I have just finished a 10 day trip to Washington and Oregon. It is the first time I have been on a travel vacation since I left my work in the 2005-2006 school year. My husband has family out there and we both have wanted to visit them for years but I have been unable to go until now. I finally felt I had a good understanding of what I needed to do every day to manage my severe PTSD and I believed I could do that from anywhere. However, the trip posed many challenges from the beginning. I think I was hoping for a geographical cure to my severe PTSD but I quickly learned that this was not going to happen. However, I did get in touch with the bliss and suffering of my human experience once again. For that, I am extremely grateful.
The blissful parts of this trip were many. First, it was great to see family. I really enjoyed getting to see where each of them were choosing to live out their lives and where they were at this point in time. It was really exciting to get to know our grand niece who is 2 years old. It was fun to see and be around the exuberance and freedom of a child. Also, I felt my own childlike exuberance of starting out on a new adventure. My curiosity and wonder were high. It felt so good to feel so alive.
Furthermore, I felt such a connection to nature, to its beauty and its power to be both majestic and destructive at the same time as I toured the Olympic Peninsula, Mount St Helen, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in Washington and Mount Hood in Oregon.
In addition, as I did contemplative short hikes through the forest, I felt so connected to the trees and the longevity of their lives and even if they die and fall over they serve a purpose by creating homes for others for at least 200 years while they decay. There is a piece of me that felt I died when I no longer could hold my job. I certainly felt like I had fallen over. However, eight years later I can see clearly how my life serves a purpose and is fostering new life around me. For this insight, I am grateful.
Finally, I could really see how deeply connected I have become with the earth and the web of life since I have been taking time each day to be outside and to experience nature through the senses for the last year. I was so grateful for my reading and a few online communities that have helped me to grow into this new relationship with the earth and universe. I truly felt and still feel rooted in the belief that the universe and I are both self-organizing systems, each containing beauty and destruction.
The challenges and suffering started as soon as I arrived at the airport to go west. First, I had flashbacks of September 11 and the Malaysian Airline plane that was shot down the past few months. September 11 changed how I would fly forever. I was so in touch with the fear and terror. When going aboard the plane I started to have panic attacks, everything started to get smaller and smaller. My husband and I had planned our seating with this possibility in mind. To manage the time on the airplane, I planned on watching a few short seminars from the Peace Summit sponsored by the Shift Network (shiftnetwork.com) that would inspire me and challenge me to be in the world differently. I knew this would help distract me from the onslaught of panic attacks if that happened. This is exactly what it did despite the fact that throughout the time listening to the seminars I experienced consistent panic attacks.
Several other challenges I ran into the first few days were my chronic fatigue, overstimulation, hypervigilance and flashbacks. Between the travel experience out west and the increase in social stimulation because we were staying with family, I became very fatigued. Another reason I became quite fatigued was because my old triggers came flying back. I had such panic attacks and flashbacks when entering the bathroom of their house, so daily self care became even more challenging. At first, I was so disappointed and angry at myself because the skills I had learned at home I thought had not carried through with me to this new environment. However, my reaction quickly changed into a more compassionate and empathetic stance towards myself. I was very loving and accepting that this is the result of living with severe PTSD. This loving stance was a direct result of the tremendous growth and acceptance I have had over the last 10 years. Again, I felt the bliss from the loving stance toward myself amongst the suffering. The challenges of the bathroom stayed with me throughout the 10 day trip. At one point, I had to make a call to my therapist back home to come up with new strategies to manage all these challenges and to share my bliss and pain. She holds both with me.
Hiking was another challenging and triggering experience throughout the trip. Each time we would be on a trail I would get terrorized. I was so afraid of the people we would come into contact with while isolated from the public’s view. I would wonder if they were going to be the ones that would kill us. I was always on high alert from feeling like I was in an isolated spot and that danger was always lurking around the corner. Once again, I quickly became quite aware of how different it is to live with severe PTSD because when my husband came upon people during our short trails he would begin a conversation and have a little laugh while I held my breath bracing for them to attack. Furthermore, I was so envious of the women I saw walking through the woods alone. I was jealous that they did not fear for their lives while alone in the woods. I was envious that I did not know and have never known this level and type of safety. However, a part of me just wondered if they were just stupid and naïve.
By the fourth day of our vacation, I had reached complete exhaustion from being overstimulated from several things -being outside of a cave-like experience for more than a few hours a day, being in sunlight for many hours, socializing, the pace we were keeping, and finally, the triggering experiences. I woke up desperate the 4th day because I was feeling like I was going to have a complete collapse. I did not want to share this with my husband. He has wanted to travel for so long and I did not want to disappoint him. After breakfast I shared my struggles because I could not go on and I trusted in his care, love and empathy. We then both discussed how we could change things. We decided that we would plan a day of rest and routines every 3 days for me. This included only being outside my cave like experience for no more than 2 hours on that day. My husband was free to do whatever he wanted on those days. It was great to find a plan that met both our needs.
By the 8th day, I was completely spent and had difficulty controlling periods of dissociation even though we kept our commitment of every 3 days being a day of routines like I was at home. Furthermore, the weather had cooperated with me from the 4th to the 8th day. It was overcast and raining so I did not feel overstimulated by sunlight and heat. However, that did not help with the exhaustion, fatigue and dissociation. At that point, I had to stop all hiking (even though they were very short hikes) because I could not find the energy or mental focus to manage the triggering and terror.
Finally, the day came when we headed home. This was what I was holding on to the last few days. I knew that I would soon be home to where I could lessen my triggers and get back to my routines and schedule I could realistically keep without depleting myself. Holding on to this knowledge, seeing the pleasure and joy my husband and I both had on our faces from the travel experience in general as well as the gift of spending time with family and finally, feeling the bliss I was experiencing because of the compassion I was having for myself made the suffering the last few days bearable. Again, it was embracing the bliss and suffering.
The flight home was another extremely challenging experience. My panic attacks were stronger than ever. It actually felt like my heart would just stop and I couldn’t get any air. Again, I knew to do things that captured my attention and inspired me so I read a little of my book about the similarities and difference between science and spirituality as well as watched the movie 42 – the story of Jackie Robinson. I too related to both the challenges and struggles that people endure in life as well as seeing the struggle and danger of trying to make change in the world especially concerning issues of race and racism.
I have been home for 4 days now. I am still at high alert and overstimulated but my routines are helping me to be able to lessen the impact of the exhaustion and dissociation that happened from being at high alert and overstimulated. These past four days have given me the opportunity to reflect on the experience and to write this blog.
The biggest blessing I see from the experience was the joy of my husband and the delight from feeling like I was on an adventure full of wonder and awe with the person I love most in the world. The second biggest blessing was that I was so connected to the profoundness and wonder of the universe. Finally, I felt blest to feel such compassion and love for myself as I truly am in the world. If or when we do take another travel vacation again, we will know what to expect and how to make accommodations to continue to meet both our needs. Wow, I am so grateful that I know my needs and feel I deserve to meet them. I am so alive.
In addition, during these last 4 days of reflection, I became aware that I I associate trips and vacations with an increase in alcohol use. I was glad I could handle the bliss and challenges without resorting to using alcohol. In hindsight, I did substitute food (sweets) for alcohol throughout this trip. I needed to soothe and find a false sense of energy to alleviate the fatigue and pain temporarily. I have tried the last few days to regulate my food usage again. It seems to be working. There is some truth to switching from one addiction to another. I just stand strong in the truth that alcohol use will not allow me to create the life I want and deserve.
Finally, I recognize that the bliss, wonder, awe and curiosity I experienced during this trip caused as much arousal within me as do my feelings of murderous rage, anger, jealousy, guilt and shame. This arousal always triggers my hypervigilance. It is part of how my self-organizing system (heart, mind, brain body, gut, womb and intuitive intelligences) developed due to early and long term trauma. Clearly, I could see from this vacation that my beautiful self-organizing systems had rewired itself over the last 10 years because I was much more gentle, kind, compassionate, empathetic and loving towards myself, my triggers and the way I am in the world. I did not feel shame that I have not eradicated my triggers and challenges. With the help of my husband, my therapist and my self-organizing system I was not only able to manage to survive the triggers during this trip and the challenges of living with chronic, complex, severe PTSD in general but I thrived as well. For that, I am extremely grateful.