21 Things I Learned About How to Overcome Life’s Challenges
By Michele Rosenthal
Whoo-hoo! I cannot BELIEVE it!
Seven years ago I just sat down to write out my trauma so that I could heal. And now….
My trauma recovery memoir, BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED: Conquering the Past and Creating the Future, was officially released!
I’m particularly excited to share it with you, my peeps, who are here with me walking the path toward freedom.
In honor of your journey and my book release, I embarked on a 21 day celebration and countdown: 21 Things I Learned About How to Overcome Life’s Challenges is a list of things I noticed along the way to my full trauma recovery. Things that helped me move toward the future, let go of the past and reconnect to the present. The fun part? They’re all things I write about in my book, so you get lots of peeks into what the book is about.
Each day I’ve added one idea to the list as we count down to the number one thing I learned (it’s really good!). You have things you’ve learned, too – please feel free to add to my list with ideas of your own. Let’s let the comments section be a free for all of ideas, lessons and insights!
#1 You can’t go back to who you were before your trauma – and you don’t need to!
After my trauma I spent a lot of time (like, 24 years!) trying to go back to who I’d been before my trauma occurred. The whole title of my book came from this poem that’s all about that: I wrote the poem, ‘Before the World Intruded’ at the beginning of my recovery. It was my attempt to figure out and explain to myself the essence of what was bothering me. At the bottom of it all, in addition to the fear and anxiety that my trauma created in me, was this enormous grief and loss for the person I had been, and for the person I might have become if trauma had not gotten in the way.
During recovery, however, I learned something very different. I learned we don’t need to go back – we can go forward to becoming whole, joyful, purposeful and fabulous people, despite our past:
At the end of my recovery journey, I believe it all comes down to this: My life is about who I am in any given moment. It is about feeling my own heartbeat and the emotions held in each thump of my pulse and letting that define who and what I believe myself to be that day. I can’t get back to who I was before the world intruded, but I don’t need to. While healing is not as simple as turning your gaze it begins with a willingness to do so. It begins with a willingness to imagine some other self. I also believe it begins with our own actions of defiance against the prison of the past and ends by constructing an identity that belongs purely to the present. For every survivor, the multifaceted healing process is the result of an accumulation of many different tools and efforts—for me, that included psychotherapy, several alternative treatment modalities, research, writing, dancing, and hypnosis. Others may find a different route that proves successful. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
#2 Courage is a choice.
In case you don’t already know, my trauma was a medical mistake that caused such a rare life-threatening illness none of my New York City doctors had ever seen a case. Essentially, the illness turned me into a full-body burn patient. I lost 100% of my epidermis.
The weeks I spent in the hospital were excruciatingly painful. A couple of weeks into the experience I was exhausted, weak from not eating and the pain, and feeling incredible despair. In a moment of enormously intense pain I suddenly felt myself slowly and peacefully detach from my body and float up out of it. There was a dark tunnel ringed with bright white light near the ceiling; I moved toward it, so happy to feel myself dying and being let out of the hell in which I was trapped.
My mother, however, had other plans. Her presence coaxed me back and then,
My mother leaned in close and said, “Now look here, you will not die. You will live through this.”“I can’t.”“You can.”“It’s too painful.”“You can do it.”“I don’t have the strength.”“You do. You just have to find it. Right this minute, you go down further, further into yourself than you’ve ever been, and you find the strength to pull yourself through.”“I can’t do it.”“Courage is a choice, Michele. Make it.”My mother’s eyes were big and black and unrelenting. There was no way to disobey her.I closed my eyes.I sank into my body.I went in search of my strength. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
Overcoming trauma requires the same conversation between you and you. You do have the strength. You’ve already survived once; you can make it through trauma recovery. Courage is a choice. You have what it takes to make it.
#3 Change is possible.
After my trauma I fought change. I wanted to go back to the girl I’d been before the world intruded. I wanted things to remain the same as they had always been, even though I felt so very different inside. As the years went on and I had to admit that I had changed, significantly, it didn’t occur to me that I could change again. Instead, I worked hard to hide the changes so that no one else would notice.
I hid things so well that now friends are shocked to read my book and find out how bad things really were. I bet you know what that’s like. I bet you hide the changes too.
Later, when the changes still lingered, I accepted that I couldn’t change the fact of who I had become: I was, I thought, certifiably crazy. I mean, what else would you call someone who had the thoughts, feelings, depression, anxiety, rage and sadness that I did? I accepted that change was impossible and understood that I would always remain the same post-trauma zombie I had become.
Then came a day that remaining the same became more painful than trying to change. And so, I decided to take myself on a journey of enormous hoped-for change. It was not an easy journey. For a long time I didn’t change. I couldn’t: I didn’t want to have to work that hard. I didn’t want to have to let go of things. I didn’t want to be responsible for making choices and decisions that were required for moving forward. I changed my mind about changed and again, decided to remain the same.
And then again, a day came when remaining the same became more painful than trying to change. And so, I decided to try again. And again. And again. And again until finally, I did change – a lot.
It’s easy not to believe change is possible but, in fact, change is the foundation of who you are. You are always changing, every minute of every day. Your body and brain are designed to do that. Your mind is, too. In the end, I’ve changed what I used to think about change:
From my own experience, professional training, stories I’ve heard from many survivors, plus my work with clients I am convinced we all have the potential to construct and deconstruct and change ourselves, our brains, and our traumatic connections. Indeed, recent research about neuroplasticity proves more and more of the brain’s inherent capacity to heal. The implications of this are an enormous reversal in the idea that the changes trauma causes cannot be undone. Often, they can. There is hope for us all. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
#4 You are powerful in every moment.
One of the key takeaways from trauma is our intimate knowledge and understanding of what it means and feels to be utterly helpless and powerless. One of the largest aspects of trauma recovery is accepting, overcoming and releasing the impact of that moment or moments in your life.
This was a tough concept for me. My dedication to making sure I never felt helpless or powerless again caused more harm than good to come to me. My commitment to keeping myself safe – because I was afraid I wouldn’t be capable of surviving again – left me depleted, anxiety-ridden, exhausted, preoccupied and a slew of other things that shrank my life to the size of a dime.
Looking back from a place of recovery, however, I realize I didn’t need to be so afraid that I would be unable to survive again. Knowing what I know now – from my own recovery and professional training, plus the scores of survivors with whom I’ve connected – I have a different perspective on each of our intrinsic strength and capability:
I no longer worry that I will not and cannot live up to what my horrific illness demanded of me, nor am I terrified by what I learned: that we possess a transcendent power—that we are sometimes godly and godlike even insomuch as we are human and earthbound. That we are powerful in the those moments we feel powerless, and that in moments of trauma, some part of ourselves taps this source of power and then, even when we think we are powerless and cannot survive, we are stunned to find we do—and even more so to find we have a deep desire to live. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
#5 Education is the foundation of success.
When I first came out of my trauma I ran in the opposite direction. I didn’t want to understand or know anything about what I had survived. I also didn’t want to know what it meant to be a survivor. How did this work out for me? Not so well! Without knowledge and understanding it’s very hard to know what’s happening to you after trauma, and how to fix it.
Later in my journey, I decided to educate myself in a variety of ways that ended up having immediate impact on how I structured my recovery, how I perceived both myself and the task of healing, who I found to help me, and how I chose what to do. Three things I discovered that had a big impact on my thoughts and helped move me forward:
The word “trauma”, I learn, dates back to the year 1656, when it entered the Greek lexicon as a word for “wound.” It wasn’t until 1889 that it entered the realm of psychology, and not until 1949 that it officially began to denote a psychological state. In medical terms, trauma refers to a serious bodily injury, wound, or shock. In the psychiatric realm, however, trauma is defined as an experience that is emotionally shocking and often results in lasting mental and physical effects.
If the psychiatrist who spoke with me before I left the hospital had said, You’ve been traumatized, would I have responded? If she had said, You survived and there’s physical and psychological baggage that comes with that, would I have turned to her and whispered, More? If Greg had said, After trauma the mind can do strange things, would I have answered, Such as? It’s possible that had the hospital psychiatrist given me a name for what I experienced, some warning of what to look for if things began to unravel, I would have been able to stop the subsequent subtle disintegration that occurred. It’s possible that had my therapist been able to point out the obvious, I would have educated myself sooner. It’s possible, then, entirely possible, that I could have healed two decades ago.
As I approach my thirty-eighth birthday and come to understand the overall concept of what happened, I want to know more. I start outlining and highlighting articles. I write out facts on index cards. I read constantly: Trauma and Recovery; The Stranger in the Mirror: Dissociation—The Hidden Epidemic; The Modular Brain. I can’t read enough in those categories that objectively render facts, hypotheses, tested opinions. These medical and other books give me an education I really don’t want: Reflected in their pages, I see who I have become. I begin to feel a sense of belonging. Many of the books discuss the importance of integrating memories into the present identity. In all of this reading, I learn about the mind/body connection; how the state of one can mirror and affect the other. I discover how that connection can present itself after trauma. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
#6 You have to face your fear.
Oh, but this is a tough one! Fear felt so normal to me I didn’t even realize I was afraid – until I had a health problem that was enormously scary and I was forced to face the fear I’d been carrying with me since my trauma. THAT was a tough day…
Leaning against the railing, listening to the city’s sirens and car and truck horns, the human voices and shouts, anger suddenly surged through me. It wasn’t fair so many lives continued moving forward while I stood in the freezing cold, paralyzed by fear and sadness. I tried to blame fate. But fate, like faith, likes neither to be pinned down nor burdened with human qualities. How, then, had I become so bound by fear? What held me to it? Out of the silence and blankness of my mind, the answer stepped forward with unwanted, unexpected clarity: I did. I did it by my continued habitual reaction to that long-ago crisis. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
This was a very hard thing to admit to myself: while I had not caused my trauma, or my reaction to it, I was allowing that negative reaction to persist. This train of thought led me to the realization that I, ultimately, had to be the one responsible for changing my post-trauma experience, too. The next week I started my healing rampage and didn’t quit working toward recovery until I was through!
#7 You have to commit to helping yourself.
For a long time (I cringe to admit: 7 years on and off) I sat in a therapist’s office waiting for him to heal me. At the time, I didn’t know the extent to which my problems were related to posttraumatic stress; even so, I sat in his big blue overstuffed chair, pouring out my woes and waiting for him to make them go away. That, um, didn’t happen.
What did happen was that I’d get a little better, decided I didn’t need any more therapy or energy processing and run off to live my life. That, um, didn’t happen either. Inevitably I’d have a meltdown and wind up back in therapy.
I didn’t realize until I looked back how little I engaged in the process of my own recovery. I waited for practitioners to do it for me. And then came the day that I realized I would have to make the effort. Deciding my health and freedom were up to me made an enormous difference in my approach to getting better – immediately:
As I watched the river swirling below me, I felt a sudden new strength. I imagined I could be just like any of the people I saw on the street going about the day without being pushed from behind by fear. I imagined I could be just as functional and physically fit as that woman jogging by in her red scarf and mittens. My body, usually meek and lethargic, suddenly felt a capability for fitness. Who knew, maybe I could even lift some weights.
Shivering from both the cold and a great sense of anticipation, I turned away from Queens and headed back toward York Avenue.
“Today,” I decided, “will be the day I begin to reclaim myself.”
Only one person could help me with such a task. I took out my cell phone and with clumsy, gloved fingers, dialed Greg’s office. I hadn’t seen him in three years.
“Greg!” I shouted against the wind and a passing siren. “I’m coming back to finish what we started!” (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
#8 It is possible to reconnect to yourself.
After my trauma I lived a very disconnected life. I felt split into many fragments in my mind and was pretty much terrified to be in my body. Put that together with trying to fake it to everyone else that I was all right and I was very disconnected from my genuine self. The problem was I was “quietly trying to choke off a new, paranoid self beginning to lurk around the edges of my mind. Self-preservation became key; introversion and secrecy emerged as the first necessary steps to survival.” (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
Twenty-five years later all of this left me feeling, as I described it to my therapist, like my body moved through the world by itself while the I floated beside it (on the right hand side, to be exact).
One of the most wonderful, relieving and exciting things about recovery was that I learned to come back into my body; I became one whole woman instead of remaining several splintered pieces. I think there are many ways to achieve this goal. For me, dance played a huge role in this reconciliation of learning how to be present in myself and my physical form:
The studio is dark and cool. After each lesson I reemerge into the bright summer heat feeling demoralized by my persisting inadequacies, but also elated. Despite my discomfort, each week I accomplish one small but significant motion. For a fleeting second, I get out of my own way.
Clearly, some attitude is shifting. Something about trying to be a good dancer is unifying my body, heart, and mind. Even if just for a couple of seconds every now and then, I achieve a surprising new degree of harmony. Maybe this result is true of any sport done well. But I’ve played tennis and softball. I’ve ridden horses. I’ve tried golf. Nothing simultaneously engages and satisfies my mind’s intellect, my heart’s emotion, and my body’s desires the way dance does. Nothing else so completely touches and unites all the primal passions buried deep within my soul. I didn’t expect this. When I started dancing I only thought I was chasing joy. I didn’t expect to find self-unity. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
One of my greatest moments of recovery pride came from realizing that I had gathered all the fragments, smoothed them together, and moved forward with this sense of unity that allowed me to feel safe, in control and at peace.
We are each capable of such reunification; we only need to find the action and process that allows us to achieve it. Such a process might be based, I think, on a physical activity that makes us feel good, joyful, and wholly focused.
#9 We have enormous power deep within.
After trauma it’s very easy to fall into a place where you question everything about who you are. Also, it’s very easy to lose confidence in who you are. I often hear from survivors (and I did this myself) a lot of questions about how they could have better handled the traumatic situation, what they could have done differently, why they are at fault, why it’s because of them that things turned out the way they did.
Take a step back for a moment – does any of that sound reasonable? Yes, in a certain perspective, sure, we all need to assess and validate our own behaviors in tricky situations; that’s how we learn. But to take on the responsibility for the traumatic actions of others or the universe is just plain unfair. What happened is not your fault and what has happened since is equally not your fault. Any mistakes you’ve made have come from you doing the best you can.
With these kinds of thoughts swirling around it’s only natural to lose faith in your own ability to rise up, triumph and overcome the effects of the past. BUT: Your ability to survive means you have a deep power within you. I discovered this on my own journey in an unexpected conversation with my therapist in which I completely surprised myself:
I had never considered that I might have made good decisions in the aftermath of trauma. I did what I needed to do in order to survive; nothing had been consciously thought out. Looking at the situation from this perspective, though, I recognized I had done what was right for me: I’d proceeded on feeling.
I looked at Greg with a strange sense of enlightenment.
“In all that chaos, I had good instincts.”
“You did. You still do.”
“I wasn’t as lost as I felt.”
Greg smiled and shook his head. “Perhaps not.”
We sat in silence while I thought about what this implied. And then it occurred to me: The power we discover inside ourselves as we survive a life-threatening experience can be utilized equally well outside of crisis, too. I am, in every moment, capable of mustering the strength to survive again—or of tapping that strength in other good, productive, healthy ways. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
You, too, are capable of harnessing that power and using it to move yourself forward to the life you desire.
#10: The key to forward motion is ACTION.
My father’s favorite advice has always been, Action puts fear to flight. Whenever something unnerves us, we’ve been taught to meet it head-on and act as a force upon or against it rather than allow it to solely act against us. Between walks on Jupiter Beach, happy hour at the local tiki bar, and dates with Stuart, the owner of a Golden Retriever Baylee met in the dunes, I once again heed my father’s words.
Socrates wrote that language is “an activity that moves the soul toward definition.” Words can deliver us from our solitude, or deepen it. They are our most specific form of translating what exists in a heart through the landscape of a mind. I have always used language as a fence, as a guardrail against truth, definition, and exposure. So often my words have cloaked my self in disguises designed to ensure anonymity. Or, the lack of words has kept me separate from even myself. Recently, however, I sense the ability to use language in another way. I begin writing poetry again, starker poems and more to the point, writing more directly than ever about the aftereffects of illness and its consequence on identity. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
When I began getting serious about my trauma recovery I began to realize more and more that I had to actually do something. It wasn’t enough to want to get better or to seek that one person or technique that would free me. There was more to recovery than being passive; I had to become active.
Looking back on it now, I realize that, of course, that’s the way it must be! After trauma we remember so vividly the feeling of being helpless and powerless. What better way to integrate that memory than to do something that makes us feel in control and powerful?
Deciding to take action was the beginning of my totally and completely clawing my way out of the hole I’d fallen into. Whew, it was a lot of hard work, but in the end, it was so worth it! From our actions we relearn to admire, respect, trust and love ourselves.
#11: Joy is a powerful healing agent.
I’m always really honest with you, so I’ll tell you this: there were frequent days along my quest for trauma recovery that I really didn’t know whether or not I’d make it. I didn’t know what I was doing, how I was going to do it, who would or could help me, and whether or not I was doing the right thing.
One day things got so bad I decided I needed to do something that would make me feel better — that had nothing to do with trauma or symptoms of posttraumatic stress recovery! I just innocently decided I needed a little joy infusion. I knew that when I dance I feel like I can transcend trauma and get into a joyful, free space. So, I decided to dance, a lot!
Because I live in a small beach town which means I can’t go clubbing every night, I signed up for ballroom dance classes every day. From that daily hour or two that I spent feeling connected to a joyful experience, here’s the amazing thing I discovered:
The more I dance, the less I care about the past. The more I dance, the more I feel joy, the more generous I become with myself, the more I live in the present, the more I let myself off the trauma hook, the less important the past becomes. Perhaps defining a self begins with simply making the first choice, simply rising up and deciding what you desire, and then methodically, like writing, putting one word after the other until you have created a whole self and a whole life in the process. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
Hard to believe that something so simple can bring such results, isn’t it? And yet, the idea of deflection is an old one for helping the mind to gain distance, room to process and resilience.
#12: Even after trauma we are lovable and capable of love.
My trauma happened at the age of 13, which means the years I would have learned, explored and discovered healthy relationship habits I spent in a dark fog of dissociation, fear, anxiety and isolation. That didn’t set me up very well for choosing kind, compassionate, love, supportive and emotionally generous partners! Instead, through the default mechanism with which I live my whole life (because, let’s be serious, when you’re coping with anxiety who has the energy to make choices), I just accepted whoever wanted me. This meant that often I found myself tied to people who were toxic, co-dependent and just flat out bad for me.
I repeated the same pattern over and over again until…. I got myself far enough along in recovery to begin making healthy choices for a change, which led me to a very interesting place, one that I didn’t see coming. That little joy quest I went on led me straight into the best relationship I’d ever been in:
At first it is just an instinct, a quiet impulse to love, and then the feeling gathers itself into John’s shape. No rush of overwhelming emotion here, only a wonderful partnership on and off the dance floor with a man who seems the most happy, genuine, romantic, and incredibly good person I have ever met. He also happens to be one of the most emotionally introverted people I’ve ever met. John feels deeply but does not show it, so there are no discussions about our relationship or our future or how we feel. There are no declarations, only eyes that meet, and smiles, and arms tightly protecting me deep in the night. Which means this all happens at a very good pace for me. When I notice, for example, that I love him, it is in ordinary moments that suddenly seem remarkable. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
Over and over again trauma recovery brings surprises. Some of them are really delicious.
#13: Relationships damaged by trauma can be repaired.
OK, so obviously, not all relationships damaged by the effects of trauma and posttraumatic stress can be repaired. The idea here is that often, those relationships most important to you can be healed. For example, I was really awful and horrible to my mother for over two decades. We were locked in an on-going battle of her trying to help me (because I needed help!) and me denying anything was wrong (couldn’t she see I was just fine??). It pains me to admit to you how incredibly malicious, unkind and just downright nasty I was on several occasions. She should have disowned me.
Then there were also my father and brother who I often just disconnected from. Locked in my preferred isolated state days or even weeks could go by without contact or any meaningful time spent. The real sadness here is that before my trauma we were a very tight-knit family. Even after the trauma we were — if you didn’t count that one of the knits was a little nutty (that’s my phrase, not theirs) and disruptive.
Amazingly, by the time my recovery was complete I’d reconnected in deeply meaningful ways with my mother, father and brother (and done a lot of apologizing just to make myself feel better!). What could have been a family torn apart by trauma, loss and grief ended up this way, at a New Year’s Eve party shortly after my recovery was complete:
By the end of the evening the entire family is triple-step swinging to anything the band plays. Watching my family learn to dance, I feel the impulse to throw my arms around each of them and say, Thank you! I know it hasn’t been easy. We dance until the band quits and breakfast is served in a mammoth buffet. The four of us sit on the patio balancing plates, looking out at the moon riding the waves on the Atlantic Ocean. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
Yes, I’m aware that a lot of this happy ending has to do with the quality of the people in my family: They were kind, empathetic, willing to overlook, accept and forgive my erratic and unkind behaviors. So, the credit for the happy ending belongs to them, too.
#14: Progress comes when you least expect it.
I worked and worked and worked to release the past — it didn’t happen as easily or quickly as I hoped and expected! And then one day things started happening. I think it’s sort of like working out: for a while your body’s just getting used to the new activity and then all of a sudden one day you notice you’re building muscle. Before any of that could happen I had to find someone to work with who I could trust, which I did:
I trust Greg, so I submit to the process of recovery and am surprised that our sessions invigorate me with conscious and subconscious success. I develop a greater degree of ease in talking and feeling. I leave each session with optimism and rush back each time with the idea I will be rewarded, I will begin to gain weight, my body will become less fragile, my health will be restored through a sort of psychological witchcraft in which I cannot wait to engage. Little by little, the creaky machinery of the mind/body connection, which was shut down and boarded up so many years ago, begins to turn on a well-greased axis. I begin to recognize the existence of my instincts and where and how they reside in the reactions of my body. I begin to practice listening for and gauging the strength of that inner voice. I begin deferring to it on small, insignificant matters. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
Recognizing that I may not be able to predict how and when things would change — and accepting that while trusting that things would change — eased my anxiety about how and when and what I would have to do to begin to feel better.
#15: A shift of focus can lead to movement.
After struggling for years and not making the progress I wanted to in terms of releasing myself from the past, one day I decided, “#$%*@ it!” (You know that feeling, right?) I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired and stuck and powerless and helpless and hopeless and… and… and… you get my drift.
I decided I was just done with trying to ‘heal’ and was, instead, going to focus on just finding a way to connect to a feeling of joy. It seemed crazy at the time, since joy seemed so inaccessible to me. And yet, it made sense because joy is exactly what I wanted to feel. So, I took the plunge and went on a joy quest. What a shock when it became the catalyst that led me to my final freedom!
Looking back I was surprised….
I could not have known that January night at Noche when I so innocently decided I wanted to learn to hustle that it was an evening that would change my life. I didn’t suspect that learning to dance would allow me to access such a deep well of joy that I would become filled with the courage I needed to recover, or that I would find hypnosis and then reset the course of my life. In the darkness existing in my mind around that time, I wouldn’t have believed anyone who told me the process of seeking joy could so naturally lead to healing a personality that had been so badly misshapen. But, in fact, deciding to shift my focus from the horror of the past to the pursuit of joy in the present was the action that finally led me up that staircase and opened the door in my mind. I believe this process of eliciting the state we desire—and then drawing courage and strength from that state—is an incredible tool in making the shift from powerless to powerful. I believe it’s a tool any survivor can utilize, whether your desired state is joy, peace, transcendence, etc. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
Sometimes, it’s just that small shift that leads to big things.
#16: Pets can make a HUGE difference.
For a long time I was all alone. Sure, there were friends and family who reached out and wanted to connect with and support me, but I just couldn’t handle the interaction. Connecting with a human being meant being present and conscious and able to interact and be dependable and a whole slew of other relationship oriented things I just couldn’t be in my post-trauma haze. Then, I decided to get a puppy and, boy, what a difference that made!
Yes, a pet is a big commitment but here’s what I loved about it: 1) I was responsible for and caring about something outside of myself, 2) a pet just purely loves you for no reason, 3) pets accept whatever mood you’re in, and adapt to it!, 4) pets can change your mood.
I got myself a Wheaten Terrier (he’s in the pic with me at the top of this page!) and he rocked my world in a million unexpected ways, including:
Baylee had spunk, but he could also be incredibly peaceful. When I developed a bad head cold, he curled up on my chest and slept while I rested on the couch. His tiny presence touched something buried in me. Baylee’s inquisitive eyes, his endlessly wagging tail, plus his habit of pawing at me to be picked up anchored me to every moment in a way that was fun and funny and full of pleasure.
With a sense of humor and a seemingly endless capacity for joy, Baylee made me laugh many times every day. I’d be on the couch mining my emotional pain in poetry and Baylee would suddenly run through the apartment, head held high, his mouth trailing an enormous stream of toilet paper, still attached to the roll in the bathroom. I graded papers with one hand while throwing a ball with the other as he skidded and chased it across the floor. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
When I met Baylee I thought I was just going to like having a living, breathing furry thing to comfort me. What I ended up getting was a friend who taught me how to giggle again, how to be present, how to love and feel a smidge of joy when I least expected it. Looking back now I can see that getting Baylee was the first positive thing I did in terms of taking control of my recovery, taking a positive action and exploring a way to redevelop my capacity to connect to a presence and the moment in a way that did not challenge my strength, emotional reserve or sanity.
#17: Recovery hurts.
There’s just no way around it: Recovery is hard and often, it hurts – a lot. There’s a good reason for this, though, and understanding it helps ease the pain when it comes so that you move through it with strength and focus.
Summing it up quickly, this is how I experienced it:
…the faster I work, the more frequent and intense are the nightmares. My insomnia and disquiet and unrest mount and build. I’m exhausted and weary. Living with my symptoms in a state of avoidance and numbness was so much easier than facing the past and feeling the emotions that erupt. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
Sound familiar? Since I spent a lot of time on my own in recovery without a trained trauma professional, I didn’t know to expect this sort of process. It makes sense, though, doesn’t it? You spend a lot of time suppressing all that feeling and coping by avoiding it, and then in order to heal you have to face it all — big game changer! And yet, at the time you decide to work through trauma issues you’re unprepared to handle all that emotion and the things it brings up – you’re out of practice. Plus, you’re feeling raw and energy-depleted, which can make recovery hurt and be more frightening than you expected.
The good news: That old saying, “You have to move through to move out” is true. Allowing all that emotion to come up and moving through it – allowing yourself to hurt – paves the way for that all to move out of you and so you may move out of that trauma space, which is the great final goal.
#18: Your brain can be retrained.
After over 25 years of living with posttraumatic stress it was hard to believe that I’d ever be free. It took me 18 years to agree that I needed help. Another 5 to recognize that I had, in fact, been traumatized, and then 3 more to be completely open and receptive to the idea of giving up the trauma ghost. Living with trauma made me feel safe – in a slew of self-destructive ways. Finally, it came time to step up, be brave and imagine releasing the past. But how?
Throughout my recovery I’d tried several different modalities with varying degrees of success. None had freed me completely and I was losing hope I’d ever achieve complete recovery. On a whim I decided to try hypnosis. I figured if it could cure a nicotine addiction maybe it could heal what felt like a trauma addiction. It ended up being the key for me.
Truth is, hypnosis only works if you really want the ideas being suggested. I did, ever so badly, and so my hypnosis sessions were a success.
The science behind hypnosis, though, is where my belief in this process originates: We know from recent findings in the field of neuroplasticity that the brain is hard-wired to change and heal itself. (There’s a great book about this called CHANGE YOUR MIND, CHANGE YOUR BRAIN, by Sharon Begley.) I went into my sessions willing to have my mind change my brain and so bring about a change in my habitual experience of posttraumatic stress symptoms. My hypnotist explained it this way:
While we cannot change memories, we can update how we feel about them. We can retrain your brain…. The role of hypnosis, then, is to revise, relieve, or erase those impressions that are not serving you. When you do the same thing in the same way with enough repetition, the subconscious mind makes it a habit. A habit is an automatic response to a certain situation in a specific way. You don’t think, you just react—97 percent of what you do every day is by habit. When you get up and get dressed in the morning, that’s a habit. You don’t think about it, you just automatically do it. Our subconscious develops habit patterns that either help or hurt us. Luckily, habits can be changed. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
There are many ways to change the habits your mind has developed. Hypnosis is only one way. Other options include EMDR, Emotional Freedom Technique (tapping), Tapas Accupressure Technique, Thought Field Therapy… The list goes on and on. Your job is to try as many ways as possible until you get the job done!
#19: An untraumatized self still exists.
After a trauma it’s easy to believe that you have been so changed, so dramatically altered, that you are trauma to the core! And why wouldn’t you feel that way? Following trauma sometimes all you see is yourself as a trauma survivor.
The truth, however, is that you are so much more than that. All of the raw material of who you were before the world intruded – even if the world intruded when you were very young – still exists. When I work with clients I describe it as: You’ve been buried by a heap of trash. Your goal in trauma recovery is to remove the trash, beneath which still stands your true, authentic self.
During my own recovery I worried that I was so damaged I’d never be whole again. By the time I completed my recovery, I found I was whole – completely. How can this be? After a lot of studying, working with and connecting with others who have had similar recovery experiences and observations, I’ve decided this:
I have come to believe that a pure, untraumatized, authentic self exists despite our experiences; it is the part that wishes to be whole and free. Within this self, I believe, exists each individual’s enormous healing potential. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
At the very core of who you are is someone incredibly special, lovable, deserving, worthwhile and original. The goal of recovery, to me, is getting down to that person and starting from scratch to build the life that self desires.
#20: It helps to accept help.
For 17 years I refused to accept anyone who wanted to help me heal after my trauma. In fact, according to me, there was nothing to heal. I was fine, I pretended. And I worked hard to convince everyone around me I was fine, too. The only person I fooled was myself! Despite how often my family insisted I needed professional input to help me release the pain, fear and anxiety in which I lived, I absolutely refused to hear them, often telling them that the problem was them.
The truth was, I didn’t want to speak to anyone because I was afraid of what would happen if I did. How could I continue to stave off insanity if I actually let all of those feelings and memories come up to the surface??
Eventually, my ability to function physically, mentally and emotionally became so impaired even I had to admit that something needed to be done. Faced with a crisis and having hit rock bottom (for the first of many times!) I gave in and agreed to speak with a therapist. Boy, was I shocked by how that went!
Talking with Greg was like being released from the circus. I no longer had to perform. I no longer had to convince myself or anyone else I was all right, stable, happy, or any of the other things that, when you’re ill and disgusted by pity, you try to fake. I could admit I was afraid, without hope that I would ever feel at peace. I felt secure in the knowledge that if I started to fall apart, Greg would catch me.
Under Greg’s tutelage and through a forced devotion to a sort of cognitive consciousness, I began to reconnect with myself in both physical and psychological realms. Over a period of six months the pain in my muscles somewhat diminished. I could walk without feeling I was using an insufficient amount of weak and weary ligaments to haul a heavy skeleton up the block.
With Greg, I admitted how old fears were hanging around and messing with my head. I saw how my fear of medicine made me act irrationally: either I was overly cautious about prescriptions, combing over definitions in the Physicians’ Desk Reference and grilling pharmacists, or I threw back pills without a second thought. Through speaking with Greg I recognized how my survival techniques had gotten a little out of hand. (BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED)
Allowing someone to sit beside me, listen, support and guide me became the turning point in my recovery. It was how I began to take back control, and part of what led me out of the darkness of my post-trauma mind and into the light of my life after trauma.
#21: The way is undefined, but it is waiting to be found.
Each of us wants so desperately to have a road map — a definitive guide for how and when and who and what and where we need to go, do, say, see and be so that we move out of the past and into a more comfortable and safe-feeling present. Unfortunately, your healing path is as individual as your fingerprints. While it is really annoying that you don’t have specific direction, this means that, just the way you can see your fingerprints if you look for them, you can see your healing path if you look for it.
In Before the World Intruded, I write:
For every survivor the multifaceted healing process is the result of an accumulation of many different tools and efforts.
Every effort you make moves you forward. Sometimes, that movement is so imperceptible and subtle you won’t be able to tell. Still, just like the way you grew to the height you are today (slowly, imperceptibly) so too can you move forward with the right nourishment and nutrients for your mind and soul. Look for the way. Look for the new modality to try, the new thought to have the new person to work with, the new support to accept.
Only by looking do we ever find what we wish to see.