I have heard it said the death begets death. Put another way, when you’re grieving or helping someone who is grieving; passed deaths, funerals and aftermaths come flooding forward.
This is also the case for severe trauma. Experiences with other’s traumas provoke strong memories and features of one’s own trauma. For this reason, I often tell my clients who are dealing with severe traumas, to avoid news broadcasts and closely monitor television shows and movies before watching (if possible). This helps prevent suddenly finding themselves in a virtual situation similar enough to what they experienced to cause problems.
Until you know what your trauma triggers are this is shaky ground. It would be easy to say, I experienced child abuse; therefore, I won’t watch things that show or discus this topic. Since the mind is like a 4-D movie camera recording during a traumatic event, the obvious might not be so obvious.
For example: The well groomed newscaster presented three horrific events; the remains of 11 dead bodies found in Ohio killed by a serial killer; a Toyota’s accelerator got stuck and the car accelerated to 100 miles an hour, killing the driver when it hit a tree; a woman was thrown from a roller coaster at Six Flags Amusement Park in Texas and died on impact.
In which of these stories would a person with severe trauma experience the most triggers? It’s a person by person answer. It may not be the most heinous which grabs the person. It will be the one that elicits the most triggers from that 4-D movie reel in their head.
In my own case, as I have PTSD, the story that grabbed me was the story at the amusement park. I’ve never been thrown from a roller coaster, in fact I love coasters. So why would this story grab me?
In my case, it had to do with something I and many people with PTDS develop. It’s the fear or guilt of having a good time. In my case, it is fear. My life experiences have taught my brain that as soon as life calms down and starts to look normal, something horrific is coming around the corner. It’s something I’ve had to actively evaluate and be aware of for many years.
So, who in those news stories was having the most fun when something horrible happened? Yep, it was the woman, vacationing with her family and then ejected from the coaster to her death. What made this situation worse, the news reporter stated when the coaster pulled out of the platform the woman realized her lap bar wasn’t closed properly and there was nothing anyone did or could do once the coaster left the platform to help her.
This brings about three more common traits of people with PTSD. These are the feelings of helplessness, inability to escape and sudden realization of impending serious harm or death. The other two news stories probably contained these elements as well; however, this third story compounded all three elements. If the woman had been my age, that might add a fourth component. If instead of on a coaster, she was in a situation similar to what I experienced, that would add another component. The more components are involved than the stronger the reaction tends to be.
So you see it’s complicated when you or a loved one is learning to live with PTSD. Part of this learning is in understanding how the brain processes trauma and what triggers are hard wired to respond. As the person and their family learn these, the next steps are learning to compensate for reactions, lesson reactions and know your limitations. Most of all never stop exploring and never give up.
If you do get triggered, this protocol will be useful.
- Ground yourself. Do a mental check. Where are you? Who is with you? Are you safe? Your brain needs some external impute from you to circumvent the need to protect you from the danger it perceives you are currently under or about to experience. Telling yourself things like, I’m in my living room, there are green curtains on the window, I’m drinking Lemon Zinger tea may seem silly, but they tell your brain you are not in that place where trauma originally occurred.
- It’s okay to be triggered. Being triggered is a horrendous feeling, especially if it leads to physical, emotional or visual flashbacks. Once you have calmed your mind and body down. Do not, I repeat, do not chastise yourself for having been triggered in the first place. What you experienced was strong enough to provoke the same response in you everyone experiences when they try to put their hand in fire. The brain knows how to keep you safe. Triggers are the mechanisms the brain uses to screen for fires.
- Be an investigative reporter. Logging down what you were doing or watching when you were triggered, any information about how you reacted feelings after the fact are invaluable. Over time, you will see patterns. Perhaps, it’s anything that sounds like explosions or the smell of curry. Even if you and another person experienced the exact same trauma at the same time, your log will be as unique to you as your finger print. Don’t be afraid of finding the patterns.
- Bring your information to someone who can help you. It is typically best to work with someone knowledgeable about trauma reactions when processing and learning to live with triggering events and information. Take your log and your insight with you. You know you and your traumatic event(s) better than anyone. No counselor or therapist is a savior. They are only another human being with training that is there to help. Find someone you trust and become partners in your quest to living healthily with PTSD.
When Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick wrote the lines: To the last, I grapple with thee; from the hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee, he was writing about a man’s obsessive pursuit to concur an internal demon triggered by an external sea monster. Is living with PTSD any different?
We hadn’t seen each other all summer. For the past two years we’d taken a writing workshop at a place called Write from the Heart run by Melissa Green. It’s designed to encourage writers to put behind the critics of the past and learn to listen to their inner, creative voices.
On a whim, I asked my friend to check out an Irish Pub in Lancaster and she agreed. We got lost, driving literally in circles for over an hour saying things like, “Didn’t we pass that pizza place before?” Yes, we have.
Out of the blue, my friend says, “You know, there is some reason we’re supposed to be going in this circle. There is something or someone in the center of this circle that’s going to become very important to us. Isn’t that exciting? I wonder what it will be.”
A day later, both of us have talked to and signed up with Melissa Green’s Write from the Heart. Her place is located smack center of the circle we forged the night before. This event is not surprising to my friend and intriguing to me.
Melissa’s studio is an hour from us and I quickly find that the conversations to and from are not only affirming but spiritually awakening. My friend and I have had near death experiences and are on the same wave-length. Together what blossoms are beyond what either of us could ever accomplish alone.
Life happened and each of us had to stop attending the workshop for various reasons. That was the beginning of the summer. Although both of us stated we felt spirit was taking us in new directions, to build on the journey we started with Write from the Heart’s wonderful experience, it was saddening.
The summer for me was plagued with death, multiple surgeries for my daughter, trying to run a new business and learning to live minus one income. Every week when time came for our normal rendezvous for class, I could feel my heart and soul ache. Yes I missed the class, my writing buddies and Melissa. But what I really missed were the conversations on the drive to and fro.
It hit me, this was ridiculous. Call the woman and get together. We don’t need to drive to Lancaster to have spiritual conversations and enlightenment. We can go someplace else and talk. Gettysburg pops into my mind but I dismiss it. I want someplace spiritual, not historical. I think The Grotto.
The Grotto is a Catholic shrine to Saint Elizabeth Seton. It’s a fabulous place to relax, pray, meditate or just enjoy the mosaic art works and mountain environment. I’ve been going there since I was a little girl. This is one of the places I normally hit in times when I need to clear my head.
I gave her a call and find out she’d been experiencing the same longing. So we eagerly set a date, her house for dinner with her family then a drive to The Grotto.
Just as I’m getting in my car, a horrendous storm hits but I keep going. The main road leading from my house to my friends surges with rising flood water. Cars stall, truck-made waves wash over entire vehicles. I pull into a parking lot, pull out my cell phone and call her. There is no way I am continuing. It’s too dangerous.
She tells me she is only a couple miles ahead of me on her own way home. She is looking at blue sky. I look out into the distance and see a small patch of blue. Okay, I’ll keep coming but I tell her The Grotto is no longer an option. She says, “Let’s wait and see which way spirit takes us.” I agree and head out into the flooding street.
By the time I get to her house, the sky is blue, the rain gone and the roads just wet. We have a great chicken potpie dinner with her family and she says, “Well, what do you want to do?”
“I want to go to The Grotto,” I tell her. I’m looking out her kitchen window at the soggy ground. I don’t even know if The Grotto is open at seven o’clock on a Thursday evening. What the hell? “Let’s do it.”
We get in the car and drive the half hour to The Grotto while catching up on our summers. It’s a quick drive to the Catoctain Mountains. We climb the narrow road up the mountain and stop short. There is a gate across the road. The Grotto, situated at the top of the mountain, is closed.
“Now what do you want to do?” She asks me. “Where do you think spirit is leading us?”
Gettysburg pops back in my head. I am reluctant to say anything because I feel like I’m obsessed with Gettysburg Battlefield. But the feeling is strong enough to speak. “I keep thinking Gettysburg.”
“Oh my gosh! I’ve been thinking about Gettysburg all day! When you called I thought, Gettysburg! We need to go to Gettysburg. That is why The Grotto is closed!” This, in an odd kind of way, makes sense to me. I turn the car around and head to Gettysburg.
There are several exits into the borough and town of Gettysburg from US 15. She didn’t care which one we took. She says, “Clear your mind and head in the direction you think we are supposed to go.” I took the Taneytown exit and wound up on the battlefield.
It’s now 6:45 pm. As we enter a main thoroughfare of the National Park grounds my friend says, “Whenever I come out here, I get this feeling that says stop. There is something about that location that I’m supposed to experience.”
“Okay, well, if you get that feeling, tell me and I’ll stop.”
“Stop.” She immediately states so I pull over. We are about one hundred feet from the old Cyclorama overlooking the high water mark of Picket’s Charge. “Did you see him?” She asks me.
The park is surprisingly busy for a Thursday night in September. The series of bad storms rolling across the county would have fettered any daytime visit. It looks like a lot of out-of-town guests are taking advantage of the evening’s clear weather. Among all the cars and people wondering in and around canons sits an older man with a very large, Irish Wolfhound. Yes, I’d seen him. He and the dog were hard to miss.
We get out of the car and wander over and say hello. The dog’s name is Tanner. He stands seven foot four inches on his hind legs and weights two hundred and forty pounds. He is without a leash and his owner informs us it’s not necessary.
The name of Tanner’s owner is not reveled to us. This is okay because we are also nameless. We spend a short amount of time exchanging niceties. He lives in Gettysburg and routinely walks his dog around the battlefield looking to meet interesting people and soak in the spiritual nature of the location. Normally, he states, he sits on Little Round Top but tonight he was called to sit where we found him.
The conversation takes a turn. The man has had a near death experience that changed his life. We haven’t told him we share this trait and my friend shoots me a look of, see I knew there was a reason we were supposed to stop here. For about an hour we talk about crossing over, God, the universe, life as we know it and this place called Gettysburg. The whole time we are talking, I keep looking over at several cannons and ammunition wagons positioned where original cannonades resonated across the field.
Tanner’s owner has not experienced anything he would call paranormal on the battlefield but definitely has at his home. He sees the battlefield as alive, as spiritual and it calls him here. My friend shoots me another affirming look.
I have experienced things on the battlefield and I tell him so. This prompts him to talk about a friend of his who writes books on ghosts in Gettysburg. He’s questioning some of the stories his friend has written which I think is funny considering he just told us several personal, paranormal stories. I start telling him about my experiences with unexpected things in photos, voices and sounds I’ve heard, odd smells and apparent apparitions on or around the battlefield.
It’s nearly, completely dark. Tanner’s owner looks over at the cannons I’ve been eyeing off and on and says, “Don’t they look lonely? I often think of them as animated. They spend all day being touched, having their pictures taken with people, telling their story. But by night, they are lonely sentinels on this sacred ground.”
This hits me, really hits me and I take a photograph of with my cell phone and send myself a message that reads, lonely cannons. It’s profound in my mind, but I don’t know why.
The conversation comes to a natural conclusion and we get in my car. Tanner and his owner get in theirs. We beep goodbyes and go our separate ways never having exchanged names. We are just three people drawn to a place in time for an unexpected conversation.
My friend has never been on the battlefield after dark. It’s a profoundly sobering time to visit. There is a minimal amount of visitors. The place is quiet, shadows deep and the mind can better attempt to sink in what happened on those three horrific days in history. It’s incomprehensible. No matter how many times I visit in an attempt to understand it won’t sink in.
I deviate from the Auto-tour route to show her several of my favorite monuments and end up beside the area known as The Wheatfield. Our car windows are down. The air is different here. I’ve been here many times and I’ve never experienced this feeling. It’s a tingling on our skin like static electricity, our throats feel tight making it hard to swallow and my friend feels a bit queasy.
I have no intention of stopping the car. We round the bend and the feelings stop – for both of us. I pull the car over and we try to process what happened. It was damn odd and not pleasant. Both of us have experienced heightened energy before. Times when the air is charged where there are high magnetic fields, standing near large electrical towers or during lightening storms. That’s what this felt like.
I pull the car back onto the road and we drive through the woods and end up at Devil’s Den. To my surprise there is only one other car here. Usually, at night, I find this is the most popular place to find other visitors.
I stop the car and we get out. Using the light from my phone as a flashlight, we wander past the granite megaliths known as Devil’s Den and walk up the road around to the back of the rocks. In the not-to-far distance we hear the sound of a rumbling explosion and stop.
“Thunder?” She asks.
“Too low,” I reply and we stand quiet waiting to hear it again. We don’t and I tease, “Its cannon fire.” Then add, “Maybe there is a reenactment nearby.” We shrug it off and return to walking up the darkened hill.
At the top of the hill, directly behind Devil’s Den is a very tall, lone tree. It stands very close to the location where my hubby captured a white form of what looks like an apparition of a soldier. My friend identifies the tree as a place where she and a cousin spent several hours sitting and soaking in warm, positive energy.
Devils Den is made of granite. This entire area is granite and quartz heavy. I know both stones hold and radiate energy. That’s why we use them in computers, watches and why they don’t want you to use granite as a counter top. It emits radon. I’m not surprised she feels energy here.
I get several feet from the tree and get a sensation of disorientation. I can barely keep my balance. Before I can say anything, my friend tells me she feels odd, her stomach is turning over and she smells something metallic. I don’t smell it but I immediately think of blood. I unfortunately know very intimately the smell and taste of large amounts of spilled blood. It’s metallic. I don’t tell her this. I don’t think she’d understand but I could be wrong.
She reaches over and places her hands on the tree. I don’t want to go near the tree. Every time I get too close the equilibrium problem hits again. She says, “Take a picture here, how about here?” I do this and nothing shows up but darkness, a shot of her with the tree and one that has some fog.
I really feel like the world is spinning one way and me in another. “We need to leave,” I tell her.
We start heading down the hill and she grabs me. Both of us are having a hard time keeping balanced. I think this is nuts and tell her I want to do an experiment.
I walk away from the tree until I feel normal again. Then I turn around and walk till I start to feel ill. I do it several times. I have her do it. It makes no sense. I wish there was some meter or devise we could use to measure any static electricity or high magnetic current. Prove one way or another that what we are feeling is nothing more than being in near-darkness on uneven ground with over-active imaginations and low blood sugar. We don’t have anything like that so we head back to the car with more questions than answers.
We get in the car and head up to Little Round Top. Normally, I love to look out over LRT. The view is stunning and it‘s a favorite place for many people to lay on the large granite rocks and sunbath. Sunsets from this point are beautiful no matter what the season. This time, I slowed down but decided not to stop. Something didn’t feel right and besides, it’s dark, what was there to see?
My friend sighs and says, “I’m glad we didn’t stop, I don’t feel well.” Another oddity? I think one of us really has an over-active imagination, ESP or something. We stop at the stop sign and continue across the road.
Almost immediately, I feel like I’m going to vomit. My chest hurts like its being crushed (I actually know what this feels like) and it’s hard to breath. I get a sharp pain in my eye and a vicious headache making my eye water. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear I was having a physical flashback of the car accident where I was partially crushed in my car, medevaced and endured medical torture before I died of shock. The flashbacks come on that fast and are horrifically painful. Only I never damaged my eye and I have not experienced anything in the past couple minutes to suddenly throw me into a flashback.
I drive the van forward several hundred feet and slowly, the feelings subside leaving me with a mild headache, a watering eye and some mild agitation. My friend tells me her stomach is very upset and wants to leave. So do I.
The road ends up across from the old Cyclorama where we had met Tanner and his owner. I look over one more time at the lonely cannons and am glad they are not as animated as Tanner’s owner imagined. They look tragic, lost, shocked and filled with pain, fear and disbelief. They remind me of the me no one sees during the day and only a select few have seen at night. They remind me of my PTSD and my seaming lifetime of struggle to survive and thrive.
Those cannons are sentinels to the souls of thousands of men never identified, buried and forgotten, witnesses of horrific screams of agony and death. They are the watchers of a history we should never forget but continue to repeat. They are the lonely watchers of the ghosts of Gettysburg surviving through time, telling their story.
As we leave the battlefield I am reminded, there are some things that can’t be explained. Other things even if I could explain very few people would understand. But I’m not alone. Like my friend, like Tanner’s owner, we are a regiment of people having experienced something on the fringe and yearn for understanding. For this reason, we come to Gettysburg.
I went to the Goodwill store looking for a lamp to re-purpose. I really enjoy combing through flea-markets and second-hand shops to find elements of objects discarded to make something new. Something I create to be meaningful or purposeful to me.
I found a lamp, bought it. That afternoon I water colored the shade in hues of green. I realized, this object transformation was symbolic of my life and what I help others do – Re-purpose their lives. Life will always give reasons to step back and ask questions like: What the hell just happened? Why did this happen to me? What am I going to do now? Who am I as a result of this? Re-purposing helps bring answers to those questions.
My journey with Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD) catapulted me into demanding answers to those questions. I didn’t think I could function without them. Luckily, a person does not have to endure severe traumas demanding immediate attention. Anyone can have a desire, a spark to find their authentic self and live a fuller, happier, more balanced life.
People change slowly over time being enhanced or torn down by life’s challenges. Most appear to view this change as outside themselves. They don’t care or they fear looking inward and asking the hard questions. Finding the answers and stepping out into the great unknown. They accept life as it is. The result is often bitterness, anger and depression. This does not have to be. Life happens, yes, but what you do with it makes all the difference in the world – your world.
Re-purposing takes time and usually happens in stages. As a person learns more about them self and the universe around them, there is an aha moment. My experience is that this is followed by a stewing process. The mind soaks in the information and applies it to everything it knows. The person acts on their new awareness and then it hits.
New questions arise! Well, if that’s true, then what about this situation? Why did I act that way when I could have done this? What else have I believed about life that suddenly is not true? What is truth? The questions become less about the person and more about the world, the universe and the spiritual.
It might be helpful to look at the journey in terms of cooking or food. At first, it probably seems similar to peeling off layers of an onion. I picked onion because pealing an onion can bring tears and at times not very pleasant. Thoughts and memories, who we have become over time has built around our core like the layers surrounding the core of the onion. The larger the onion, the more changes, adaptations or layers a person has developed.
There should come a time when a person can see beyond the onion metaphor and see layers as welcome opportunities for re-purposing, bringing enrichment to their lives. Life’s journey now becomes more like layers of string cheese, baklava, lasagna, or some other pleasant concoction you can think of. Not as threatening or uncomfortable if done in moderation. It is good to note, that even with pleasant or desired elements of change, too much too soon can cause distress. I really would not recommend sitting down and eating en entire family size lasagna! All things should be done in moderation, which includes re-purposing.
After a while, the person may no longer find total enrichment and the questions asked of the self changes again. Using the cooking metaphor, questions might revolve around the concern, how can I improve on this recipe? The types of questions are as vast as the grains of rice in a box of Minute Rice.
Re-purposing time varies from person to person. Some only strive for feeling slightly better, like putting on a band-aid and waiting. Others, like me, spend a lifetime joyfully exploring, learning and becoming. At this point in my journey, the questions are no longer the ones stated above. Some of my current questions are: Where do I go from here? What does this say about me? How can I turn this into something good for myself and others?
My lamp is now painted, trimmed and assembled. Another human-made element re-purposed for a new beginning, a new life. Aren’t all our experiences in some way, human-made? It’s up to us to do the re-purposing to make our lives the best they can be.
I offer a challenge to you. Start re-purposing your life. The results are worth the journey. Below I offer some first steps to get you started. If you would like some help, you can check out my e-mail counseling/coaching services. If you are in the area, make an appointment or attend a class. Have a great journey!
First Steps to Start Re-purposing Your Life:
1. Get a notebook or journal.
2. List as many qualities about yourself as you can think of. Ask others for their impute. What do you think/feel about your list?
3. List things, people or events where you feel/felt: 1) happy: 2) accomplished: 3) loved: 4) experienced freedom: 5) had fun. Are there any areas where you had a hard time listing things? Some needs that you are falling short in having fulfilled?
4. What movies, characters, TV shows, music, artists, books do you relate to? Why?
5. Make a timeline of your life – the goods, bads, neutrals, accomplishments, regrets. Why did you label these in the categories you placed them? Example: Why is difficulty in 3rd grade math a good thing?
6. Answer the statement: If I had a magic wand, my life would look like… (be specific). Why would you want the elements you picked?
7. List and evaluate areas of your life where you feel out of balance or unhappy. Why do feel this way about this area? (Try to be inward focused and not “because he made me…”)
8. Ask yourself, what role do you play in number 7? We always play a role, even if it is not doing anything.
9. Continue to ask yourself, what do I really want? (see my blog, Life’s Little Instruction Manual, Healthy Relationships Part 4)
10. Review everything you have written. See if you are starting to understand who you really are, how you got here, the role you play, and where your life is unbalanced. You can’t formulate any goals on making improvements without this base-level structure.
Congratulations on taking the first steps in re-purposing your life. Job well done! Drop me a comment and let me know how it’s going!
I’d love to sleep like this, but I can’t. Doctors have tried numerous over-the-counter and prescription aids. I’ve read multiple books on healthy sleep habits. I’ve used a sound machine, played a video of the ocean, ear phones and meditation music, hugged a stuffed animal. My diet was changed. I stopped drinking caffeine and alternated the temperature of my bedroom. Exercise, yep, I’m doing it. Meditation is great but not for my insomnia. I’m not sitting awake worrying. My life is going well. Nothing works. AHHHHH!
I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 1981. Truth be known, I actually have Complex PTSD although at the time they didn’t have that diagnosis. The hows and whys of this are not important for this writing. I’m telling you this because it and some wacky thinking on my part are the reasons for my insomnia.
I am so hyper-vigilant (on edge waiting for something inevitably horrible to happen) that any noise or movement jolts me awake with a startle. Then I’m up for several hours until I can no longer keep my eyes open. With any luck, I will return to some kind of sleep. Some nights this cycle takes an hour or two, other nights I’m up all night.
The less sleep I get the more my thinking becomes derailed. Things that normally would not bother me become monumental. I start taking things more personally and become defensive. Skills and determination take a sharp decline and old thoughts of self-doubt and self-scrutiny flourish and will spiral out of control if I don’t intervene.
I’ve tried many techniques and mild to wacky interventions to help me or force me to sleep. Occasionally, I think I’ve hit the right combination of circumstance, rituals and mind-set only to find it was all a fluke. I can blame my mattress, my hubby, the cat, the noise level in the room, hormones or any number of elements. While some of this is probably a contributing factor the end result is me and a need to find a way within myself to work with who I am now in a non-judgmental way.
Sleep eludes me. So I try to spin it positive. The house is quiet, I can write. There is time to process my day and goals for the future. There is quality time with my cat. All nice things but sleep would be greatly appreciated.
So, I am curious both as an insomniac and a therapist, what have you tried when facing insomnia? Did it work?
Maybe there are some techniques or home reminds I’m not familiar with. If you have any I’d love to compile them for anyone who needs aid. Myself included. Sweet dreams!