By Michele Rosenthal
Let’s get the trauma out of the way right
off the bat: When I was thirteen I survived Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis Syndrome, an allergic reaction to a medication. This
rare, life-threatening illness turns victims into burn patients almost overnight. So there I was, blistered and bleeding head
to toe. By the time I left the hospital I had lost more than just 100% of my epidermis; I had lost myself, too.
But my particular trauma is inconsequential. While
we are all individual in our traumas, our Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms and experience is universal. I had
a chat the other day with a Gulf War vet who experienced the same PTSD emotional landscape as I described myself. So there
you are, PTSD is an equal opportunity invader.
When I returned from the
hospital PTSD set in almost immediately. I developed a bad case of insomnia, flashbacks, and nightmares. I walked around every
day terrified that another trauma would occur and this time, I would not survive. Various and subtle survival mechanisms got
put in place. I was hypervigilant, hyperaroused and hyperaware. I attempted to control everything about my body and immediate
surroundings. I strove to make myself feel safe – and drove myself crazy in the process.
Determined to get as far
as possible from the whole event, I threw myself into life full force. I crammed my days with school work and extracurricular
activities so there was no time to think, reflect, examine, feel or discuss my illness and its aftermath. A practice I continued
for the next twenty-five years, this ‘run as fast as I can’ idea turned out to be not such a great strategy. I
descended into a mute internal silence and a deep emotional coma. The fear I felt was overwhelming. The pain I experienced
was tremendous. The memories were too forceful and so, rather than reach out for help, I burrowed within. I became completely
emotionally isolated, dissociated and disengaged from the present moment, lost in a fiercely active anorexia and a deep depression.
I graduated high school, and
then an Ivy League university. I had relationships (or pretended to since I never emotionally engaged). I held jobs (for a
little while since I got bored easily and couldn’t decide where to focus my feeble interests). By my mid-twenties the
toll of my first PTSD decade began to take effect. I suffered one severe, chronic illness after another. I had a few more
allergic reactions to medications – nothing major, but enough to impede my health. My body and mind were now working
in tandem to continually recreate aspects of the original trauma. I became bedridden by physical symptoms, even more depressed
and lost my job after my body so completely shut down I could no longer work. This went on for another decade during which
I recuperated, returned to work and then relapsed. Nightmares and flashbacks continued. I suffered impaired organ function,
my hair fell out; my weight dangerously dropped. I couldn’t sustain relationships. I lived in a dissociative fog and
a black depression. I slept an average 2-3 hours a night.
It was not until 2005
that I received a PTSD diagnosis. Armed with this knowledge I decided it was time to end my suffering and get on with living.
First, I decided to construct a post-trauma identity. I needed to get back to
basics about who I was outside the realm of trauma; to bridge the gap between past experience and present moment. I had a
Before self and an After self, but I needed to choose who I wanted to be Now. It’s impossible to remain unchanged by
trauma, but it is possible to design a new self-perspective. I set about examining the pros and cons of who I had become and
deciding what to retain or discard.
Second, I furthered the whole
new identity idea by making a commitment to pursue joy. I did this for a couple of reasons, beginning with the fact that it
is not possible to be joyous and depressed in the same moment. I wanted to develop a joy habit that would bring me into a
sustainable, pleasurable moment and distract my (conscious and subconscious) enslavement to the past. For me, this activity
was dance. I knew that every time I danced I couldn’t help smiling. I decided to dance a lot.
Third, I entered hypnotherapy. My PTSD habit was so entrenched joy alone could not eradicate
all of the symptoms. While it alleviated many, joy accomplished something even more important: Over a period of months joy
gave me the courage to believe I could be trauma/PTSD-free. That strong desire lead me to hypnotherapy, an event that changed
my life. In the right frame of mind, with the right hypnotherapist, hypnotherapy has been scientifically proven to relieve
PTSD symptoms. It eliminated every lingering one of mine.
So here I am, into my second
year of leading a joyful, PTSD-free life. I am convinced it all happened because I wanted it to. Sure, for the two decades
I suffered with PTSD I’d have told you I wanted to be rid of it (and I sort of, halfheartedly, would have meant it),
but it wasn’t until I had facts, a plan and desire that I could let it go. Defining a self outside of trauma gave me
a solid replacement for the self I depended on in the wake of trauma. This process, of understanding PTSD, developing a new
self-perception, pursuing joy, and integrating traumatic memories into my whole identity allowed me to regain power over PTSD
and my life. When I replaced the old self-paradigm with a new one I was finally freed.
All of this leaves me with the belief that the key to
healing PTSD is the desire with which we approach the process. For years I shuttled from doctor to specialist saying, Heal
me! But things ultimately turned around when I engaged in the process and said, I want to be healed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michele Rosenthal defines her post-PTSD
identity as published poet, playwright, non-fiction author and ballroom and Latin dancer. She blogs about trauma, survival,
identity – and the pursuit of joy at http://parasitesofthemind.blogspot.com/. The blog PARASITES OF THE MIND provides a forum to unify PTSD sufferers, helpful resources,
and the exploration of the positive, healing aspects of self-empowerment and PTSD. Michele also moderates a PTSD support group
at http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/1136087. She welcomes email and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.