I thought, “This is why we reach out; to be protected by the presence of others while we reconnect with our own inner self.”

(Photo: Swren)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Survivors Speak: Don't Say A Word

As a writer, I’m continually amazed at how other artists create and express without the power of words while I sit and change the order, use, and implication of the smallest three-letter combination to get what I’m thinking just right.

In the interview below you'll meet a survivor who uses sculpting as therapy, and a whole other world of communicating without words. This survivor says trauma and PTSD took away the words but pieces of art replace them. What magic….

What, if any, relation did you have to sculpting before using it as a therapeutic method?

I began sculpting clay and throwing pottery in high school. My passion for sculpture continued in college where I took several art classes. Art was a major focus although I was studying, and eventually received my degree in political science. My current mediums include stone and clay although I would someday love to incorporate metal and glass as well.

Looking back, I believe I began using art as “therapy” in college although I didn’t know it. I wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD, nor did I seek professional assistance, until two years ago at the age of 33 when my symptoms became overwhelming and I couldn’t maintain my professional facade any longer.

As a student I found creating art to be a complete escape from my thoughts and triggers. I had an after-hours pass to the art building on campus and would sometimes work all night long without realizing it.

The trauma I suffered for so many years, in combination with PTSD, took my words. While I’m a relatively articulate individual I couldn’t express myself or my emotions, using words. I still can’t. That changes when I create a sculpture. My voice remains silent but my pieces speak for me. Some sing. Some scream. Some cry.

What first inspired you to explore your trauma/PTSD experience in art form?

The first time I tried to actually “use” my art to explore and specifically express my trauma was two years ago at the age of 33. I began seeing a psychologist who acted more like a job placement councilor than a therapist. Since I could express my displeasure with my employment situation, he focused on that. He did ask about the abuse, but I couldn’t speak; literally I couldn’t formulate the words, so I’d just sit there and stare at him. He was the first to ask if I liked art and then suggested I use it to express myself. I tried but was unsuccessful.

When I tried to force my feelings into art … it didn’t work. My art isn’t something that’s forced. It’s something that is organic and free flowing. It kind of bubbles up and just happens more than something that is pre-planned, outlined and structured. When I tried to make art fit my needs … when I tried to use my materials to “fix” myself … I couldn’t create. I started and stopped several projects without ever finishing a single one. I was devastated that my artistic talents, my passion, my creativity, had seemingly left me. I came to understand later that that wasn’t true, things just need to come out when they’re ready.

In what way do you feel using artistic expression has furthered your healing?

For me, sculpture gave me an outlet. Without it I would have imploded. Looking back I can see clearly that I was transferring my emotions into my work, especially when I was in college. It was such a tumultuous time in that my PTSD symptoms were just starting, I was carrying a full load of classes, I worked 30 hours a week and, to top it all off, I was a member of the Greek community on campus and lived in a Greek house. The one place I felt secure and safe and understood was in the art studio.

In college I remember feeling so completely alone although I was surrounded by people. I talked but no one really heard me because I never said what I really felt. No one could have guessed I was circling the drain because I was a joke-cracking student with a perpetual smile on my face. The only odd thing was that I created dark and sad art pieces. People simply thought I was making a social statement, stood back and nodded their heads, like they “got it.” No one ever guessed that what they were seeing was a representation of self. A raw offering of my own emotion and feelings. They saw what they wanted to see. My art meant to them what they wanted it to mean. I guess that’s how it is for every artist … even if they have the words to explain their inspiration, motivation and perspective.

What's the single most important benefit you've discovered from expressing your trauma this way?

Finding freedom from my own thoughts. It seems when I create I get into a zone where everything falls away. It’s a good space … even if I’m focused on the boiling emotions deep within. It’s almost like I’m taking action through my art for things I stood silently by for in my past. Maybe, if only in my own mind, I find my voice … and that’s what healing is all about, right?

What have you learned about healing by filtering it through art?

I've learned that healing isn’t black and white. It’s not achieved in any singular method or style. I also learned that I wasn’t completely dead inside … even though that’s how I felt. When I used to create my pieces I was full of raw emotion and that spilled, like water over a dam, into my work.

After fighting and fighting and fighting it ... I ended up NEEDING therapy and after almost a year with my first guy, the aforementioned “career counselor,” I finally found someone who specializes in EMDR and trauma. It’s been almost a year since starting with her and my life has completely changed. I don’t simply wall myself off from my emotions anymore … I’m beginning to learn feel my feelings and I’m beginning to find the words to express them.

Art only took me so far. I needed professional help to truly embrace and understand healing. I look forward to creating new pieces – positive and happy pieces. It's going to be a whole new experience.

Do you have a single piece of work that you feel best embodies what you were trying to express? What elevates this piece above the others?

There is one piece that pops to mind instantly. It was a clay sculpture I created in my junior year of college. It appeared, to most, as a commentary on war and I didn’t do or say anything to change that opinion. Thing is, it was about war … my war. The conflict was internal. The battles raged in my head, heart and body. It was my hand reaching through the bars. The prisoner of war’s skeletal fingers were my own. I was the one trapped deep in a dark hole. It was my hand reaching out for help. I was the one seeking love and peace and freedom (the words on the cylinder).

The cylinder was intended to be a series of three. My focus was to be on birth, war and death. I created the birth and war cylinders but destroyed both before completing either. I never even started on death.

The only photos I have were taken before the "war" piece was finished. Now, I wished I hadn’t ruined them … but at the time it just seemed right.

What can’t be seen from photos are the bars that the fingers are reaching through. The bars represented the prison I felt that I was in. The place I could not escape from. The letters MIA were also used … who was “missing in action?” Me. For all intents and purposes I was the one missing, even though I stood right there in front of everyone. As a child, and then young adult, I was not seen, heard or understood. My pain was witnessed but ignored. I was invisible.

What tip would you give someone who is interested in exploring the idea of addressing his/her own traumatic experience through sculpting?

If they’re interested in art then they shouldn’t let anything stop them from trying it. People don’t have to take classes or buy expensive tools and equipment. I’ve found just as much satisfaction molding a hunk of Playdoh as I have in spending months on a cumbersome stone sculpture.

Most importantly is not to judge your work … or let other’s comments affect how you feel about it. Art is personal and even if you explain it … no one can ever fully get your emotions, feelings and perspective.

Creating art as a method of healing from PTSD is as personal as it gets. Whether you chose to fill a gallery with your works or destroy every piece before you finish them … it’s okay. It’s your journey. It’s your expression. It’s your healing. Most importantly, for those (like me) who can’t verbalize their trauma … art can be your voice. A chunk of clay, block of stone, set of paints or box of crayons can speak volumes and best of all you never have to utter a single word.

'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.

Monday, March 23, 2009

PTSD Healing: It’s a Matter of Perspective, Or: Seeing It Their Way


I can’t help myself, today is just a 2-post day because I’m sitting here with 4 really great perspectives from the other side and as you begin to consider reaching out to friends and family it’s good to know what kind of compassion you can hope to receive and also, what’s on their minds:

1 – Tawnya Torres writes the blog, The Life Of A PTSD’s Spouse. Her husband deployed to Iraq and came back a different man. While Tawnya continues to raise 4 children, she also has to accept and make peace with the fact that her marriage is not the way it was before. She wrote a really great piece this past Saturday about the two ways she’s dealing with that.

2 – Ever wonder how PTSD and vet disabilities are interpreted by and affect kids? Tawnya sent me this Sesame Street promo clip for a show on this topic that airs on April 1st. Hosted by Queen Latifah with an appearance by John Mayer, the show seems to be a very poignant and positive look at bridging the gap between children and their vet parents when the family reunites at home. For further reading, here’s the press release for the show.

3 – My friend Alicia Sparks writes a mental health blog called Celebrity Psychings. In that wonderful way synchronicity works, today she began the series ‘Don’t Avert Your Eyes’ about how to approach someone who needs help; might just be a good resource to turn your friends and family onto so they can learn the etiquette of communicating with you.

4 – My friend Deb Vaughn runs a group on Facebook: I Love Someone With PTSD and I’m not Alone. In her description of the group Deb writes, In addition to those affected by this condition, there are those of us who love and support someone with PTSD. At times it can be lonely and you don't know where to turn. I am starting this group to give loved ones a place to go. It's a great resource for your friends and family so that they can explore their own experience with and outside of you.

I asked Deb to write about what it’s like to watch a loved one struggle with PTSD and still manage to maintain a close and loving relationship. She’s been really great about sharing her perspective. Here’s what she says,

Over the last few years in my journey with my partner and her struggles overcoming her trauma, I’ve learned many lessons. Some of the most important lessons have been about patience, patience with her and with me.

You see, I’m a fixer by nature. I always want to fix things, help people and make things right. PTSD isn’t that simple. There is no quick fix. There is also no simple way to learn and understand what the person you love is going through.

It’s heartbreaking to watch them struggle and to be in pain. Each day is different. You have no idea from one hour to the next what things will be like. It’s hard not to take their moods or outbursts personally. You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s part of the PTSD.

She tells me she doesn’t know how I put up with it all. I do it all because I love her and I will only be satisfied when she is better. It’s a long process. In many cases it can take years. That’s also hard to grasp. Patience is not one of my strongest traits, but somehow I’ve found it deep within myself. I’ve come to realize that it grows out of love.

Here is what I would tell her if she asked me the top 10 things I’d like her to know about my approach to helping her heal from PTSD:

1) You are not a burden. I love you and wouldn’t be with you if I couldn’t handle things or you.

2) Please bear with me, too. I’m still learning and need you to understand that I don’t always do the right thing.

3) Always be honest with me. I can handle it.

4) Sometimes when I react badly it’s because of my own past and not because of you. I have my own demons.

5) I try so hard to understand what you are going through and it’s hard to admit that no matter how much I learn, I’ll never really know what it’s like.

6) I hate to watch you suffer and it breaks my heart.

7) Communication is so important. I need you to tell me what you need or what you need me to help you with. I don’t always know what to do.

8) Sometimes I feel selfish when I want to do something for myself or ask you to do something with me that I know you don’t feel like doing.

9) It’s hard not to take your bursts of anger personally.

10) My love for you is unconditional.


(Photo: DavidDMuir)

PTSD Healing: Reaching Out To Family & Friends


Let’s think, for a moment, about what it’s like for those people who struggle to live, love, cope with and manage during our PTSD journey. I’ve written before about how difficult my PTSD experience was for my parents and brother. I was not nice. I was disconnected and removed. I was teary and depressed. I was furious and raging. I was starving myself in an effort to feel safe.

I was debilitated by extreme physical symptoms of psychological stress. I was in out and of doctor offices and hospitals for tests that led to erroneous and frightening diagnoses of maladies that we discovered later were purely caused by PTSD.

I was surviving but not thriving. I had lived through my trauma but was not even close to living a life that celebrated my survival. Instead, I descended down a black staircase and forced those who cared about me to watch me self-destruct.

Is this fair to those who stand by us? Is this the right way to honor those who don’t abandon us in our darkest hour? Is this the way to respect our own strength to survive, and the role our loved ones and friends are playing in helping us to get back on track?

If you had asked me this at the time I would have snarled, “This isn’t about them!”, or I would have dissolved in sobs about how I just couldn’t handle worrying about my family when I could barely hold myself together.

But we do need to think about them. They are the ones who did not have to survive trauma and whom we are now making slog through the muck anyway. We are traumatizing them with our behavior, and mostly they take it and defer to our pain and continue to walk the path with us despite how we treat them.

Survivors aren’t the only victims of trauma. Sure, we’re the main victims, but trauma is a big pond and the ripples are pretty strong.

In developing your ability to reach out this month, begin to think of those around you, and how your behavior impacts them. I never did this and I really should have because: If we think outside our own head for a moment and figure out how to better communicate with those who surround us, our healing can progress faster and our relationships can be maintained better. We want these people to stick around. We want to have friends and family when we are healed. We’d better think about that every once in a while.

It’s time, in your healing process, to begin reaching out to family and friends. To bridge the gap between themselves and you and your PTSD experience. One good way to do this is to explain to them what you feel and how you struggle.

The PTSD organization, Carrot of Hope, asked me to write an article that reaches out to friends and family of PTSDers. In response to their request I wrote ‘What I Wish My Family Had Known’ an article from the PTSD perspective that explains to those without PTSD what our internal struggle is and how they can help. In order to open the conversation with your friends and family, read this article together and relate your own experiences to my Top 10 things every family should understand about living with someone with PTSD.

BRIDGE THE GAP EXERCISE:

Make your own list of the top 5 things you wish your family understood about your PTSD experience and behavior. Choose one or two or even three people to explain this to. Reaching out means finding clarity and sharing it with those around us. The more we do this the more we heal. The more others understand us the more they can give us the room and support to move toward wellness. The more we reach out the more we pave the way to ease the struggle within.

(Photo: Andrew Orange)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

PTSD in the News: Weekly Roundup


It’s nice to travel, but…. Wow, it feels good to be home! I don’t know what it is about Miami; there’s just something too cheesy about it. I don’t get what everyone loves about South Beach, and I know why nobody loves North Beach. There’s something so right about Jupiter Beach, which is just a 10 minute drive from my house.

Here in my little beach town it’s gray and raining and the perfect day to catch up on some reading….

Before we get to the individual categories of civilian and military news topics, let's start with this nugget:

For everyone: This article raises an interesting point about how society's focus and perception on PTSD can increase its power. Don't look at this just from a military perspective; all of us can say there's a necessary transition after trauma. Do we agree or disagree with the hypothesis put forth in this piece?

Soldier’s Stress: What Doctors Get Wrong About PTSD

A growing number of experts insist that the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder is itself disordered and that soldiers are suffering as a result.

Question for vets: Do you agree or disagree? Please help me better understand the Combat-PTSD experience so I can learn how to better advocate in that area.


For civilians:

Stress So Bad It Hurts
Well, we all know this, but this great article gets into the details.

Time for Healing: Reclaiming Life After Trauma

Stress Makes the Brain ‘Log Out’
Evidence supporting the idea that PTSD affects the neural level of the brain.

Grateful Traveler: The Wright Way to Travel, Part 2
This is an awe-inspiring story of a woman who overcame the odds of survival and recovery, and a ppek into how she used the power of her mind to do it.

New Treatment Strategy for PTSD
I’m not a big proponent of medication in the therapy mix. But this is a different take on drug therapy for PTSD, one that doesn’t alter the mind but alters levels of cortisol, which of course, positively affects the mind in the case of PTSD.

Dating Website for Mentally Ill Launched in U.S.
Not sure how I feel about this…. What do you think??

The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook
Anyone read this? If you have, let us know what you think of it…

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: 60 Stories on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
This might be a little much, but if you’re in need of a dose of ‘you’re-not-alone’ stories, this will do the trick!


Combat PTSD:

This week marks the sixth anniversary of the Iraq war, and the beginning of a rising swell of recognition of the PTSD toll on our vets and the need for them to receive better psychological care when they return from battle.

Army looks to increase treatment options for PTSD

Better Treatment for War Vets

Tempe Veteran Among Those Helped by VA

Helping Heroes: Southwest Florida Steps Up
OK, I’m usually the first to say that my home state is backward and behind the times, but this article about Operation Open Arms, a non-profit org that’s giving free vacations and mental health care to vets renews my faith in the Sunshine State!

Bill Would Ease Vets’ Access to Get Help For Stress
Of course, it’s my original home state of New York that’s breaking ground in proposing legislation to eliminate the burden of proof in vets’ PTSD diagnosis. Interesting facts here relating to PTSD stats, too.

Six Years Later
Taking a look at the stats.

Airforce Unveils Brain Injury Clinic in Alaska

Army Responds to Record Number of Suicides
A glimpse into suicide prevention.

Children Deal With PTSD, too

Healing Horses Help Military Personnel and Veterans With Disabilities

Soldier’s Battling PTSD in Texas

Mothering From the Frontlines
An insightful look from the UK at how women soldiering impacts families.

Vets Group True Blue to New Fight
OK, this week Florida is really surprising me with its proactive busyness.

Talking With Heroes Talk Show Launch


(Photo: Bryan Frank Photography)

Friday, March 20, 2009

PTSD Healing: Finding the Right Support Group


My brother and I are in Miami on business, which last night included meeting a client at Miami Fashion Week. We went with high hopes for an interesting evening. We’re New Yorkers, after all. We know that Fashion Week in New York means high glitz, high fashion and high expectations for an interesting crowd.

What we got was the surprising understanding that High Fashion is not how Miami conceives of Fashion Week. The event, held in a warehouse on the outskirts of downtown Miami, was mostly attended by what looked like high school students and friends and family of the presenting designer and models. The designs were uninspired and the catwalk crowded with women slumping up and down rather than professional models slinking, high-stepping and stalking down the runway. On the professional and entertainment scale, the event didn’t exactly live up to what we envisioned.

Same thing can happen when we reach out. Not every support group is going to be The One. Finding the right support environment is a little like shopping, you have to have an idea in mind, try on a garment, and then keep searching for that piece that makes you want to part with your money.

I’ve been trolling around lately looking for good resources for finding a PTSD support group in any geographical location. Finding groups online is easy, but I’m not having a lot of success with finding a live group resource. Unlike other illnesses and disorders, it seems PTSD hasn’t yet been organized. I’ve called my state and local health departments; when I ask about a PTSD support group they refer me to the substance abuse program. While it’s often true that addictions become wrapped up with the PTSD experience, that’s not the focus I’m looking for.

It really bothers me that we can’t find the outlet and support we need. This is why I’m in the process of launching Heal My PTSD, LLC, which will be an organization to advocate for PTSD awareness, education, treatment and healing. (You’ve probably noticed the new logo!) One of the projects I’m really looking forward to is collecting nationwide support group data and offering it on the site.

In the meantime, I’ve begun polling all the professional mental health people I know. What’s the best resource for finding a local PTSD support group? I ask. The answers have been varied, but they include references to sites and organizations that are searchable and so may offer information in your area. Today, I thought I’d list a few ideas to assist you in finding a way to get off the computer and into the world:

FACT SHEET: HOW DO I FIND A LOCAL SUPPORT GROUP? (Start here for a really terrific and comprehensive overview of resources.)

WAYS TO SNIFF OUT A SUPPORT GROUP NEAR YOU

NATIONAL ALLIANCE ON MENTAL HEALTH (NAMI): Call your local chapter and ask for guidance.

Each state has a list of its local NAMI resources. For example, Cindy Nelson, one of my NAMI friends, sent me this link to the info they have on the Massachusetts NAMI site. (Her email is included, so you can write her for more info – tell her you were referred by me; she’ll take good care of you!) Check out the NAMI site for information in your state.

HOW TO FIND A SUPPORT GROUP FOR POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER

FINDGROUPTHERAPY.COM (Search the site specifically for Trauma/PTSD. The site is California-heavy in its information, but it is in the process of building a national database.)

SUBSTANCE ABUSE AND MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES ADMINISTRATION (search by state)

Finally, I really like this article on the Mayo Clinic web site – not only does it outline benefits of participating in a local support group, but it also provides info on evaluating, finding and maintaining your own approach to interacting.

(For all you international readers, check with your local hospitals, information directories, clergy and local mental health organizations for direction to the proper resources.)

Some of the resources in your area may offer everything except PTSD. If you can’t find a local PTSD support group (and if you are juggling more than one issue) think about joining a group that addresses one of the other topics/diagnoses you’re dealing with.

And then, go to the group with high expectations. Try to make it work for you. Bret and I found the fashion event to be far below what we expected, but we have a good time together; we made the night work instead of being frustrated by what didn’t work. We viewed the event as a night for us to hang out together, which we don’t often have time for.

Reaching out to a group goes two ways, 1) what it has to offer you, 2) how you engage in it. See if you can make the best of the experience. And if you don’t like one group, go back to the resources and plan to try something else. It feels good to get out of the house. More than that, it’s good for us (even if it doesn’t feel good initially) to force ourselves to engage in the world outside. Find a group. Give it a try. If it doesn’t work, keep looking until you find a community that feels right. We heal faster when we stop isolating ourselves.

BRIDGE THE GAP EXERCISE:

Troll the resources offered here. Make a list of groups that might be right for you. Pick up the phone and call 1 – 3 places to find information about where and when the appropriate support groups meet in your area. Take out your calendar; mark the next meeting date. Start preparing yourself mentally now to go to the next meeting.

If you come across a resource that offers good PTSD support group information in any geographic location, please leave a comment or shoot me an email so that we can offer it to everyone.

(Photo: Feeling Croppy)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Meandering Michele's Mind: Have You Ever Taken A PTSD Vacation?


I’m on my way to Miami on business. Just saying that makes me stop, take a look around and breathe an elated sigh of relief. Miami!

I lived the first ½ of my life in New York, and ½ of that in New York City itself. And then one day – I just needed to get the hell out. I was so physically debilitated by PTSD, and so psychologically haunted by living just a mile south of where my trauma occurred that something in me snapped. And just like that I threw away the life I had built and went from Manhattan to a small beach town in South Florida.

I didn’t cross the Mason-Dixon line alone. I convinced my parents and brother to come with me, so the move wasn’t taking me to a place of complete isolation, but still, it was a big step; one I thought would get rid of the parasites (those pesky unintegrated memories) once and for all.

Unfortunately, you don’t shed your past across state lines. Like your shadow, it follows you everywhere and after the initial high of thinking I had escaped I came crashing back to a very sandy reality: I was a survivor. PTSD was me. Relocation and the resulting temporary lifting of PTSD symptoms evolved into everything coming back full force.

The benefit of moving, though, was that I had a whole new state, city, town – beach! – to distract and support me during healing. Things got worse (much, much worse) before they got better, but being in a new environment allowed me to heal without being constantly triggered. The new location gave me a sense of adventure that was invigorating and allowed me to focus on the business of living a new life while I tried to get the old one to slip away. The new location made me feel like I could begin again; I could construct a new identity – a post-trauma identity – that was just waiting for me to conjure and design it.

It took 3 years, but I did finally construct that new identity and ultimately heal from PTSD. And now, I’m off to Miami for some business on South Beach, and then a little nightlife. Salsa, anyone?

Today, what’s meandering through my mind is the question of how many of you have used relocation to progress PTSD healing, and how well it worked.

Please share your experience/experiment with me and the other readers. If we all chip in what we’ve learned more people will heal faster!


(Photo: kleerteam)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

PTSD Healing: Time to Hit the Road


When I was diagnosed with PTSD I interviewed Holly, a family therapist who specialized in trauma. I wanted her to educate me about PTSD. One of the things she suggested was that I join a local support group. This was about 6 months after my PTSD diagnosis. There was NO WAY I was joining a group. I didn’t want to reach out. I wanted to burrow in, remain alone, and figure out what the hell was going on. I was afraid of the group scenario. I was worried I’d be caught off guard, unable to formulate words, and overwhelmed by the emotions of others. You name it I thought it was a reason to stay in my cave.

On the other side now, I can see how wrong that was. I’ve learned how much better it feels to connect with people who immediately understand and get me. I was foolish to think I had to go the whole healing road alone. Back then I wasn’t ready to reach out, but I should have pushed myself to do so; it may have allowed me to heal more quickly. Definitely, it would have given me a forum to address what was going on inside my head, which at the time, I would have given anything to get out of.

Timing is a big issue in healing PTSD. We need to do what feels right to us in the moment; we need to feel safe in every sense in order to progress to wellness. But feeling safe and going outside of our comfort zones are both part of the healing process. It feels safe to stay outside of the pack, but it’s more healing to run with it.

How do we know when and what to do? In my experience, PTSD healing has a dual track: you have to approach it on both the conscious and subconscious levels. So, there has to be a balance of those aspects that guide your way. Your mind will know what you need to do that will be good for you. You’re reading and researching and thinking; this means the conscious part of you seeks wellness. Following that instinct should become easier the more you practice allowing your thoughts and instincts to inform, decide and choose your actions.

However, your subconscious mind houses all of your emotions. As the dominant 88% of your brain the subconscious mind is very powerful in motivating everything you do. How you feel about what you do affects how and whether or not you do it. This means if the subconscious mind is opposed to healing it can really hamper your actions.

There are four possible scenarios here:

1 – the conscious mind is willing but the subconscious isn’t

2 – the subconscious mind is willing but the conscious isn’t

3 – the conscious and subconscious minds both are not willing

4 – the conscious and subconscious minds both are willing

Reaching out to the PTSD community and the support people in your world can help in all of these situations:

1 – in the supportive network of a good group the subconscious learns to relax, let down its guard and engage in a positive and safe experience

2 – by learning what it means to be a survivor and a part of a survivor community the conscious mind can drop its negative preconceived ideas and learn to form positive, healing associations

3 – by participating in a supportive and positive group the conscious mind learns to engage in the healing process while the subconscious learns to believe in the possibility of healing

4 – how we approach an experience has a lot to do with what we get out of it; when we’re clear in our intention to heal on both the conscious and subconscious levels the process incredibly evolves

Which one of the four scenarios applies to how you think and approach the healing process? Think about this today. Observe your actions, reactions, thoughts and feelings about healing. Is there an imbalance in your intentions consciously or subconsciously? If there is, identify where it’s coming from and make some plans to rebalance. What can you do to ease the strain on either the conscious or subconscious level?

Sometimes we have to go outside our comfort zone in order to find a new comfort zone. Engaging in a community, online or off, can help with that. Certainly you must approach reaching out at a pace that feels right for you, but don’t let conscious or subconscious barriers interfere with moving ahead. Healing must take place at a speed with which we’re comfortable, but there has to be movement nonetheless!

It wasn’t until after I healed that I began to reach out. Big, BIG mistake. Once we define our emotional boundaries and learn how to maintain them we’re ready to take ’em for a test drive. Go on, you’ve got the tools; it’s time to hit the highway!

(Photo: Desolate Places)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Free EMDR for Gulf War Vets & Civilians

My friend Michael Burns is making a documentary about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), one of the alternative therapies that has found much success in the PTSD community.

Today, I received this note from Michael:

... we're still looking for more people to talk to about PTSD, especially people who might be interested in free EMDR with a highly qualified therapist during this year who might be willing to be profiled in the film. We're especially looking for Gulf War vets.

If you're interested in participating you can read more about the film here and you can contact Michael directly at hello(at)emdrmovie.com. Tell him you heard about it from Michele Rosenthal; he'll take good care of you!

Survivors Speak: Don't Get Stuck In Your Cave


Stanley Aldrich is a Vietnam Vet stationed in Nam from June 1967 until July 1968. He was also a patient at the Naval Hospital on Guam during Tet. He spent four months on Guam recuperating from wounds sustained on Friday the 13th of October of 1967 when he stepped on a booby trapped grenade that tore up his left leg and foot. Today, he’s dealing with PTSD and speaks out on his own blog, Desert Spirit (Living with PTSD). I asked him to write about recognizing combat PTSD and seeking help.

If you are recently back from Iraq or Afghanistan and you do not feel right mentally, seek help. If your wife, husband, or family thinks you have changed for the worse, seek help – you may have the beginnings of PTSD. When you get back from war, you should notice positive changes in your character. However, if the negatives outweigh the positives, take notice and do something about it.

The VA is offering returning vets 5 years of fast care in the system. Now, what you and I think is fast is not the VA form of fast, but at least do not be afraid to try. Make an appointment to be seen by one of their many social workers and psychiatrists. In most cases they will very easily identify if you do or do not have symptoms of PTSD.

I believe that most forms of PTSD from combat manifest fairly soon after coming home. We Vietnam vets did not have that luxury because PTSD did not exist in the books. It was our community that brought this problem to the forefront and now it is recognized.

But PTSD can also manifest later in life. For example, mine took this form. Sure, there were little things that began fairly soon such as the inability to remember people’s names and a heightened sense of awareness of my surroundings. But, I was able to function and keep jobs. Twenty-seven years later, however, the flashbacks started to occur. Mine started while driving, which in itself was a scary adventure. It turns out certain music from the Vietnam period would trigger a flashback. I would have one a month, and then a couple a month until I was experiencing two to three per day.

I was seeing body bags and faces of my friends who died. I would dream of “incoming” at night and end up on the floor to be low to the ground. Good sleep turned to bad sleep. The worst thing for me was the fear that I would hurt one of my employees during a flashback.

When I finally sought help, the psychiatrist (luckily she did her internship at the VA) immediately identified it as PTSD. The facility where I worked and was manager of a large department put me on long-term disability. Behavioral Services put me on medications and began therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) treatment. I quickly started to show improvement but not enough to function in a normal world. Hyper-awareness, agoraphobia (fear of leaving your safe zone), depression, and anxiety were all part of my symptoms. In Nam I stepped on a booby-trapped grenade; later, I developed a fear of even walking in the yard for fear of another explosion.

PTSD can literally make you not function the way you did before. Do not let it get to this point. Seek help and get on medications, therapy, group therapy and EMDR. Get a good experienced EMDR therapist (although I am sorry to say they are currently rare in the VA system).

Because PTSD was not a recognized diagnosis until late after the Vietnam War, many WWII and Korean War vets developed and still have PTSD. In my group therapy, we have one of each from those wars. One of these men had almost 50 jobs in 50 years. He is much better now with meds and therapy. My therapist calls my office in the basement, my “cave” or “safe zone”. Do not get stuck in your cave. Seek treatment from the VA immediately.

Semper Fi

If you'd like to participate in the 'Survivors Speak' series, please contact Michele with topics for guest posts: parasitesof.themind @ yahoo.com.

(Photo: A Goddess of Divine Indifference's photostream)