PTSD: The Long and Winding Road

I’ve felt so tired lately, and for good reason. In addition to unpredictable trouble sleeping, IBS-related stomach discomfort, the hangovers of cortisol flooding (after fight-or-flight triggers), and hypervigilance, there have been major health crises in my primary family since last September. I won’t go into all the tedious details, but these events included three life-threatening operations with complications and attendant caretaking.

And then, my dear husband, Jack, and I decided a couple months ago to relocate from Chicago to Arizona at the end of this summer.

We are super excited to move, but because of my husband’s heart condition and other health issues (he’s decades older than me), I’m doing a significant portion of the preparatory work (packing, scouting for homes, streamlining finances, finding homes for our planties and the furniture we won’t need, researching and interviewing movers, etc.).

Doing all this suits me fine really. I like to organize. Also, as an adult child of an alcoholic, one of the roles I unconsciously took on long ago was “caretaker” and it’s still second nature to watch over others and manage complex situations, especially emergencies. (I think a lot of us PTSD’ers are great in emergencies when, at last, our insides match our outsides!)

So originally, I was going to write a blog solely focused on the issue of PTSD and fatigue.

But then I thought about where I was at when I got off the meds three and a half years ago, (and was shocked to discover myself riddled with all the symptoms I’d had twenty-five years before, pre-meds) and instead decided to contemplate how far I’ve come.

(I write in detail about this in my book Frozen in Time: Adventures in Releasing Buried Energy and all I did to alleviate or get rid of PTSD symptoms.)

I wouldn’t have been able to take care of my beloved uncle, brother and husband during their health crises or even go alone on a scouting expedition to Arizona a couple weeks ago, if I hadn’t found ways of alleviating or getting rid of debilitating PTSD symptoms.

The most disabling symptom to reemerge off the meds was physical pain. First, it was in my feet, then my right gluteal muscle and lower back, then it spread in sciatica down the back of my left leg, then pain hit my neck. There was a time I couldn’t sit due to pain. I could only lie down, knees up, feet flat or stand, leaning on one leg. And then there was this incredible, indescribable pain in my solar plexus, unrelated to my digestive cycle.

I was so sure I was dying, so positive, not just from the mystery pain (the doctors could not definitively find anything organically wrong with me), but from the surging energy that woke me, speeding up and down my arms like mice running as fast as they could from my biceps to my hands, the terrifying overwhelming nausea that would bring me to my knees and had no relation to stomach acidity, and the feeling of imminent physical collapse that would strike out of nowhere.

I began reading books on PTSD like crazy. (I list a lot of them in my blog post on Recommended Books on Healing.)

I discovered Peter Levine and Somatic Therapy and came to understand all about trauma energy–the original trauma energy mobilized to deal with the threat of annihilation or equivalent that essentially froze in my system when I couldn’t fight or run or later shake out and release, which is the body’s natural response after trauma and would have rebalanced my system and prevented PTSD symptoms.

I realized that for decades I’d also buried most strong emotions that my survival brain, meds, and later narcotics, were unable to block. I can only remember crying a few times between my twenties and fifties. (On occasion, I did feel overwhelming anger and rage beginning in my early-twenties, and released it, most successfully, through work-outs.)

I had so much inside of me that needed to come out and until I found ways to release it all, I was apparently going to feel it as manifested in physical pain, nausea, near-faints, and feelings of bizarre energy manically buzzing through my body.

I discovered all this talk about buried energy and pain was true one morning, when my feet woke me with burning pain. I went into the bathroom to give my poor little feeties a sea salt soak. I put my earbuds on and began listening to a new sixties playlist I’d created, and suddenly began sobbing like a baby. I couldn’t believe how much I was crying–and without any idea what exactly I was crying about. When I was done, to my surprise and delight, I realized my feet didn’t hurt anymore. And I hadn’t put them in the sea salt bath!

I think the Other Side gave me the paradigm for my future healing that morning. I had to begin releasing the sadness–the feelings of anguish, abandonment, loneliness, and grief from my childhood, and in response to the sad waste of numb and despairing decades alone that followed.

In the last three and a half years, some of the things I did to release that old buried trauma and emotional energy included Somatic Therapy, soul retrieval with a shaman, Trauma Releasing Exercises, mindful meditation, and sessions with an energy healer and chiropractor.

And I cried.

I cried me a river day after day after day. Then one day, all the physical pain was gone, all the nausea, near faints and bizarre buzzing energy were gone, and the sadness became very faint.

And man, it was just in time! As soon as I got rid of all those symptoms, the family emergencies hit the fan. And, of course, we made our decision to move cross-country.

So I am tired. There’s no doubt about it. I still have sleep issues, but they’re better. I usually sleep every night now. I am frequently hypervigilant, but it’s not as bad as it used to be. And although I have digestive-related discomfort, that seems to be improving rapidly, too.

Today I feel so grateful for how far I’ve come. I like this new feeling of hope for the future.

Hooray!!

 

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: PTSD and Smoking

My earliest memories of cigarettes are wonderful.

I remember my parents and aunts and uncles hanging out in one of the apartments of the Chicago three-flat we all lived in once upon a time. There was so much laughter and music and dancing and joy. The beautiful, old, high-ceilinged living-rooms smelled of cigarette smoke, liquor, coffee and perfume. Music always played in the background–bossa nova or cool jazz or the new hip sounds of Motown. The sixties were beginning to swing!

Another memory from that period is of sitting beside my dad on the steps of the back porch at night when he’d have an after-dinner cigarette. I sat enrapt by his stories of the war, of being a boxer, of all the different jobs he’d had like working in the Chicago stockyards and even the opera! I’d look up at the stars and imagine having thrilling adventures of my own someday. I loved the smell of his Kools. I felt so safe. So safe.

After we moved away and the trauma years began and ended, I was thirteen and a freshman in high school. It was an all-girls school. I was surprised and thrilled when some of the cool crowd evinced interest in me. (I’d become a loner by the eighth grade.) One day, in the woodlands area near school, my new friends taught me how to inhale cigarette smoke. I’ll never forget the feeling that first inhale gave me, that little high. I felt wonderfully dizzy and suddenly better than my normal self–transformed, sophisticated, hip. I bonded over cigarettes every day with these girls who would become my best friends.

The years went by.

I became addicted to other things–liquor and drugs–and quit both, but I kept smoking.

It had become part of the fabric of my life. It was a familiar wake-up in the morning, a reward when I worked hard and needed a break, company while I watched TV, a custom after meals, a consolation when things went bad. But primarily, I now see, I used it to soothe me, to comfort me, to calm me down–something I never learned to do myself.

When I moved in with Jack nine years ago, I quit smoking.

Shortly afterwards, painful sores appeared all over my tongue and gums. It hurt so bad, I couldn’t eat. I also got a terrible stabbing pain in my ear drum, my throat and tongue swelled up and an assortment of other bizarre symptoms from the neck up.

I went to six doctors. No one could diagnose it.

An oral surgeon checked the sores for cancer. Oh man, did I get sick from that surgery. No cancer, though.

Finally, a nurse told me, in confidence, that in my case–the cigarettes used to kill all the bad bacteria in my mouth and now that I wasn’t smoking, I was infested with the bad bacteria. She said this happens to a small percentage of people who quit.

I smoked a cigarette when I got home, another that night and one in the morning, and within forty-eight hours, all the sores and other symptoms disappeared.

I didn’t need to inhale that smoke, though. I could have just puffed one every morning and gotten the same result.

I’m trying to quit smoking again because my throat burns all the time. I also had two dreams where I was explicitly told I need to stop smoking now. I’m not too worried about getting the bad bacteria again because I’ve learned about natural antibiotics like garlic and I’m sure supplements like that would help me.

I went cold turkey the first twenty-four hours and thought I’d go out of my mind

I became immediately aware of how tense my stomach became without smoking and how the feeling intensified as the hours went by. I felt uncoordinated and kind of jerky in my movement, even a little paralyzed or frozen. I felt scared, too.

The second day I had two cigarettes and I’ve been keeping it at that.

I Googled “PTSD and cigarettes” and sure enough, a good percentage of people with PTSD smoke cigarettes (as well as drink alcohol, abuse substances and/or eat) in an effort to keep uncomfortable feelings down and maintain some kind of equilibrium or balance.

I realize now the primary feeling I keep down with cigarettes is fear.

Sigh.

I’m still self-medicating–only it’s with cigarettes now. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life depending on something outside of myself to fix the inside of myself. If I’m going to completely quit smoking, I need to be willing to be uncomfortable for an unpredictable length of time. That’s how I quit drinking, tranquilizers and pain pills. I was willing to feel bad for a while.

I’ve been doing the breathing exercises more often (ten-minute sets of pranic breathing) and working out more strenuously. I’m doing meditative work with my tummy, asking the energy that condenses there, What is your source? How can I release you?

The good news is I’ve been sleeping better and my throat doesn’t burn now.

But will I ever be able to say goodbye for good?

I don’t know. I’m going to try.

I associated cigarettes with love and happiness long ago. Then for many solitary years, cigarettes felt like my only friend. They were always there for me.

But now…they feel unsafe. So unsafe.

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As I continue throwing out and packing up in preparation for our big move out west, I found more illustrations I never used for My Husband’s Toes.

At one point, the toes told me they felt no girl toes would ever be interested in them without hair, so I created toupees for them. (Jack sure was surprised when he woke up and found all the hair on his feet!)

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Here’s another one where I cleansed the aura of a toe who’d been feeling down.

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Life isn’t so stressful when I can laugh or be absurd.

Among My Souvenirs: Drugs, Nervous Breakdowns and Miss Bunny

I’ve been going through closets and boxes and throwing out stuff in anticipation of our move out west.

I am so excited!! Mountains!! Wide open spaces!! Billions of stars visible at night!! (I can only see one from our downtown Chicago high-rise.) Peace and quiet!! Sunny over 300 days a year!!! No more snow!! Close to Sedona and other areas loaded with positive energy and healers galore!!! No more sirens night and day (we’re one block from a big hospital). No more construction noise. (They built five high-rise buildings around ours in the last six years.) No more crazy traffic!! And all this at half the rent we’re paying now!!

I read a decluttering article where the author said, “If you aren’t sure you want to keep something, bring it up to your heart and ask, ‘Does this bring me joy? If not, toss.’”

I think that’s a good rule of thumb, but I am keeping some things that don’t necessarily bring me joy, but are important or dear to me for other reasons.

For example, I found some cartoons I drew in the 90’s and I love them because they remind me of how far I’ve come and that’s such a good feeling.

At that time, I was working sixty-hour weeks in a high-pressure, deadline-driven job. I’d look so forward to the weekends. I always had the feeling that if I could just get enough quality sleep and relaxation, I’d feel better again. But I never did. I usually felt either numb or in despair. It was an empty, sad, isolated life without meaningful relationships or any sense of wellbeing.

For a couple years, I did enjoy synthetic well-being with narcotics, but then my tolerance became too great and no amount of drugs made any difference. I just took them so I wouldn’t get sick.

Getting off them was the beginning of healing, but it sure wasn’t a smooth, easy road.

About four years into my sobriety, I had a nervous breakdown. I wrote about it in my short-read Startle: A True Story of PTSD and the Paranormal. One reason I fell apart was because my PTSD meds stopped working and I couldn’t sleep much anymore. I shudder to remember what I went through. But the good news is, not only did I get through it, but that’s when Jack came into my life. Hooray!!

When I got off the PTSD meds three and a half years ago, all the physical pain I knew in my twenties came back.

But now, thank God, all that’s gone, too.

When I look at this picture below, I think, Poor Miss Bunny. She had such a sad life and didn’t know why or have a clue as to how to fix it. So much more pain was on the way. If I could go back through time, I’d give her a big hug and tell her someday, she’ll understand exactly what happened to her when she was little and why she became the bunny she did.

And then I’d tell her if she only holds on, one day, when she least expects it, she’ll find love and eventually move far, far away to a beautiful land with mountains and horses and billions of stars in the sky each night.

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