Healing PTSD One Breath and One Day at a Time

“Recovering from PTSD is being fragile and strong at the same time. It’s a beautiful medley of constantly being broken down and pieced together. I am a painting almost done to completion, beautiful but not quite complete.” ~Kate J. Tate

I never considered myself as a trauma survivor.

I didn’t think I had something as severe as PTSD. I reserved that diagnosis to those who suffered from things far worse than me.

It felt dramatic and attention-seeking to label myself as a “trauma survivor.”

First of all, what is trauma? The term tends to be loosely thrown around, and the meaning can be hard to identify. Essentially, trauma is an event that overwhelms the central nervous system and exceeds our ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. The more frightened and helpless we feel, the more likely we are to be traumatised.

PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after a person has been through a traumatic event or has experienced repeated exposure to trauma. But not every traumatic event will result in PTSD.

It’s natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Our inner “fight-or-flight” response is our body’s way of protecting us from harm. While virtually everyone will experience a range of reactions after a traumatic event, it’s those who are unable to integrate the experience properly, and when it starts to interfere with daily life that it develops into PTSD.

Symptoms like flashbacks, bad dreams, or frightening thoughts that last for more than a month and are severe enough to interfere with relationships or work are considered to be PTSD.

I know this area very well because I’ve experienced it, but also because I’ve studied it. I’ve recently graduated as an art therapist and have asked myself whether it’s ‘professional’ to write so openly about something as intense and vulnerable as my own journey through PTSD.

As a student, it was perfectly fine to write about the pain of my past. I was still learning, developing, healing. But as a graduate, it feels like something I’m meant to have already resolved by now. Unfortunately, though, I’ve come to realize that healing from psychological trauma can be a lifelong journey.

Those who know me well are aware that my sister died of suicide. While I rarely ever speak of the subject, I have written about my grief and pain extensively. It’s been seven years since she died, and I still feel the trauma from those years leading up to and following her death.

Anyone who has lost someone they love to suicide can understand the guilt, shame, and isolation that pile on top of the unbearable grief of their loss. We are often plagued with guilt. “Wasn’t there more I could have done?” Suicide is still so misunderstood and stigmatized.

For years I was oblivious to the accumulation of trauma on my body until I moved to the other side of the world, met the man I am with today, and created a life where I finally felt safe and secure in my home environment.

Without any actual threats anymore, my mind was bewildered by the stability of my life. For over ten years, I was coping with actual life or death situations, and now there was none. It was just calm and quiet.

It didn’t last before I was pulled up in another type of storm, a toxic workplace. What made matters worse is that I could not quit or go on stress leave unless I was prepared to leave the country. Essentially, my visa to remain in Australia was tied to that job.

I saw a lawyer and was told that if I wanted to stay in the country then I would have to stick it out for the next two and half years. Only then could I quit. It felt like I’d been sentenced to prison.

The feeling of being trapped and helpless triggered memories of my past, when I was fighting to save my sister’s life. After having a panic attack at work and being prescribed three different types of medication, I became seriously concerned about my health.

It scared me because I was doing everything I was ‘supposed’ to do. I was eating well, exercising, seeing a psychotherapist, and meditating almost daily. I was functioning relatively well on the outside. Yet I had terrible stomach aches, regular nightmares, and severe chest pain.

Eventually those painful two and half years passed, and the day came where I could finally quit. When I walked out of that office for the very last time, I almost kissed the ground in euphoria. I felt so free and alive. Magically, all of my physical symptoms subsided. I could finally breathe and cherished every single unstrained breath.

Sadly, it didn’t last. Slowly but surely, all the familiar physical symptoms of anxiety slowly came back. This made it clear to me that all this unprocessed pain is still in my body. I finally understood what Eckhart Tolle was referring to when he talked about “the pain body.” I knew I needed heal myself by gaining more of an understanding of my unconscious triggers.

Of course, I had no idea how to go about that because, well, they are not conscious. This led me to where I am now; undergoing something called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).

The goal of EMDR is to process and integrate traumatic memories into standard, less emotionally charged memories. I expected the first session would ‘cure’ me and I’d leave a new person, just in time for graduating as an art therapist! But of course, life rarely follows the expectations we have for it.

My psychologist also explained that EMDR tends to work best for a one-time traumatic event like a car accident. For those like me who have complex PTSD, a few more sessions are usually required. In addition to monthly EMDR sessions, my psychologist recommended that I read The Body Keeps the Score and try out trauma-sensitive yoga. I’m also taking a meditation practitioner course where I meditate daily, and am learning from wise teachers like Tara Brach, Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra.

While the process has been excruciatingly slow, I can feel a bit more space in my heart. The pace of it still infuriates me at times, if I’m being honest. But I know that hurrying and rushing does not help the healing process. In fact, it seems to have the opposite effect. So now I’m doing what I’ve never done: slowing down. Creating time for deliberate quietness through meditation and connecting to my body to learn its language through yoga.

I have moments now when I feel overwhelmed by my to-do list and feel my whole-body tense. I can usually pinpoint when I have dropped outside of my window of tolerance because I suddenly have the urge to act immediately on every single thing. Not a moment to waste! Get out of my way!

In those moments, I stop. I relax my shoulders and take a deep breath. If I’m swarmed with fear-inducing thoughts about all the worst-case scenarios, I then reflect on the opposite of those thoughts. This pause might last for less than a second and then the rush of thinking swarms me again. When it does, I try my best to be compassionate and forgiving to myself for falling back into my old ways.

We are who we are because of years of repetition, which resulted in habits. I can create a new one. Every single day I’m changing. These moments of stillness and peace throughout the day add up. They are the building blocks for a new way of being. They are the daisies and sunflowers on the road to healing.

There are no shortcuts or accelerator programs to get ‘healed.’ At least none that I’m aware of. It takes time to break through the fog of the past and settle into the stillness of being. To unravel ourselves from the pain we once endured and return to the life that’s in front of us now. It takes continuous daily effort and requires inordinate amounts of self-forgiveness and compassion.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely healed, and maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is to expand my tolerance of all that it is to be human. Maybe the path of being a healer of any kind is not show people the way, but to just be with them. We all experience things so differently, anyway. There is no one size fits all.

In the meantime, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing. Or, continuing what I’m ‘being.’ Taking each day as it comes. One breath at a time.

About Kimberly Hetherington

Kimberly Hetherington is a Canadian writer and Art Therapist based in Sydney, Australia. She loves to write, read, create, listen to podcasts, be in nature, and experience the kind of conversations that go beyond the ‘mask’ of everyday life. Check out her website for more on her journey through grief and loss, to hope and self-discovery.

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