This post was written during the same timeframe as the one I just republished about PTSD. Yes, in the years since writing this, I've recovered from PTSD. But, it is for the same reason that I chose to re-post that one that I choose to re-post this one. I really want to help people and give them hope. This post outlines the steps I took to recover. And guess what? They worked! So I hope this helps someone out there .
Warning: This is the longest post in the whole wide-world. But worth the read if you or someone you know is struggling with PTSD.
“Head in the Clouds”
For years, I’ve looked at my life as if from a cloud - like I am floating above it - a little out of touch and without much control over it. ...Like a silent, stoic observer, with a deeply invested emotional interest in a very sad scene playing out below me, but with no ability to pause or fast forward through any of it. There was a time when my feet were planted firmly on the ground, but it was so long ago, I’m not sure I even remember it. I know I was very young then. But when bad things began to happen to a naive and helpless girl, I found a way to remove myself from it. I began to detach. I began to find ways to numb the pain. I stuffed it down, and ignored it until it was only a distant memory, if a memory at all. I learned how to step back from my life, and watch it from afar. Or sometimes close my eyes completely. This was my brain’s defense mechanism. This was instinctual self-preservation. There is a term for this in psychology. It’s called dissociation. It’s not a healthy coping mechanism, in my personal opinion, though it is a fairly common one.
In hind sight, I wish I’d have felt the fullness of every ache and every blow, and let my raw, exposed nerves scream in agony for however long they needed to. Because I have learned what happens when you repress emotion and/or dissociate, and layers of trauma are laid on top of one another. The mind can only handle so much without being properly equipt. My mind came to a point where it and my body disconnected. It basically sent a signal saying, “Alert: we cannot handle this anymore. It is physiologically impossible. All systems shut down immediately.” And at that moment, I nearly had a heart attack. Literally. It’s amazing how connected the mind and body are. I had major chest pains, speeding pulse rate, nausea, cold-sweats, weakness and very high blood pressure. EKG’s showed I was in the danger zone. Doctor’s warned me to remove myself from the stressful environment that was causing this, or I could die. My brain was sending a very loud message to my body. It was saying, “If you won’t listen to me, I’ll make you listen!”
Before that life-changing day, whenever something would trigger a memory of past trauma, I would quickly dissociate and it would feel as if the event had not actually happened to me, but as if it had happened to someone else. I thought I had grown so far past it, that I was no longer able to feel any major emotion in connection with it. I would quickly change the subject within my mind and push the thought far away. Doing this, I thought, was representative of my strength and resilience, when in actuality it was rather cowardly. Being numb and in denial is not brave. Running is not heroic. It was all subconscious, so I had no way of knowing I was handling things in the wrong way. But I am so thankful for the past 2 years & 3 months of being broken. I needed to be disassembled in order to be rebuilt. And I have learned that you have to feel the burn in order to experience the healing. If you don’t admit to yourself that there is anything there that needs to be healed, how do you expect the healing to take place? It’s kind of like a dislocated, broken bone. It will not heal properly unless it is reset into the right place. If you ignore it and don't reset it, it will be very painful and can cause future problems. I needed to go back to those places that I did not allow myself to acknowledge, feel the ache that I forced myself not to feel, and reset them.
I am barely into this process right now, but I can tell you, the results of this journey have already been noticeable and exciting! I feel myself changing in a deeply positive way, from the inside. I am eagerly anticipating the road ahead. There will only be more healing and growth to come. Yes, it will be a painful journey at times, as I am having to revisit places I have pushed out of my mind for so long. But in the end, I will be better than whole. I will be remade. And I will use what I learn to help others who are broken. I cannot wait.
The following are some of the steps I am currently taking to pull myself down from the cloud:
1) Regular Counseling w/ Therapists with experience in PTSD
2) EMDR Treatment. I highly recommend this to anyone with PTSD, who has experienced trauma, has acute anxiety or disabling stress. Here is general info on EMDR treatment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_movement_desensitization_and_reprocessing ...hard to believe that it works, but it really, truly does.
3) Staying plugged in with God. He is the one person who definitely understands, no matter how alone you might feel. Prayer (lots of it) and regular devotions have helped me. I also stay very involved in church - even when I feel extremely antisocial - and I read the Bible regularly. Sometimes I don’t “feel” like doing these things, but I know they are the prescription to staying spiritually healthy. And when I am in good spiritual health, my emotional health improves simultaneously.
4) Having a hobby. One of my hobbies just so happens to also help me with step #3 above. It is music: singing, playing piano and songwriting. I am able to use this in my church where I am the Worship Leader. This has helped me immensely. When I am singing and playing keyboard and worshiping God through music, I feel so tightly connected to Him. It’s the most amazing, goose-bumpy, skin-tingly feeling. Another of my hobbies is writing (obviously) and it has been a great outlet for my emotions. I used to post almost everything I wrote on my blog, but recently I have done more private, between-me-and-God kind of work. If you are a writer, you probably agree that not everything you write is purposed for someone else’s eyes. Some of it is just for you. And that is healthy. Music and writing are the hobbies that keep me sane.
5) Keeping Active. Physical fitness has been proven to be good for mental health. Exercise emits chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. It’s important to have at least one fitness activity that you enjoy. I have found that exercise routines are incredibly hard to stick to if you do not get any pleasure out of them. I personally don’t like hanging out at the gym and working out in front of lots of sweaty strangers. No, thank you! My favorite ways to keep active are hiking and swimming, because I really enjoy the outdoors. I get out and into nature as often as I possibly can, as it is a huge way for me to not only stay active, but connect with God in His beautiful creation.
6) Positive Self-Talk. So often I find myself slipping into patterns of negative self-talk. I used to do it mindlessly, but have in this last year become much more aware of it. If you haven’t already, become aware of the things you say to yourself, and the tapes that play in your mind. Press stop when you find a negative message replaying in your mind. Replace the tape with the opposite, positive message. For example: “I can’t do that. I’m not smart enough. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”, can be replaced with: “I am excited about this challenge! God gave me a strong mind. I have the wisdom and will-power necessary to begin this new journey.”
7) Staying connected. One of the symptoms of PTSD is anti-social behaviour. I can tell you that this is one I have definitely struggled with. Before the onset of the PTSD, I was such a "people person". As a child, I was always the extrovert. I never wanted to be alone, and I thoroughly enjoyed the company of people. But in the last couple of years, I have stopped keeping contact with friends and most of my family. I much prefer being alone to being in any kind of social setting. This is something that is not necessarily a bad thing, unless you take it to the extreme and allow yourself to become a hermit. Which I easily could see myself doing. So lately, I have made a conscious effort to be around people. To make phone calls. To make plans with friends. To go to public places and talk to strangers, even if just to say, "Hello". To reach out. It's challenging for me to do these things, but the results have been rewarding. I kind-of feel like severe anti-socialism is selfish. If I stay locked up and away, I am unable to give and to love. So I am making myself recognize these tendencies, and then do the opposite of them.
8) Carving out time for myself. "Me Time" sounds so selfish, so I think I am going to call it "Personal Growth Time". As a mom, I tend to put every ounce of my time and energy into my children. This may seem like a great thing to do. But it can also be harmful if taken to the extreme. I am becoming aware of the importance of allowing myself time for personal reflection, journaling, quiet time, meditation, deep-breathing, positive mantras, etc. I am going to create a scheduled time for myself to focus on doing these things for a minimum of 15 minutes per day, to start with. I haven't done this as of yet, but I am going to, starting this evening.
All of the steps above are a work in progress for me, but the key is they are in progress. I believe that God has given us all the tools we need to be healthy and whole. We just need to recognize and utilize them. I needed to allow myself to grieve (finally - after years of “stuffing”), in order to allow myself to heal. Seeing results is so exciting! By ignoring and/or denying my past, I was actually making it a part of my present, because it existed in my mind on a level I did not allow myself access to. By opening up access to those places, I allowed myself to find an outlet, aka: exit, for them. Where once very painful memories existed, healing and health is taking their place. The memories will still exist, but they will not be disabling and overwhelming, nor feel so searing and present... kind of like how a gaping wound eventually becomes a scar. And you know what? I no longer think of scars as a bad thing. I feel that my scars are not meant to be a reminder of prior pain, but rather a reminder of how healed I am and how God has done such a great work in me. Scars are like badges of honor.
I know there will always be bad things in life that “just happen”. Things we cannot initially understand or explain. Things that I may wish did not occur. Things for which my human, non deific mind cannot find a purpose (like natural disasters resulting in deaths, etc). I think it’s how I chose to deal with stresses of any magnitude that dictates the outcome, and how long the “gaping wound" phase of it will last. I must remember that it is imperative that I am mentally and emotionally fully present in moments of crisis, and that after the crisis has passed, I allow myself time to grieve. I must remember at the onset of the grief that, 1: it is only for a season, and 2: God can bring something beautiful out of something ugly. I’ve seen it happen too many times in my life to not give full acknowledgment to this fact. Forgiveness has become such a healing force in my life. I want it to be such a part of who I am that it is my instinctual reaction when I am wounded by others in the future. Another thing I’ve learned regarding some of the negative situations in life that randomly occur... not all things require blame. Sometimes no one is at fault. Sometimes things just happen. Where bitterness wants a home, I will choose to welcome in peaceful acceptance and a gracious spirit instead.
I want to encourage you, if you are, to stop distancing yourself from your past hurts and instead face them head on. You are the only one who can take action towards truly being able to heal from your own wounds. No one else can do the work for you. And it's not just going to one day be different and better by osmosis. You have to make it different and better. Don’t live with your “head in the clouds”. Come down and enjoy your life! Oh, and one last thing... don’t ever be afraid of the journey. I am learning that no matter how hard the journey, it is good. The destination almost does not matter once you find joy in the journey.