A tale of recovery: my path from traumatized to healer

I had lunch a few weeks ago with John, someone I’ve known for about 12 years but haven’t seen much in recent years. He commented that I am a very different person now from when he met me, and that would not be apparent to people who hadn’t known me that long.

When we met in 2004 (I think), I seemed troubled to him, and I was. John said that now, I appear to be happy and “like a fountain” (which I love), and he was curious about that.

Other people have said I’ve changed more than anyone they know. Well, that’s probably because I was starting from a more troubled place than most.

So I’m reviewing my path in search of insights to share. This is for you, John, and I know that some of you are interested in recovery from trauma, and some of you are interested in personal growth, so this is for you too. Continue reading

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Trauma never goes completely away

My friend Spike shared a link to this New York Times article on Facebook, and since trauma and recovery are themes on this blog, I thought I’d share it here. The author, a psychiatrist, writes about how trauma and grief never go completely away.

Can’t get over it? You may now stop trying and believing that you have to or that something is wrong with you because you haven’t or can’t.

My mother’s knee-jerk reaction, “Shouldn’t I be over this by now?” is very common. There is a rush to normal in many of us that closes us off, not only to the depth of our own suffering but also, as a consequence, to the suffering of others….

The reflexive rush to normal is counterproductive. In the attempt to fit in, to be normal, the traumatized person (and this is most of us) feels estranged.

The price of busy-ness. If you need a massage, call me. I’m good.

I just encountered this great article, an opinion piece from the New York Times, about busy-ness and thought I’d share my thoughts.

Not only am I a recovering serious person, I’m also a recovering busy person. For several years, I worked full-time and went to graduate school while raising a child as a single mother. In hindsight, that was insane.

This downtime after my last contract job in the technology world ended about six weeks ago has been lovely. I’m recovering from adrenal exhaustion, and then, just when I was starting a running practice that I felt joyful about and ready for, I pulled a calf muscle and have had to lay low for longer while it heals. (It’s healing very nicely, with self-care and other healing hands working on it. Thanks, Brigitte and Pauline!)

The universe is telling me to slow down, and I’m listening. I’ve been letting a lot of stuff slide, trusting that the important things will rise to the top of the list and the rest will get done when and if they get to the top. One day at a time. I’m loving my daily Tarot readings, the cards that influence my awareness and development and trust in the universe. My favorite deck is the Osho Zen deck.

During this period I’ve also attended several trainings in Somatic Experiencing, which is based on the truly great trauma recovery research and writing of Peter Levine. (I’m currently reading In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.) I fell in love with it. The main premise is that trauma deregulates the nervous system (into freeze or fight or flight), and that the body can heal itself, with loving attention and guidance.

I’ve been practicing body awareness as well as writing about grounding, centering, and having boundaries. You can expect more posts along those lines.

I also seem to be developing an organic vision for my bodywork and changework practice that involves more teaching and writing. And—I am available now! Call me if you need a massage. I am really good, my rate is reasonable ($1 per minute), and I give discounts for regular customers and referrals.

Who knew that all this time, throughout the history of the human species with all of its atrocities and traumas, that the secret to trauma recovery was right there all along, being ignored by the mind, which in order to “be civilized” began to believe itself superior to the body?

How cut off are we from our own lives? Have you ever had something like this happen to you?

I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

Self-importance is a joy killer, and that’s all most busy-ness is, when you get right down to it. If you are swept away in a current of busy-ness, why, then you must be somebody important! Or at least somebody.

It’s the opposite of being here now, of being present and grounded/centered/boundaried/etc. in your own body. It’s dissociation.

Here’s more, about a New York artist who moved to a village in the south of France:

What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

How do we collectively force one another to be too busy to be real? It’s as I suspected:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

I’m listening, feeling, and letting each day unfold while not losing myself in breathless busy-ness. Isn’t that what summer is for?

The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

Well, it’s almost noon, and I’m still in bed on this Monday morning, in bed with my laptop, tarot cards, book. Actually, my butt is getting numb, and I feel thirsty. I believe I’ll get up, stretch, drink some green tea, and mosey over to the yoga mat. I hear a down-ward facing dog calling my name.

Getting healthy: adaptogens, chocolate berry and green smoothies, and sprouted lentil salad

My acupuncturist, who is consistently the healthiest, most vibrant person I know, told me at my last visit that I have a bit of adrenal depletion from the stresses of my 10-week contract editing job in a big technology company, now over. It was a long commute until everything was finally aligned for me to work from home the last two weeks.

When my contract ended, I had plans to swim, hike, and get outdoors, but my energy was low. All I wanted to do was veg out at home.

She told me to take over-the-counter rhodiola (for the endocrine system) and eleuthero (also known as Siberian ginseng). Both are adaptogens, meaning they are metabolic regulators that increase the ability to adapt to environmental factors both physiological and psychological, and avoid damage from such.

That means they help you recover from stress and alleviate its adverse effects.

After a week, I feel better. Yesterday I had a big surge of energy and walked 3.5 miles and kayaked for an hour. Today is a slow day. Tomorrow, I want to do some hiking and swimming. I want my full energy and vibrancy back!

She shared her diet with me:

  • For breakfast, a chocolate berry smoothie made with raw cacao, organic berries, chia and flax seeds soaked in filtered water for a couple of hours, coconut/almond milk, and whatever other kinds of goodies you want to add. I add pomegranate molasses, goji berries, coconut water or fresh grapefruit juice, maca powder, hemp seeds, and peeled ginger. Add other fruit if you like, but berries are awesome for brain health and not that laden with fructose. Filling up my blender yields about 3 servings, and I will sip on one all morning.
  • For lunch, a green smoothie made with something picked fresh from the garden (kale or chard), more soaked chia and flax seeds, and garlic. I add coconut water or grapefruit juice, hemp seeds, maca powder, turmeric, spirulina, ginger. I also added some packaged fresh spinach and lettuce and a leaf of Romaine, plus celery—what I had in the fridge. I will sip on one all afternoon.
  • She eats one regular meal a day, at dinner.
  • She eats some seaweed every day, like a sheet of nori that you’d use for sushi.
  • She sprouts lentils and finds ways to include them in her diet. I’ve been sprouting red lentils, which are so tiny, they soften and sprout quickly. Sprouting amplifies the nutrients in the lentils as it turns a dormant seed into a living plant.  The legumes become much easier to digest, and more minerals and enzymes become available. By eating them raw, you preserve the enzymes.

Here is my recipe for sprouted lentil salad:

  • Soak red lentils overnight in plenty of filtered water since they triple in size. Drain, rinse, and cover jar with a cloth. Rinse and drain every eight hours. You can use them as soon as they soften—they start releasing their goodness from soaking even before they sprout, or you can wait until they develop little sprouts in a day or two.
  • Give them a final rinse and put in a bowl. Refrigerate what you don’t use—they’ll last up to two weeks.
  • Add some chopped cucumber.
  • Add some chopped red onion.
  • Add 1 tsp of olive oil and 2-3 tsp. of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice, to taste.
  • Add a light sprinkling of good salt to taste and mix well.

sprouted lentil saladYou can tell I’m making this up as I go along, can’t you? : )

Try adding avocado, celery, tomato, green pepper, herbs, green onion, cabbage, beet, greens, carrot, apple, green (brown) lentils—your only limit is your sense of adventure!

My PTSD manifesto

Occasionally people who have been traumatized have gravitated to me because I’m open about having experienced a serious trauma and (mostly) recovered, but they don’t seem to realize how deeply their past still affects them. They haven’t done any trauma recovery work, and they show up in my life.

I believe they show up because their unconscious is seeking healing. Or perhaps angels bring these people to me so they can see for themselves that recovery is possible. You know, I don’t mind being a role model for recovery from trauma. I’ve come a long way in 10 years. I’ve worked at it.

It’s not like traumatized people wear signs stating that. The sudden discovery that a new friend or love interest has been traumatized can create a huge amount of distress for me. Even though in hindsight, their craziness now makes more sense (“oh, of course that weird behavior was a trauma response”), it can still really be a shock.

So I just want to put this message out there:

If you’ve been traumatized and feel attracted to me because I’m open about having experienced trauma and having done a lot of work on my recovery, first of all, please tell me clearly and up front (or as soon as you realize) that you’ve been traumatized, emotionally abused, get triggered, have flashbacks or nightmares, are shell-shocked, or whatever history or symptoms are affecting you. There’s no shame in it — you didn’t ask for it. I’d rather know than not, and I just might be able to prevent you from making a big mess when your judgment isn’t very good. I will help you find help and support you emotionally — in a way that is healthy and not co-dependent.

If that’s what draws you to me, just own it. Do not be asking me out on dates and withholding information about your untreated trauma. That’s creepy, and the thing is, you can’t really hide a trauma in your history until you are healed. You may naively think you can, but it seriously disregulates your nervous system and makes it stuck in either dissociation or hyperarousal, sometimes both. Your trauma-related weird behavior will show up in your most intimate relationships sooner or later. Having untreated trauma is like having an elephant in your living room whose shit is piling up.

Secondly, if you’re not getting professional help, please do that — get professional help. And let me know that too, because I’m going to worry about you if you don’t, and I’d rather be happy than worried.

Please do not look to me to help you beyond being a friend and a cheerleader for your recovery work. I am a blogger who’s open about having experienced trauma and having done a lot of work on recovery. This blog (read About me, and do a search on PTSD or trauma to find related posts) describes some of my recovery experiences. Please feel free to ask me about them or try them yourself.

There is absolutely no need for you to just show me your wounds without any warning. Seeing you suddenly be triggered by your past trauma triggered painful memories of my long struggle of not knowing I had PTSD and then finding out, and then spending long months doing some intense processing, healing, and putting my life back together in a new, healthier way.

Your behavior freaked me out badly. It took acupuncture, herbs, and therapeutic assistance to start to get over it (at my expense, I might add, which you have ignored, which also makes me think less of you), and I really don’t trust you now.

After I witnessed your triggering and saw empathically how damaging your experience had been, it hit me hard. I emotionally dropped, rolled, and came up ready for combat. I was so ready to protect … someone … from something! And you had something to do with it.

Recovery from trauma doesn’t mean being bulletproof. It means being more embodied, emotionally present, and energetically open than before recovery, while still being an ordinary person who cannot read your mind. I have more compassion now and am more of a whole person, and I need to set clear boundaries to take care of myself.

It breaks my heart more than you can imagine that the innocent gesture I made triggered fear in you. It’s not anything I take casually or lightly. It’s emotionally disturbing to witness someone with their wires crossed, whose mind mistakes the present for the past, whose mind mistakes someone who has never traumatized them with someone who did.

I wish you’d told me as soon as you knew instead of showing me like that. That would have been important communication. You scared me, once again.

With help, you can heal your poor damaged nervous system and experience more peace and stability and aliveness in your life. I am recommending Somatic Experiencing Practitioners to people these days.

Please find your way to help. I wish you well.

So this is for everyone: if you know that I have had PTSD and you have had untreated trauma in your life, and you come around seeking a relationship, please tell me up front, do your own recovery work (I’ll be rooting for you), and get yourself in decent emotional and relational shape before you expect any intimacy from me, for both our sakes.

I look forward to talking with the healthy you.

Knowing whether you have PTSD, and how it affects you and your relationships

Regular readers of this blog and anyone who has read the About me page knows that I have had PTSD and (mostly) recovered. I’m pretty open about it. I hate that there’s a stigma about having PTSD, or any mental illness, when no one asks for it in the first place. At this point in my life, openness has way more to recommend it than shame and secrecy.

It’s actually an injury that affects the whole bodymindheartspirit.

I also posted about PTSD in November, in Getting over trauma and moving on with your life: some core questions. That post focused on the desire to heal, knowing that you have PTSD.

I’ve posted a lot about the trauma releasing exercises, brainwave optimization, shaking medicine, and other topics related to recovering from trauma.

Recently something happened that triggered my memories of what it was like to have undiagnosed PTSD for a long time and the two years of my life that I spent intensely working on becoming whole and reclaiming myself after I was diagnosed. There were still some holes, but I did feel like I got on top of it enough to function fairly well and keep filling in the holes as my awareness of them arose.

This post is about figuring out whether you have PTSD, what it’s like to have it, and how it affects your relationships.

How do you know you have PTSD? There’s an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV, for the current version), a book used by psychiatrists to diagnose mental illness. The official cause of PTSD is this:

PTSD always follows a traumatic event which causes intense fear and/or helplessness in an individual.  Typically the symptoms develop shortly after the event, but may take years.  The duration for symptoms is at least one month for this diagnosis.

I had thought that the definition included something about violence. The current definition does not. I was wrong about that.

If you’re not sure if what happened to you is considered trauma, here’s a definition of trauma:

an event that is life-threatening or that severely compromises the emotional well-being of an individual or causes intense fear

The common denominator is feeling intense fear. Aka terror or horror. Or “severely compromised emotional well-being.”

If you’re not sure whether you have PTSD, ask yourself whether and when you have experienced intense fear in response to traumatic events or whether something happened to you that severely compromised your emotional well-being.

Of course, sometimes traumatized people may not remember a trauma, which is tricky — in PTSD, the memories of the actual feelings associated with a traumatic event are often suppressed (because they were intensely scary the first time).

Timeline work can be helpful. If in reviewing your life, there’s any event that some would consider to be traumatic or severely compromising to their emotional well-being, even if you don’t remember the actual feeling, you might have PTSD. Read on.

Also, ask yourself whether and when you have experienced a sense of helplessness. When you experienced a traumatic event, did you freeze in terror?

If your answer to one or both of those questions is yes, then you don’t need a psychiatrist to know that you probably have PTSD. However, if you’re still not sure, you can judge by your behavior.

How does having PTSD affect your behavior? People who have been traumatized often have flashbacks, in which something in the present situation triggers an emotional reaction from a past traumatic event. For example, someone may innocuously point a finger at you, and you suddenly feel fear because seeing the pointing finger has triggered the memory of someone else pointing their finger at you while angrily heaping emotional abuse on you. Never mind that the current person is not heaping emotional abuse on you and is in fact startled that their innocent finger has made you feel so visibly afraid.

Your past has kidnapped you emotionally.

I only had one flashback similar to that. The main type of flashback or time distortion that I experienced was regressing back to the age I was when my childhood trauma occurred. Sometimes social situations would make me feel like a child amongst grownups. Mostly I was quiet, but sometimes I would say inappropriately childish, immature things.

I could be talking to someone as a mature woman, and suddenly I became an awkward child again. I didn’t realize I was regressing for a long time. I just thought I was socially awkward. But the age I regressed to was usually 11 years old.

I have so loved that traumatized 11-year-old child, hugged, soothed, and comforted her for all the incomprehensible events she experienced, that she feels integrated and doesn’t pop out like that much any more. When people are baffling to me now, I note it, but it usually doesn’t send me back into childhood any more.

With PTSD, you may also have nightmares. I had them for years. Something terrifying was chasing me, and I couldn’t run fast enough, and I awoke feeling intense fear.

The last such dream related to my original trauma was about 10 years ago, when feeling on high alert, I clearly told a serial killer to put the huge sharp scissors down. By confronting him, I had overcome my helplessness.

In fact, a lot of my recovery was about overcoming helplessness. I imagined riding to my sister’s rescue — on a white horse — and blowing away the killer. It didn’t change the past, but it changed the way my nervous system processed that memory so that I felt empowered.

You may live your life avoiding situations, people, and/or objects that remind you about the event, such as avoiding driving after a serious car accident or avoiding someone who who emotionally abused you or who even just reminds you of them.

Another form of avoidance is that you may experience emotional numbness, which is a way of avoiding yourself. Trauma can make people want to isolate themselves. If you inexplicably regressed when socializing, or got triggered, wouldn’t you want to hide? I spent years of my adult life just working, raising my daughter, going to grad school, and being depressed with no social life to speak of.

Your anxiety levels are higher in general, and you may have a heightened startle response, jumping when you hear a sudden loud noise. (I still do this.) You may have insomnia, trouble concentrating, irritability, anger, hyperarousal.

In my opinion, people can experience anxiety, avoidance, and nightmares without necessarily having PTSD, but having flashbacks is unique to PTSD, as far as I know. If anyone knows different, please comment.

How does PTSD affect relationships? PTSD affects the relationships you value most — intimate relationships, with family, lovers, and close friends. You may be difficult to get close to. You may fear closeness and decide to move on when someone is becoming close, or others may distance themselves from you if you shut down emotionally.

You may have difficulty listening and making cooperative decisions. You may carry a sense of betrayal or grievance into nonabusive relationships. You may be blaming, punitive, passive aggressive, dissociative, cold, insensitive, insulting, under- or overreactive emotionally, and behave in other ways that make you a difficult, frightening,  or unpleasant person to relate to. Working out problems may seem impossible.

If you have it, I’m sorry for the suffering you’ve experienced. Really truly sorry you suffered in the first place, and that it continues. Finding out you have PTSD is not fun, but at least you have an explanation for your baffling behavior and can start your journey toward health.

I can only advise you that once you suspect you have it, get counseling as soon as possible. Get counseling as if your life depends on it, because the quality of every day of the rest of your life and the quality of your most valued relationships actually does. Go to the best counselor you can find.

I also recommend brain wave optimization to normalize your brain waves after trauma.

The post-PTSD life, the joy, the friendships and close relationships that await you, the presence, the freedom — I cannot tell you how good life can be.

Go for it. You’re worth it.

Recovering from the flu

It’s Thursday evening. Last weekend I had the flu. It really slammed me hard Saturday evening. Still feverish and lethargic on Sunday.

I stayed home Monday. Although my fever was down, my energy was low. I was really worried about how long it would take to fully recover, since I have movers coming tomorrow (Friday), and I had to work Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

My energy returned strongly on Monday afternoon. I felt strong and well, and I cleaned out my shed, sorting what to keep and what to give away. (Whatever’s left goes to Goodwill or the Habitat Re-Store. Or maybe I’ll post something on Freecycle.) My appetite returned as well.

All day on Tuesday, I felt crappy. Worked anyway. Had a meeting after work, then child care. Got home after midnight. Didn’t sleep well. Felt contracted, anxious, angry, depressed. Low appetite.

Woke twice during the night with sudden nasal congestion. The second time I got up and took a Claritin. That was weird. It was as if my immune system wasn’t quite all back in order yet.

Wednesday I was tired and felt weird all day. Realized it was probably the lack of sleep and the Claritin. My body has gotten clean and sensitive. Low appetite.

Today, Thursday, I felt good. Recovered. Buoyant. Hungry!

I don’t know if this is a “typical” pattern of recovery from the flu, or if it was particularly speedy. I am very grateful to have my energy back. Plus I lost two pounds!

~~~

Wish me good luck on my move!

Recovering from a virus, recovering from adrenal exhaustion

I awoke sick Saturday morning with a sore throat. I thought maybe it was strep throat. Drank lemon echinacea Throat Coat tea, sprayed a throat numbing liquid, and took two Alleves. Ate breakfast.

As the day progressed, I began to feel achy and chilled. Not much nasal congestion, and my throat became less sore, so it was probably not a cold. Pretty sure this was some type of influenza. The first battle of an invader with the immune system takes place in the tonsils, right? They fought hard, thank you very much, but were overpowered by a virus.

Sigh. Who knows how long this will last?

I did whatever I could think of to boost my immune system. I drank Tulsi tea, then made tea from fresh ginger steeped in hot filtered water and drank that. I ate a clove of garlic. (Slice thinly and swallow quickly, don’t chew.)

I did EFT three times. I did the thymus thump several times. I took three long naps. I had no appetite at all but stayed hydrated with the teas and water.

I finally remembered I owned a thermometer and took my temperature Saturday night. It was 102.2 degrees F.

That evening was the worst of it. I couldn’t lie still. Kept needing to flex and point my feet and circle my ankles, changing position often. Weird, huh? All I can figure out is that these movements were activating meridians (several of which begin or end at the feet) and moving lymph.

(Lymph is a fluid that contains infection-fighting white blood cells. The lymphatic system clears the toxins, waste, and other stuff  your body no longer needs. It’s a key part of the body’s immune system. Since the lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump, it works better when you take measures to help it circulate: by moving the body, dry-brushing, and lymphatic drainage, a type of light massage.)

I’ve learned in my studies of trauma recovery to allow the body to move as it needs to, unless it’s dangerous. So on with the foot movements.

Sunday morning I felt a bit better. Took my temperature twice that day, 99 in a.m., 100 in p.m. Aches and chills were gone, and my appetite came back somewhat later in the day, but my energy was low. I decided to stay home yesterday (Monday), believing that resting would speed my full recovery.

It seems I had a mini-virus, a two-day bout of illness. I have no idea if what I did shortened the duration of it, or if it would have been a 48-hour bug no matter what. You’d need a scientific experiment with a control group to determine that, and there could still be variables unaccounted for.

Still, it just feels better to know that I did what I could to strengthen my immune system.

Today (Tuesday) my temperature was normal. I went out and did a few things that couldn’t be postponed (I’m moving on Friday, after all), but I still feel weak and not quite back to myself.  I’m accustomed to feeling well and having a nice level of energy.

I have so much to do this week, it’s imperative that I recover quickly. I need to clean out my shed, get boxes, pack, and work three days this week. I need to get well. I made an acupuncture appointment because it helps.

~~~

Postscript, July 9, 2012. Hindsight is such a great teacher, bringing the gifts of perspective and insight.

When I look back on the time when I originally wrote this post a year and a half ago, I can see that I was stressed. I was selling my house, moving, and starting a new contract job. That’s when I got sick.

Stress weakens the immune system. If it goes on too long, you can suffer from adrenal depletion or exhaustion.

That happened to me this spring. I had just just studied for and passed the national certification exam for massage and bodywork, not exercising or resting enough, and I was stressing about money and work. A friend suddenly showed distinct signs of mental illness, which freaked me out. I experienced a fight-or-flight reaction, which means the adrenals are producing copious amounts of stress hormones that keep the sympathetic nervous system dominant.

I took different contract job at a technology company, working in a group that was experiencing a lot of chaos, with an hour-long commute. Much more stress and misery.

No wonder, when I saw my acupuncturist after the job ended, she told me I was suffering from adrenal exhaustion.

She advised me to take over-the-counter high quality rhodiola and eleuthero as directed on the bottles to recover from the adrenal exhaustion. I’ve been doing that for about a month now, and I feel much better. (These are also listed on my Products I Recommend page.)

As a massage therapist, I recommend frequent massage to help the body release stress and tension. A relaxing massage helps the nervous system begin to regulate itself again instead of being stuck in sympathetic mode, which helps you recover from stress more quickly and experience the deep relaxation (and strong immune system, better digestion, better sleep, stronger sex drive, more playful attitude) that occur when the parasympathetic nervous system comes back online. I also recommend Epsom salt baths for stress relief.

Related: See my post about preventing illness and recovering quickly.