PTSD and the Shattering of Identity

I’ve been going through everything to toss or donate or pack in preparation for a move up north in a few weeks.

Tonight, I flipped through a few of my favorite books, including a volume by Edward St. Aubyn: The Philip Melrose Novels. The subject is difficult (sexual abuse in childhood and how it plays out over the years), but the writing is incredible.

On the back blank endpaper, I’d written a quote. (I didn’t underline it on the actual page, so forgive me if it’s really a paraphrase.)

“Personal identity is dependent on the continuity of memory.”

A few minutes later, I looked through Invisible Heroes by Belleruth Naparstek (a must-read for those with PTSD) and came across:

“Trauma disrupts internal continuity, interferes with coherence, and at least temporarily shatters identity. And when that’s gone, nothing is right.” 

Then I picked up Soul Retrieval by Sandra Ingerman. She writes about how parts of your soul can take off when trauma gets too intense. You survive, but you’re a little less than you were each time. You’re not your whole self anymore, you don’t feel like your old self. Theoretically, a shaman can retrieve those parts and bring them back through your chakra.

I remember years ago, after reading those books, saying to Jack, “Maybe that explains why I don’t identity with photos of myself throughout childhood and even afterwards. It’s always been as if they’re photos of someone else. Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt alien to my own history. It explains the effect on me of the blanks, the disconnects, why I’ve rarely felt whole.”

[In case I had soul parts out there somewhere, I did go to a shaman to have them returned. (I wrote about it in my book (PTSD: Frozen in Time).]

So many books helped me understand the consequences of childhood trauma and suggested non-traditional ways of healing that worked for me. (Twenty-five years of talking to therapists and psychiatrists and taking meds kept me alive, but not much more—so I was open to non-traditional ways).


It’s Saturday night and I’m awfully tired. My eyes don’t hurt so much as they did the first couple weeks after Jack died. My attention span remains limited. I still have trouble focusing on movies or books, but this morning I was able to watch Avatar all the way through. It was pretty cool. (I loved the references to energy.)

And I can write (although I have to use a big font in my drafts). Progress. Yay!


PTSD and Your Feet

I had PTSD for many years, but no clue what it really meant and how it affected my life. Those were pre-internet years in my 20’s when I was burned-out and too exhausted to care. I remained too exhausted to care for many years thereafter.

I didn’t know what I felt most of the time. I’d been conditioned since childhood to focus on markers in my environment, and to accept the reality of my significant others as to my identity and wellbeing.

Thankfully, that feels like a long time ago. But I still appreciate clues as to when stress is brewing within.

One clue is to watch my feet.

I had no idea until I moved in with Jack, ten years ago, that when I am stressed or anxious or going into fight or flight, I move my feet a certain way.

For instance, Jack and I would be sitting side by side on the couch, with our legs stretched out and resting on the ottoman, watching a movie. My feet would be crossed at the ankles, (my usual position when sitting on the couch).

I became aware that sometimes, for no good reason, I’d find myself rubbing my feet together. They wouldn’t itch or feel uncomfortable or unpleasant. There was physically no rationale for me to be doing this. It was a weird, unconscious, instinctual thing, which I had no trouble stopping once I became aware of it.

Somewhere along the way, I realized my rubbing-feet were manifesting internal stress I wasn’t in touch with and I eventually found various ways to release it. (See my book PTSD: Frozen in Time.)

Joe Navarro wrote a wonderful book about body language called What Every Body Is Saying (An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People).

It’s a fun, highly readable book. He talks a lot about the survival brain and how our bodies react to stress and trauma. He said, “Having conducted thousands of interviews for the FBI, I learned how to concentrate on the suspect’s feet and legs first, moving upward in my observations until I read the face last. When it comes to honesty, truthfulness decreases as we move from the feet to the head.”

I learned, from the many books I eventually read about PTSD, that in a trauma situation, faced with fight or flight (or freeze or collapse), the psoas muscle deep within our core is activated first because it allows us to run or take a stand and fight. It’s evolutionary behavior, so it makes sense our feet and legs show our stress. Those of us with PTSD can get triggered any number of ways. I can’t feel my psoas muscle, but I can watch my feet to get a hint.

Sometimes at night, I’m very tired and so sure I’ll fall right to sleep the minute my head hits the pillow. I get in bed, turn off the light, close my eyes and…find my feet rubbing against each other. I know better than to ignore it.

I sit up then and do an inventory because something is bothering me and I know if I don’t release that stress or emotional energy, I won’t sleep for a long time, no matter how pooped I am.

I hope, Dear Reader, you sleep deeply and well tonight and have pleasant dreams. I hope I do, too.

PTSD and Feeling Paralyzed

I was diagnosed with PTSD in my 20’s and immediately put on medication. At the time, I was like, Great, man, fine, whatever you want to call it, just give me something to make me feel better.

I didn’t know anything about PTSD, what caused it, the symptoms, and so on. I was just in a zombie state, numb or in despair, unable to sleep more than an hour or two a night, unable to keep a job very long. I was barely surviving.

There was no internet back then. Even if there were, I don’t know if I would have done that much research. I was in too bad a shape. You may know what that state of affliction feels like.

The meds helped insofar as I could sleep again. Sleeping regularly, I got my physical health back and, therefore, could keep a job much easier. (More on my story in PTSD: Frozen in Time.)

For about twenty years after diagnosis, I continued to live mostly in the dark as far as understanding PTSD.

Although I was socially adept at work and developed a successful career, I became increasingly isolated outside of the office.

When I was home in my apartment on weekends, I’d go from feeling fluid, self-assured, smart, and successfully independent on Friday evenings to feeling a complete failure at every level on Sunday nights–curled up on my couch feeling afraid, demoralized, physically cold (despite environmental warmth), almost paralyzed (despite athleticism), and in despair.

I did not understand this weekend-metamorphosis and shoved it out of my head the rest of the week.

Sometime in my 30’s, I read The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. (Subtitle: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse).

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my childhood trauma was not sexual abuse, but I had so many of the same survivor symptoms that the book spoke to me, especially on the issue of boundaries.

It’s been many years since I read that wonderful book, so please forgive my inexact and dusty paraphrasing of what I recall. If memory serves, the authors suggest something to the effect that adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse sometimes don’t realize—at an unconscious, visceral level—that their bodies are their own now, under their power and control alone, and no one can touch them unless they say so.

They may understand this intellectually, but physically moving gets the message to the survival brain and calms the body down.

I remember them saying it might be helpful when a person is having trauma symptoms to pull their bodies back into the present moment by punching out or kicking out or somehow through movement letting their body/minds know there is no one in their personal space now. The adult survivor is physically free, they can move in whatever direction they want to go, no one is going to stop them. No one can come into their space unless they allow them (barring unthinkable scenarios).

This was an epiphany to me at the time. A real paradigm shift. It was the first book I read that related to what I was going through, years before I read a ton of books on PTSD (beginning with Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger.)

I thought of this recently because, since my husband’s death, I have experienced periods of feeling frozen again–tiny, powerless and paralyzed with fear.

But I’m not little anymore or powerless or frozen. It’s just a feeling, albeit an unpleasant one.

So…this morning I got out of bed (just physically moving sometimes rids me of the frozen, tiny feeling, although a workout or walk is more satisfying), had my berries, and started planning a brief road trip.

I’m going to drive up north to the town where my uncle and cousin live and check out apartments. Although the area I live in is beautiful, it’s shot through with the sadness of Jack’s illness, multiple hospitalizations and passing. Plus, I know almost no one here.

Also, the area up north is the closest to an “old neighborhood” for me after Chicago. I visited my dad and uncle there for over twenty years.

I hope you are having a day filled with moments of wellbeing and that you will hear a song or some music today that heals your heart.

Almost Felt Normal Today

It’s about 6 p.m. in Tucson at the moment. I’d like to take a nap, but don’t want to. I don’t want to wake and remember Jack is gone. So here I am writing a quick blog.

I know I have a good cry coming up. I’ve probably said this literally a hundred times to Jack, but why stop now? I hate crying.

Who does, right? It’s just that with my history, I’ve had to do a lot of it in the last four and a half years.

Oh well…as I wrote in my book (PTSD: Frozen in Time), I didn’t cry for decades so….it’s just that sometimes it feels like throwing up and that’s no fun.

I had a good break for a while, though. A really nice break. My emotional well-being was pretty beautiful. I evened out. But as would be expected after Jack’s death, I’m feeling pretty sad.


This morning, I got up early, had breakfast, exercised and went to a support group meeting.

It was great. It got me out of the house and out of my head, gave me perspective, and pushed my consciousness aside enough to hear what’s going on in other people’s lives.

I burst into tears twice. Once in compassion for another and once when I shared the sadness I was feeling.

I was talking with this one woman. She didn’t understand why she’s been feeling so angry lately and why she’s crying all the time and it’s been five years since her (violent, sexual) trauma and she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore and she feels like she’s going nuts and, after “getting past” childhood trauma years ago, why is this one so hard to kick and “Where is God in all this?”

Oh man, what can you say?

Sometimes a person needs to just get it out. Most of the time, I’m not asking to be fixed, just listened to with compassion and understanding.

Besides me, two other women came up and briefly shared their experience and she really bonded with one who had literally the exact same trauma situation happen to her (although by a different perpetrator).

What a mystery life is.


After grocery shopping, I got in the car, turned on the radio and heard an old song, “A Summer Song” by Chad and Jeremy. I burst into tears. It wasn’t even one of our songs. I won’t play our songs at the moment.

“A Summer Song” was actually before my time. I was seven or eight when that came out, but we had the forty-five when I was little. I always thought it was pretty and soft and gentle. It sounded kind and loving and that’s what Jack was. Kind, loving, and gentle. (But also a tough fire fighter from the south side of Chicago!)


Well, that’s all for now. I’ve got a good cry on my schedule, then dinner and hopefully I’ll find a classic movie to watch before an early bedtime.

Last night, I watched “The Quiet Man”. It was wonderful. Maybe I’ll do “Casablanca” tonight. I haven’t watched it for six months.

You know the line, “We’ll always have Paris.”?

Well, I’ve never been to Europe, but for the fifteen years before I met Jack, I dreamt the most frustrating dream several nights a week. I kept trying to get to Paris and I never could get there. There was always some issue with the plane.

The night before I moved in with Jack, I had the happiest dream of my life even though it lasted but a moment.

In the dream, I stood in the sunlight on a beautiful, cobblestone street in Paris.

I’d finally made it.


Felt Frozen This Morning

I haven’t written for a while because my husband’s congestive heart failure and kidney disease got worse, and he died two weeks ago.

I feel lousy.

I feel sad almost all the time. I sob periodically.

I’m mad sometimes. Not at anyone in particular, just mad–like a crazy, inarticulate I-hate-the-world feeling the kind a little kid would have.

I miss Jack so bad, I don’t have words to do justice to the feeling.

Woke up this morning with that frozen feeling, a sort of an inner paralysis. I felt tiny, too, which goes back to old childhood trauma.

I am familiar with that feeling.

I’m glad I went through so much releasing of trauma energy years ago because now I read my body pretty well (after decades of physical numbness when I didn’t have a clue), but I’m still learning.

Like last night, I had the worst back pain ever for no physical reason. I did sleep on the living-room couch for months across from my husband, who had to sit up to sleep (due to fluid in chest/lung area), and I slept in a cot in his room when he was hospitalized, but I never had back pain from these things.

Years ago, when I was fired from a job in my late twenties, I had almost immediate back pain that no physical repositioning or drugs could alleviate. It went away with time and new interests, (although I did start a life-long practice of crunches to strengthen my lower back.)

Through the years, the lower back pain returned and I came to associate it with a sudden withdrawal of support. Certainly, my losing Jack qualifies.

I wondered how long I’d have to put up with the excruciating back pain. I can’t afford a chiropractor at the moment.

As for pain pills. Forget it. (See my book: PTSD: Frozen in Time)

Then I started crying for about twenty minutes.

My back pain went away.

A couple hours later, I got that TMJ feeling in my jaw.

Man, I hate that pain. Hadn’t had it for decades, not since I was in my early 30’s and feeling so much unexpressed rage about my childhood. I worked out a lot of that over the years, especially with punching bags and hitting (smashing) tennis balls as hard as I could across from a ball-machine. I gave away the big kickbox-type punching-thing when we moved from Chicago to Arizona. It’s too hot to play tennis in AZ at the moment. Plus, I’d need a ball-machine.

Around midnight, I started crying again. When I finished, my jaw pain was gone.

I’m so lucky I can release the physical pain with crying. I hate it, but imagine the alternative.

So anyway, when I woke up feeling that old paralysis this morning, that little girl freeze of fear, I knew I had to make a move.

Some move.

Any move.

I started this blog entry.


Then I called and left a message for my brother.


Then I called the Pension Board and Mutual Aid Board.

I’m going to take a shower when I’m done writing this, and take a walk plus do sprints. (Only in the low 90’s at the moment!) I don’t feel like it, but I know I’ll feel better.

I hope to see my Scarlet Tanager friend. He reminds me of a cat I had once. I’d be reading in my apartment, lost in a book for a couple hours, paying no attention to Kitty. She’d do something to get my attention, run quickly, madly, from one corner of the studio to the other several times, and then stop and lick a paw as if nothing happened. When I’d say, “What’s going on Kitty?” She’d look so disinterested, as if to say, “What’s that? I have no idea why you think something is going on. I’m just minding my own business here.”

The Scarlet Tanager does something like this when I start walking. He’ll come out of nowhere, race ahead and stop at a bench or tree branch a few feet ahead of me. I’ll stop, in real awe and wonder, and say, “Hi beautiful Scarlet Tanager. What’s going on?” He’ll turn his head this way and that, as if to say, “What’s that? I have no idea why you think something’s going on. I’m just minding my own business here.”

I will bring him a strawberry today. I read they like strawberries.