Tuesday, March 10, 2015

That Which Does Not Kill You...

"That which does not kill you, only makes you stronger."

How often have we heard these words? We never really know the toll it takes to have the strength to carry on through some of life's most difficult, challenging, and in some cases, life threatening moments. 

2014 was my most challenging year; at times I honestly didn't think I had the strength needed to get through it.  It was a seemingly unending series of loss, heartache and shock so close together it gave me no time to grieve.  2014 took five, yes, FIVE members of my family and one lifelong family friend.  Six deaths in one year.   Through it all we worried about yet another family member who had taken ill and was seemingly deteriorating before our eyes.

If that wasn't enough, I found myself looking down the barrel of a gun; literally.  For a few moments in time, I actually thought that 2014 was going to kill me.   Instead, I ended up witnessing a murder.   It was my breaking point.  I cannot put into words what it is like to witness an act of violence that takes a life.  The details are here:  The Day Death Passed Me By.  I wrote that post days after the shooting and at the time, I thought I was actually handling the trauma quite well and life would eventually return to normal.

That however, was not the case.

It's now been months since that fateful day.  My life hasn't returned to normal because the reality is, the person I was prior to the shooting no longer exists.  I'm different and therefore my life moving forward will be different.  I need to create and build upon what I refer to as ''the new normal".   I had an earlier traumatic experience when I was fourteen. At that time, I was told I was suffering from grief and shock and I'd "get over it".  My perspective on life changed dramatically back then and it took me the better part of two decades to find the help I needed to "get over it".

For the record, you don't 'get over it' you come to terms with it; you learn to live with it; you make peace with it so it doesn't consume you or your life.  During the two decades, I had tried both conventional/traditional therapies as well as some alternative/non-traditional therapies.  Each had helped to some degree.  When I finally found the therapy which worked for me, I was so overjoyed and relieved, I actually took the necessary training needed to incorporate it into my work with my clients.  I never expected that I would again be in a position where a traumatic event would be so horrific that I would need to again undergo therapy in order to come to terms with it.

For weeks after the murder I slept very little and when I did sleep for an hour or so, there were horrific nightmares.  The less I slept the more fragile I felt.  I had always been independent, a free spirit, and now I found it nearly impossible to be alone and at the same time, I found it difficult to be around a lot of people.  I was suddenly trying to find the balance between the two.  The biggest challenge for me was around feeling safe.  All my life I had unconsciously felt safe no matter where I was; whether at home or travelling the globe.  Even when I traveled alone, through foreign cities and lands, I never felt uneasy or in danger.  All that changed.   While my mind told me that I'm safe, my emotions told a much different story.  I was anxious and edgy, even when I was at home.  There were other symptoms as well.  A lack of focus; the conflicting emotions between things I had always done and the inability to do them now.  The me I had always been had vanished and the person I had become was a stranger to me and one I didn't like or want to be.  

While I didn't think in terms of having PTSD, I did realize I needed help to get through this trauma.   I knew I wanted to deal with this new trauma with the non-traditional methods as I had used in the past which had given me the best results; so I turned to a trusted colleague for help.

One of the hardest things I had to do was to drive to my colleague's place for my first session.  I used to love to drive; it always gave me a sense of joy and freedom.  I no longer felt that way.  In fact, having to stop at a red light or a stop sign made my heart race. Pedestrians and jaywalkers created an undeniable feeling of panic.  Road construction, bumper-to-bumper traffic made me feel trapped with no escape and the anxiety that caused created such a feeling of blind terror its hard to explain to someone who has never experienced it. The drive to that first appointment took an hour and a half; the last 45 minutes of it was bumper to bumper traffic caused by road construction.  By the time I arrived at my colleague's place, I was practically in tears. 

Through all this I tried to maintain a "brave face" for family and friends because I didn't want them to worry about me.  While I'd admit to people that witnessing the shooting was terrifying, I always followed it up with "but I'm OK" when I fact I was far from OK.

A few people within my circle of friends suggested it's likely I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); I dismissed the idea. To me, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is something those who are constantly in situations which put them in harm's way (like those serving in the military or first responders) are at risk of experiencing.   I am simply someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I couldn't possibly have PTSD; could I? Apparently I could...and do.   My struggle with accepting it comes from my own self-judgment.  I compare my single traumatic event to the multitude of events soldiers and first responders experience on a daily basis and to me, I feel my situation is far less traumatic because it was a single event which is unlikely to be repeated.

I have since learned a single horrific event can cause PTSD.  While PTSD is labelled a mental health issue, to me it's an overall health issue because it impacts body, mind and spirit; not just the mind.   I have also learned family and friends are rarely able to relate to what it's like to have PTSD.  I have had family members say "aren't you over it yet?  It happened months ago" another said "It was obviously a targeted shooting, so you weren't really in any danger."

The nature of my own work with clients gives me a better understanding of my family and friends responses so I don't take their comments to heart. I understand they have no frame of reference, no way of truly understanding what it was like for me to witness a murder.  I also know their own unconscious fear plays a big part in their response.  After all, if it could happen to me, it could happen to them and the fear of that reality is not something they want to consider or accept so it is better to reduce or dismiss the event than to acknowledge it.

At the same time though, it also makes me realize how difficult it must be for others suffering with PTSD to find the support and help needed to come to terms with their own experience(s) and move forward with their lives.  After all, if your own family, closest friends and colleagues can't understand it, then the feeling of being alone and isolated weighs even more heavily upon you.

I am thankful I knew what I needed to help myself through this trauma and had a colleague I trusted to help me deal with it very early on. After a number of sessions, I am in a much better place mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  I am still working through a few remaining physiological symptoms and figuring out what my "new normal" is and moving forward with my life.  I admit it's a strange headspace to be in.  It's like hitting a reset button on your life.  Creating a new foundation on which to build upon;  including finding a way to reconnect to family and friends in order to have the love and support needed to move forward and live life.

My own PTSD journey has given me the opportunity to develop a new way to work with clients with PTSD.  Even though symptoms may be similar or even the same, each person is unique and our work together needs to be developed based on their needs.  What works for one, may not work for someone else; that includes the number of sessions and the type of therapy (whether traditional or non-traditional).

The most important thing, the only thing which truly matters, is finding the right person/therapist/therapy that works for you.  If you don't feel comfortable or connected to the person/therapist or don't feel you are benefiting from the therapy - try someone or something else and keep trying until you find the right one because the right one IS out there. Traditional/Non-Traditional/Alternative - only you know what is working best for you so it is up to you to do what works for you.

Knowing you need help is the first step; finding the help you need is the second; and taking the time you need is the third.  There are better days ahead.  You can't go back to the life you had, however, you can move forward into a new life which includes your family and friends, laughter, love, health, wealth and happiness.  It's all within you; and it all starts with getting the help you need, now.