In the previous essay, I jabbered on about anniversary dates for PTSD triggers and the transitions we go through as the results of the sorrows and joys in our lives. Part of the PTSD journey, part of our own individual sanctification journey, involves learning to identify which dates are potential PTSD anniversary triggers. When we know what dates to watch out for we can then get on with the process of exorcism and sanctification for those anniversaries.
The previous essay is located at PTSD Spirituality: Anniversary Dates, Transitions, Triggers. You don’t have to read it first, but it might provide further context for some readers.
Identifying PTSD Anniversary Triggers
For whatever reason, certain anniversary dates can trigger our PTSD. Initially finding out what date(s) comprise those trigger dates is often like searching for landmines by wearing snow shoes in a minefield. You will certainly know it when you find one. When we discover that a certain date is a PTSD Anniversary Trigger then we know to be more careful on that date in the future. If we are lucky enough to have someone we deeply trust, then we can share that date and they can help us through it. (Safety Tip: Don’t wear your snowshoes in a minefield!)
We Need to Exorcize Our Triggers
Egads! Exorcisms?! Do we need Mike Oldfield to play Tubular Bells while we read this? (Hat tip to those old enough to get the reference!) Twentieth Century discography aside, exorcism is a category that works when considering PTSD Triggers and how to live well in spite of them.
Cases of possession in the New Testament by unclean spirits and subsequent exorcisms can be understood in terms of Right Relationships. It is also worthwhile to remember that the opposite of a Right Relationship is an Alienated Relationship. One can also consider these relationships as either properly ordered or dis-ordered relationships. To engage some of the New Testament language, one can also think in terms of Clean and Unclean. A couple of exorcism examples are Mark 1:23 and Mark 5:2. This sort of purity-relationship language is also seen when the leper ask Jesus to make him “clean” (Mark 1:40)(Spoiler: Jesus does).
Exorcism stories in Mark’s Gospel tend to use the words “Unclean Spirit” when describing someone who has been possessed. We also see it in the healing story at Mark 1:40. The word “unclean” has some of the following meanings: dirty, impure, stained, not properly mixed.
When someone is attacked by an unclean spirit, it seeks to make them dirty, stained, impure, and to alienate relationships. You might say it attempts to mix them up, make them not really know who they are anymore.
More importantly, the goal of an unclean spirit’s attack is to disrupt our relationships with God, our Self, our Communities, and the Creation itself.
When Jesus performs an exorcism, he cleanses the victim of the unclean spirit. The person is restored to engage healthy, positive, right relationships.
We see this occur in the various individual exorcism stories in the New Testament. In a broader sense a cleansing occurs for everyone in the death and resurrection of Jesus. One can also receive this sense of cleansing in the sacraments of the Church. As long as human beings have their free will and access to daytime television we will sin and be sinned against, we’ll be damaged and in need of cleansing and restoration. Fortunately, our sanctification journey allows us to seek grace and reconciliation.
Assuming we are fortunate enough to know some of the anniversary dates which activate our PTSD what can we do?
How Do We Sanctify These Anniversaries to Minimize Damage?
In almost every case, whether we realize it or not, we mark important transition anniversary dates with some sort of behavior.
Essentially, we will “celebrate” a PTSD Anniversary date in a positive or negative way, in a healthy way or a diseased way.
The anniversary date of a traumatic event represents a transition date for us, a time with a clear before and after. Before we were one sort of person, afterwards we are another sort of person. The PTSD seeks to amplify the negative; it desires to render us unclean and to disorder our healthy relationships. We are especially vulnerable to these amplifications on the anniversary dates of a traumatic event.
Negative Celebrations have two purposes: First, they seek to make us numb and unfeeling to traumatic memories. Second, they are utilized as self-fulfilling prophecies about how worthless we have become. Negative celebrations include such things as abusing drugs (legal or illegal), self-cutting or self-burning, drinking too much, imbibing porn, cheating on spouse or partner. Oh yes, by the way, having an Ashley Madison account but saying you never hooked-up with someone is kind of like saying you smoked reefer but didn’t inhale (Looking at you, Mr. Rader).
The aim in the negative celebrations may be to try and abrade away traumatic memories, to create a sufficient distraction to momentarily not be subjected to intrusive memories. In cases of self-harm, the aim is to sometimes be in control of the pain yourself. Frequently, the PTSD succeeds in making us feel unworthy and unredeemable. Negative, unhealthy, behaviors such as affairs and porn are engaged so as to prove to ourselves and others just how worthless we really are (or just trying to feel something, no matter how briefly). Of course, these destructive, unclean, celebrations alienate us further from our healthy relationships.
Positive Celebrations help us to realize we have value, that we are not worthless. They help us to realize that others have value and that life is not pointless. They also are moments which enhance our relationships with God, our Self, our Communities, and the Creation. At the roots of positive celebrations are grace and love.
These positive celebrations can be harder to embrace than negative celebrations. They require some hope and some willpower, and sometimes even trust.
At the risk of oversimplification, it’s easier to tumble down a mountain than it is to climb a mountain.
And, our culture does not strongly encourage us to make a commitment to the positive and the healthy.
Through positive celebration we try to reconfigure the affect the traumatic anniversary date has upon us. We live with the fact that the date is a reminder of a major life transition for us, but we endeavor to change how it molds our life today. We seek to limit the amount of damage it can further inflict upon us.
We purposely try to imprint something positive over a negative anniversary date. We endeavor to take that date back for ourselves and not let PTSD use it to make us miserable.
Through positive celebration we are like a decontamination team that is cleansing an unclean area and making it livable again.
Almost any creative or loving act can help can help us to “overwrite” all or portions of a PTSD anniversary. Why is that?
Creativity and love are not merely mundane acts. They are moments that encompass both the natural and supernatural realms.
Some traumas strike us more deeply, more supernaturally, than others. Healing requires not only physical medicine but also spiritual medicine.
Creativity is an activity which can have a natural and a spiritual component. When we engage creativity we are engaging in a cosmic activity, an action that is more than the mundane paint, or film, or clay, or words, or musical notes, that we lay down in the natural world.
The subject matter of our creativity is almost a matter of indifference. Even a dark subject matter can be illuminating if it allows us to bring in (frequently non-verbal) a new understanding of our existence, including the past traumas that damaged us. Maybe we write about the rape or the repeated molestations we suffered. But, then again, maybe we don’t. Painting a still life of some flowers or fruit can be just as healing to the soul as writing a graphic narrative of our past traumas. Each are valid expressions, moments of creativity, that can help us exorcise our past and better enable us to enjoy healthy relationships.
As we engage our creativity, perhaps taking some risks by exposing our own personal vulnerabilities, we can alleviate and heal some of the pain and horror that still gnaws at us on certain traumatic anniversary dates.
The creative act is a moment of possibility, a moment of transition to healing.
Yet even more powerful than that is love. If you like a little Bible Bingo, then one can quickly glance at John 3:16, 1st Corinthians 13:1-13, and 1st John 4:7, in order to see the wide depth, beauty, and possibility, of love and how it exists beyond the merely mundane, physical, world.
If we have love, we can withstand nearly anything. Is it any wonder why PTSD seeks to render us unclean, to pollute our relationships, and isolate us?
So, how do we exorcize and sanctify our PTSD anniversary dates?
We do so by engaging creativity and love. If we are deprived of our loved ones we are more vulnerable. If we are deprived or discouraged from the opportunity to be creative, then we are at greater risk.
If we can make a point of engaging in some form of creativity on one of our anniversary dates, then we stand a better chance of healing. If we are in a loving relationship we stand a better chance to “write” over all or some of the negative alienation that PTSD attempts to inflict upon us.
Your Mileage May Vary
Sometimes we may experience great relief from our symptoms when we are able to reconfigure particular anniversary dates…but, not always. Since we are working on a topic that includes the natural and the supernatural we cannot expect simple mechanical results. We are dealing with individuals, you and I, for example, and we bring a wide range of experience and possibility to the healing of the PTSD soul wound.
There are times when I can head off or reconfigure some of my PTSD symptoms by being purposefully creative. These days, if I pick up my guitar and spend some time trying to understand DADGAD tuning, I find that my PTSD symptoms are not as fraught as before I picked up the guitar.
A couple of weeks ago I had another set of unfortunate dog encounters and it made life very difficult for me. Some of my background includes trauma from feral dogs. Dogs, while wonderful animals and sometimes quite beautiful, can activate symptoms for me. I got home and was shaking too much to even hold the guitar. It will be a while before I can be around unfamiliar dogs.
On the other hand, my wife recently helped to reconfigure an anniversary date for me. In the month of August I have a couple of days that are pretty hard to get through. Why is that? Because when I was overseas, years ago, I had a lot of near-death moments in August with one day standing out to me in particular. Since then, when the anniversary date shows up, I am more vulnerable to my PTSD. I may have intrusive memories, I may get the shakes and stutter, have some nightmares, I might become more easily confused that usual, I may look like someone who has spent too much time forced to watch daytime television…yeah, ugly stuff!
I am very fortunate that I have been able to talk about some of these things with my wife. I am also fortunate that she does not expect a police forensics report of the events. She listens and takes in as much as I am able to share at any given time. She does not prod me for more information or try to dig past the level I am able or willing to share. And, most importantly, she does not judge me.
Thankfully, she does not label me as either a hero or a coward. She just acknowledges that I was a soldier.
This year, when the anniversary date rolled around, my wife gave me a small gift, an early birthday present. Her creative act of love reconfigured the entire day for me. This year that anniversary was not dominated by memories of the day I almost bought the farm when I was a soldier. Instead, this year, that day was the day she gave me a nice gift.
Did the gift make all the memories go away and vanish? Nope. But it helped to redeem a day in my life that for a few decades has not been of much use to me. Usually that date would be a day to hunker down and possibly get sick or engage in unhealthy activities.
PTSD seeks to take all of our days and drag them through the gutter. It wants to damage us and tries to get us to further damage ourselves through negative celebrations.
PTSD desires us to engage in activities that would further alienate us from God, our Self, our Communities, and the Creation itself.
It does not have to happen that way. We can survive and thrive.
We need to discover if we have anniversaries of traumatic experiences that continue to intrude on our present life. When we can identify them, then we need to exorcize them, and sanctify them.
By refusing to engage in Negative Celebrations we exorcise the anniversary date.
By purposefully engaging in Positive Celebrations through seeking creativity and love we sanctify the anniversary date.
An act of exorcism is also an act of sanctification whereby we seek to get rid of the unclean and become sanctified. We seek to expel the profane and to embrace the holy. Each time, it is unique…because you are unique.
This is no easy journey we are on. But, it is a very worthwhile journey.
Sometimes we will falter. We will lose hope or feel too worthless and engage in alienating behaviors. It happens, don’t give up.
Depending on the depth of the negative behaviors, maybe you need to make some heartfelt apologies to yourself and others, or maybe you need to get some professional help to combat substance abuse. But it is only a setback, we get back on the horse and pursue the love and grace which makes our lives worthwhile. The only way we fail is if we quit.
Your life is valuable. You, yourself, are extremely valuable.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z
[On a side note: I meant to have this written and posted shortly after the previous post. I then got hit with a stomach bug. It has been a great way to lose weight, or something. I spent part of last night “Talking to Ralph on the Big White Phone.” I look forward to when this ailment passes and I begin to mend. This all means I lost my usual two good hours a day from that bug and I was unable to write. I’m trying to get back to posting regular essays again, but my stomach had other plans!]