The human journey is a difficult one at times. When you add PTSD to the stress of the human journey, you can have a disabling condition which is where I am at. To help with this disabling condition, I am employing many tools and strategies that are helping me to negotiate and manage my PTSD and to make meaning and purpose in my life. I am learning on a day-to-day basis that I can have a fulfilling life despite my PTSD and my disability. The strategies that are making this possible are recovery meetings, journaling, walking, mindfulness, daily success, self talk and routines.
I have decided that the only way to live with the darkness and strain of PTSD is to be with other people who have lived with the darkness and have found a way out. They have owned their thinking problem and have found a way to manage it. I have found these people in recovery programs specifically AA meetings. I attend lots of AA meetings and definitely struggle with some aspects of AA but I am learning so many valuable lessons that are helping me to negotiate my illness and to find a fulfilling life despite my illness. A major thing I am learning is to accept “what is”. I am learning slowly to accept and like my anxiety and fear. It is part of me but not all of me. I am deciding to tolerate the uncomfortable and distressing moments. To tolerate the distress means acceptance. I have to accept that I have a stressful way of being in the world and it causes me significant physical, mental, emotional and energetic pain. I am becoming more comfortable with “what is”. This means I am becoming more comfortable with the struggle, the torment, the love, the needs I have, the conflicting desires and fretting about life’s unknowns. I am learning to accept my physical and mental limitations while at the same time knowing that I can have a full life with these challenges. It may just look different that the norm or what I believed it would look like in my 50’s. I am learning to accept that I have a mental illness. I will have my good days and bad days but I am learning to not go into a secondary emotion of shame, rage, and self hatred for those days when I am not able to function well because of my distress. I am learning to push through things when I can and don’t push when I can’t. I am learning how to find a balance between pushing myself and letting myself rest because of my mental and physical pain and fatigue. The lesson of accepting “what is” and who you are exactly at any given moment brings the soundness of mind I crave for and long for every day. This also means accepting the moments, days and weeks when I don’t have soundness of mind but only pain.
I am learning that I need to accept that I cannot control people, places and things nor can I control my thoughts and feelings. So you see I do have tormented thinking – fear the things that I have no control over. To deal with this tormented thinking, I think about what I can control and make choices to focus on the distress or focus on trying to choose more positive emotions. As far as my thoughts and feelings, I can make a choice on how I entertain my thoughts and feelings. For instance, when I am overwhelmed with scary stories of what might happen, I can decide to keep running with that thought that I am in danger or I can choose to feel it, not judge it and let it pass. I can end that scary thought I am telling myself. I am also learning to observe the embodied emotions and not judge it as good or bad. Just observe the embodied emotion and let it pass.
The second lesson I am learning from my meetings is to live a day at a time. Every day I ask myself how I will deal with the distress today. Will I eat and drink it all away or will I acknowledge it and try to choose another emotion or work hard to find moments, only moments of peace, joy and contentment. When I start to fear the future or regret the past I tell myself that all I need to do is to live the next 24 hours. To deal with the tormented thinking I practice living in the day and break my day down into segments. I try to live these segments by making healthy choices, by looking for moments when I am not tormented by dark thoughts and negative emotions and making a choice to look for ways I am grateful. There are segments of my day when this comes easier. There are days when it comes easier. SO I have good days and bad days. I am learning to start each day anew. I only have the next 24 hours to negotiate my illness – PTSD. When I think of living my whole life like this, I can become very depressed but I try to remind myself that I only have today. Sometimes I do hope that I will not live a long life but I also remind myself about the moments when my life is peaceful and fulfilling.
Another thing I am learning from my recovery meetings is to do the next right thing. There are days that are tougher than others. On November 11, 2010 I wrote,
“Getting up and having breakfast feels like a daunting task today. I cannot follow the schedule that I did for the day. I am too tired and too overwhelmed. I am trying to choose what the next right thing for me to do is. All I want to do is sit and numb myself out. The next right thing for me to do is take my medications. It is later than normal but I am doing my best. I am going to give myself time to write in my journal and to have some tea. Do a little self soothing and then try to get back on my schedule again. I do have some errands that I need to do so I will work on them first. The errands are written in my notebook that contains my schedule for the day. I really just need to put one foot in from of the other today and focus on what is the next right thing. I will try not to think of this day as a failure. My illness is strong today and anything I accomplish today will be a success. I am managing my illness. Some days I do just sit in my distress but now I am trying to make choices that will manage my distress better. I know getting to walk will be a real triumph for me so I am going to choose that activity today. If I get that in today will be a successful day.”
When I have days like this I need to break down my day into manageable pieces and focus on the next right thing for me to do is. After I complete an activity, I then focus on what I am going to do next. I have learned to break up the entire day like this. It helps me to pay attention to what I am doing at the time despite my distress. There are other days that go much easier but I still find focusing on what the next right thing to do is a helpful way to be aware of the moments you are living through.
A final lesson I learned from my recovery meetings is to have a grateful heart. When I first attended these meetings it was hard to feel any gratitude. I was so distressed and uncomfortable. I felt like I was on the edge of peril but today I am starting to be able to feel gratitude among my distress and uncomfortableness. I am starting to embrace moments when I don’t feel disabled by my distress. I might not feel gratitude but I am able to know intellectually that I have things I am grateful for. I may have a moment when I actually feel gratitude physically and emotionally. When I feel these moments of gratitude I remember I am much more than my distress. The distress I live under can color most of the positive moments I feel but I can remember on a daily basis what things I can be grateful for and develop an attitude of gratefulness on a daily basis. This helps me to tolerate the uncomfortable moments much better because I see things in my life every day that I am grateful for despite the distress I am in. Most importantly, I am grateful that I have a loving and safe home to live in and a loving and safe partner to share my life with each day. This loving and safe home and partner helps bring stability to my world. It helps me to have this stability so I can negotiate and manage all the unpredictability in the world. This makes the distress much more bearable.
A second strategy I use to negotiate my PTSD and the human condition is journaling. I keep two journals, an everyday journal in which I write all my racing thoughts and a gratitude journal which I do each night before bed. I have been keeping everyday journals for over 6 years. The first 3 years recorded my very dark period and my complete mental, physical and emotional breakdown from PTSD. My recovery journals began with my time at my 2 week Maui Intensive Treatment Program and I have kept this practice up throughout the last 3 years. Journaling and decaffeinated tea help me to manage my distress. It helps me to get all my thoughts, ideas, insights, fears, fretting, worrying and emotions out of my body and mind. It releases the energy that is swirling around inside of me. The energy, whether caused by positive or negative thoughts, feelings and experiences, triggers my hyperarousal response. Getting out what is going on in my mind and body helps me to calm the hyperarousal state.
I write about how I am learning to live with my disabling PTSD and ways that I can learn to live a full life despite it. My journaling helps me to feel less confused and less chaotic with the ideas, thoughts, beliefs that are whirling around inside of me. Again, another part of being human is to have lots of ideas, thoughts, and beliefs whirling inside but when I have this kind of chaos and confusion I panic and get unsettled. This increases my arousal and quickly I move from arousal to hypervigilance or high alert from my many thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. I dissociate, freeze and constrict. My journaling stops the pattern and I am able to calm myself and soothe myself through writing. It stops me from feeling in danger of my own thoughts, ideas and beliefs.
Each night in my gratitude journal I list 5 things I am grateful for in the day. At first this was a challenge. I would think of what I do have to be grateful for because life was extremely painful. Some days I was just grateful for breathing or that I was able to get out of bed. Other days I would be so grateful for a husband that stands by me through it all. This ritual does prepare me for sleep. It is nice to go to bed feeling gratitude.
I also walk to help me deal with the physical and mental distress I am under on a daily basis. It helps to physically release the uncomfortable energy I am feeling. Walking is the only type of exercise that I can manage because of my chronic fatigue and chronic pain from the PTSD that I have been living with for almost my entire life. Some days it is harder to walk than others. Some days I just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. For after all, this is how I am learning to live life fully. Put one foot in front of the other. Each step I take is a success for me some days. I have really grown to love my walking and see it as pivotal to my managing my PTSD and the stress of the human condition. I think that any physical activity can help with my traumatic energy, for me it is walking, for others it could be anything.
One of the things I have learned in my treatment is that meditation is key to my recovery. Well, I cannot meditate (sit in the quiet) because I am distressed and uncomfortable most of the time. What I have been able to do is to walk most days. Walking is my form of meditation. When I walk I feel that I am walking the distress out of my body.
When I first heard of mindfulness at my experience in Sierra Tuscon in 2008 I thought they were crazy. How could I do anything with my mind since I was in such darkness? I couldn’t see anything straight and paying attention to the darkness only seemed to make things worse. However, today I am beginning to learn how to incorporate mindfulness in my life. Now, I am learning that mindfulness and acceptance of “what is” are closely intertwined. Both involve being present and observing what is happening at any given moment. The key piece to both is learning to just observe and not judge what is happening as good or bad or that I am good or bad because I am living with this feeling, this experience, and this thought. It is hard to practice mindfulness and acceptance when I am having a particularly distressing day but hopefully with practice I will grow in my ability to be mindful and accepting especially during the distressing and uncomfortable times. I think this is the area that will help me to better manage my PTSD. Mindfulness helps me to appreciate my present environment or activity so I am not missing life going on around me while in the midst of distress.
Feeling success each day helps me to feel competent and in control. Also, daily success reduces the chances of being overwhelmed by the emotional mind. These daily successes help me to feel my sense of power and show me that I have the ability to succeed and make change in my life despite my illness.
To be able to experience daily success, I am redefining what a successful day looks like. Some days just finding peace with the distress and learning to tolerate the distress is my success. Some days just living through the day is my success. Some days just doing self care things such as washing my face, brushing my teeth, eating healthy, exercising and journaling makes for a successful day. Days when I am overwhelmed and I remember to use even a couple of strategies I have learned makes for a successful day.
Finally, I am learning to believe that wherever I am on life’s journey, I am a success because I am where I am. This is a very new idea for me.
I am learning that I must talk myself through the day so that I am better able to manage my distress. Fear and terror are common emotions that I feel a lot in a day. When I feel the embodied emotion I say to myself, there goes that fear and terror again. I am just feeling fear but I am not in danger. I observe it and try not to judge the feeling. I do the same thing when I am having internal conflict. I say there goes that need for internal conflict to explain my hypervigilance. Instead of trying to stop the anxiety and tension in my body, I just accept it saying there it is again. I am anxious and tense. It is what it is. Acknowledging it seems to lessen its impact on me physiologically as well as emotionally.
When distressed, I talk to myself so that I may have the opportunity to experience other more positive emotions and experiences. I wrote in my journal one day,
“Yesterday Del and I planned a day of fun together. I wondered how you could choose fun when you are so distressed all the time. I could feel the stress of trying to relax and have fun. The whole time we were having fun I constantly had to talk to myself about having fun. When distressing thoughts came into my mind – fears about the future, fears of impending doom, aging, etc., I told myself that I choose to have fun with my husband. It was a workout. There was nothing carefree about the fun but it was great to be with my husband.”
Again, it is all about the self talk we do to get us through the suffering and to accept the pain of living with PTSD.
I am making routines a key part in my life because it helps me to reduce the stress of daily living. For each 24 hours in a day, I do a schedule about how I will spend my day and if there are any pressing issues that need to be taken care of that day. I structure in my time for walking, journaling, eating and self care. With my schedule and routines written out, I am better able to see my successes. Writing goals and scheduling my day helps me not to get overwhelmed by daily living. Most importantly, it gives me predictability and stability in my day and shows a healthy sense of self regard.
From the tools – recovery meetings, journaling, walking, mindfulness, daily success, self talk and routines – and my understanding of PTSD, traumatic thinking and the human condition, I am able to articulate further goals for my recovery. My goals of the next few years are to continue to learn to live with uncertainty, with changing emotions and internal landscape, to become more mindful and to accept what is. In addition, I hope to continue to learn to love myself with my limitations and challenges from living with PTSD and to embrace the distress and uncomfortableness. What I do know is that despite my darkness, torment, and distress, I am learning to become more fully human and more fully alive and some days this feels like a gift.