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denial

 

Denial, it is one of the most dangerous mental thought process action that anyone faces.  And, believe me when I say it is even more dangerous when it is coupled with PTSD.  How you ask, can it be dangerous to anyone?  Well, it is and I will try to show just how dangerous it can be as it pertains to the PTSD journey and by extension life in general.

The Before

Almost immediately before a traumatic incident, you begin to enter the world of denial.  As the incident rolls out before you, your mind starts to question if what is happening is real.  The question then leads to a health dose of doubt, “this can’t be real” or “there is no way this is happening right now”.  But sadly, the reality is that it is happening, it is real and your mind is trying to protect you by saying that it isn’t.

The During

Once you get hit with the reality that the traumatic incident that you didn’t believe was actually happening had actually happened, you enter into a whole other level of denial.  And, I think in many ways, this is where the true danger resides for a person with PTSD.  You first begin to doubt that you were affected by the trauma.  I know for myself, this was huge.  There was no way the things that were happening for me had anything to do with the trauma, even though the physical symptoms began to show almost exactly one year after the trauma.  I remember telling myself that there is no way that this is related.  And heck, I did it for a second time when I was being hit physically with the repercussions of my denial.

The denial can become so intense that even when you are diagnosed with PTSD, you question the reality and validity of the diagnosis.  “There is no fucking way in hell that I have PTSD.”  It is the point in which many people avoid getting help.  They isolate themselves trying to convince themselves that their PTSD isn’t real or that it isn’t as bad as what they are saying.  “PTSD isn’t any big deal, I’ll get through this with ease.”  But, what’s really happening is that the denial has decided to bring along its really good friend and lover, FEAR.  Together, the two welcome the darkness where they can flourish without hesitation.  You begin to agree with the denial and almost feel like you have a handle on things because “its not that bad”.

These are the times when you start keeping your PTSD a secret from everyone, including your loved ones.  You have denied it’s existence and therefore, you don’t have it and you definitely don’t need to tell anyone about it.  Your denial pushed by fear tells you things like “people will think you’re crazy” or “you will be stigmatized for life” and my favourite, “no one is going to want to be with you / around you if you have PTSD”.  The denial gets stronger and stronger and so does the isolation because your mind knows that eventually you will be found out.  Your fake smile and happy disposition is about to come down all around you.

And when you finally have no choice but to admit that you have PTSD and seek help, the denial still hangs around.  Lots of times, whether it be in therapy or a peer support group, you will continue to use denial as a coping mechanism.  You hold back from your therapist because if you are honest about what’s really going on, you are afraid you won’t be able to handle reality.  You deny yourself the chance to get better.  In peer settings, you cater your narrative to present as someone who has everything together.  You deny yourself the chance to get the support you need and deserve.  Denial is very dangerous.

The Other Side

For all intent and purpose, you’ve broken through the darkness.  You are back into the light and are feeling pretty good.  Life seems to be getting better and you are beginning to see the positives from all your hard work.  But, and this is a big but, you begin to question it.  Much like how you questioned the trauma actually happening, you now begin to question if you made it through.  You deny that you are on the road to recovery.  Out of fear that what you are experiencing is true, you doubt yourself.  You start to plan for the next shoe to drop again, for a trigger to set you back and for your life to go to shit once again.  You begin to deny yourself the life you worked so fucking hard to achieve.  And, if you’re not careful, this doubt will turn into a massive pitfall for you.

So, what can you do to battle against Denial?  Embrace it, accept it, label it, shelve it, deal with it and put it to bed.  You need to recognize that you are in denial about your PTSD, about the power that it holds over you and the control that you have granted it.  If you continue to deny the existence of denial, you are simply setting yourself to continue in the darkness.  It becomes one of the choices that you have to make and the sooner you make it, the easier it will get.  When you sit down with your therapist, think of it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to deal with all those skeletons in your closet.  Open up and share.  When you are in a peer support group, be honest.  If you are struggling, tell people, ask for help.  Push beyond the denial.

Don’t deny it, lean into it.

More Cowbell (is this a metaphor???)

more_cowbell5-1972

Cowbell, and even more cowbell makes everything better.  Don’t believe me, just try it.  Once you start letting cowbell into your life, it will begin to seep into every aspect and before you know it, everywhere you turn, you will see and hear the beauty of the cowbell.  It is versatile, easy to carry anywhere and is extremely cheap.  Heck, in many cases, cowbell is free so you will have no concerns when you give it away.  The song of cowbell can turn the darkest of hearts bright again.  It can even change the world, one note at a time, if you let it.  Cowbell was, is and always will be unconditional when you give it to others and that will help creat the magic.

Okay, in all seriousness, I havent fallen off my rocker.  I’m not in some crazy medicated state that I am seeing rainbows and unicorns dancing around.  Although, many people who don’t believe it or are afraid of it will say I am.  Heck, I fully suspect that some might find this post full of shit and not want anything to do with my Blog anymore.  The idea of cowbell is so radical that the hardcore Tackleberries (Police Academy reference to the hardcore cops who know every piece of tactical equipment around) out there will refuse to accept it as a real possibility in the journey of PTSD.  All I can say is that to those people, all I can do is offer them more cowbell so that maybe they will come around.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, yes cowbell is a metaphor.  But for what you ask?  Well, continue to read on.

I mentioned a few posts back that I was planning a post on a topic that has become near and dear to me, particularly after my time at Project Trauma Support.  And, here we are now, on the verge of the post that I believe is the foundation to helping ourselves and others as we navigate through PTSD on our way to Growth.  It is so simple yet it is so hard to grasp and live by because we were trained away from it all our lives, particularly as military and first responders.  But, here it is, cowbell equals Unconditional LOVE.

Now, let’s get a few things sorted out before I continue.  I am not referring to the love for a spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, mom, dad, child, sibling, pet or anything or anyone that we would commonly say “I love you” to.  No, I am talking about a very different type of love, one that we as a society have moved away from over the course of many generations and a root cause to a lot of the issues we face daily in our lives.  The love I am talking about is the love that you show, express and offer to anyone, anything and everyone you come into contact with in your journey through life.  And, no, I am not suggesting that people should be going around say I love you to every stranger they come across, because that is not the concept of unconditional love.

Unconditional love is simply acceptance and happiness, to others and most importantly ourselves.  That’s it, that’s all.  It’s not a concept of true love, lust, admiration, trust, caring or whatever other act you can think of.  It is an acceptance of who we or the other person is, flaws and all and an unbridled desire to provide happiness to ourselves and others.  And here is the important part, unconditional love is given without a desire or need to receive anything back.

How does this fit in with PTSD you ask?

Well, lets start with ourselves.  For many with PTSD, there is a lot of shame, guilt, embarrassment, self hate / loathing and anger which we project onto ourselves.  You know what I mean, those “How could I have let this happen?”, “Why didn’t I do more?”, “What was I thinking?”.  But, what do you think would happen if instead of beating ourselves up we simply said, “I did the best I could” , “I did what I could do” or even “I survived”.  Then take that one step further and accept that reality as oppose to the negative narrative.  What happens is that you begin to open yourself up to accepting yourself, which in turn will lead to you allowing yourself to feel happiness.  Seeing how happiness and acceptance are the two cornerstones of unconditional love, without any effort to get there, you are knocking at the door to it.

Before we can heal and move forward, we first have to look within.  We need to understand that no matter what happened, at some point, we had no control over what transpired.  And, it is okay that we had no control because in life, sometimes shit just happens.  By accepting that, we just opened the door to our personal healing and more importantly to allowing ourselves to love ourselves unconditionally.  It means accepting all the faults we have, all the positives we bring with us and to begin letting go of the pain, anger, hurt, guilt and shame that we are all carrying.

For me, that meant accepting that I was not responsible for the death of the newborn, nor was anyone else in the hospital room.  I had to understand that there was nothing that could have possibly been done to save the baby by the medical personnel or myself.  It was going to happen regardless because sometimes, fucked up shitty things happen and you have no control over them.  It took 12 years of holding on to the guilt, shame and anger for me to accept this and open myself up to loving myself once again, regardless of what I did or didn’t do in the hospital.   It was when I opened myself up to accepting this that the magic of unconditional love of myself began to take hold.

Once we get to that point ourselves, we can start opening up and giving unconditional love to others.  I think that this is best understood through the use of a simple example.  Next time you go for coffee and you are next in line, approach the cashier / barista with a big smile.  Read the name tag, use the person’s name and speak in an upbeat tone.  Say please and thank you and when your done, say “I hope you have an awesome day today.”  That’s it and yes, it is that simply.  You have no idea what that other person has going on for them, whether they were just shit on by another customer or if they are struggling emotionally and like you, simply trying to put on a happy face so that you don’t have to explain what is going on to anyone.  But, in that simply interaction where you were polite,and humanized the interaction, you might have made things that much better, for them and you.

I suppose another way to look at it is to call it compassion.  Regardless of what you call it, compassion, unconditional love, etc, the results are the same in the end.  It makes you and others feel better.  And no, it’s not easy sometimes.  There are more than a few times that I would have preferred reached out and touched someone with a back hand or not interacted at all but this is life and sometimes, life isn’t easy.  But, I keep on trying because I like the feeling I get from it.  It’s like a drug, releasing endorphins in my brain.

It is hard to approach situations from a higher level and not get dragged down into the negative.  It happens all the time and more than once a day I catch myself sliding down too.  But, sometimes you just have to remember a simple phrase to help turn it around.

More Love, Less Judgement.

Try it, just for the hell of it.

Trauma Jumping

jumper

So, this is something that I have been pondering for sometime now and the more I think about it, the more sense it is making to me.  And, because there is a love for snappy phrases or descriptors when you are taking about PTSD, I came up with “Trauma Jumping”.

Trauma Jumping is the repetitive action most first responder, military and heck, really anyone inflicted with PTSD, goes through at one point and time.  For simplicity sake, and this is in no way backed by scientific evidence or research, but trauma jumping is going from one trauma to another without processing the previous trauma.  Mull that over for a second and think back to your own personal story.  See what I mean.  You were either in a repetitive cycle of dealing with trauma after trauma or you self developed a trauma to replace the one that just happened.  I’m going to delve into both in more detail, separately.

Trauma to Trauma……….

I’m going to go out on a limb and automatically group first responders and military into this group.  And it is solely for the reason that by the nature of those occupations, you have no choice but to jump from trauma to trauma / call to call.  The negative impacts of it however happen when there is no debriefing or break in between the situations.  In those cases, you start building up a catalogue of traumas that will surely come back to bite the hand that feeds it, when you least expect it.   To be clear, this can also apply to sanctuary trauma as well.

Self Developed Trauma……..

Something just terrible happened and regardless of your feelings about it, you begin to set up a series of situations that will allow for further trauma.  (No this isn’t victim blaming).  The situations could be interpersonal with family and friends or involving complete strangers.  Now here is the kicker.  This lines up nicely with trauma to trauma people as they seek to get the rush of trauma again.  Yep, that’s right, they become one and the same.

Think of the science behind trauma and how the brain and body react to it.  This is the rush, the adrenaline kick that you get as that old reptilian brain kicks in and you either fight or flight in the situation.  As long as you are trauma jumping, everything is good.  You fuel that addiction to the rush and the world is groovy, even in the worst of moments.  You think you are controlling it and keeping everything in check  Chances are, you are probably right and everything is fine.  But, what happens when you are off and away from the constant rush?

You guess it, you begin to develop situations that will give you a little adrenaline rush.  How many first responders ride motorcycles, skydive, scuba dive, mountain bike, race in marathons or some other sports?  Why is that?  What are they searching for?  Ask them and they will all say the same thing, “I like the feeling……” or some variant of that.  They like the feeling because it gives the same, but lesser, bump that trauma does.  It is pushing that reptilian brain of ours to fire off the flight or fight response.  We get the rush.

Last summer is when I really started noticing this.  I was off work, no longer in the trauma jumpers paradise.  I was down and needed a pick me up.  I turned to weights and mountain biking.  In the gym, I begin pushing myself hard.  I was zeroing in on a 405 lbs deadlift.  My wife asked me why I was pushing so hard.  Pfff, easy answer, “because I can!”  It was also around this time that I kissed the dirt more than a few times on the trails while riding.  I was pushing myself to my extreme and was loving it.  I was developing potential traumas (injuries) in order to get that rush.  I was feeling pain and loved it because for the first time in a long time, I was in control of the pain and not some distant memory causing it.

Then I asked my psychologist about it.  Was I intentionally trying to self harm through so-called “legitimate” activities.  Seriously, if I hurt myself pushing weights or riding my mountain bike, people would have just thought that it was my normal accident prone self at play.  No one would question that I was self harming.  Hell, I didn’t even think I was self harming but looking back on it now?????  Damn straight, that’s what it was.  I was self creating trauma.  I was seeking the rush to fill the void.  If I was trauma jumping again I wouldn’t have to feel the pain because I could simply shut it down and shelve it so that I could move onto the next trauma, get my rush, push the emotions down a bit further and repeat.

I stopped the cycle with the advise of my psychologist who wisely stated; “It is self harm if you are intentionally pushing yourself to set up an injury.”  Of course at the time I quickly stated that it is not the case and FIDO (Fuck It and Drive On).  But it stuck with me as most good therapy should and I began to see it for what it truly was.  I was trying to do everything in my power to replace my trauma pain so that I could return to the trauma jumping cycle.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, just think of some of the behaviours associated with PTSD.  You have any number of addictions (alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, etc), erratic behaviours, promiscuous acting out, OCD etc, etc, etc…..  What are they doing to the person, although many time they are hidden by the individual from others, is allowing for the continuation of trauma.  Why?  Well, I fully believe that at some  subconscious level, we have embraced our traumas and through these behaviours, you feel a sense of connection and peace, if that makes sense.  You also see it in people who jump from one treatment program to the next.  Those people caught a high from a treatment program and now they are chasing the dragon so to speak in their quest to feel the rush again.  It’s not destructive but it definitely is yet another form of trauma jumping.

But what can we do?  Well, it becomes a matter of recognizing that we are trauma jumping and put and effort into understanding why.  The only way out of the cycle is to stop the cycle and put the necessary pieces in place to counteract trauma jumping.  For me, that has been meditation, sensible exercise, journaling and this blog.  There is truly something liberating about airing your dirty laundry so to speak……

So, to butcher an old saying, “Next time you’re about to trauma jump, stop and look before you leap and think it out before you do.”

Life

day 4So, I am feeling somewhat apologetic as I have not been maintaining my 7 day rule of trying to keep up with posting new content.  But I can assure you, it has been for a darn good reason.  And, yep, you got it, that reason is LIVING.

A funny thing has happened to me in my journey through PTSD.  I have begun to live life again as if PTSD wasn’t part of my life.  Or maybe a better way to put it is that my PTSD no longer has absolute control over how I live my life.  It really is strange how I got to this point of pushing through to PTSD Growth verse wallowing in the darkness.  As much as I would love to tall how I did it, I can’t tell you the specifics.  But I can tell you a bit of the journey to get here and it is fair to say that Bob was right once again.  Freeing yourself from mental slavery is the biggest part of it.

Although this is going to sound simply, anyone dealing with PTSD will understand just how monumental of a task it is not only to simply live with PTSD but also to do the work required to simply keep living.  For me, this journey has been one year of regular therapy with an awesome psychologist who wasn’t afraid to tell me just how fucked up some of the situations I got into as a police officer were.  She took the oddity of PTSD and normalized it for me making me realize that those things would mess anyone up.  She helped laid the foundation for me to work through my PTSD and helped position me for success as I continued on.

The next step was talking everything I learned about myself and my PTSD and ripping it wide open for others to see.  Now, I am not referring to some public display or uncontrolled outburst.  I am talking about sitting in a group of my peers, all who are also dealing with PTSD, and baring my inner most darkest moments.  And, in the process, I sat and listened to their stories as they related their darkest moments too.  Some amazing things happen when you lean in and allow your mind to begin breaking away from that mental slavery that PTSD commands.  Sometimes, those amazing things are so unexplainable as well that you just have to sit back and go for the ride, taking in everything that happens.

And that is exactly what I did.  I leaned in and accepted what was happening.  But I never would have expected what happened.  Anger that I thought I dealt with came out.  Pain I never realized I had surfaced and then it happened.  I hit the bottom, looked over at the wonderful person that runs Project Trauma Support, had tears streaming down my face and said “I just realized how fucked up I am.”  I couldn’t hide it, I couldn’t suppress it any longer.  It was all there and I was miles below it looking up trying to figure out what as going to happen next.  I then remember looking at her, seeing unconditional love and acceptance while I was dealing with my lowest of low and heard the words “Now we need to figure out where to go from here.”  But here is the funny part.  I’m not sure who said that to me but it in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

Seeing how Avengers was just released, I think it is a perfect depiction of what happened.  In that instance, it was as if Thanos snapped his fingers and things started to disappear.  Everything came to a head and I knew where I needed to go – Upwards out of the darkness.

In that moment, I made the decision that I had to accept that PTSD is part of my life but in no way shape or form is it my LIFE.  I other words, I know that I was the only one that could free my mind and that is exactly what I did.

Has it been easy since that moment.  No fucking way!  It has been a challenge everyday to stay focussed on moving forward and not allowing myself be sucked downward.  And, there have been a few times that the Itty Bitty Shitty Committee took over and started leading me downward but luckily, I have been able to stop the decline.  In those down moments, I make myself rise to the challenge to go through the issue.  I process it, ask what is happening, why is it happening, is this real or something that my PTSD is making me think is real and what do I need to do to get past this?

Usually, this means journaling what is happening, stepping back for a moment and checking in with others to help change the focus.  Most times, it turns around pretty quick but I have had a few moments that lasted.  One of the biggest ones was a trip to the ER with my wife.  It poked the sleeping PTSD dragon in an ugly way and it was few days of processing to work through but I did.  And what was the straw that helped me break free from it?  It was me remembering the expressions on the doctor and nurse’s face when I thanked them that helped break me free from the downward swing.  That simple gesture of giving unconditional love brought back so much in return and it is truly the secret weapon against PTSD (hint: this is definitely be an upcoming post).

Now, I am not suggesting that you have to hit bottom before you can start living again but for me, that was exactly what needed to happen.  I was stuck holding on to anger and I was pretending that my PTSD wasn’t so bad, that it could be handled and controlled.  What I will suggest is that anyone dealing with PTSD needs to 1) find the right people to help them through their journey and 2) at some point, you need to make a mental choice or decision to lean in and move forward from the place you are at, even in a micro way.

And that movement forward doesn’t have to be a monumental step like being the first to step on the moon or to plant the flag on the top of the world.  It can simply be getting out of bed, having something to eat, sitting on the front step on a warm day, calling a friend up out of he blue or smiling and saying thank you to the barista at the local coffee shop.  I doesn’t have to be huge but the results will be.  Eventually, you will notice that for the first time in a long time, you live a little without PTSD being in the forefront.

#morelovelessjudgement

Do triggers really exist?

trigger

I am going to say something that might upset people.  Heck, it might even piss off a few people and cause people to think that I am full of shit and don’t know what I am talking about.  But as always, hear me out til the end.  If you don’t believe I made the point, tell me.  Lets work through this and come to a common ground.  But first and foremost, read on.

When dealing with PTSD we always talk about triggers.  Actions, words, sights, smells, foods, situations or what have you that cause a reaction within us.  We tell ourselves and others that it’s a trigger.  For me, babies under the age of 3 months were huge for me.  Watching a Huggies or Pampers commercial on TV would set off a panic attack of epic proportions.  I would be frozen in fear.  It was ugly and these moments controlled my life and forced me to change-up how I would do things to ensure that I would limit my potential exposure to babies.  It was bad and it was a textbook “trigger” according to the professionals and every piece of research and commentary out there.  But here is the reality……..

Triggers aren’t real.  Literally and figuratively.  They are not real.

I know you are thinking that I just said that I was triggered by babies.  Go back and read that paragraph again.  Did I say that babies were MY trigger?  I did say that it is considered a textbook trigger according to the conventional PTSD theories but I no longer see it as a trigger to me.  So, you are probably a bit amped up right now at this statement and are wondering what the hell are they smart guy if it isn’t a trigger?  Well, simply put it is a MEMORY.

I know you’re thinking that this is wacked.  A memory that causes you to react is a trigger as per the definitions out there so I’m describing a trigger.  Nope………  a trigger is something that you don’t have control over.  Something else is telling you that you are supposed to react to what is being presented and that removes any and all control you have over the situation and how you will deal with the memory.  By buying into the “trigger” concept, we limit ourselves and prevent ourselves from moving forward because we are stuck in fear, terror, anxiety, panic or whatever other emotion cascades over us.

Throughout our day, we are usually bombarded with lots of memories from our past, both bad and good.  But, we aren’t set off by all of these memories.  Why is that?  It comes down to us not giving up control of those emotional memories and living through and with them.  Even when I think of times that I might have gotten hurt as a kid, as bad as the memory of the pain and fear might be, it ends with the memory of my mom taking care of me, nurturing the pain away and cleaning up the wound.  Sure, I could sit there and focus on the injury, the pain and the fear but the focus becomes the mother’s love given at a time of need.  So, in essence, I controlled the narrative of the memory and shaped it to my liking.

Now consider that same scenario as it could apply to a PTSD memory or by definition a trigger.  What if instead of allowing the memory to dictate the narrative, you decided to focus on a positive from the memory and keep that focus while you rode out the memory?  If you can’t see one right off the bat, the easiest one is “You made it through it once, you lived”.  That’s the biggest positive so focus on that to start as you move forward.  You will see more and more moments that are actually positives that you experienced.  You will also begin to take control over the memories and dictate how they impact on you.

Believe me, I know this sounds simplistic and far-fetched but it does work.  And it is hard work but we all have a choice to make and sometimes, it’s the uncomfortable choices that we need to make to move forward.  Remember I said babies were bad jub-jub for me?  Well, I practice what I preach and with a combination of prolonged exposure, talking and some hard work, I took that memory and made it mine.  I accepted all the bad that happened, got mad and then took control over the memory by saying it was “sad” that it happened.  It is still a memory that comes up every once and awhile but I control the narrative and what part I want to focus on instead of allowing it to control me.

To explain what I mean is actually pretty easy.  I can now watch any Huggies commercial and see the beauty of a newborn child.  Hell, I even watched an episode of Greys Anatomy where a 21 week old premie was born and died (This is identical to my moral injury with the exception of what happened after the birth) but I watched the whole damn thing, without going off the deep end.  Afterwards I simply thought to myself, that this is such a sad situation and I know exactly how they feel.  Full stop.  Nothing more, nothing less.

There are so many aspects of PTSD and it’s associated behaviours that we can’t control.  Yet one area that we can begin to take back that control is one of the scariest.  And, I am not saying to go all radical and put yourself in front of a screen and play a loop of your triggers.  That is a set up for failure and not recommended in any way shape or manner.  Instead, when you are triggerd by a memory, take the first step and stop calling it a trigger.  Call it what it is –  a memory.  Next put the adjective to it –  a sad memory, a scary memory.  Then you will start to do the hard work to recognize that even in the worst moments of our trauma, there are positives that happened that we need to find and learn from them.

So, yes, our triggers aren’t real.  They are simply memories of things that have happened in the past.  By controlling the narrative of our memories and focussing on the positives, we start to move away from Post Traumatic Stress and begin the journey to Post Traumatic Growth.  And let me tell you, Post Traumatic Growth is a beautiful thing to experience.