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The Treatment Method That Was a Game-Changer for My PTSD

“I can’t begin to imagine how I would have coped with what many of my patients have endured, and I see their symptoms as part of their strength — the ways they learned to survive. And despite all their suffering many have gone on to become loving partners and parents, exemplary teachers, nurses, scientists, and artists.”

— Bessel Van Der Kolk, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”

When I was a student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, I lived with my grandparents for a short time while I acclimated to a new school and a new city. George and Orlene Poulsen. Amazing people.

I might tell you any number of interesting details about the Poulsens, like how my grandfather hated being retired — he was a civil engineer — and one thing that kept him busy was solving the impossible puzzle on the back page of a weekly Physics newsletter. Or how he would embarrass my grandmother and me by talking to every single person we ever met.

Instead, I’m going to tell you about the extraordinary way he managed his diabetes. He tracked all his food intake and blood sugar levels on graph paper with a mechanical pencil. These records amounted to rows of three-ringed binders full of his beautiful handwriting. His favorite snack was a single piece of toast with peanut butter and banana slices. He walked every day. He said his life depended on it.

Diabetes is manageable. And my grandpa did everything he could to manage it. Diabetes is also an illness that sometimes gets the best of someone as dedicated as my grandfather. Every now and then, his blood sugar would slip enough to affect his thinking. Even more rare, his blood sugar would slip enough to physically knock him down.

One day he dropped me off in President’s Circle on the U of U campus. He loved to drive me to class at least once a week – after all, even though he cheered for BYU, he had graduated from the University of Utah several decades earlier.

That night it was early spring. I remember the smell of spring in Utah. Like desert rain. I went into my Math 105 course and sat on the front row per usual. Problem was, I couldn’t get comfortable. I tried everything but ultimately I had to leave – the first and only time I left in the middle of class.

Outside, students played hacky sack and frisbee. Some ate their dinners – maybe a slice of pizza from the nearby Pie Restaurant. Then I saw it: an ambulance at the Kinko’s down the street.

I sprinted across the green, a couple city blocks in distance, and reached the ambulance where they were working on my grandpa. He lay on the ground. Unconscious.

“He has diabetes,” I told them. They injected him with insulin, and he immediately came back to life.

*

When my trauma came storming out in 2017, I treated the symptoms as I had other psychological problems. I saw five different therapists. I learned vedic meditation. I exercised. I doubled down on “step work” in AA.

None of this worked, and my symptoms got worse.

Still, something good came out of all that treatment: one of my therapists, Richard Cohen, diagnosed me with PTSD. And that diagnosis changed everything — the power of naming something.

The first thing my partner Linda did was get on the phone with an organization called Peace Over Violence (POV).

“Established in 1971 by pioneering feminist activists, Peace Over Violence is a sexual and domestic violence, intimate partner stalking, child abuse and youth violence prevention center headquartered in Los Angeles. POV is committed to social service, social change and social justice. POV’s innovative programs are comprehensive and include Emergency, Intervention, Prevention, Education and Advocacy services.”

Peace Over Violence saved my life.

On the phone, Linda learned about a program for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse run by two therapists, Milena Lukic and Joshua Beckett. Though the group wasn’t yet running, I would do an intake at the center and then when they had enough men, I would be a member.

When I first met with Joshua to do my intake, I was terrified. I worried my symptoms wouldn’t fit. That he would tell me I didn’t qualify for the men’s group. That’s a common fear among survivors: bargaining. It wasn’t that bad. Others have it much worse than I do. You’re making too much of this.

As soon as I sat down across from Joshua, however, all those fears melted away. Joshua wears clear-frame glasses, earrings in both ears, and a beard. He’s thin. His hair is cut short.

I don’t like my description of Joshua. He’s too important to the story for trite character descriptions. Joshua is the first person to speak to me through a trauma-informed lens. He’s so much more than hip eyeglasses and beard and earrings. Joshua is more like a prophet calling out in the wilderness.

Long story short: I qualified. Now I would just have to wait the three months for others to qualify as well.

“Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These post-traumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming.”

— Bessel Van Der Kolk, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”

Connecting with Peace Over Violence was one of two events that saved my life from trauma. The other was reading the book, “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van der Kolk.

Linda finally bought the book during a visit to Chicago. She devoured the book and began sending me images of pages that described exactly what we were going through. It felt so good to see myself in the pages of that book. That was the first time I felt like I wasn’t alone. Having trauma was a thing.

I couldn’t wait for Linda to get home to begin reading so I bought my own copy. I couldn’t put it down. I found myself on every page. And the best thing about the book is that the author also provides a roadmap for recovery. It gave me hope because nothing else had worked.

The thesis of the book is in the title: “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” Trauma is stored in the body. And to treat trauma, you have to treat the body. In fact, talk therapy alone will likely make trauma worse.

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”

— Bessel Van Der Kolk, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”

Learning to treat trauma in my body and not just in my head was a game-changer. Using simple grounding techniques would do more to help me with PTSD triggers than all the therapy in the world. Don’t get me wrong: talk therapy with someone who is trauma-informed is an integral part of recovery. That really goes without saying. To recover, get better, whatever word you want to use, people have to formulate a multi-pronged approach that includes body, mind and brain.

This is where we circle back to my grandfather. When his blood sugar dropped in front of Kinko’s, the paramedics didn’t talk to him about his feelings. They treated his body with insulin.

When I experience PTSD symptoms, my “insulin” is to somehow get back into my body. The things that work best for me:

1. Heart-focused breathing
2. Taking a walk
3. Peppermint essential oils
4. Going back to bed and encasing myself in pillows
5. Emergency treatment: Metallica + cigarette + walk

I carry essential oil, cigarettes and headphones wherever I go. I practice heart-focused breathing every day. I always start with the breathing. Then the essential oil. If I’m home, I’ll go to bed. If the first lines of attack don’t work, I will pull the lever on the emergency treatment.

A few notes about a PTSD toolkit:

  • What works for me won’t necessarily work for you.
  • I am not a smoker, which is why I think smoking works for me. I’m not sure smoking would work for someone who’s body is used to nicotine.
  • The way you figure out what tools work is to experiment. Then you have to practice using the tools in real situations. When a tool “works,” it doesn’t eliminate the PTSD symptoms/trigger immediately; rather, it creates space for reflection and better decision-making. Through trial and error, you develop “trigger muscle memory.”
  • My toolkit grounds me, which literally feels like I’m returning to my body. I can then reflect on the trigger — what happened and how to do the next right thing instead of reacting in Flight, Fight or Fear mode.

“Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on — unchanged and immutable — as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.”

— Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Learning how to address PTSD symptoms with “body work” literally created more time in our lives. More time allowed us to begin to return to normal. For the previous two years, PTSD had inserted itself into everything, and even the slightest bit of recovery, we noticed, allowed for healing. And healing has its own momentum.

The other key development in our PTSD recovery was attending the male survivor’s group. Sitting in a room with other men who had experienced similar childhood trauma was powerful. Up until that point, I had no other men in my life with whom I could discuss my trauma.

All the group members had different experiences, but our feelings about those experiences were the same. It was much like attending an AA meeting for the first time. Hearing my story in others was powerful.

But the male survivor group is also different than a 12-step meeting. Milena and Joshua lead the group as both an educational and a process group. What that means in practical terms is that while we get to come and share our feelings about how we’re doing, we also learn about trauma: history, treatments and theories.

I said it before — Peace Over Violence saved my life. Milena and Joshua saved my life. They saved our relationship. Thank you Peace Over Violence. Thank you Milena and Joshua. And thank you, Bessel Van der Kolk.

“It’s about becoming safe to feel what you feel. When you’re traumatized you’re afraid of what you’re feeling, because your feeling is always terror, or fear or helplessness. I think these body-based techniques help you to feel what’s happening in your body, and to breathe into it and not run away from it. So you learn to befriend your experience.”

— Bessel Van Der Kolk, “Childhood Trauma Leads to Brains Wired for Fear”

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