Being human means living with a shifting internal landscape, uncertainty about the future, the ache of the missing piece, the risks involved with life choices and decisions and the fact that we are powerless over people, places and things. These things that make us human cause confusion and chaos to our internal and external worlds. This chaos and confusion arouses the alert response in all people, but with people with PTSD the alert response quickly moves to hypervigilance or high alert. There becomes this sense of impending danger or doom. So the question is, how do people with PTSD live the human experience and live with this high alert response? What follows is my understanding of what it means to be human and to live fully with PTSD.
Shifting Internal Landscape
Having PTSD makes it difficult to live the ordinary life. All of us have this changing internal landscape. We go through changing self states, at one point we are experiencing our child-self and the next minute we are experiencing our adult-self or adolescent-self. Also, we experience changing brain states; we go from the instinctive brain to an emotional brain to a rational brain. Our emotions are constantly shifting. We can be angry one minute and sad the next. We can have multiple feelings (joy, sadness, loneliness) at the same time. In addition, there are many conflicting desires, longings, hungers, needs, and deep fears – fear of being rejected, fear of being abandoned, fear that we are not worthy of goodness, fear of being publicly humiliated, fear of not being normal – that lie within our internal landscape. All this internal landscape shifting and conflicts cause energetic changes and distress to the ordinary person but when you have PTSD you see these energetic changes and distress as chaotic and uncontrollable and they alert your hyperarousal state causing you a physiological distress and to feel in danger of your internal landscape.
I am starting to learn to become aware of all this shifting and conflict happening inside of me. I am learning to notice and not judge these shifts and conflicts so they will not trigger a secondary emotion of fear, anger and shame for having the shifting landscape and the physical energetic changes that accompany it. Also, I am learning not to panic over the shifting internal landscape, conflict and fears that lie within me. There is nothing wrong with me because I have all this shifting and energetic changes happening inside of me. I am just a human being who is really sensitive to these changes and fluctuations of energy and it does cause me distress more that people not affected by PTSD. Again, I am a finely tuned baby grand piano. I am learning to accept the distress of my shifting internal landscape and energetic changes, therefore, I am suffering less and feeling shame less. My brain developed with this type of sensitivity that causes my distress. My brain causes a physiological response to this distress. It is nothing to be ashamed of, I just developed this way because of unresolved traumatic energy over my lifetime. Some days I manage well, other days the changing internal landscape leaves me distressed and disabled.
Living with Uncertainty
One of the things people with PTSD find difficult to deal with is the uncertainty that life if full of all the time. We fear the future because we are always afraid of being powerless, vulnerable or helpless. In the human journey, you have no idea what the future holds. We all live with the uncertainty of life but with PTSD, you develop this type of traumatic thinking that the unknowns of life are full of doom and gloom. Then you feel threatened by all the unknowns in life. Because of unresolved traumatic energy, our brains become wired to fear uncertainty and think that danger is lurking behind every uncertainty. At one point I write,
“I am scared about so many things – all the uncertainties of life are swirling around me. My heart and mind break just thinking about the future and getting old. I live and die on an hourly basis.”
I am learning to become more comfortable with the distress and body tension that life’s uncertainty brings by living the next 24 hours and reminding myself that right now in this very moment I am safe. Right now in this very moment I am not in danger. I cannot control the future but I can control how I respond to the uncertainty the future holds. I can tell myself that in the next 24 hours I will be safe and loved.
In my recovery work I have had many people suggest that I look with wonder at what surprises life will bring or to stop controlling outcomes and let life unfold. I think to do this you must have an internal and external sense of safety and security. If you feel that danger is lurking around the unknowns of life or that the future is full of doom and gloom then you cannot think like this. You can only remind yourself that all you have is the next 24 hours.
Living with the Missing Piece
A part of the human journey is that we all have a missing piece within us. We all have to deal with the distress of feeling this incompleteness that resides within us all. The desire to fill this missing piece is huge. It is what drives us as human beings. Material things complete us to a point. Children, jobs, houses, marriages, significant others complete us to a certain point. We think if we have more wealth we will feel better. If we have the right home, the right clothes, the right job, the right family we will feel better. We try to avoid this incompleteness or unhappiness with being so busy with our lives or dampening it with alcohol, drugs, sex, power or prestige.
This feeling of incompleteness causes distress for the ordinary person but the ache of the missing piece triggers a hypervigilant response to a person with PTSD. Feeling the ache and the power of the ache triggers energetic changes within and this energy change triggers a hypervigilant response. The hypervigilant states causes discomfort and distress to the mind and body. I think this happens because of the intensity of the negative feelings (sadness, anger and shame) and thoughts that accompany the missing piece – thoughts like nothing is ever enough, I am never enough, there is never enough love. This is part of the traumatic thinking that develops because our minds and bodies have unresolved traumatic energy.
I am learning to embrace the ache within and the distress that accompanies this missing piece. I am starting to learn not to panic over the intensity of this missing piece. I am learning there is nothing wrong with my wants and needs to fill this ache. I am learning to live with the distress of knowing that nothing will ever fill this missing piece until my death. Sometimes I wonder if we feel better in mental health hospitals, rehabs, therapy groups, or recovery meetings because we find others who share our distress of nothing ever being enough to fill this missing piece. Maybe we can find other less dramatic ways to feel our missing piece without hurting ourselves through additions or others. Maybe the human journey is really about accepting and embracing the incompleteness within and feeling the power of knowing it and choosing to live a full life despite it. Most importantly, I think one can become comfortable with and not panic or be frightened by the powerful energy that accompanies the ache of the missing piece.
Making Choices and Decisions
Another piece of being human that I am learning to accept is that life is about making choices and decisions, People with PTSD believe that each time they make a choice or decision there is some type of risk involved. This risk makes us feel in danger and sets off a hypervigilant response. We become uncomfortable or distressed over every choice and decision we make. It is difficult to be human and have PTSD. Through my individual therapy I am learning to bear my distress much better. Maybe someday I will not feel that I am at risk or in danger every time I make a choice or decision. If I look over my life, I have made lots of choices and decisions with only some trepidation. It was just when my PTSD became physically, mentally, emotionally disabling that I have had the most difficult time because I believe I will be destroyed by every decision and choice I make and that these choices and decisions will lead down the wrong path and something bad will happen. I think I need to start to believe that behind every risk is not doom and gloom or that every choice will not cost you in the end. Again, the type of thinking that developed because of unresolved trauma energy in the past. My brain and body are wired for this type of thinking and the bodily tension that develops because of this type of thinking.
Powerless over People, Places and Things
We all develop relationships with people, places and things to fill our missing piece and the distress that accompanies the missing piece. This is a normal process in the human journey. However, this process is difficult if you have PTSD because when you build these relationships you give up universal control of your world and this can be a frightening thing for people with PTSD. The fear of things being out of our control makes us feel in danger. When we cannot control things we feel powerless, helpless and vulnerable. Again, the type of traumatic thinking that develops from unresolved energy from past trauma. When we feel this type of thinking we get angry, rageful and shameful and this causes us further distress. What do we do with the energy of these painful feelings? Do we take it out on others through physical or verbal violence, or do we turn it against ourselves through self hatred, anger turned inward (depression), or self hurting (cutting, addictions)? How do we get through these cycles?
I am learning that the more I accept that not being able to control people, places and things scares and frightens me, the less distressed I will be. Once I accept I get frightened and scared when things feel out of my control and that I have a physiological response to this fear, I can choose to soothe myself through the use of a variety of tools, routines, strategies and relationships.
I think about what things I can control and what action needs to be taken. I can control to a degree whether I let my thinking and emotions overwhelm me and leave me dissociative or I accept these emotions and thinking and let them and the distressed energy associated with them pass without judgment. These are my most recent learning.
To deal with the distress of the human journey – the shifting internal landscape, life’s uncertainties, the missing piece, choices and decisions and our powerlessness over people, places and things – and the traumatic thinking and physiological and energetic response that accompanies PTSD, I have employed a variety of strategies which I will discuss in my next article