How to Heal from PTSD

I’ve heard people say that one cannot heal from PTSD. That’s ridiculous. The brain is plastic. We can make new neural connections at 80 years old.

Healing from PTSD is not easy. And in some cases, like mine, it can take years. But it’s not impossible.

A brain that experiences severe trauma or multiple traumas becomes overloaded. The nervous system is electrical, and trauma is like high voltage surging through wires, which overheat, causing shorts and disconnections.

When I first learned that I had this mental illness, I didn’t understand what it meant, except that it caused me to lose friends, jobs, and motivation. I’ve since regained one of those lost friends, who had observed my transformation from a positive, warm, caring, enthusiastic, energetic visionary to a harsh, aloof, withdrawn, tired complainer virtually overnight. It was as if the wiring in my brain had re-routed the wrong way.

Then life got harder. One of the few friends I had moved to the west coast, the San Francisco Bay area. Another struggled with her own depression and an abusive husband. A third had health problems of her own that often kept her homebound. When Hurricane Sandy came through, my mind began to severely dissociate from reality and none of my friends were available to help. My family didn’t understand. It was time to leave my beloved Brooklyn.

1. Live in a “Safe” Place

It made sense to move close to my friend on the west coast, a sister from a different mother and father. I had also become friends with a man who lived in San Francisco. He was married, so I didn’t feel pressure to be more than friends, but we clicked intellectually — something that I believe helped me overcome many of the psychological obstacles of PTSD.

The bay area differs from the energetic bustle of New York City, not only in atmosphere but also in that it was new to me. Having lived in New York City for 19 years, it was common to run into people I knew. I had been a community leader. Every day, I felt social pressure to say greetings when I just wanted to disappear. Some days, I felt bombarded by acquaintances who meant well asking questions, making small talk or requests. I needed a break from this social life. In the bay area, I was a stranger. Besides the ability to go from city to nature in a matter of minutes, I was also anonymous and able to mentally rest.

My room needed to be a haven. There was sunlight, enough space for my bed, a small couch and a table, and a place to keep things that were encouraging reminders, such as a guitar that had belonged to someone important in my life.

2. Be Around “Safe” People

Because trauma can cause a person to withdraw from people, including loved ones, I needed friends who would knock on my door. Isolation does not heal PTSD, but instead makes it worse. I chose to live near my intellectual friend, someone who needed my friendship as much as I needed his. My other friend in the bay area had an infant and lived outside the city; I could not easily rely on her support.

Being around people does not have to mean socializing. In the biblical story of Job, Job’s friends sat with him after he lost his wife, children, livestock, and property. They said nothing, but merely sat with him. Their presence was a comfort.

Since my two bay area friends were not like Job’s friends, I found safe places where there were people. I joined a community center, some Meetup.com groups, and spent time at local bars — places away from my isolated room. Among these new people, I could say “I have PTSD” and quickly find people who could relate and empathize. Doing this also gave me an excuse to disappear if I felt too much pressure.

It took several tries to find those safe places where there were people who were not threatening or insistent. Though it took decisiveness, it was always worth the effort to get out, even if I had not spoken to anyone. Eventually, I found help as well as a new group of friends.

3. Rewire

In spite of my inclination to stay at home away from people, I forced myself to go out. The neural connections in my brain were a tangled mess. They needed rewiring and it wasn’t going to happen sitting in isolation.

My intellectual friend brought me crossword puzzles and interesting articles to read. He also brought conversation, sometimes about his relationships, which for me was good exercise for keeping up with years of studying personality typology.

I didn’t have a television to numb or frustrate me, but I went to the library regularly seeking to expand my mind with words and images. And there was writing. My writing is not nearly as eloquent as it was, though improving can also be a matter of rewiring.

Perhaps most important is therapy. The three kinds of therapy that have helped me are psychotherapy with Eamonn, who has many years of experience working with victims of terrorism; sensory emotional regulation (TIPI); and horseback riding. Horseback riding physically helps neurons to reconnect. Sensory emotional regulation reconnects pathways to the body through sensations healing painful emotions such as anxiety. Psychotherapy needs no explanation. Though the right therapist matters.

Eamonn’s experience with victims of terrorism equips him to deal with the intensity of 9-11 trauma. When you witness people dying, and then repeatedly say “I’m sorry” to their loved ones in the same day, the mental overload becomes daunting to defuse and rebuild — so much, that two other therapists denied me help. Eamonn has been my guide out of the darkest days. I don’t know how to describe how he has helped. In the beginning, I doubted he would be able to. Because of his guidance, I was able to go back to work full-time. Now he is helping me rewire my emotions.

Though there is still healing to do (as evidenced by this prosaic writing), I can see that recovery is possible.

Don’t give up.

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