To Choose

Posted on | April 24, 2012 | No Comments

as read and written March 6, 2011

I have grieved and let go of and been healed of so much. But – I am not unaffected. There has been this slow realization that even though I no longer live in the trauma that is past, even though I have worked full time on healing from it – just because I am healed from something, doesn’t mean I am unaffected by all of its consequences. I don’t know what that means, entirely – but only that it is true. I still find myself acutely aware and affected by situations, behaviors, stresses in others that trigger some echo in me. Maybe the difference is, now I can mostly choose to react in a way that is appropriate. I can choose to tell myself that it is not a present tense terror, and that it does not affect me, and that I don’t need to run away or judge extremely or protect myself from anything. I can choose to tell myself that it’s okay that I am still affected by it, even though I vehemently do not want to be – understanding that it’s just the process.

I can choose to reassure myself that no matter how it appears to my memory and senses, it is NOT a life or death situation and I do not need to activate those flight-or-fight responses within that have been overused and are still frazzled and frayed. I can choose to sit still. Feel what I need to feel within me. Scan through the possible responses. And choose to act accordingly in a healthy, non-panic-driven modality. The biggest difference, here – between then and now…is that all my hard work has given me my choice back. At least – at MOST – I have that. Reading the following resonated…of course it would.

“‘Her nervous system was stuck in the amber of her childhood, when her psyche had been conditioned for chronic danger.’ Abuse, shame, etc. halting maturity. ‘Decades after leaving her father’s house, her mind and body remained on 24-7 high alert, poised to duck a flying fist or slip through a closing door. Formal diagnosis: PTSD.’

PTSD is not as palpably physical a wound as a burn or a broken bone, but the disorder leaves a real physiological scar on the human brain. When a person experiences a traumatic event – a rape, a car accident, a tour of duty – the fear-stoking amygdala sends panicked messages to other regions of the brain, including the hippocampus (the brain’s HQ for storing long-term memories). The adrenal glands flood the body with fight-or-flight stress hormones, searing fragments of the memory onto the mind with a fire that’s hard to extinguish: Past events reignite in the present tense, taking the shape of nightmares and flashbacks.

Most people can draw on a reserve of psychological strength when they need it. With PTSD, you exhaust all your strength just trying to get to work, pay the bills, feed yourself, and keep up the facade that you’re a normal person. So when a little thing comes along like a flat tire or a coworker in a bad mood, all that’s left is that fight-or-flight response. The paradoxical power of trauma is that it hides in plain sight: its potency depends in part on the victim’s never really looking it in the eye. PTSD is maintained by avoidance. The memory gets frozen in time, and it’s often tangled up with feelings of guilt and responsibility. You have to look at the trauma closely and break down your fear of the memory, so you can start thinking about it differently. But you can’t think about it differently if you can’t even think about it.

Research shows that, in psychological treatment, if you get healthy from a medication you’ve taken – instead of a drug-free treatment such as PE (Prolonged Exposure) – it’s not as satisfying. I didn’t learn from the therapy that chips and cheese puffs are bad – I knew THAT. But I lost my interest in self-sabotage. I WANTED to take care of myself.

Taking it [being treated for the author's PTSD] – my mind’s fear center has been put to a peaceful, dreamless sleep, like Dorothy in the poppy field. I talk about the ways I squander my time and my talents – but my attitude toward these shortcomings is kindly and curious, not judgmental or self-deprecating per usual. For three hours, I am swept up in a proactive, scientific empathy toward myself – a place where safety is euphoric, and euphoria feels safe.

Hours 1-3 showed me what was possible – a mindful existence defined by love, gentleness, curiosity, nerdy enthusiasm. And the diabolical hour Four (My mind is a slaughterhouse) showed me the splattered-Expressionistic-canvas version of what I do in miniature every day: flog myself for mistakes years after the fact, obsess over a poorly chosen word here or a social fumble there. It was awful to look at, but perhaps only then could I grab hold of it and throw it away.

When a fumble happened later, my old response – ruminating how stupid and careless I am – my fight-or-flight mainframe simply does not respond. Nothing. It could care less. With each day that passes, this mode of being feels less and less like a drug-induced delusion or some kind of euphoric hangover. It doesn’t feel like an escape from myself. It just feels like me.”

It just feels like me.

This is possibly the greatest achievement we can accomplish, here. And that’s no small feat. That, is conquering several versions of hell and coming out smiling on the other side. We are each our own worst adversaries. We are each our own wreckage. We are each our own endless battlefields. We are each, our own liberators.

Today, I feel like a hero for simply showing up on the field.

Keep reading…

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