by Michele Rosenthal
Trauma changes you forever. After that there’s no going back to a more innocent, wholly fearless self. Overwhelming physical or emotional terror, pain and surprise indelibly mark a body and soul through the jolt of unexpected neurophysiological reactions and involuntary psychological responses. A lucky 80% of trauma survivors fluidly transition through trauma with only the slightest interruption. For the other 20% (a conservatively estimated 8%—24.4 million—of U.S. adults, the majority of them female) life eventually stops. Trauma sinks its teeth and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rises out of the muck of science and subconscious. Lost in a disconnected state of pain and fear, stuck in the gap between a functional life Before and After trauma, PTSD survivors search for ways to reclaim a sense of safety and control.
While healing PTSD lacks a panacea it can, most definitely, be accomplished through a slow process of trial and error. A survivor’s most precious resource on the quest for recovery: resilient stamina mined from his or her own core self. Accessing that core at such an uncertain time often feels near to impossible. When self-esteem hits rock-bottom and belief in the future reduces to breathing through the next sixty seconds of anxiety then harnessing your own power to heal hardly seems achievable. Even in the most doubtful of circumstances, however, it can be done.
The Onset of PTSD
My PTSD recovery mission started in a hospital room on the Upper West Side of New York City on an Indian Summer day in September 1981. I was thirteen years old and incredibly sick with a life-threatening illness so rare none of my doctors had ever seen a case. An allergy to an antibiotic had turned me into the equivalent of a full-body burn victim. I lay wholly conscious in a quarantined burn unit room as 100% of the first two layers of my skin were ripped from my body. Weeks later when I was released from the hospital I understood I would make a full physical recovery. Emotionally, however, I was not so resilient. The physical pain, emotional terror and a near-death experience created a definitive split between the happy, beloved child I had been and the fearful, numbingly overwhelmed adolescent I now was.
Almost immediately I began what would be nearly a three-decade battle with anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, mood alterations, intrusive thoughts and hypervigilance—classic signs of PTSD. The clinical diagnosis of PTSD, however (gaining attention as a result of Vietnam veteran support groups), was only formally accepted into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1980 and not being applied to civilian kids with medical trauma. When my parents sought psychiatric advice for me they were told, “Children are resilient. She’ll bounce back.” Lack of PTSD education and awareness—later combined with my own misguided resistance to help—meant that twenty-four years would pass before I received a proper diagnose for what, by then, I’d come to accept as erratic behaviors, uncontrollable emotions and an insanity I thought I was destined to endure.
Learning to Heal
For seventeen years I wouldn’t speak about what I had survived. In fact, the only reason I started talking was to stop the terror that was consuming me. Years of acute mental stress and its accompanying self-destructive behaviors produced a body in breakdown: To the stupefaction of New York City specialists by the time I was twenty-nine I had mysterious stomach, intestine, liver and bone dysfunction. My hair was falling out at an alarming rate and I suffered excruciating chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. Lost and alarmed I entered therapy with the idea that I needed help learning how to be a chronic patient. What I eventually learned instead was that I was struggling with PTSD.
On and off I spent eight years in talk therapy getting a little bit better and then progressively worse until I finally decided to take matters into my own hands. Although I had a crippling fear that healing couldn’t happen I contained a fervent hope that it was possible for me feel better. Buoyed by that aspiration I began researching trauma psychology and PTSD. I read everything from the masters of the 1800s to the leaders of the twentieth century. I began actively and willingly participating in the recovery process and ultimately launched the core of what I affectionately now call my “healing rampage”: a process of self-redefinition that slowly transformed me from a woman unwittingly driven by the past to a woman deliberately living in the present and creating her future. Slowly, I cobbled together a customized recovery program that incorporated a combination of nine different traditional and alternative healing approaches. Despite setbacks and unexpected outcomes I dedicated myself to the work of healing until, finally, I reached freedom.
By the time my last PTSD symptom disappeared (I’ve remained 100% PTSD-free for several years) I’d cracked my personal code for learning how to reclaim a life-affirming sense of self void of anxiety and other post-trauma coping mechanisms. Through a process of reprogramming my brain’s (and hence my body’s) response to trauma, plus my mind’s response to the meaning of the experience, I rediscovered what the past meant about me and the possibilities still open for my future. I employed hope, education, engagement, identity and commitment to haul myself out of the Before/After gap into a life of Now.
We can’t always find meaning in our traumas, but we can make meaning come out of them. Since my recovery I’ve been on a mission to help other survivors launch their own healing rampage. Every survivor can discover his or her unique recovery process by learning (as I and so many others have) how to access resilience through hope, education, engagement, self-(re)definition and commitment. The past will always exist; so will the opportunity for releasing it and learning to live in the present.
Michele Rosenthal is a popular keynote speaker, award winning blogger, award nominated author, workshop/seminar leader, and certified professional coach. She hosts the radio program, Changing Direction, and is the founder of HealMyPTSD.com. Michele is a trauma survivor who struggled with PTSD for over twenty-five years (she is now 100% PTSD free). She is the author of Before the World Intruded and Your Life after Trauma (W.W. Norton).