Healing the Pain of the Past
By Michele Rosenthal
It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m at an enormous party at the Breaker’s Hotel on Palm Beach Island off the east coast of Florida. The band is rocking, the dance floor is packed with over 100 guests, friends and strangers are celebrating with jubilant, life-affirming glee – and I’m locked in a stall of the ladies’ room bawling my eyes out. Thirty minutes before the year turns and I’m unraveling in the face of two thoughts: Yet another year closing on my crazy posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) insanity. Yet another year yawning open on the endless pain, fear, despair, insomnia, nightmares, dissociation, haunting memories, erratic moods, soul-searing depression and paralyzing anxiety. Not to mention the unrealized career, lost friendships, failed romances and strained family relationships. “Happy” new year? Not for me.
THE TRAUMA OF THE PAST
I was thirteen years old when I turned into a full-body burn victim. An allergy to an antibiotic ignited a response in my body called Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis Syndrome (TENS): my body drove the medication out through my skin in enormous blisters. I lost 100% of the first two layers of skin in a quarantined hospital room. When I was released from the hospital I knew I’d make a full physical recovery. Emotionally, however, I was not so resilient.
Immediately I shut down all emotions and words and developed classic PTSD symptoms: extreme avoidance of anything related to my trauma; hyper vigilance and the feeling something life-threatening was about to happen any minute; intrusive thoughts and memories of what I had experienced; mood alterations that led me to dark depression and extreme negativity. I started to hate who I’d become.Because PTSD was only formally recognized as a clinical diagnosis in 1980 and even then solely focused on Vietnam veterans none of the therapists, eating disorder specialists (in a bid to reclaim control over my body I’d become aggressively anorexic) or other mental health professionals recognized that I was struggling with PTSD. It wasn’t until my late 20s, when the physical toll of stress translated into severe medical problems that caused a meltdown that made me lose my job that I finally lifted the ban on the past and started to look for relief.
HEALING IN THE PRESENT
I entered talk therapy as a way to learn how to be a chronic patient. With mysterious liver, digestive, bone and hair ailments that had the medical community scratching their collective heads I needed help with the anxiety and depression threatening to consume me. Resistant and fearful at first I gradually learned there’s enormous power in placing words on feelings, labeling sensations and documenting fear. With the help of my therapist I learned to talk about the past and how it was affecting my present. Simultaneously I started a daily transcendental meditation practice that greatly reduced my anxiety. Plus, we used energy processing techniques (Thought Field Therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique) to reduce and release the emotional charge of the past. Gradually, I regained enough physical and emotional strength to return to work and my symptoms and therapy leveled off….. until a major trigger occurred and set me spiraling out of control again.
I engaged in a more aggressive therapy schedule but talking made things worse; I quit shortly after that New Year’s Eve at the Breakers Hotel. Standing at the edge of the dance floor wishing I was one of the happy faces on it gave me an idea: I needed to reconnect to something life-affirming. I grabbed my brother’s hand and drew him onto the floor to dance. The joy of my body rhythmically moving connected me with a happy self I had forgotten existed. I decided to dance every day.
REACHING RECOVERY SUCCESS
I signed up for daily ballroom dance classes. It didn’t matter what kind of dance—salsa, Argentine tango, cha-cha, swing, hustle—I just needed a reason to get out of my PTSD head and into a moment that felt tied to a sense of well-being. Six months went by. Despite nights I hadn’t slept or days mired in depression I showed up for class. Gradually an interesting thing happened: I started feeling glimmers of happiness every day. My brain and body started to relearn what it meant to feel something pleasurable. The nightmares ceased. I began sleeping a little more. I started feeling more positive than negative throughout a day. Hope grew, plus courage to resume my PTSD recovery work. I started on the ultimate healing quest: writing out my trauma story. Naively, I believed if I could write it out I’d be free.
What I quickly discovered was that writing about trauma activated all those old neural pathways that created symptoms. PTSD, I decided, was like having a trauma addiction. Since hypnosis has a high success rate of healing nicotine addiction I decided to give it a try. I found a hypnotist who had success treating PTSD. Six sessions later I was free of all symptoms and have been ever since.
With recovery I faced the question all survivors must answer: “Who am I now?” The creation of my post-trauma identity began during my healing and solidified when I realized that my greatest passion lies in helping others. I had lost twenty-seven years of my life to PTSD. As much as I could I decided to stop that from happening to anyone else. I became a post-trauma coach, founded the HealMyPTSD.com website, launched a radio show dedicated to trauma and PTSD and finished telling my trauma story in what became an award-nominated memoir of survival and healing. I’m not alone my transformation. As the leader of a large trauma community and having the privilege to work with and hear from numerous survivors and colleagues I see recovery happen every day. There’s a time to live with mental illness, a time to heal as much as we each individually can, and a time to speak out about our journeys so that we reduce the stigma surrounding our experiences and pave the way for those following the same road.
Michele Rosenthal is an award-winning PTSD blogger, award-nominated author, founder of HealMyPTSD.com and author of Your Life AfterTrauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity.