Last Monday I started therapy after spending nearly a decade with the involuntary fear brought on by PTSD. Read part 1 here.
During the fall of my senior year of college, I studied Spanish in Costa Rica, living with a host family, walking to the National University Monday to Thursday, then traveling through the country Friday to Sunday. The country is rich, like its namesake, and I love it there.
A few weeks before my term ended I was walking to meet friends at the university. Two men—one with a knife—approached me and mugged me, taking my money and groping me before I ran back to my house.
Fear took on a new life after that as my brain chemistry and memory conspired together to keep. me. safe. Everything is a potential threat. Anyone could be an attacker. Each noise should be screened. Always know an escape route.
I had no idea I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I thought I was jumpy. I knew that I didn’t like to be approached from behind my left side, sure.
Also, I secretly thought I was just weak and overly scared.
The pieces came together when I read a book in grad school on trauma and recovery. The chapter on PTSD listed a host of symptoms and I had every single one.
For those who are unfamiliar with PTSD, while I am the furthest thing from an expert, I would say this–our brain, when in a crisis, acts to protect us. For some, that trauma will trigger a change in your brain that makes it function differently thereafter. After the mugging, for instance, I lived with a low level of hyper-vigilance. My brain was always looking for a threat and struggled to tell the difference between a noise inside my locked home and the noise of an attacker coming my way. It triggered an adrenaline response at times for totally benign circumstances.
Part of me was relieved–my fear had a name. Part of me was overwhelmed–my brain works differently because of what happened? Will it always?
The next step was about three months of a talk-based therapy that I found largely unhelpful. I didn’t know how to articulate that at the time, and I didn’t know what I could have had. Since then, I’ve come to see it this way—if you were to break your leg, someone could get you crutches, teach you to walk with them, come to your home rearranged your furniture for ease of mobility. That would be helpful, certainly. Your life with a broken leg would be better. But then again, wouldn’t you rather, if you had to choose, have someone set the bone for you? Put it back together? Put you and your leg on a path to healing that could leave you as good as new?
For me, that first round of therapy felt like the former. Helpful, yes, but I was still limping. And I limped for another 6 years.
Having a baby, as many people will attest, can also heighten a person’s nervousness about potential danger. Without intended to or trying, a new parent will fear for their child, even if that fear is unfounded or unlikely. So my son’s arrival awakened my “jumpiness” after it had been largely dormant for the previous 4 years.
Several years ago I also started hearing more about treatments for PTSD that literally reworked a person’s brain chemistry. The idea is that the trauma changed the brain’s ability to perceive and respond to potential threats, and these treatments could change it back, putting the memory of the incident into a new spot in your brain, healing the pathways that work to protect you, and retiring that low-level, always on, fear response.
So, that is how, nearly a decade after being mugged, I walked into a therapist’s office, looked fear in the eye, and told it its days were numbered.
Beginning treatment, all I felt was relief. I had gotten myself into that office; that was the hardest part. No matter how much I’d have to think or talk about the incident in the course of treatment, it couldn’t match how much I’d held onto it for the previous decade. And I believed that real healing was on the other side. For me, for this, these sessions were the last time I had to experience what happened this way ever again.
I spent four hours (two hours at a time one week apart) doing one thing–staring at the end of a pointer.
Yup. That was the practice.
It also includes some remembering, and talking a bit, and sometime breathing deeply. But mostly, I stared at the black cone at the end of a metal stick.
It’s called brain spotting. There is more science to it than just saying, “Stare at this stick.” But I can’t tell you much about that. What I can tell you is that it worked.
Four hours undid the damage of four terrible minutes. Four hours healed the limp I walked with for almost a decade. Four hours opened a door and I walked through towards freedom and sunlight. Behind me, in the shadowy room, is the irrational fear my brain was convinced was necessary.
I don’t think I realized just what it’d feel like to walk in the warmth of healing. But it’s wonderful.
Part 3, Final Thoughts tomorrow.