Living Wholeheartedly With PTSD

I made a conscious decision to live wholeheartedly about eight months ago and that journey has forced me to completely re-evaluate my coping strategies, how compartmentalized my life had become, and find courage. What does it mean to live wholeheartedly? For me, it meant accepting every part of myself, to embrace the parts that are hard to like and understand, and see how they make me stronger. I wanted to stop hiding, stop denying, stop fighting an internal war I was never going to win and become more comfortable in my own skin–whatever that skin looked like.

Everything’s OK

If you asked me six or eight months ago what it was like living with PTSD I would’ve shrugged. Not so bad. I would’ve emphasized the “mild” aspect of my PTSD diagnosis and maybe even smiled. Everything was OK. I was OK. If you asked me if I felt safe… Well, that’s an entirely different question.

But in hindsight, I see that I quit my last part time job was because I found the work environment intolerable — more correctly, my PTSD found it intolerable. That’s probably true of every job I’ve ever quit, and the church I left. Those environments ceased to be safe.

What Does “Safe” Mean?

Safe means predictability. Safe means I can walk into a situation or group of people and know what they expect of me and be relatively assured I can predict their reactions to things. Safe means my voice will be heard. Safe means everyone is in control of their emotions and words.

**pulls out soapbox** I don’t agree with allowing people to remain in positions of influence and power in the church or faith-based charity work if there’s an acknowledged issue with anger management. Period. Without exception. No excuses. Regardless of circumstance or outside stressors. Everybody gets angry, but these people present a pattern, a consistent reliance on anger (and all it’s various passive-aggressive forms) as a coping mechanism. **puts box away**

I’d never before challenged my PTSD. When my body told me to run, I obeyed. But the truth is I wasn’t managing PTSD, I was avoiding anything that would set it off. There were parts of myself that I locked away because I didn’t like how they made me feel, how others looked at me when those parts came out.

Finding Courage

I joined a six week crossfit challenge which I had to bail on less than two weeks in because my PTSD made it intolerable. (read about that here) One event at crossfit put me in a multi-week emotional tailspin that eventually forced me to withdraw almost completely from society in order to patch up my heart enough to get back to living. I shed so many tears my pup learned to give hugs. *smile*

Upside-down cuddles from my pup, Watson.

But I was convinced this wholehearted living experiment had merit.

I’d wanted to try Aikido (a type of martial art) for years, so decided to face my fears. I’ve been going for three months and until recently had a panic attack nearly every time. I sweat profusely (way more than the activity or environment warrants), I start shaking, and then I lose the ability to speak (I’m not mute, but my brain shuts off – I can’t think logically). Then the tears begin. Not sobbing, just silent tears, tears that reflect the private war I refuse to acknowledge or retreat from.

Because of the panic attacks, my thinking became muddled at times, to the point where I can’t work for several days. I was exhausted. I spaced out, just lost time staring into space without realizing it. My resting heart rate began to climb (thanks Fitbit). My emotions, usually pinned down quite firmly, felt wildly out of control. Things weren’t getting better, they were getting worse.

So I went back to counselling.

**When you feel out of control, when you begin to experience these symptoms, sticking your head in the sand doesn’t help. Pulling up your big girl panties won’t help. Find a professional experienced in treating trauma who can lean in and offer tangible helps. You don’t have to live like that. It’s debilitating. Exhausting. Hopeless.**

Was Aikido going to help me? Was I beating my head against the proverbial brick wall for nothing. The counsellor went silent for a moment and then smiled. Aikido, forcing myself into situations that cause panic attacks regularly, probably isn’t going to help my PTSD. Additionally, no matter how long I go to Aikido, the panic attacks may never recede. I might not receive any healing this side of heaven. #sadtruth

But God led me to this. God led me to this group, this Aikidi Budo, so I’m sticking with it. The counselling has helped me extend myself more grace and allow myself to take a break sooner so I’m not a wreck afterwards. I pace myself better. I give myself permission not to go if I’m not feeling strong.

I tested for my yellow belt and cried through half the test. *smile* A yellow belt is really just an award for showing up, but for me that’s a legitimate achievement.

Why keep going then?

Fair question. I’m going partly because I’m planning a trip to Ireland and Iceland in the fall and I need to have the confidence to walk into a new situation and know I can get out if I need to. But God is showing up and using it for so much more than that. I’m learning not to be afraid of my own emotions, of my reactions. I’m learning to accept that those emotions are valid given my history. I’m becoming more self-aware. I’m learning limits instead of avoiding things entirely.

HIking is my new therapy.

When Strong Men Lean In

Aikido has taught me that everything from my past can be used as a positive — to make me stronger. Was it a good thing–the trauma that happened to me? No. But I am in control of my own body. I’m in control of how it moves, how it reacts, and who I allow close enough to touch me. I decide that. Aikido reinforces that. Every man there reinforces that I have that right.

During one lessons in my first month, Sensei J was leading the class. Tears streamed down my cheeks, but I pushed through the fear. I wasn’t going to let it win.

Sensei J noticed me and said, “Smile! This is fun.”

I shook my head because I couldn’t get words out. No. No part of this was fun. Not a single f–ing moment of it. (I’d sent a brief email before I started and let Sensei J know of my struggle with PTSD.)

He stepped in and stopped my training. The class continued as though nothing was going on. Sensei J held out his hands and I understood that he wanted me to hold his hands. But they were big. Bigger than mine. Too big. Big enough to make me do things I didn’t want to do.

“Take my hands,” he said. (He has an authority to his voice, like in his younger years he was a police officer or fire fighter.)

Tears stream anew down my face. I obey because… (well, that’s another blog post)

“You’re safe. We’ll take care of you.” He held my hands tight, like a parent holds the hand of a child, and looked in my eyes and repeated himself.  “We’ll take care of you.”

And it helped. The tears stopped and I could breathe again. I’ve never had a man say that to me before.

Where one man caused trauma, another spoke life. 

From time to time, God has sent good men into my path to create a safe space. Sensei J, and a few of the others at Aikido, lend me some of their strength for a bit so it’s safe enough for me to try these techniques. They ask no questions, there’s no judgement, when I need to sit out. They applaud my small victories. “Did you see that? I went a whole class without a panic attack.”

Sensei J: I did. Good job! This is a safe space. Everybody here wants the best for you. You’re safe.

This is absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m not a therapist or a counsellor – I can’t recommend what I’m doing as a valid course of action at all. But I know that God is in this, in this season, with these men. I know that by embracing the parts of myself I previously shunned, that I’m stronger for it.

Are You Brave Enough To Lean In?

When I tell people that I have PTSD, the most common reaction is silence. They don’t know what to say, they don’t want to say the wrong thing so they say nothing. They stare. They physically take a step backwards (likely unknowingly). They tiptoe around me afterwards.

**It’s hard, right. Leaning in is hard. If you asked me in the moment how you could help, I probably couldn’t tell you. But, from a safe place, I can say that just having someone sit with me would help. Making me laugh might help. Don’t ask me about my feelings, don’t touch me. Just sit. So I’m not alone. But that answer might change in a few months.**

But you know what? Jesus leaned in. He used his strength to create safe spaces. To listen to those who no one else listened to. To see those no one wanted to see. People like me. People who keep supplies on hand to bind up the broken bits over and over and over.

I might have PTSD, but I’m still of use to God. I have value. I am loved. And in the moment, when PTSD makes life really hard, that’s easy to forget. Maybe being open about this struggle makes people uncomfortable, unsure, fearful. Maybe I’ll get emails from friends or even family telling me I need to keep my struggles to myself.

But maybe it helps a few begin to believe they’re not alone. Maybe it gives someone that small nudge towards life, towards reaching out for hope. To see a light at the end of a tunnel.

Life was much easier when I compartmentalized my PTSD. And there’s no judgement at all if that’s what you need to do. None at all. I managed my PTSD that way for ten years. But in this season, for me, I’m leaning in.

Because there’s a plan and a purpose and a place for my story, for me to lean in and see God use this to make disciples. And God’s got a plan and a purpose and a place for whatever your story equips you for too. I don’t know what that will look like, when it will come, or who it will reach, but those experiences–that hurt, will not be wasted.

Be brave my ezer-warrior friends!

What are you afraid of taking a step towards? What’s holding you back from whatever God’s calling you to do?

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