Complex PTSD: what I wish everyone knew

Sudden terror grips. My body goes stiff. A combination of tachycardia inducing adrenaline that shouts, “run!!!” and a counteracting numbing agent course in tandem through my body. Run. Freeze. Run. Freeze. A shift of consciousness sweeps over my mind. The ME I know and love, the ME that exists in present reality knowing she is both real and safe slowly fades to the sideline. She becomes a frozen and silent observer of a stranger’s thoughts. Real ME is aware of the switch, she is aware that the thoughts she is observing are coming from the dreaded stranger, the one who convinces her she is in grave danger, that the person she loves is a deadly threat, that she is not real, not in control, not sane, not safe. Real me tells my body to breathe. Whispers from the sideline that it’s all a lie and will pass. But it FEELS SO REAL. Nothing ME logically says or does convinces the stranger that they are mistaken. For now, at least, the stranger has his way at the circuit board of my mind and body. Whether a thought was the trigger, something someone said, a memory, a smell, a sensation, a person, a relationship dynamic — the result is the same. This can happen countless times in a single day. I feel like a captive in my own mind and body.

If just telling myself to not be afraid was enough, I would have been free years ago. If repeating positive affirmations or biblical verses about not possessing a spirit of fear were sufficient, if a parent’s love was enough, if an amazingly patient and supportive partner was enough … I wouldn’t be typing right now.  When well-meaning, loving people in my life tell me that I just need to tell that part of me, “NO!” and refuse it anymore influence in my life, I agree. That bastard needs to go! But when minutes, hours, or days later a trigger startles the sleeping stranger awake once again, no amount of “NO!” will keep him from his course of madness.

I know that one moment you see the strong, joyful, full-of-life me that you love… then suddenly, a terrified stranger. You wonder how I can go from strength to weakness at the drop of a hat. I wonder the same thing. But I promise I’m always trying.

How badly I wish everyone knew that I would do ANYTHING to make this stop.

Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., one of the foremost experts in trauma and PTSD research and treatment, and author of  New York Times bestselling book The Body Keeps The Score,  explains the experience well in his interview with David Bullard for psychotherapy.net.

“Trauma is much more than a story about the past that explains why people are frightened, angry or out of control. Trauma is re-experienced in the present, not as a story, but as profoundly disturbing physical sensations and emotions that may not be consciously associated with memories of past trauma. Terror, rage and helplessness are manifested as bodily reactions, like a pounding heart, nausea, gut-wrenching sensations and characteristic body movements that signify collapse, rigidity or rage.”

Personally, I experience all of these at varying times and in varying degrees. Because rage scares me, I experience it in my mind. It comes through the stranger’s thoughts. I will suddenly go from feeling emotions of love, peace, and balance to feelings of intense self-protection, suspicion, and hate towards perfect strangers and those I love. I will feel an intense impulse to verbally assault them and lash out in anger, convinced that they are an intolerable threat either physically, mentally, or emotionally. Instead, I label it as a PTSD thought and hold off on acting out on it. While this keeps me from needlessly harming others, it causes me an intense amount of mental fatigue, muscle fatigue and exhaustion in my body.  This total collapse of mind and body only leaves me more open and susceptible to ongoing distorted cognitions. The cycle can appear endless and leave me feeling defeated.

Because my triggers often happen within the content of my most intimate and personal relationships (friends, family, children, partner), I also battle intense feelings of guilt…

“How could I feel this way about them?”

In the moment, my negative emotions feel just as genuine and real as my true feelings of love and thankfulness. I can go from thinking about just how wonderful they are and how much I love them to feeling completely numb and emotionless. No thoughts or feelings of love to be found. Eventually, the cycle becomes too much, I fall into a deep depression and shut the world out for awhile. This is just another reaction from a mind and body that believe they need to survive imminent danger.

Trauma not only turns you against the world, it turns you against yourself.

My afternoon has been spent in heart-wrenching prayer and physical rest. I have cried out not only for myself but for all those suffering from PTSD and other mental illnesses. I hurt for those who do not have the support of tireless loved ones as I do. Without them, my will to live through what some days feels like endless torment would have given way to an eternal escape. With them, I have a reason to … keep going…keep seeking help… keep learning new ways to think and cope…

keep believing that one day my journey through the darkness will lighten the load of other travelers along the way 

 

 

 

 

Love Does No Harm

I recently made a decision to enter into a committed romantic relationship with someone I have loved for some time. This person is someone that I have dated in the past, a few times actually, but neither of us could seem to push past our fears long enough to make it stick. I was the first to run away, then him, then kind of a mix of me and him together, and then him. I think we have finally worn out our running shoes. This time we decided we are seeing it through, no matter what. I don’t bail on him when he’s at his weakest, and he doesn’t bail on me. It’s the real deal.

Deciding to fully commit to someone despite my fear of intimacy did not cause all my fears to magically vanish. Poof. On the contrary, it has been an open invitation for my mind to come and feast at the dining hall of my past hurts and consequent terrors of love. It’s probably the best thing to ever happen to me.

Because I love this man and have committed to seeing it through, I can’t just numb my emotions and hope they go back into hibernation. Nope. I have to face them, each one of them. I have to grab the face of each hurt, worry, anger, and fear — look it squarely in the eye — and commit to not looking away. I need to see it, feel it, acknowledge it, address it, and give it space to move on. It’s the most intense staring contest EVER.

I learned something profound from one of my most recent matches. This was a face to face with fear, and it was a no blinker. I have had a rooted belief that you cannot love without fear. Fear and love are Siamese twins. You remove the fear, you remove the love. Consequently, I search for things to fear in the people I love. My mind becomes a hypervigilant seeker of anything that may cause me potential harm. It drives me to simultaneously want to run from the person and cling to them at the same time. This creates such an intense level of constant arousal in me, and my body seems to feed on it. It has become a pattern in all my relationships, and I’m finally able to see it and call it out on its bullshit.

When I was a child, my father was both a great source of security and love and a source of intense fear and sometimes even terror. I learned that love and fear go hand in hand. To separate myself from the terror of him, I would also have to separate myself from the love of him. Because our love was established in fear I felt that I had no choice but to befriend the terror. I locked arms with it and feared its removal.

In order to move forward in this relationship with my sweet man, I have to choose to unlock arms with terror and see the truth that IT is not the same as love. In fact, its the greatest distortion of love that there is. Terror causes harm. Love does NO harm.

 

  • Quick note: I have decided to delete the links, Upcoming Posts and A few of My Favorite Things. As much as I really want to keep up with a structured format, it just isn’t realistic for me at this time. I will, however, continue to post, share, and encourage community. Thanks for being so tolerant of my inconsistencies as I continue figuring out what works best.

 

 

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Whether your process of healing began as a gentle nudge, an intuitive “knowing” that it was time for change and growth, or if it hit you like a freight train barreling recklessly down the tracks, slamming you down fast, unaware of its coming — whichever way you came by it, we all have the same vision, a shared hope of reaching that light at the end of the tunnel.

That’s what keeps us going. At least, that’s what got us started. It’s the hope. The hope that if we put in the work and face our demons, if we allow the prying open of our hearts for the exposure of our hurts, if we cease from the use of our f*@ked- up, maladaptive defense mechanisms, if we stop hiding, if we surrender, if we LET GO … Healing will come. And it WILL. But we cannot deny the reality of the darkness that lingers in the tunnel, that very tunnel that leads us to the reward of brilliant white light.

It is upon entering the darkness that we may be tempted to turn back. “Perhaps I went the wrong way? Perhaps there’s another route, a short-cut. Maybe I misunderstood the directive to grow? Maybe I’m just fine where I am, doing things the way that I have, numbing myself the way that I have. Maybe …?”

But the truth is, there is no other path to the light except through the darkness.

As much as we would like to be FULLY prepared for our journey — every tool imaginable packed in our bag, an infallible map with every pit-fall and turn clearly highlighted, a faithful crew at our side the second we give the call for help; The truth is, there will be times when we feel lost and alone. There will be moments where we forget that the light still remains, the Light never changes. Our view may be obscured giving rise to shadows, but that is merely evidence that the Light is present. Shadows can only be cast in the presence of light.

I think a better analogy would be “The Light within the tunnel”, not the light at the end. I’m going to adopt this as my chosen image of healing. Want to join me?

 

 

 

 

The Invitation of Love

Last Thursday, I had a gap of time between one appointment and the next. I decided to head to Panera, grab some breakfast, and steal a few quiet moments. I picked a corner, window seat and hunkered down for my solo stay.

Lately, I have been practicing bringing my full attention to the present moment, so instead of grabbing my phone and robotically scrolling through it, I chose to mindfully enjoy my meal and take in the atmosphere around me. This took a level of vulnerability because I had nothing to distract myself with or make me appear busy and important.

As I sat there and observed my surroundings, I noticed a few other solo patrons nearby. Each were engaged in their own activities — one reading, one talking on the phone, and one approaching the booth next to me. She headed to her seat with a focused eye and laptop in her arms. As she sat, she flipped opened the monitor and stared straight ahead.

As I glanced from her to the others, I realized that everyone was distracting themselves with something and disconnecting from the world around them. I wanted to break the numbness and bring in some presence, but it felt awkward and weird. I wanted to crawl inside myself and join the autonomy that each of them had created. It felt safer. But as I sat there, I reflected on the Facebook post I had just written a few days prior. In it, I contrasted the differences between love and fear. One particular section of the text stood out to me. “Love puts fear to flight, opens the arms wide, and embraces fully with a wide open heart. Fear crosses the arms against the chest, guards the heart, and pushes away with the thrust of a shoulder. Fear isolates, separates. Love is an open invitation.

Love is an open invitation… I mustered up my courage, turned to face the woman, smiled, and greeted her with a “Good morning, how are you?”. She looked a little uncertain but replied, then quickly returned to her screen. I totally understood. Breaking the numbness felt freeing, nonetheless. I felt a little more alive, a little less disconnected.

Fear forces us into an ego state of self-protection. As our energy becomes directed toward the preservation of self, we are cut off from the resources that enable connection, compassion, and love. Crossing the arms and guarding the heart can be so instinctual that we perform it without any conscious thought or awareness. Practiced regularly, it becomes a means of confinement and limitation.

Just as we learned to practice fear, we need to train ourselves in the practice of love. Like any practice, it must begin with a purposeful intention and thoughtful effort. Observing the thoughts and emotions that accompany fear, we can use these as a cue to begin our love practice. As we recognize our wired response to self- preserve, we can allow ourselves to move in the opposite direction. We become aware of the fear, but no longer feed it. We greet fear, then turn and practice love.

In the beginning, our efforts can feel minimal and our trained responses astronomical. But this is that nature of all efforts that seek to lead us to growth and change. Remind yourself of this truth. The illusion that your conscious efforts are useless will test you, but it’s only a test, yet another means to sharpen the skill of love.

The next time life invites you to join the party of fear, send it an invitation to the celebration of love.

How do you plan on sending out an invitation for love this week?

* Check out Upcoming Posts to take a peek at the month of March! 

 

 

PTSD

Previously, when I heard the term PTSD I envisioned Vietnam Veterans scurrying for cover during a Fourth of July celebration. How very ignorant and stereotypical my frame of reference was, and I’m venturing to guess, not entirely uncommon.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) found its way into the third edition of the DSM in 1980. While this was the first official diagnostic outline for the disorder, its features had been recognized for decades prior. First officially witnessed in war veterans, the features were initially labeled “shell shock”, then relabeled Combat Stress Response (CSR) or Battle Fatigue. These symptoms and labels often carried a negative connotation with them. Shell Shock and CSR were seen as a weakness of mind rather than a physical and psychological response to trauma. As a result, veterans with these conditions were often stigmatized and feared. However, descriptions of post-traumatic type symptoms were recorded as early as the Civil War era (U.S Department of Veterans Affairs).

While the psychological community may have initially been exposed to the condition through their work with war veterans, in all actuality, the condition affects a much broader spectrum of individuals. It is not uncommon for victims of rape, terrorism, physical, emotional, mental, and sexual abuse to develop PTSD. Sudden loss, such as the death of a loved one, or witnessing the traumatization of another can also be a contributing factor to the development of PTSD. Although not every individual who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD, many will. “Approximately 7-8% of the population will have PTSD at some point in their lives.” 

Following is a brief list of common symptoms for those who live with PTSD. To read a more comprehensive overview of the DSM criteria for PTSD, visit this U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs link.

Immediately following, or within months of the traumatic event, an individual with PTSD may experience the following:

  • recollections of the event that invoke panic, terror, dread, grief or despair
  • nightmares
  • flashbacks
  • dissociation
  • derealization
  • triggers that remind one of the trauma
  • physiological reactions to the memory
  • psychological reactions to the memory
  • avoidance of triggers
  • persistent alterations in beliefs or mood
  • persistent negative beliefs about oneself
  • persistent negative emotional states, such as anger, guilt, and shame
  • feeling detached or estranged from others
  • insomnia
  • hypervigilance
  • exaggerated startle response
  • impulsive actions

I myself have experienced all of these symptoms to varying degrees throughout much of my life. When I first began experiencing these as a child, my loved ones concluded that I had an anxiety disorder. No significant trauma had taken place, as they viewed it, and I was not reporting any information to the contrary. I remember that even as a young child, I would sometimes look at my hands or see my own image in a mirror, and it would scare me. I did not feel completely attached to my own body. I often felt overwhelming emotions of anxiety, fear, guilt, and shame. I believed that I was bad, evil, and deserving of punishment. I thought God was disappointed or mad at me.

As a teenager, the emotions overwhelmed me to the point of needing an escape. I began to numb myself with bulimia, alcohol, drugs, and the pursuit of “love”. I regularly experienced feelings of weakness, anxiety, and depression. My first attempt at therapy compounded the issues further. It became another experience of abuse and trauma that ended in a suicide attempt and a lawsuit.

My erratic and unexplainable behavior continued into my adult life. While it was known by some, it was hidden to many. I was able to keep a presentable front and convince myself that it was just an anxiety disorder like everyone else in my family. It was not until my mid-thirties when I began to realize how much I had limited myself and sought to face my fears that my symptoms worsened. They had converged into an all-out breakdown and I became disconnected with my known self. I began to experience episodes of dissociation and somatic memory. I would recall events and relive emotions that were foreign to my conscious mind. My functioning was incredibly impaired, and I feared that I was losing all soundness of mind.

Thank God and the heavens above, I finally discovered sound counsel. Meeting with psychiatrists and therapists who completely understood what I was going through changed my whole experience. They were not shocked or perplexed by my myriad of “random” symptoms. Everything I had been living out was “normal” for a person with PTSD.

Today, my journey to integration continues. I have some road left to travel, but my- oh -my, how far I have come!

PTSD can come in like a thief and hijack your life, but you can win it back. Surround yourself with the support of qualified specialists and loved ones. Educate yourself on the condition. Educate yourself on yourself. Study your triggers, patterns, and reactions. Begin to be an observer of your behavior. Know what each emotion feels like as it rises up in you and travels throughout your body. Talk to it, acknowledge it, label it. Bring your present awareness into your experience. Remind the reaction, and yourself, that you are responding to events that took place in the past. Journal, draw, paint, sing. Exercise, stretch, take a walk in nature. Encourage yourself with reminders that you are strong and capable. Celebrate your victories, even if they may appear small or insignificant. Each time you pause and don’t automatically respond to a trigger or emotion, you have gained some ground. You are training your mind to perceive and respond differently. This is a big deal! Treat it like one.

Wherever you are on your path to wholeness, know that you are not traveling alone. Lift up your head and you may find a fellow sojourner smiling in your direction. As you traverse this terrain, may you be filled with Peace, may you lock arms with Strength, may you dance with Joy, may you embrace Hope, and may you radiate Love.

 

  • As February comes to a close and March begins, I will be taking a break from my Wednesday postings. For the month of March, each Sunday we will be discussing an aspect of the many contrasts between love and fear. There is no greater transformative power than that of love. Let’s dive into its supernatural ability to heal and completely redefine our relationship with life and chronic illness. Can’t wait to meet with you here ❤

 

Setting Limits

My mother tells tales. Of me. As a child. She speaks of limits being set and limits being pushed. One such tale involves a freshly mopped floor, a mother passionately protecting it from grimy little feet, and a toddler who refused to comply. It ends with me sitting just on the edge of that wet floor and touching the surface with a toe. Just one toe. Point made. Boundry broken.

It wasn’t until NOT setting limits infringed on my limitlessness, that I began setting limits. Say that five times really fast.

When my energy started to become markedly impacted by my POTS, I couldn’t accept it. Holding onto my families traditional belief that you just pick yourself up by the bootstraps and keep going, I pushed myself harder and harder. I decided that if I got into the best shape of my life I would have oodles of energy. So instead of resting up, I hit the gym or the pool or the bike. There were times that I was certain I was on the verge of a heart attack in that pool, but I kept going. And going. And going. I was so pissed off at my body for trying to push its limits on me. I was going to show it who was boss. Even if I died in that pool.

That same mentality chased me into the arena of my emotional health. Although staying up late or pushing myself to maintain my typical level of social interaction caused me a great deal of mental fatigue and turmoil, I did it anyway. I wasn’t going to let my stupid, broken brain tell me what to do. I just had to buck up against it and put it in its place. I touched one toe to the floor.

Soon, to my stubborn dismay, I found out that pushing workouts forced me into bed for days on end, and ignoring my mental/emotional needs resulted in breakdowns and negatively impacted my relationships. In addition, my job was being affected. If I wanted to continue to have a say in my life, I needed to set limits on exercise, socializing, and daily routines.

Initially, making these changes felt limiting. Why should I be forced into this? But what I have come to realize is that when I set a limit in one area, freedom opens up in another. My exercise time is more specific and meaningful, my relationships richer, my state of mind more peaceful.

If you are being pushed into the corner of change, take heart. Your captor may very well be your liberator. Who knew that freedom can sometimes be found in boundaries?

 

 

 

 

 

Drafting a Support Team

This model first came to mind when I realized that sharing everything with everyone close to me was not beneficial to any of us. Sometimes what I shared hurt them, and sometimes their input or reactions hurt me. I came home and decided to draw a picture in my journal of what I wanted my support system to look like. This is the simple graph I came up with.

support system model

Center Circle:

I purposely chose this photo of a strong, muddy Rugby team as the feature image because this is precisely what you need in your core circle of support. People that are strong and dedicated, people that will hang in there with you even when it gets rough and ugly, people who will get down in the mud with you if need be; these are people dedicated to getting you to your goal. You share “All Info” within this circle.

This does not mean that some of the people you assigned to your second or third circle would not be willing to do the same. But for reasons other than dedication, you chose to place these people farther from your core circle. Let me give you an example. My family loves me immensely, and they are extremely dedicated to supporting me, but I did not choose to put them in my core circle because I have to consider their needs and reactions as well. When you are doing deep therapeutic work that inevitably brings you back to childhood issues, emotions and hurts are going to surface that you won’t necessarily want or need to share with them right away. Old memories are a mixed bag of reality and your mind’s own perceptions of that reality. It takes time to sort through all the muck. If and when the time comes to share some of that filtered information with your family or other loved ones, great! It may help you to bring closure to some of the issues that have held you back. But at least then, you will have a better understanding of precisely what you need to share with them. This can save both you and them any unnecessary confusion or heartache along the way.

In a similar manner, not all of your friends will occupy your core circle. Again, the issue may not be one of lack of dedication or love. You may have different fundamental beliefs than some of your close friends. You may have more of a family relationship with others. Some of the information you share could be emotionally disturbing to some. It is ok if even some of your closest friends are not in your core circle. This isn’t about who are your favorites, or who you love more. It’s about selecting the members that have the skills you need for your specific team. Some of my closest friends are in the third ring with my family. They are invaluable to me not only in my growth but in my life. They just don’t need to know every detail of my journey in order to be a support.

Second Circle:

This circle represents supports that enhance my therapy. I placed Support Groups in this circle. My therapist has recommended one specifically for me. I will share “Most Info” as needed with this group.

Third Circle:

My last circle represents family and friends. Again, this is not because they are last in importance, value, or worth to me. I chose to place them in the third circle of “Some Info” because of the reasons I previously stated. In addition, it often creates an immense amount of pain and worries in those closest to you. Placing some of your most treasured people in the third circle can also be a compassionate choice.

However you choose to draft your support team is up to you. Take some time to sit with yourself and reflect on what is important to you and your healing. Make decisions based on the insights you receive. It’s easy to carry a false sense of emotional responsibility for the loved ones you have chosen not to share all information with. If any of your friends or family feel hurt by your decisions, reassure them of the priceless role they play in your life and remind them that it is not personal. I’m confident that those who know and love you well will support your choices.

What have you found helpful through your journey of healing? Please share below ❤