I am Grateful

This is my Story.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” – Kahlil Gibran

I am grateful.

I have survived multiple traumatic events. I will not go into the specific details of these events; they are private and I would not want to cause any reader any harm. Three of these traumatic events were very violent and very brutal. My daily goal is to live and move with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) every day, and this is my story.

I decided recently that it was time to tell my story. I hope dearly that it may help someone, somehow. It took me a while to arrive at this place, to tell my private, intimate story of my very sacred journey – from the gates of my hell to the breath of wanting to live, and live vibrantly and live well. I needed to get to this place where the weight of vulnerability and fear no longer ran the show, but rather became the fuel to survive and to want to live again, despite how dark the trail had become. Knowing that my truth, my story, must be spoken, witnessed, and shared in hopes that it may help someone else speak theirs. To help a strangled voice speak.

The first time I was able to speak my painful truth, it scorched my throat. Years of shame and fear fought desperately to come to the surface to scream. It tried to remain deeply buried in order to survive. Fear grows and becomes a beast. This battle within is what was making me sick and killing me. This inner turmoil. Yet, this was the beginning of the return of my self-worth, self-love, and desire to fight for my life and to live again, better than ever.

I did not want to have a mental illness; I flat out refused it. Before I was able to accept it (and later embrace it), I not only “white knuckled” life, but I tried “to fix” what I perceived as “my problems” on my own. I was determined to “fix” my mental illness on my own, by myself and with determination.

Before I got sick, I was a very vibrant, fit, healthy professional who had life “together”. I was married, a mother. I owned my own house, car and was in the midst of a promising career. I was hiking the mountains on the weekends, running road races and traveling. I was on top of my world and enjoying my life, not knowing what was really lurking beneath. I was to learn later that some folks with PTSD find a way of managing PTSD by “holding it together”. For me, this meant burying it and controlling the symptoms to get by.

Being unsuccessful for “fixing” my brain disease, the road to acceptance was a difficult one to say the least. I could not accept that there was something “wrong” with me. “My Way about me” had always been to plow through things – as strong as possible. I did not just go for a bike ride, I rode my bike 100 miles. I did not just do anything lightly, but with strength and determination. SHAME and Depression set in fully and began to consume me.

Being mis-diagnosed several times over a few years made my road to recovery that much longer and grueling. I was seeing more than one therapist for depression and anxiety. They wanted to treat me solely with medication over and over AGAIN to only find out later that I was unable to take them all along due to my body’s inability to metabolize them properly. This was like being on a carnival ride and not being able to get off.

My progression was slow, but steady. I started “losing” things. I started having consequences to my irrational way of reacting to life. I started self-medicating too (many people with PTSD do). I was a well-managed time bomb. I could hold it together well enough to fool enough people. I always had a rational excuse for my irrational behavior. I stayed stuck in this loop for a while – I was not getting better, I was getting worse. I became more and more depressed, depleted, and exhausted. All of my symptoms were invisible. My insides did not match my outsides, although this eventually caught up with me as my physical health did eventually deteriorate.

After a few more years, my life began to spiral out of control, physically, mentally, and spiritually. I was finally diagnosed properly with Complex PTSD. One psychiatrist finally decided to look at the whole picture and all the events that were part of my story. She was able to see that it was the complex trauma that was my primary issue and more important, that a pill was not going to “fix” it. This was an issue in my brain – it was not behavioral.  As overwhelming as this was, there was a relief with it. So much began to make sense to me and I was able to begin my acceptance process, my overall healing, and begin to live well- as a way of recovery. I now had hope.

My life had gone from being completely unmanageable to one of living in recovery and healing. Was my life what I wanted and expected it to have once been? No. Have I grown to love my life and want to live? Yes. Have I found ways to maneuver around my symptoms and find new ways to live well? Yes. Have I mastered this process? NO! I am learning more and more about myself every day, my authentic self. A self I left behind, before the trauma.

I never lost my humor – Thank God. I wish I could say I never lost hope, but I did. There was not one solution, there were many. There was not one person who helped, there were many. But it all did start with my Willingness. Despite how bleak things had become for me, I was open and willing. I believe in my heart – I truly did not want to die. My sick and analytical brain was searching for a solution for the pain to stop and had run out of ideas.

In addition to my acceptance process was also my grieving process. Once all this was moved through, I truly began to live. Live my life as it is and live it well. I think of the many years I spent in despair, darkness, helplessness, and hopelessness. When it gets that dark, one begins the distorted thinking that suicide is the solution to the problem. That is very dark. Suicide is never a solution; it is part of the brain disease that gives out distorted thought processes to match the wave of strong emotions that invites that in. Unfortunately, it is very real and very convincing.

The best analogy I can give you regarding my trauma and healing would be that of the caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The caterpillar completely breaks down, it is no longer a caterpillar, nothing of the caterpillar remains. Then comes the MUCK, the darkness, the in-between. The nothingness, the unknown. The wait. Blind Faith moves this. And after a long period in the Dark, emerges the butterfly. A full transformation occurs.

Because I tried to do this myself and was not properly diagnosed, I stayed stuck in the MUCK for a very long time. Emerging from this dark place to a whole new life in recovery has been astonishing. I do not carry the shame that bound me there any longer. I am proud of what I survived and was not lured by the whispers of suicide.

I am not who I once was, but I love who I am today and most importantly, I am excited who I am yet to be. I was not born with this trauma, but it did happen. I have a choice today. Do I let it consume, define, and kill me? Or do I find out who I really am and what it took to rise above and shine? I have come to a place to see that the wounds and the scars have made me an amazing woman. That not only have I not lost myself, I am more than I ever could have imagined myself to be. Most people don’t know what it takes to survive trauma, to come out so incredibly beautiful on the other side. The immeasurable amount of pain and fear that was involved to heal. To see past the Stigma and stand taller than that. To be able to smile and be so full of gratitude after being injured.

My daily maintenance plan includes much. Understand that my symptoms are to be managed daily – they have not gone away. It is this maintenance that determines how well I live. I am reminded very quickly when I go off the beam – symptoms appear very quickly and I can then slip rapidly into triggers and reactions that place me in survival mode (fight/flight/freeze). When I am practicing my wellness strategies things are more even keeled. I go to trauma therapy (EMDR Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) regularly and I am medication free (I am unable to use medications – this is not the same for everyone). I implement yoga, meditation, prayer, and my personal favorite – practicing GRADITUDE! I also have a healthy diet, family, supportive friends, church, support groups, good sleep (A MUST), time in nature, good hydration, etc. I do not drink alcohol. I have a job – this provides a feeling of purpose and routine. I would be volunteering if I were unable to work. I practice kindness and forgiveness.

There is no finish line. My life is a continuous healing journey, when I choose to walk on a healthy path, one of wellness – I did not say pain free, I said one of wellness. One of hope, of forgiveness, of wholeness. Of self. I am like a living document – with room for editing, change and growth. I hope you are not reading this and thinking I don’t have any low moments, I do! The difference is: my lows are few and less frequent. Before my recovery, it was the opposite, I was consumed in darkness with occasional moments of light. Due to living a life based in Recovery, it has basically flipped! From once not feeling good awake or asleep, to being grateful when I open my eyes.

Let me say again, since I have kept your attention this far, that practicing GRATITUDE has been one of the most transforming tools in my basket. No matter how dark things become, if I can practice and find a few things to be grateful for, no matter how low I feel, this shifts my whole being – and because I “practice this” regularly, I shift almost immediately. Someone once said: “There is always, always, always, always SOMETHING to be grateful for.” So, let’s become Gratitude experts together!

Our stories are different. We are different. But we are never alone. We can be kind to each other, point someone in the right direction to get help. We can help change the stigma of mental illness. We are not our mental illness; we have a mental illness. I am not Complex PTSD – it does not define me. I have it, it is a piece of me. It moves with my whole self. I embrace it. I move with it, not against it. I learn from it – I ask it what it needs. I am not ashamed of it. It is part of the whole of me.

Thank you for reading my story, it has been an honor sharing it with you. We walk this journey together. I hope you are able to share your story, too. My name is Joanne – I am so very grateful! – I am smiling as I say that. Thank you.