The Trauma Therapy You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
I’ve been a writer for my entire life — I’ve written journals, diaries, anonymous blogs, record reviews in magazines, personal essays in Huffington Post, several articles on The Mighty… and a lot about handbags. I’ve always wondered why I write, and what has drawn me to it. It’s always felt like a release — like getting words on a page makes everything feel a little less horrible and hard.
In the last year, I’ve challenged myself to write about my life — both what I’m living right now, and the past. It’s hard to write about the past, but I feel an immense drive to tell the stories of danger and fear that engulfed my teenage years — the stories that brought me to the person I am today.
I’m currently in treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with an amazing psychologist who specializes in pain psychology and PTSD.
My treatment involves journaling and in-session treatments with the pain psychologist I’ve been seeing to do a combination of “prolonged exposure treatment” and “cognitive processing.” Prolonged exposure (PE) therapy is a trauma-focused cognitive behavioral psychotherapy that gradually approaches trauma-related memories, feelings and situations.
This type of therapy will teach me to approach trauma-related memories, feelings and situations I’ve have been sweeping under my psychological rug. By dealing with the stuff I’ve kept bottled up for years and facing my fears, I can decrease my PTSD symptoms and (hopefully) regain control of my life and chronic pain. There are a lot of steps in this treatment, so I thought it may be interesting to share because I had no idea about any of this and I was very scared about what treatment might be like when I was diagnosed with PTSD.
Prolonged exposure treatment, as directed by my psychologist, involves facing trauma head on. The only way out is through. It involves writing and talking in detail about trauma, and keeping track of my anxiety level as I work my way through.
My doctor and I agreed to the treatment together. He wanted me to think long and hard about whether I’m ready for it mentally and emotionally, and to make sure I had a support system behind me who could understand and not judge me.
My doctor and I made a list of self-care routines for after writing and therapy because taking care of yourself is one of the biggest components in healing. Take care of yourself helps to regulate your feelings and adrenaline. Having a list of self-care techniques can help guide you when you need to focus on doing what feels good for you.
Once we agreed to the treatment, I made a list of traumas I have experienced. (That part alone was hard, guys). The ones that really, really haunt me. Nightmares, flashbacks, fear, shaking, circular thoughts about all the horrible things happening everywhere and potentially to me… and then dissociation. The whole nine yards. The first trauma that destroyed me happened when I was 13, and the next prolonged trauma due to a severely emotionally abusive relationship.
Then I started writing. But it’s not just “Dear diary, everything sucks, here’s how horrible everything was today” writing. It’s going back to that night in the present tense, with events, feelings, thoughts, emotions and beliefs. I set a timer for 20 minutes and start writing the event from start the finish, but letting my mind guide me. Part of journaling like this is not holding anything back. The result is a lot of subconscious feelings and thoughts and beliefs we don’t usually dig up.
Then, I have one-on-one therapy with my psychologist where I speak about traumatic events in first person, present tense, as guided by my psychologist. Periodically, he asks me what my anxiety/physical response level is, which he refers to as SUDS, which is basically: “how much are you freaking out right now?“
SUDS is a system developed by doctors as a way to measure the subjective intensity of disturbance or distress currently experienced by an individual. Basically, “how are you feeling on a scale from 1 to 100?” The purpose is to identify differences in anxiety over a period of time. Not only is this super useful for monitoring anxiety, but I think it’s also a super helpful tool for everyone.
In my writing and journaling, I’ve found some parts of my story I’ve wanted to share with others, so I published them online and talk about them on my social media accounts. Like the process of monitoring SUDS, there are parts of the therapy process and my own self-awareness that could help people.
Speaking and writing so openly about something I know others expect me to keep in the dark feels enormously freeing.
Finally, something I can control.
As a society, we make subjects of trauma (especially sexual and domestic violence) voiceless, which makes them even more susceptible to pain and disbelief.
I guess some may call it “oversharing,” especially because I blog and publish my writing on the internet under my own name, but to me, my vulnerability feels like strength — owning who I am and not being ashamed about any of it.
Sharing my life so candidly is hard for a lot of people to understand, especially for those who call my openness “bravery” or write that they admire me. I admit it’s terrifying to tell these stories, especially when I tell the world I’m struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, an issue most well-known for the damage it has done to soldiers of war. There is so much stigma and shame just surrounding that in itself.
It takes a lot of courage to be who you are, for the entire world to see and to read, especially when you’re not even sure who you are.
But I’ve come to understand that what people actually mean when they say I’m brave or that they admire me for being so honest is: “Aren’t you embarrassed?” Within that question is a clear statement: “You should be embarrassed.”
But, I disagree. I don’t think we should be embarrassed or ashamed about the things in our lives; both the things that happened to us and the actions we said yes to, even if those choices put us into danger or into harm’s way.
Shame. That’s what we’re expected to feel when we go through things like this. I know a lot about overcoming shame. I’m doing it every damn day.
Part of the healing process for any kind of trauma is learning not to be ashamed of what happened. Shame is interwoven in the stories we tell ourselves about trauma, about our lives – but it’s the lies we tell ourselves about those stories that make them hard to live with.
What lies do we tell ourselves? What perpetuates these lies?
These are just some of the questions I ponder as I lie awake at night, unable to sleep from nightmares of men holding me down.
I wonder about the men who were the perpetrators, villains and demons in my stories — do they know this is about them? Are they angry with me? Do they blame me for their lives’ misfortune, or do they take ownership of their wrongdoings? Do they speak openly about me or the other women I know they’ve harmed? Do they hide it in the back of their closet like a jacket that no longer fits them but they can’t bear to get rid of? Have their lives been haunted by their actions or do they feel like something awful happened to them?
I wonder if I should tell these stories to the world.
The story about how my hands were held behind my back while a man whispered in my ear what they planned on doing to me. The story about the time I kept saying no, so the man shoved me against a wall and yelled in my face. The story about the time a man shot a gun at my feet. The story about all the times a man threatened to kill me.
I wonder how much of my identity is interwoven into these traumas: this powerlessness, this mistrust for men and humanity, this disconnect from my body and mind. This feeling that my body doesn’t belong to me, but that it belongs the men in the world around me.
Even now, as I’m married to an amazing man who has seen me crumble and held me as I shook violently from mere memories my brain replays any time I feel stressed or agitated or scared, I wonder how he could love me.
As I write this, I wonder if these are words I should keep to myself, but at the same time I don’t really want to. I want to share my stories because I don’t want there to be such a stigma about all of this. I know people connect with authenticity, and I know people crave real stories.
I want my writing to resonate with people, validate their experiences, their truths and help them feel less alone.
For so long, I hid these stories in the back of my mind, buried deep in my soul, worried they held the truth about who I really was: damaged, broken, full of shame, a slut, etc. The memories of stories try to bring me back to them and hold me there like a prisoner.
But that’s not who I am. I’m smart, articulate, stylish, a good wife/friend/sister/daughter, an amazing listener, talented at writing and design. I’m a lot of other things, too. But that doesn’t mean every day isn’t a battle with my own mind.
I am not my past or the things that happened to me, just as you are not your past or the things that happened to you.
“I am me and I am mine.” — “I Am Weighing Me Down” by Blacklisted
Note: I am not a doctor and I don’t advise you do any of this without the care of a professional healthcare provider. The information in this article is strictly from my personal experiences, research and a little Google.
Image via contributor.