It has been nearly a year since my therapist first used "post-traumatic reaction" to describe my overwhelming stress/anxiety symptoms. Last February I looked forward and knew climbing out of that awful place would take time and a lot of work. And it has.
But I've made it to 2014, and it's starting to feel really good.
I quit the college class that was the last straw for my nervous system, and got a refund from the college. But I completed the biology course, breathing through the horrid panic attacks, chewing gum so hard and so long that my jaw ached for days, sipping Snapple through the lectures to keep myself grounded. I learned to do some yoga, and walked, and took my colored pencils with me to the park.
I worked on building positive social relationships and minimized the unhealthy ones. I participated in a wonderful book club. I made new friends and had lunch dates with old friends, even when driving across town gave me panic attacks, even when my muscles would contract so tightly it was painful. I was always fine once I got there. Recovery itself often seemed an unwelcome extension of the trauma of the past. Why is it necessary to go through so much to be shed of what you never asked for in the first place?
Instead of taking more classes over the summer, I rested up. PTSD can complicate the simplest tasks, so I was careful to take on only the most manageable of projects. I had fun with my kids, enjoyed the outdoors, gave my daughter some cooking lessons. I read several memoirs (all by women), and half a dozen stories by Margaret Atwood. We skipped our big summer vacation and took a few shorter trips instead. Each success at meeting a goal helped restore my confidence a little more.
I kept writing, and reading, and talking to my therapist about the things too vulnerable, too wordless, to express here. Because what you get here has been processed. It seems there is always more raw material, though. If it bleeds when I touch it, it goes to my counselor, not her!
My husband and I attended numerous local theatrical productions over the last year. We find theater to be so much more intimate than cinema (making it that much more rewarding, but psychologically wearing, at the same time). Each play showed me a little more about myself, sometimes triggering panic attacks in the process. I remember working hard to "ground" myself through several performances that hit painfully close to home, particularly "Other Desert Cities" (about painful family secrets and telling the truth), "Radiating Like a Stone" (about misogyny and women fighting for equality in Kansas), and parts of "How the World Began" (about faith, education, and human resilience, with a terrific scene of a post-traumatic fear response). We both had to ground ourselves hard to make it through the opening scene of "Doubt", even though we'd seen the film and already knew the story.
When the kids went back to school, all three of them for the first time, and the house was quieter than it had ever been, I pulled out my old journals and started processing pieces of the past, bit by bit. Sometimes the entries there jog memories or questions that turn into blog posts. Sometimes I have to take time off afterward to reorient myself with another activity. I pace myself, stopping if my body reacts, so it's been slow going.
I have learned ever so much about PTSD, and especially Complex PTSD. I don't like it, but at least it doesn't scare me anymore. I feel hopeful again, like the worst is over and I survived it. I never want to go back there, but now I have tools for handling triggers and managing symptoms. I'm getting better at recognizing flashbacks and observing boundaries. And I am less afraid of people--perhaps less afraid than I've ever been.
(Of course, it's still scary to write boldly and vulnerably like this. What if I have a panic attack tomorrow when I read a comment a stranger's left on one of my posts? Can I be sure my regained hope is not really braggadocio? It feels uncomfortably like giving a "testimony" in church about how you believe God's healed your cancer, and then having to start chemo the next month.)
I saw Disney's Frozen last month. Saw it twice, in fact. Elsa's song "Let It Go" instantly became my theme song for this stage of my life. The lyrics so well describe these months of liberating self-discovery. Here are some of my favorite lines:
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know
Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
I’m never going back,
The past is in the past
Chris and I been leaving the past for a long time, but it's been gradual. We have gained momentum now. Our values are becoming clearer. The dynamics of our marriage are evolving. We have dramatically altered our parenting. The adjustments aren't over yet. But we'll get to where we want to be. And discover where that is!
In some ways I feel like a teenager, gazing at a vast array of possibilities, uncertain which path to choose. I just know I want to keep moving forward. After taking last semester off to focus on myself, recovery, and blogging, I'm excited to be dipping my foot into the pool of education again. Getting back into life, not holding back out of fear of being unable to keep commitments.
It is time to try new things again. Meet new people. Explore new places. Now that I understand who I was and why, it's time to find out who I am.