Hope in an Uncertain World, Healing the Mind, Body, and Soul

Tag: help

A Letter to A Survivor

From A Survivor

Right now you are in shock. You’re broken, numb, and wondering what just happened. You’re questioning everything. You’re life no longer makes sense. You are desperately trying to undo what has happened, but you know that you will never be able to undo this. You understand that your life has been forever changed. Tomorrow you will have to return to life in some capacity. You cannot comprehend how everyone else’s worlds did not just shatter like yours did. You are wondering how you will ever breathe again, let alone go back to a “normal” routine. As you lay your head down tonight, you wonder if you will ever sleep again, whether or not you will be consumed by nightmares, and if you will ever be OK again.

What you won’t hear from most people, especially those who have never survived these horrible things, is that, you’re not supposed to go back to being who you were before. Witnessing and surviving most people’s nightmares should leave you questioning everything. It is the people who are not changed by trauma that are the most unhealthy and detached. The truth is that the life you lived before you survived is no longer there. You are not the same, you will never be the same, you will never go back to the way it was before. And that is ok. It’s completely healthy, normal, and human. Embracing these truths rather than trying to live in the before, is what will allow you to heal. To finally be OK again.

After Columbine, being a senior, my classmates and I had to navigate this nightmare without any resources or connections. We were simply dismissed and ignored while the rest of the school were given everything they could ever need. Because of this, we had to learn how to survive on our own. I had to learn what was wrong with my by doing research and studying my psychology text books. I had to learn what treatments were most effective for Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or PTSD that has been compounded by additional traumas. No one knew how to help us. No one knew what to do, so they just ignored the problems and let us flounder alone. The result of that, for me, was a 5 year dissociative black-out in which I have very few memories and essentially existed without any cognitive or coherent life. Some of my classmates succumbed to addictions or resigned themselves to be barely functional for the rest of their lives. Some of my classmates founded The Rebels Project, which is a non-profit that provides those resources we never had to other survivors of mass shootings.

Right now, you don’t really care about any of that because you are in the middle of your nightmare, not 20 years removed from it. But you will care soon, the numb will wear off, and you will start to feel everything. It will feel like every thought, emotion, body sensation, is magnified exponentially, and you will again start to question everything, hope for something to change, but wonder if you will ever get out of the black cloud that surrounds you. You are now part of a community of survivors, a community that we never asked for, never wanted, but desperately need. You will need people who know exactly what you went through, people who are struggling like you, people who have healed and taken back the life that evil threatened to destroy. This is why The Rebels Project and trauma specialists exists. So that you never feel alone in this journey to reclaiming your life and healing.

This is why I wrote my book, Healing the Invisible Wounds of Trauma: A Columbine Survivor’s Story, and why I am a certified trauma specialist working in private practice. My path to healing and regaining my life was more difficult than was necessary. I do not want you or anyone else to have to suffer more, or for longer, than you already have. I want you to know that you:

  • are not crazy
  • are not alone
  • are not a monster 
  • you are completely normal
  • that you are responding exactly as you should when you survive a nightmare
  • that there is absolutely hope for the future

You can heal, you can break free and regain the life that was taken, you can be OK again.

Those of us who are part of this not so exclusive community of mass shooting survivors have been there before, or are just beginning the journey towards healing. If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else. Not every treatment for PTSD works for everyone. That is OK if some things don’t work for you but work for another. We are unique, we are individuals whose response to trauma is influenced by our past, our perceptions, and our life experiences. No one will react or respond the same way, even if they were right next to you and experienced the exact same thing you did.

The most important thing you can do now, is take care of yourself. Sleep if you need to, get away if you need to, cry if you need to. It is not selfish to put your healing above other things that used to dominate your life. Reach out. Do not suffer alone or in silence. You are not alone. 20 years ago, there was nothing. Now, we know how to heal from trauma. Those of us who are both survivors and counselors have made it our mission to reach those who are suffering and who have lost hope that things will ever change. There are many people and professionals, who can help you navigate this winding and bumpy road that is healing. Your family and friends may never understand what you’re dealing with, but someone else will. There is always another person to turn to, another treatment to try, another day to live.

When you wake up tomorrow, after a long night of nightmares and exhaustion, you will be OK. Tomorrow, reach out and ask for help. Don’t wait until you’re in a dark hole before you ask for help.

When you wake up tomorrow, go outside, breathe in the light of a new day, engage every sense you have to experience the world around you. Then choose to take that hard first step to reclaiming your life and healing.

Healing Requires Work and Adaptability

One of the misconceptions and myths about counseling is that there is a “one size fits all” process that when applied, will bring healing and hope to everyone. This is fundamentally flawed based on nothing more than the unique traits and individual issues that each person brings with them. People also tend to believe, or maybe hope, that when they start counseling that they will be “cured” in a matter of days or weeks. For some, this may be the case, but for most people with a history of trauma, especially complex trauma, healing may take years and sometimes there is no complete cure, but an acceptance of your new normal. While that can be daunting for a lot of people, the truth is that most people do not begin to unravel the pain and suffering they endured until many years after the trauma or abuse has stopped. This leads to years of thinking and behavior patterns that have left a mark on your subconscious. In order to heal from those, the work must be gradual and will take time. My perspective is that for this reason, only people who are truly strong and who are fighters choose to undergo this difficult and sometimes painful process in order to reclaim their lives from the darkness. Society and sometimes our own families and friends believe that seeking help for mental illness is a sign of weakness. Those people have never gone through the process of healing, because if they had, they would know that counseling, healing the scars from the past, takes an enormous amount of courage, strength, and determination. Healing is not for the weak, but for the strong. The strongest people I have ever met are those who found the courage to fight their own demons and fully embrace the process of change, no matter what it took.

Once you have decided to take that leap of faith and trust that you can find healing and peace, the process can be just as frustrating, discouraging, or frightening as the decision to enter counseling. With trauma, there are some newer techniques that are showing promise in treating the symptoms, especially intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and sleep issues, and there are some gold standards that are the first line of treatment that may not work as well for everyone. In my own journey, I have tried almost everything short of virtual reality therapy that is used with veterans suffering with PTSD. One of the gold standards, Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), where you have to actively recall the trauma during the treatment, has shown great promise for most people suffering with trauma, but absolutely did not work for me. Maybe it was because I attempted the therapy at the wrong time or maybe my brain is not wired to respond to the treatment the way it was intended. For whatever reason, I found no relief, but had worsening symptoms afterwards. So I stopped getting help because “nothing works” and I was frustrated. Fortunately, newer techniques, including medication that was not previously targeted to treat PTSD symptoms has shown tremendous promise and works for me. Two techniques that I like, the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and Splankna have allowed me to heal from the pain and trauma without having to relive what I’ve suffered. The reason these are so effective is because they acknowledge that even if the brain can’t or won’t remember all the details of trauma, your body does. Our bodies and minds were designed to respond in very specific ways to trauma and danger in order to protect our lives. While effective in the moment, long after the trauma has stopped, the body still remembers that response and the way the brain and body processed the traumatic information it was receiving. Both EFT and Splankna work on the body and mind, rather than focusing on the memories of the trauma, and as a result, allow for healing without further traumatization.

When you decide to finally break free from the bondage of trauma and the darkness that is keeping you from being who you want to be, remember that it will take a great amount of work and that the treatment you receive initially may not be the right fit for you, especially when you have complex trauma. That means you have to keep fighting for your freedom, for your healing, and that you keep searching for the thing that will work, because I promise, you will find something that works and you can be free. If you are willing to work hard and fight. Below are resources for the three above listed techniques. If these don’t work for you, there are many others that might.

Splankna: http://splankna.com

EFT: http://eft.mercola.com

EMDR: www.emdr.com

PTSD Veterans: www.ptsd.va.gov

End Of Watch

Two weeks ago I lost a coworker and a friend. His death was unexpected and left all of us trying to figure things out. One of the things done when an officer falls is an end of watch call. If you have never heard this done, I cannot express the pain and finality that comes with the silence of that final call. Follow that with a gun salute and presentation of colors to the family, and you are left exhausted, sad, and for me, reevaluating life. So often we get caught up in the to do list, the internal dialogue that tells us to keep busy, to do more, that other, more important things can wait until we’re done with our checklist. But what happens when you experience loss, an unexpected end of watch call, is that you are forced into stillness and silence. You have to stop. I left that moment with a determination to stop wasting my short and unpredictable life waiting for others to fulfill me, being frustrated with the things in my life that aren’t the way I’d hoped they would be, and to stop getting caught up in the drama of work, of life, and of other people’s messes. I don’t want to waste my life being angry, sad, and waiting for others to be part of the life I want to live. Losing a friend unexpectedly at a young age almost requires you to reevaluate what matters. To the best of my ability moving forward, I will forgive those who try to hurt me, who disappoint me and who are unable or unwilling to love. I choose to be happy, to be free of the weight of holding grudges and being angry and intolerant of others. I’m done feeling guilty for taking care of me, for slowing down and focusing on what matters, like my son, my marriage, and relationships. Which, really, in the grand scheme of things are the only things that actually matter. I will stop and rest and play and laugh, and if that means I don’t get my checklist completed, then I will be happy and my home messy, and I will be ok with that.

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