6 Keys to My Living Well Despite PTSD
We often hear about PTSD in the media in relation to veterans and horrific events. Less spoken about is the PTSD that people live with as a result of childhood sexual abuse and living situations. It’s this latter group that I fall into and that I speak from; as someone who lives with chronic PTSD and as someone who supports many others who have experienced trauma in their lives.
For me to say that I live with PTSD is a new thing. To live with it isn’t. Anorexia had been my go-to solution for masking and managing it (this post shares how I reclaimed my life from that). I had also tried over-working and other destructive ways. As I gave up these things and became more ‘comfortable’ with, or at least not avoiding, my experiences I became able to talk about struggling with anxiety and experiencing trauma. True in themselves, yet not a full representation of my experience with them. More acceptable and palatable to others yet not adding to the conversation that needs to be had about PTSD and childhood experiences. The one where there is space for stories of people living well and thriving despite.
The following keys are how I live well and what I help the people I work with to discover for themselves, no matter what our history is and no matter what the effects are in our lives now. They may be helpful to you or someone you love, they are not a guarantee.
1. I educated myself and the person closest to me
I have always worked in the area of trauma and been interested in its effects and overcoming. Even though I have always been well aware of my own struggles and history it was not until 2010 that I read myself into the words and interventions and started to apply them to myself. I searched out the papers and chapters that felt right for me and studied everything in the context of myself, forgetting about how it related to work or the people I supported. In the early stages I was reading things that are now becoming more mainstream but by comparing and checking my lived experience to it I learnt more about my experience and why and how to help myself.
Reading and becoming more acquainted with what I had experienced and was experiencing made it possible to know that through addressing them I would recover from anorexia and reclaim my life back. It also led me to seek specialised support for trauma with someone who also had experience with eating disorders. The primary focus for my therapy changed and that was a major shift for everything.
In my way and in my time I became more articulate and able to share what was most relevant with my husband.
To increase his awareness of my experience, to help me be supported in managing and to also disclose in a roundabout way what I had been trying to cope with on my own and that remained largely unspoken between us for 16 freaking years.
Being able to speak about PTSD directly and what was going on internally for me has opened space for behaviour change and a reduction in my symptoms. Naming it directly also helped with understanding and depathologising it. Rather than me being a horrible person to be around I became someone finding my way after some awful experiences and choosing to no longer engage in destructive behaviour. 2012-2014 were extremely hard years as I, which means we, worked this out.
Before 2011 my experience framed as PTSD had gone largely unacknowledged by professionals involved in my care. My new therapist did not shy away and opened space for us to talk about dissociation and avoidance that became key moments toward validation and healing. At that time I wrote a poem to describe my experience and relationship with dissociation. Before then I had never shared with anyone that symptom and how it impacted on my life. I could finally talk about it all with no shame, no judgement and complete acceptance of me as a person.
2. I stopped avoiding my situation and moved toward acceptance
Another turning point came when I stopped avoiding myself, my body and my experiences; when I stopped consuming my head space and time with an eating disorder, busyness, too much work and hurting myself. I had to stop living in denial and struggle and give myself a chance to cope rather than living in the belief I had no capacity or skill to address my issues without being sent over the edge. I had to sit with my fear and not let it take more from me than it already had done; I didn’t have much more to give anyway. I had to move beyond intentional numbing of myself, believing that things shouldn’t be how they were and cease being pissed off about where things were at because it was getting me nowhere. I had to believe there were solutions and I had to be gentle with myself.
All of these things needed to happen but I had to titrate my exposure and sitting with it all.
If I didn’t I would have overwhelmed myself and been worse off. Moving towards acceptance was a long process and in the early stages was very difficult and misunderstood. I accept that I will live with PTSD in some way for the rest of my life, my version is chronic. With that said it doesn’t mean that it has major impacts on my life, most people would never know this about me, but it is something that I have to be aware of and consider. I don’t embrace and would never choose what living with PTSD means for me but I can accept and live with it now. I no longer struggle with it. I no longer fight it. I no longer try to remove it from my life. Taking these steps have been big contributors in helping me manage and live well. Before I accepted what is and allowed it to be I had to stop trying to defeat it because the reality was I was only defeating myself.
3. I found a way to make sense of my experience for myself
With the help of my therapist I came to name, understand and acknowledge my experiences and symptoms. I got to know ‘my system’, my physiology and brain, and came to see it as me but also separate to me and not what I need to identify myself by. What I was going through and trying with all my might to push aside was not about there being something fundamentally wrong, bad or crazy about me but brain and bodily reactions that made complete sense, given everything. When I realised this I became able to work with it and start living better bit by small bit.
By working with the effects of my experiences and how they continued to show up in my life I started to know how to help myself and when I could not help myself I at least started to not make things worse.
Mindfulness approaches have been critical to me living well and is taking on a bigger role in my life the more that I practice. In the early days I did need to approach mindfulness with caution as it sometimes sent my system into overload and was not helpful, even when others said it should have been. Through trial and error and persistence I came to know my own version of PTSD and how to manage and bear it. Critically I learnt to trust myself and believe in abilities to withstand my emotions and my experiences. Very difficult to do but so worthwhile.
Medication has played a role in helping my system settle down more when I haven’t been able to do it alone. This is an ongoing lesson in acceptance for me. I hate taking medication of any kind; I rarely finish a full dose of antibiotics when prescribed. The struggle is not because of what the medication is for, it is because of medication full stop. I breathe and I know my reality. The fact for me is it helps and I am now committed to doing what works and living my best.
4. I made room for the full experience of PTSD and healing from trauma
As I came to know more about my system and the physiology of PTSD other aspects of my self came to the forefront and had to be dealt with. Some taking on priority and importance at different stages. I had the stories of myself and my experiences to contend with. Stories of being at fault. Stories of being bad. Stories of something being damaged and disgusting within me forever. There were also the feelings associated with those stories. Shame. Guilt. Bewilderment and questioning. Where ‘why me?’ twisted into being ‘of course me’ and had me waiting for the next thing to happen and condemn me further.
And there was the final big elephant in the room, my body. The thing that had let me down and was the bane of my existence. The thing that I denied most. That I did not inhabit. I didn’t trust it or care that it existed and I definitely had not wanted to feel it. I had to manage the ebb and flow of grief related to my experiences and the impacts on my life that remain.
In making room for these things I had to get to know myself more and integrate all of it together. To be a person with a body and with experiences that had shaped me. I had to have a space, and the therapy room and my therapist became that space, where I could acknowledge and then own all I had been through so that I could then acknowledge and then own all of me. In remembering and accepting my experience I came to honour myself. All that has shaped me to this point made sense. It became ok and in that becoming ok, in a non-ok way, I became ok. When I became ok what felt possible changed and opened my life up immensely. My limits are my possibilities. I have a body and I inhabit it. I embody who I have been and who I am becoming. I have a choice in how I make sense of my self and my life as well as what I create. I don’t deny or hide any of it from myself.
I pace myself and continue to address these in various ways even now. I am growth focused and reach new depths as my understanding, acceptance and healing occurs.
I live with PTSD but I have emerged out of the shadows. I live beyond and am no longer bound by it. I live well despite it.
5. I worked on my sense of safety
Safety, or lack thereof – in both a real and a felt sense – have been huge parts of what I have had to work on and is the thing that endures the most. When I feel unsafe my body tells me that I am unsafe, my system goes into overdrive very quickly and is slow to return to my normal. Anorexia had been my way to create safety for myself and was how I became ‘ok’ which in itself over time was actually a very unsafe and un-ok approach.
I know what environments and circumstance affect my system and I have things in place to minimise or counter their impact. Sometimes it is music tempo. Sometimes it is the vibe of a space or person. Sometimes it is overstimulation. Sometimes I just feel exhausted and need to respond to that. All things that I can manipulate to help myself most of the time and that I can be checking-in with myself about. Sometimes baths are ok and sometimes they are not. Sometimes yoga is ok and sometimes it is not. Sometimes hugs are ok and other times they are not. I now know to take charge on this for my own wellbeing even when it is hard to communicate this to other people. It has also meant that at particular times, and occasionally for extended periods, sexual contact with my husband has not occurred. My system needed time to settle and I needed to put clear and firm boundaries in place to do that. No one else will and I would not have helped myself as much as I have if I didn’t.
6. I started to do what I needed to do for me!
Once I discovered and started implementing the five keys above I knew myself more and started to live in alignment with that, even when it went against what was recommended by some professionals. I know what balance looks like to me and I have found it – most of the time. I know my non-negotiables. I know what helps me and what does not. I know my values and what and who is most important to me. I know my worth and what I stand for. I know what I need to do to be well. There is no more diminishing myself or putting others perceived need above my own.
I have learnt that when you heal what is beneath PTSD it changes everything and that it works both ways. Doing the above things heals and healing what is beneath supported me to do those things. PTSD does not define me and it will not stop me.
There is hope and possibility and good living despite PTSD symptoms being present. You can crack your code. Fuck other peoples’ assessment, labels and predictions of you. Know that life experiences don’t need to set a course of doom and gloom for your whole life.
I live well, very well in fact … despite. You can too!
… with heart,