I am actually a bit amazed with myself just now. Why? At the risk of hubris, and underwhelming any reader who has not lived with PTSD personally or cared about someone with PTSD, here is today’s big achievement in my own PTSD healing journey:
Not With My Back to the Wall
As I write this I am sitting in a coffee shop. I usually try to go out once a week, by myself, and drink a cup of coffee among strangers. I try to immerse myself in reading or writing.
My weekly forays have a few goals:
- Last at least thirty minutes without PTSD hyper-alertness overwhelming me.
- Not allow other people’s noise, jostling, movement, and/or rudeness to ignite my (mostly) dormant anger.
- Not allow my heightened sense of physical vulnerability to result in clenching my jaws so tightly as to break an already cracked tooth.
I have not managed to do this outing every week this year, but it is my working plan. Usually, I do manage to last at least thirty minutes and at other times have even lasted an hour…Gadzooks! It’s not exactly on par with completing an Ironman Triathlon, but I have learned to take my victories where I find them.
Okay…so far, so good!
Sitting that Extra Mile! Go Team!
But WAIT! If you order now, we will throw in a singular new achievement for this week’s coffee shop foray at no extra charge! I can’t walk an extra mile (I mean, c’mon, I can barely walk for five minutes in a row…must keep realistic about some things!), but today I can sit an extra mile, so to speak.
I am currently sitting in a coffee shop without my back to the wall! I am sure there is a wall back there somewhere, but it is not touching my back or my chair. People are actually walking behind me, some making noise as they go.
And, even worse from a PTSD point of view, some people moving behind me are trying to be quiet.
When I am with the handful of people I trust I can sit this way because I know they got my back, or as one of my friends who served a couple of tours in Iraq puts it, “I got your Six.”
I cannot remember the last time I sat in the middle of a coffee shop or restaurant amongst strangers with no one to cover my back. It is kind of exhilarating and scary all at the same time…it is also producing some hyper-alertness stress that I am bleeding off by writing this narration.
The writing process can help me bend the focus of my mind and body away from those people moving behind me. It is kind of like trying to pry two steel plates welded together apart with a curling iron…what a strange image, your mileage may vary.
And, the cherry on top of today’s foray into the wilds of a Milwaukee coffee shop is that I even got up once from typing into this Samsung Chromebook (Samsung should send me a dollar for that shameless product placement on my part) and got a coffee refill without feeling so anxious that I had to pack everything up and carrying it with me and then find a place to sit and get going all over again. This act of not packing up and carrying all my gear has certainly amplified my sense of vulnerability and has rendered me even more nervous than usual when I am out and about. Not packing up all my gear means that I experienced heightened vulnerability in two locations at the same time: First, myself; and Second, my gear. But, I managed it and made it back without too much added stress.
Granted, as I walked over to get my coffee refill, only four or five meters physically separated me from my gear. Four or five meters to people who possess no clue about PTSD will seem like nothing. To me, it felt like I was way past the wire, at night, hearing dogs growl, and me with no weapon and no one covering my back.
For people who remain ignorant about PTSD, what I wrote above will come across as no big deal and some may wonder how I can be such a coward. Yet, for those who have danced with the PTSD Dragon, well they understand why my heartbeat is elevated just now and why I am sweating so much in an air-conditioned coffee shop. I feel as if I have been running sprints without the sometimes euphoric rush of sustained physical exertion.
Reclaiming My Life an Inch at a Time
Our PTSD seeks to cripple us in so many ways: physically, psychologically, and spiritually. So far, today, while it is indeed stressing me, my PTSD is not succeeding in destroying me. Today I experienced I can push back against the PTSD and get a little more, another inch, of my own life, my own identity back. I doubt I would be able to do this every day on demand, but now I do know that I can do it sometimes. That’s progress, that’s a touch more healing, it is a realization of hope and a reason to keep hope alive for myself and others.
Someone new just came into the coffee shop…with a crying baby…another one of my PTSD triggers…time to take that last swallow of coffee, declare victory, and leave.
Don’t give up your hope. There will be good days and bad days. And there will be the especially good days where we seize back some of our authentic identity from PTSD, maybe only an inch at a time. As we accumulate those inches they teach us that the bad days are not the new normal; we need never surrender to them.
Those newly explored inches reconfirm that our image is not the cruddy sludge of PTSD, but that we contain the Imago Dei, the Image of God. Our lives and the lives of those around us are created in the image and likeness of God (See Genesis 1). That gives us eternal worth and value no matter what. It justifies our hope.
Crying baby…gotta run (metaphorically)!! Semper Pax, Dr. Z