In my adventures, I’ve learned that recovery is a hard process. No matter how much time I put in at the therapist, no matter how much I don’t want it to, there are moments my PTSD tries its level best to take over my world. Fight as I might, I find that I am suddenly surrounded on all sides by old memories, old smells, old sights and old pain. And man, it gets rough.
Did you know that people with PTSD often become addicts – not for their drug of choice – but because they’re willing to do anything to stop a pain that never seems to end? Whether it’s from being bullied or abused, from being on a battlefield or in a natural disaster, those of us with PTSD are tied inextricably to what happened to us, a nightmarish incident that no amount of planning could ever teach someone to cope.
This morning at 3:30 am, my phone started “blowing up.” I suddenly realized that you never know how many lives you have impacted until some disgruntled, unhappy human being decides to take out the windows of his 32nd floor hotel room and shoot up a concert festival. But there I was in bed, curled up with Teddy, only to wake up and find 19 text messages and an untold number of Facebook messages asking if I was okay. I found myself suddenly flung into a group text with all of my old co-workers, everyone anxiously counting heads to make sure someone they knew wasn’t among the dead or injured. KP and TJ were worried sick until I spoke to them, as were Ferris, Cade, and Ash, along with so many other childhood friends that popped up on the screen of my smartphone, anxiously waiting for me to respond. By 7 am, I knew sleep was a pointless exercise as my phone kept buzzing, beeping and dinging. To be honest, I have never felt so sad yet so loved in my life.
And then, as what happened at the Harvest Festival started to sink in, I realized that a whole bunch of people had been unceremoniously flung into my wheelhouse and they were going to meet, head-on, the battle I face every day and have fought relentlessly for the majority of my life. Trauma had been thrust upon their souls and I sat sadly wondering what I could do to help them. The last thing I ever want is for someone to face what I have, but I know that it’s inevitable. Life, the equal-opportunity sadist it is, always throws curve balls. This time it has destroyed whole families, leaving the victims to feel powerless, hyper-vigilant, avoidant and scared. If life has taught me anything, is that you have to use everything in your power to help others. If you don’t have money, then blood or sweat will do just as well. From my point of view, the very best thing I can do is share what I have learned on how to deal with mental trauma. Everyone is different. Everyone processes things in different ways, but when it boils down to it, the anxiety and fear that comes with trauma is something that we all share.
The hardest part of recovering from trauma is in learning how to feel safe again. I know that it feels like nowhere is safe, but you have to find a place that you do feel safe and surround yourself with people you trust. Grab your favorite foods and get to a place that you are comfortable, then you can do what you need to in order to make yourself feel better. It’s called self-care and it’s a must.
Then you have to look around and have it sink in that you are definitely NOT alone. Life, like history, loves nothing more than to repeat itself. Scope and scale may change, but the similarity of traumatic events is what allows us to recognize bad situations and grow throughout our lifetimes. They’re signposts. Red flags. Whatever you’d like to call them, the repetition is always there and that means that there is someone out there that has gone through something similar.
I remember my first really huge breakthrough in dealing with my trauma. It was right after Chester Bennington died. I remember an interview that was aired of him talking about dealing with depression and how he always tried to remember one thing: To get out of the “bad neighborhood” of his own head because of the dark recesses contained within.
In all my years of suffering with PTSD, I have learned a unique fact: Trauma tries to be funny. It likes to trap you in a specific moment in time and make you relive it over and over and over again, leaving you stuck in a hamster wheel from hell – trapped in your own head – unable to get off.
When I heard what Chester said, it was like an explosion in my mind. I started piecing my experience with PTSD together:
- Fact 1: When my illness is at its worse, I feel like I am caught up in a mental maelstrom, fighting with all of my might to break free of it, straining to reach higher ground.
- Fact 2: The harder I fight, the more powerless I feel and the faster I sink.
- Fact 3: When I am triggered, the best way to break the trigger is to demand my body to do something outside of my head, some physical thing that forces me to solve a problem in front of me. A distraction from the storm in my head, as it were.
- Fact 4: I don’t have time to waste. My day is blown if my PTSD takes over and I can’t control it. What do Arya Stark and Syrio Forel say?
- Fact 5: Stungthumbz always says:
What can you expect from a pig but a grunt?
- Fact 6: I remembered something from Eat. Pray. Love.
You have to learn to select your thoughts the same way you select your clothes every day. Now that’s a power you can cultivate. […] If you can’t master your thoughts, you’re in trouble forever.
So with those things in mind, my strategic strength kicked in to high gear. Using the “select your thoughts like you select your clothes every day” mental image, I went to work constructing imaginary drawers in my head to contain all of my memories: good, bad and traumatic. My therapist also contributed to the construction, reminding me that traumatic memories are just simply memories. No matter how painful, your memories aren’t out to purposely hurt you even though it might feel like it.
When a traumatic memory pops up, you’ve got two choices, you can jump into the maelstrom, most likely getting lost in it; or you can grab it firmly, examine it, try to understand it, then put it back in the drawer it came from then mentally close the drawer, trapping and compartmentalizing it. In essence, I created a unique mental technique for controlling my thoughts, and my illness. When an intrusive memory rears its ugly head now, I think to myself, “What do we say to an intrusive memory? Not today.” I acknowledge that the memory exists, but I don’t spend time thinking about it because I am busy with the present.
And that brings me to the biggest lesson I have learned: stay in the present. Remember what you have right now and be grateful for it. Concentrate on moving forward. You can’t go back, you can’t shove the manure back into the horse. It’s done. Now move forward. Make a difference by not sitting silent. Share your story. Help someone. It doesn’t have to be some grand thing, nor does it need to be material. Sometimes the biggest help you can be is just by listening and just being you. After all, there is only one you and only you have your special gifts that can help heal someone. All you have to do is try. You’ll be surprised at what you find.
Living through a traumatic event is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but it happens and there is nothing you can do about it. What is important is that you realize that having a therapist (short or long-term) isn’t something to be ashamed of. Everyone needs someone to talk to. In the case of trauma, a trained professional can help you out in ways you could never imagine. It’s not easy re-training your brain to create new coping skills, but I have found that it is worth all of the pain and hard work. And, if you really want to, you can make it fun. Make do with what you have. You’ll be surprised with what you come up with using a little imagination and a whole lot of determination.
Keep your chin up and remember that you’re not alone. I’m here with you, climbing the mountain, one step at a time.