Trauma, PTSD & Me: My Long Road of Recovery, Part #2
[Disclaimer / Trigger Warning] This series discusses violence, sexual violence, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I am not a medical professional, and here I am only sharing my opinions. If you need urgent medical attention, please seek it.
As I described in Part #1, I experienced a severely violent incident in March 2021. I was determined to get over it and move on with my life as quickly as possible, but that was far easier said than done. Back home in New York, the real impacts of PTSD continued to play out in my daily life. It took months of trial and error, but slowly I learned what worked.
If I had to go through it all again, these are the 10 tips I would give myself to help in recovering from trauma:
- Go to a safe place, ASAP.
“It is critical to communicate with loved ones close and far and to reunite as soon as possible with family and friends in a place that feels safe.”
A safe place could be your aunt’s house in the mountains, your friend’s apartment, or your school library. Surround yourself with people you love and who care about you for reassurance.
My safe place was in my bed in New York. I remember feeling exposed, vulnerable and broken as I rode the subway home from the airport, carrying all my bags over the puddles of pee and torn up blankets when I changed trains at Times Square. Once I finally got back to my apartment, locked all the doors, and crawled into bed, I finally felt safe again. It was almost two weeks after the incident, and my whole nervous system could begin to calm down.
I quickly called up my friends. Having other people around was the best way to distract me, acting like a bridge between the times that I left and then returned to the comfort of my bed. Even if I didn’t feel like talking, being squished around a dinner table with my closest friends felt grounding and warmed my heart.
- Get the best, most-experienced therapist you can afford.
“Visiting the past in therapy should be done while people are, biologically speaking, firmly rooted in the present and feeling as safe, calm and grounded as possible.”
“In my practice I begin the process by helping my patients to first notice and then describe the feelings in their bodies—not emotions such as anger or anxiety or fear but the physical sensations beneath the emotions: pressure, heat, muscular tension, tingling, caving in, feeling hollow, and so on.”
It is a strength, not a weakness, to reach out for professional help. Be sure to find a therapist or mental health professional who has dealt with patients whose trauma is similar to yours. For example, my therapist Barbara specializes in PTSD and sexual trauma (see Part #1 for how I found her), as well as being licensed in CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy).
For the first few weeks I saw Barbara, I felt like I needed more than one session. Therapy is by far the most important thing that has helped me get my life back to normal. I had a lot to work on, and I knew that if I didn’t get the help I needed, it was likely that I would never have healthy, normal personal or sexual relationships ever again.
My conversations with Barbara went into depth on these questions:
a) How was this week for you?
b) Did anything trigger trauma symptoms or traumatic memories for you?
c) Where did you feel the trauma stressors in your body?
d) How might that relate to what you experienced?
Psychotherapy is not just for dealing with the trauma at hand. Barbara helped me uncover what it was that I truly wanted to do with my life and helped me rebuild my life in that direction.
- Take as much time off as you can.
Take your sick days. Max out your health insurance and medical leave policies. Take this time to heal, reground yourself and remember who you are and commit to your own trauma recovery and healing process.
A week after my incident, I went back to work and tried to live a normal life for two months. But by mid-June, it was far too much to bear. This is where having Barbara as my therapist was even more useful: she helped me take 3 months off work for medical leave, where I’d also receive some basic level of compensation from my insurance company. This gave me the time to go back to London, reconnect with my family and get back into writing fiction, which is what I decided I really wanted to do.
At first, I really didn’t think I deserved the time off, but when I wrote a letter to my insurance company about medical leave, I began to realize just how much more healing I had to do. One of my male co-workers had started texting me outside of work. We were never more than friends, and he was always kind and lovely, but I was incredibly paranoid about messaging him or being in a meeting alone with him. I realized that I was having trouble working with men, and if I wanted my work performance to improve, I had to take time and reconnect more deeply with male family and friends before I could work with him again.
- Read ‘The Body Keeps The Score’ to learn about PTSD
“The key to healing is understanding how the human organism works.”
Most of the quotes I’ve shared with you so far have been from the book The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk. It’s the bible for trauma and tells the story of a leading Harvard psychologist who helped to first diagnose PTSD in veterans. Many of my tips here are recommendations from the book, and they’ve made a huge impact on my recovery.
- Keep a list of your triggers and understand what happens when you feel them.
“Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones.”
“Kardiner understood even then [in the 1940s] that the symptoms have their origin in the entire body’s response to the original trauma.”
After my incident, I felt like I was trapped in a haunted house. In every new situation I entered, there was something unexpected which could scare the daylights out of me. These were my triggers. I often felt physical symptoms, like feeling shaky and having my heart beat really fast, and easily went into fight or flight. But as time passed, and I faced the same triggers over and over again, while they haven’t gone away completely, they now scare me less. What’s reassuring, in a messed-up way, is that my triggers resemble the incident almost exactly as it happened. They hit my whole body with a wave of physical fear, which cuts my breaths short and makes me tense.
Here are my triggers:
- Any sudden movement on my right side or over my right shoulder. Once someone on the bus sneezed in that direction behind me and my whole body jumped.
- Being alone with a man or men, especially strangers. This was very intense at the beginning, even with male coworkers and friends. For a long time, I felt safer around men with wives or girlfriends. It’s less so now, but I still don’t like it when most men talk to me. Catcalling makes me feel especially small and worthless.
- Having any man stand too close to me, sit too close to me, walk too close to me, or touch any part of my body without me explicitly asking them. Today there is a guy sitting on my right side at a shared co-working table in a coffee shop, two seats away. My body feels on edge with the right side activating along my shoulder and my arm. A lot of my attention in my peripheral vision is going towards him, even if he’s just typing on his laptop. I don’t like that he’s 4-6ft away from me.
- Men coming anywhere near my safe place. In the first weeks back in New York, some plumbers came to fix my housemate’s toilet. I was terrified when two huge men stood in my doorway, even though they were polite and there for legitimate reasons.
- Being propositioned for sex. Kind of an obvious one given what happened to me, but my whole body feels like I simultaneously want to punch the guy and hide when a guy shares that he wants to sleep with me. This is not ideal when it’s a romantic, consensual connection.
- Going on first dates. I’m still pretty terrified of people having any sexual interest in me, or if sexual connection is the underlying expectation of the interaction.
- Going running alone. Especially when I ran in the North Woods of Central Park after it happened. I still will often go the other way if I see a man and am alone on a run, no matter who it is or how far away he is.
- Going to Mexico. I went back, but to Mexico City, a year after in March 2022.
- Going for a run in Mexico, in a park. Luckily there were thousands of people that day visiting the national monuments and museums in Mexico City’s Chapultepec park.
- Holding $500MXN peso notes. This one surprised me when I got cash out from the bank but scared the shit out of me. I froze and just stood there, my hands shaking.
- [Update Aug 2023, 1.5 years post-incident. Yes, I'm still processing this.] Going anywhere known to be unsafe, especially in Mexico, or meeting up alone with people I've never met. I now live in Mexico City, but the other day I planned to meet up in an unsafe part of town to check out a recording studio with an audio technician someone had recommended to me. Right before I was about to leave my house, I started hyperventilating. My body froze, and I was literally unable to leave my house. I had to cancel the meeting with him. I stayed at home for the rest of the afternoon recovering.
As I grow to trust a guy, I can relax and enjoy feeling safe around them. But even just from writing this list, it’s clear to me that I still have a lot of work to do on my triggers. As a trauma survivor, a lot of random experiences cause me to relive parts of my experience, and it’s still affecting my well-being on a daily basis. I need to do more to understand and process them, rather than suppressing how they make me feel.
- Do yoga and meditate.
“Knowing what we feel is the first step to knowing why we feel that way.”
I’m not one to naturally do yoga or meditate, but The Body Keeps the Score talked about it so much as an evidence-based intervention and form of self-care, that I felt like I had to try it. I found this sequence focused on PTSD from Yoga with Adriene to be really helpful. In fact, when I did it the first couple times, I cried. Particularly when she instructed me to look over my shoulder and imagine Benji, her dog, behind me.
Yoga has helped me stop, listen, and pay attention to my body when everything else in my being is screaming. Still, I don’t think I’ve done quite enough of it. I still feel disconnected from my body now and then. It’s a practice that I’m going to try and do more of.
I’ve also found that self-compassion meditations can be helpful. My favorite self-compassion psychologist is Kristin Neff. Of the techniques she offers, I find holding my own hand gently and speaking to myself kindly to be very effective.
- Talk about what happened to you, whenever you feel like you need to.
“Study after study shows that having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized. Safety and terror are incompatible.”
“The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.”
As I said in Part #1, going through a traumatic experience of my sexual assault was like being handed a giant, dark, disgusting plate. But I’ve found that every time I tell my story, another shard of it is broken off. Sharing the burden of my experience with other people has been a huge coping skill for me, as has talking through my emotional response to my trauma. Because this pain, at the end of the day, isn’t ours. We were just in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Your trauma is not yours. It belongs to the human condition, and it is not yours to bear fully. Share it. Tell people you can trust what happened to you, like close family members and friends, because it will improve your mental health. And because none of us, not even our worst, imperfect selves on a bad day, deserve to shoulder that burden alone.
For the first couple of months after the incident, whenever people asked me how I was doing, I had to tell them the truth. It was so pressing in my mind, and my flashbacks were so intense, I felt like I was lying to them if I didn’t explain what was going on with me. With the severity of my PTSD for the first few months, I was barely functioning. When I became exhausted from having to explain myself, I made a short podcast episode which I sent around instead.
The most difficult part of telling other people has been dealing with their emotional reaction. But overall, it continues to be a huge way of healing for me. If I don’t want to tell them, I don’t have to. But especially when I am experiencing a trigger, it really helps to share that with someone who I’m close with and talk through what I’m feeling to better understand why. I have found this small, intimate-style support group to be really helpful wherever I go. Whether it’s a coworker or a friend, if I’m experiencing a specific trigger, telling someone else helps me feel safer and it helps me work through the effects of trauma.
As Nadia Bolz-Weber has said, “Sunlight is the great disinfectant.”
- Develop your own techniques to help you feel centered and connected to your body.
“We start by establishing inner “islands of safety” within the body. This means helping patients identify party of the body, postures, or movements where they can ground themselves whenever they feel stuck, terrified or enraged.”
While my nervous system was going haywire, I found a very simple technique to help me in the moment. I sit still, for example while riding the bus, and I close my eyes. Then I breathe in. As I take a long breath in, I pay attention to the sensation of my breath coming in through my nostrils. I pay attention to and feel the sensation along the little hairs in the bottom tip of my nose, in the center of my face. This specific kind of deep breathing helps me feel calmer.
Creating my own techniques to calm myself in the moment, though they might be similar to other meditation techniques, has helped me feel more in control of my life and my feelings. It is hard to process our emotional trauma in the minute through somatic experiencing that connects the mind and the body, but if we don’t do it, it can lead to more dissociation and delay the process of recovery.
- Consider taking magic mushrooms in a controlled and safe environment.
“Drugs cannot “cure” trauma; they can only dampen the expressions of a disturbed physiology.”
Taking mushrooms has in no way “cured” my condition. But about a year after the incident, my friend held space for me in an Albino Avery mushroom ceremony. This was helpful for taking a deep, inward look into my body. During the ceremony, I felt incredible, unbounded strength coming from my right side. My right side holds a lot of tension and trauma, and the mushrooms helped me fathom just how strong my body is. In fact, for most of the ceremony my right hand was clenched in a fist, and my right shoulder, all the way down to my feet, was like an impenetrable fortress, grounding me down through the earth.
My mushroom trips have also been excellent for treating my anxiety. I’ve suffered with anxiety for years before the incident. Each time I have taken them, my general anxiety goes down from an 8/10 to about 3/10 for at least a couple of months. Studies with terminally ill cancer patients have shown that a single, therapist-assisted mushroom trip can provide significant relief from anxiety and depression for up to six months. But there are significant risks in approving magic mushrooms as a treatment for PTSD, because people can have a “bad trip” if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable while taking them.
Having the right “set and setting”, or the right mindset and physical and social environment, has been shown to play an important role in the outcome of a trip. I might write a more detailed article later, but to curate a good trip, I like to take mushrooms in places with a lot of greenery, nature, and natural beauty, like a forest or a park, preferably where it’s warm. I like taking them with close friends or family and enjoying an afternoon or evening together. Crafting a playlist beforehand of calming and powerful music to listen to is also wonderful.
While psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms, is illegal in most places in the world, it is legal in Oregon for medical programs, and an increasing number of US cities are decriminalizing it. They are also conducting more clinical trials.
- Be patient with yourself and take time to reintroduce things back into your life.
After my incident, I truly did not know whether I would ever be able to have healthy relationships with men or feel safe in a sexual situation ever again. For months I felt disappointed in myself, which made me more ashamed and anxious because I wasn’t back to normal and I was missing out on being young and having the best sex of my life.
I talked about my dry spell with my sister, and how stressed and broken I’d felt since getting back on the dating apps and forcing myself to go on dates. She really put things in perspective for me.
“This isn’t a race,” she said, “You’re not ready and that’s okay. It might be a year or two until you feel good about doing those things, so take this time for yourself now. Don’t even think about trying to go on dates if you don’t feel comfortable doing that.”
She was totally right. It took me three months before I could platonically hug a man again. It took me nine months before I felt safe enough to have sex again, after a New Year’s Eve party. But even that experience of being propositioned was terrifying. The difference was that I truly, resoundingly, felt myself give a “Fuck yes” of consent. We slept together and it felt tender and safe. It was months later, but I was suddenly flooded with gratitude that I had escaped from that park in Mexico with my body intact, because the enjoyment of sex and pleasure was waiting for me on the other side. I felt like I had finally scaled and descended that mountain.
The one type of therapy which Van der Kolk recommends that I haven't tried is EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). EMDR has been said to bring up childhood trauma and traumatic events like natural disasters that people might not even be aware of, so when I plan to try it, I hope to do it with a very experienced professional, in case anything else comes up. I’ll write about it when I try it, hopefully soon.
I hope that one or more of these tips could be helpful to you in recovering from trauma and PTSD. Revisit it whenever you need to, and if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please share this article with them. About 12 million adults in the United States have PTSD in any given year. Remember: we are not alone.
 Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The Body Keeps The Score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, New York: Penguin Books. Link here