display | more...

I am alive.

Survival is an interesting thing. It carries with it the connotation that you are barely getting by, that you are struggling, and that you are right on the edge of losing it all. It means more than that. It means you met challenges in your life and you came out on the other side without succumbing. To survive means to eventually thrive after making adjustments and learning to function in a measurably new way.

I recently transitioned from ten years of primarily working with adolescent girls in the juvenile justice system and in psychiatric treatment facilities into working in adult detox and recovery. My new job is with a company that treats addiction as a disease rather than as a personal weakness or failure. I deal with a wide variety of patients from different backgrounds dealing with many different kinds of addictions.

People can be very resilient when they have a suport system and they struggle to the extreme without one.

One of the things patients often ask me is if I am in recovery myself. A lot of our staff are. It helps with the empathy. I give them the same answer every time.

"I'm recovering from a lot of things. Substance abuse doesn't happen to be one of them."

People in recovery can see your scars but they don't necessarily know how to interpret them. I'm not one to try to hide mine. I'm in recovery from suicide, a gambling addiction that led to complete financial collapse, living with a sociopath who tried to destroy me over the course of two years, PTSD, and I live with systemic lupus in the severe range. I don't tell my patients about any of this, but I tell them I'm in recovery from a lot of things. They tell me they can see it in my eyes.

What matters is not my specifics, but yours. How do you apply the experiences from your life's journey to survival and beyond? By framing them within the context of your life being a story you are writing in which you are the protagonist or hero/heroine. To get to where you are you overcame obstacles. Regardless of where you are now you had to overcome obstacles to get there. Of course you suffered setbacks, disappointments, and losses. There is a tendency for humans to focus on those perceived negative results of actions in interpreting current challenges. We respond emotionally to situations based on how we perceive them and by what our thoughts and reactions are to situations that remind us of past situations. We meet someone who looks at us in a certain way and immediately throw an interpretation at it based on past experiences. We may not even know why we are annoyed, angered, or whatever by the way that person looked at us but we focus on the emotional reaction rather than on what the basis for the reaction is.

People, for the most part, misunderstand the nature of triggers. They seek to avoid anything related to anything traumatic from their past and thus limit their range of experience. Triggers aren't usually what people suppose them to be. I went through therapy for my PTSD a few years ago. At the onset I didn't know what it was that was causing me to shut down. I knew I had gone through an experience at work with a client that profoundly affected me. I left work that night upset and troubled by the experience, but did not suffer the effects of PTSD until I drove to work the next day.

A couple of years earlier I had gone through a lengthy and traumatic period of emotional abuse and manipulation at the hands of a woman I cared very deeply about. It came to a head one night when she sent me out to the store for something. It was snowing that night and the storm intensified as I started down the road forcing me to turn around and return home. When I got there, my friend had cut her body repeatedly to the point where the bathroom floor and walls were covered in blood. She begged me to cut her wrists for her because she didn't have the ability to actually kill herself. Sociopaths tend to lack that particular resolve. Of course, I didn't do it and the rest of that story isn't relevant here.

What triggered the PTSD experience was not the client at my job asking me to kill her after banging her head against the wall repeatedly. It wasn't her blood. It was the drive to work the next day. Why? My brain associated driving to a place where there was a potential for trauma as the trauma. I have no trouble with blood, no trouble with attempted suicide, and no trouble with people asking me to kill them. If I did I couldn't continue to do the work I do. The belief that I couldn't continue to do the work I do combined with the PTSD caused me to have an emotional breakdown in which I stopped functioning for several months until I found a therapist and a support group to help me work through it.

I don't drive any longer. Although I am fully aware of the connection between my reactionary thoughts about past trauma and driving I prefer to find ways around having to drive. Yet, whenever I tell people the story they are considerate and compassionate as they tell me, "If we deal with anyone bleeding or trying to kill themselves I'll keep you away from it so you aren't triggered." I tell them, "I'm fine with that as long as I don't drive."

If I really wanted to, I could overcome the trigger, but the truth of the matter is that when I'm triggered as such I experience intense vertigo as part of my reaction and I don't need to be out on the road amongst other people when that happens. Working through it could make me a danger to myself and others on a level unrelated to my PTSD.

It is similar to my fear of peanut butter. I have no idea what it relates to but I prefer not to work through it simply because I find my reaction to touching or smelling peanut butter to be comical and a source of entertaining dinner conversation.

The nature of applying personal mythology to surviving difficult experiences and passages in your life works on a similar level. Don't see yourself as a victim of circumstances. Change the perspective to one of being a hero/heroine faced with a daunting challenge. You can't make pain disappear. You can't erase trauma. You cannot change events that have already happened. You can only do what you can do. Once you accept these things as true you can move forward.

I'm not a therapist but I have worked in direct care with people suffering from trauma, mostly adolescent females, for the better part of ten years. If there was one common element to every story it was that the individual was stuck in a mindset that they were a victim rather than a hero/heroine. In my experience, as long as you think of yourself as a victim you have no control over your life story. You are a casualty of someone else's. Don't be a supporting character in someone else's twisted tale. Be the protagonist of your own story. Take the power away from those who would make you a victim by refusing to be one.

The narrative works something like this, which is part of my personal mythology:

I was faced with a choice, to stay and fight for the soul of someone I believed I loved or to save my own. The sacrifice seemed noble for quite some time, but as her behavior became more violently self-destructive and the emotional abuse intensified, the reality of what was happening became impossible to ignore. I was barely functioning, hating myself and my inability to help her that I had stopped believing in the things that made me who I am. I was broken and empty, a shell of my former self, and I wasn't achieving anything other than enabling the self-destructive behavior. Then I realized it wasn't about her destroying herself. It was all a manipulation to break me down into someone she could look down on and control. She hated who I had become. Years before, in the time before my suicide, she had been able to manipulate and control me with ease. Being with me allowed her to feel superior by comparison but when we reunited this was no longer the case. So, since it was not in my nature to abandon someone in need, I got her admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment, after which I told her I was leaving and that our time together was at an end. And then I wrote into the tenets of my personal mythology the concept of excommunication, which allowed me to frame what had happened within the narrative of my life story.

And then I moved on, still carrying a great deal of grief and pain, which I worked through and thought I moved past until I discovered the lingering spectre of PTSD from my experiences with this person. It took years to work through it all but had I not been able to frame it within my mythology I would still be actively dealing with the effects of the trauma of long term emotional abuse.

It is all about reframing the narrative.

Addicts are always in recovery, even when it has been 50 years since they last used. Relapse is always lurking around the corner like a demon waiting for an invitation to tea. It is the same with trauma and traumatic grief. You have to be constantly mindful of it like the heroine who comes back regularly to check that the dragon she tamed hasn't gone looking for a village to destroy. You are the protagonist. All these things are dragons. You can never say "problem solved." This became very clear to me when I was diagnosed with systemic lupus. It knocked me on my ass for the better part of a year and every time I got up it knocked me down again. Slowly I tackled it with the help of a number of specialists, with medication, and with a changed approach to my health. I now have to be constantly mindful of my pain and fatigue levels so I do not overextend myself. Lupus is a wolf inside my body waiting for a chance to knock me on my ass again. I never take my eye off the wolf, but it doesn't control me. I went back to work full time, I moved back to Florida and live on my own, and I now enjoy a reasonably "normal" life.

There is no such thing as a normal life. Thinking there is was the primary cause of my suicide two decades ago. There is only life. There is your life. There are the lives of others. There is no model for how a life is to be lived. Be kind to others. Treat them as individuals, not as members of a group that you define as such. Give everything you can to everyone you know. Find your path, don't follow the one already traveled by others.

Know yourself. This is of utmost importance.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.