January 13, 2014

What My PTSD Taught Me. ~ Heather Sayers Lehman

There is a loop between thoughts, feelings and actions.

We have a thought in our mind. That thought creates a feeling in our body. That feeling envelops us and reinforces that the thought is real. The feeling then steers actions. Our actions then reinforce our thoughts and feelings. It’s kind of cuckoo but it’s how it works. It can work for the positive or negative but for most of us typical humans, it’s mostly negative.

Having post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) changed the way I looked at what was really going on in my mind, body and soul.

Three years ago, I broke up with a boyfriend and a month later he killed himself in my personal training studio. I was supposed to be there at the time but I left early because we had a disturbing exchange the night before. I tried to reach him all morning. I went by his house. I saw him drive by in his pink button down on the way to the pawn shop to buy a gun. It was 13 hours from his troubling conversation to his death. Those 13 hours are imprinted in my soul. They are also imprinted in my brain and body.

For the first several days after, I could tick down the whole day by the feelings in my body. I would watch the clock and feel the impending terror as the hours passed. Even after 11am, when he died, I could feel the events of the rest of the day.

I sat alone in a police car next to television news cameras while the police investigated the scene. I called the people who I thought should know sounding completely despondent and hysterical. Phoenix had the most destructive hail storm in it’s history later in the afternoon.

After his suicide, my mind, body and soul relived it daily. After a couple of weeks, the terror subsided to only Tuesdays, the day of the week that he died. It would start the night before, go through the night and into the next day until 11am. I would be oddly relieved because nothing happened at 11am.

I couldn’t go to the studio on Tuesdays. I had to do everything differently to avoid the panic. I couldn’t drive on the same streets in the same sequence. I had to quit my job teaching at a community college because I arrived there right before he killed himself and received his farewell text sitting on my supervisor’s floor. I called the police from another office. I went back to that building once and quit. The feelings were way too intense and it was terrifying. To be there, it was like it was happening all over again.

The drive back from the community college was out of the question as well. It morphed into driving from the westside back to central Phoenix. I could drive to the westside but I just couldn’t drive back without having an anxiety attack. In total, I avoided everything that would trigger those feelings. I walled up, toughened up and marched on without giving him the satisfaction of being affected by his death. Avoidance became the name of my game.

The PTSD subsided until his birthday, eight months after his death. I had several anxiety attacks before I realized that it was nearing his birthday. One month before the year anniversary, I totally fell apart.

The PTSD paired with depression which swept away any connection I had with the present moment.

It was dark. And still. And sad. And angry. After one particularly horrible day, I found myself sobbing, sliding down a wall because I realized I had completely run out of reasons to be mad at my current boyfriend. I knew I needed help and I got it.

I extricated myself from the cocoon of depression. The PTSD abated with a few random traces left here and there. As I got better, I was really struck by how much my brain was hijacking my life. The feelings I was feeling were not based in reality at all. I felt like my body was deceiving me because nothing was happening. When I was driving from west to east, he had not just killed himself. When I heard specific songs, my life was not in any danger. As I continued to find tiny shards of glass from the windows that the police shattered, I didn’t need to hide from him.

Nothing was happening.

He was not dying.
He was not coming for me.

But I could feel everything.

The panic.
The sheer terror.
The need to protect my life.
The fear.
The guilt.
The aloneness.

But absolutely nothing was happening. He was not killing himself again. He wasn’t trying to kill me. Nothing was happening. I had to continuously convince myself that nothing was happening.

How could my mind and body deceive me like this?

It has now been three years since his suicide. I haven’t had an anxiety attack in two years. I started public speaking about my recovery with a TEDx talk. His death still affects me, obviously, although I don’t think about it for days at a time now. I fully believe it made me a much kinder, more compassionate person. Being cracked wide open lets you see what is working, what is “BS”, who has got your back and what you really want your life to look like.

My mind tormented me more than he ever did. He changed my life in a split second. It took me a year to sink to the bottom of a dark hole and nine months to climb out. Two years of suffering because my brain was telling me something untrue.

In reality, I know that I have suffered much longer from believing thoughts that aren’t true about myself and my worth.

I have also punished myself much harder in my other 40 years because I believed those thoughts and subsequent feelings.

In my work as a health and life coach, I help people who are stuck in this thought-feeling-action loop. They usually choose food to avoid the feelings. It doesn’t work and it compounds their problems.

My clients are being deceived by their minds, too. At some point, they heard a message or perceived a message, internalized it as fact and then their feelings and actions validated it. Those messages are not limited to:

You are less than.
You are dumb.
You are unworthy.
You are not lovable.
You will never amount to anything.
You are a nuisance.
You will be abandoned.
You are not important.
You are not enough.

Everyday life happens and those thoughts get triggered in our brain. We step on them like Legos in the shag carpet. Those thoughts create the feelings of unworthiness, shame and self-loathing. Those feelings seem so real. Those feelings are real. Our brain is telling an old story and that old story is bringing up old feelings which are so familiar to our mind, body and soul. We hate feeling that way but our body loves it. It’s home.

I am telling you that it’s not real.

You are enough even if you feel less than.
You are worthy even if you feel unworthy.
You are amazing even if you don’t feel amazing.

The brain has sent a message to create those feelings. The brain must be stopped. And it can be stopped. We makes changes from mind, heart then body. To successfully change your behaviors, you must tackle it in that order.

Those feelings start with a thought BUT that thought we can control. It takes diligence and persistence to keep changing that detrimental thought to a beautiful one. Change that thought and you will change that feeling. Change that feeling then you can change your actions. Change your actions and you can change your life.

There is always hope of change.

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Assistant Editor: Holly Horne/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo:  Guilherme Yagui, Flickr


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