Creative Commons image Apothecary cabinet, courtesy of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on Flickr.
On Oct. 28, 2000 I witnessed the murder of my dear friend Wendy, and the shadow of that trauma has shaped my life ever since.
But that's not my whole story, nor do I want it to be. (I can almost hear Wendy out in her Great Beyond singing, "Finally, Sezin. Finally.")
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is like any chronic illness -- it needs managing.
So, each day I wake up and decide how I will find moments of peace, and over the years I've developed an extensive emotional apothecary, none of which involve pharmaceuticals.
Here are 13 healing "potions" from my kit:
1) Avoid stressful situations whenever possible. If you had nightmares or generally woke up on the wrong side of PTSD then that trip to the DMV can wait. If you can't avoid stress -- you're at the airport, a meeting, a dissertation defense -- have a battery of calming solutions on hand.
I don't go anywhere without my Homeopathic Calm Drops.
Lavender, sage, peppermint, or any other relaxing oil massaged on the spot between your eyebrows and your pulse points is marvelously calming. Always have a stone, or image, or song, a mantra of any kind that keeps you grounded to the present, focused, and can assist in regulating your heartbeat.
2) Stop watching the news. Instead, subscribe to an email newsletter with major headlines: Every news outlet offers one. Stay up to date on local/global happenings without getting triggered by disturbing moving images or the voices of newly-traumatized people.
3) Distance yourself from negative or toxic individuals. In some cases you might not be able to do this entirely, but you can certainly limit those encounters to when you're feeling strong and have the support you need to be around them and not feel devastated.
Surround yourself with kind folks who'll lift you up out of your dark places, not drag you down into new ones.
4) Have at least one person in your life to whom you can reach out, call, or text whenever you need. Sometimes you need that person to take your mind off things, sometimes you need to vent. Sometimes you just need to know that even if you call at 3 a.m. they will answer their phone or door and be there for you.
5) Create in whatever way comes best. For me it's writing, painting, collage, photography, wacky self-portraiture, tattoos. For others it could be singing, gardening, interpretive dance, ikebana, cooking.
Sublimating pain into beauty has been one of the most useful healing techniques I've incorporated into my daily routine.
6) Make alone time for yourself each day. I know this is harder for some than others when work, children, and other obligations take over all waking hours. You still need to do it.
You need to sit, breathe, read a book, watch a show, a movie, write in a journal, make art, dance, cry, have a hot bath, wallow, primal scream, listen to "Let It Go" on repeat. Anything that helps you reconnect with yourself.
PTSD often detaches us from who we were before, and making me time each day can help us remember that the pre-trauma you is not completely lost in post-trauma symptoms.
7) Set boundaries. I don't watch television shows that take place in prisons because my testimony put two people in prison for murdering Wendy. I don't care how good Orange is the New Black might be, I'm not going to watch it. And I don't need to hear stories about people going to gun ranges for fun. For me, guns, gangs, and prisons are not entertainment, and that will never change.
Whatever are your trigger points, don't be afraid to let others know and stand up for yourself. Your healing is yours alone, and only you determine what will help or hinder your process.
8) And speaking of "triggers," PTSD has a tendency to bring up older traumas that on their own might not have felt so bad or been manageable, but when combined with a huge trauma become devastating. Depending on the severity, finding an experienced trauma counselor -- even if temporarily -- can be a huge help towards putting each event in its place and being aware of when they spill over.
A friend once told me I could put my traumas in imaginary boxes -- not hermetically sealed, but ornate lattice-worked compartments through which fresh air can pass and yet exist distinctly from each other. Ever since it's been easier for me to know exactly which wound has been activated and how best to approach it.
9) The Native American ritual of smudging -- burning sage -- is one of the most powerful methods of clearing bad energy from yourself and from a space. Smudging before bed can also help combat nightmares and night terrors. I always smudge after I've been triggered, it gives me a cleaner slate from which to heal.
10) Give yourself permission to have bad days. They happen, and sometimes there's nothing to do but ride it out, knowing it will pass.
11) Practice gratitude daily. Take a photo of or write down one thing each day for which you are thankful. This alone can change your life for the better.
12) Drink green smoothies. I never realized how much digestive stress was causing me actual stress until it faded into the background thanks to kale, spinach, chard, and other fruit and green blended concoctions.
13) Go easy on yourself. Enjoy the good days. Ride out the ugly ones. Certain times of year are harder than others, and our bodies acutely remember trauma even decades later. I've always found that the more I try to avoid PTSD symptoms, the stronger and worse they get. Don't be afraid to tell people you can't handle certain things and extra pressures. Accepting one's limitations when you're having a particularly difficult episode can go a long way towards resolving it sooner rather than later.
Yes, my emotional apothecary for treating PTSD requires varying levels of self-work, self-care, and self-awareness, which starts off daunting (and painful) but eventually becomes indispensable.
The most important thing I learned is that healing is a process, not a destination.
And those five stages of grief? Those will cycle in and out of your life for the long term.
For years I beat myself up thinking something was wrong with me because my PTSD remained ever-present.
People often made me feel like I should be over it by now, Wendy's murder happened a long time ago so why was I dwelling? Comments implied that I was choosing to be troubled, choosing to be wracked by all the awful that comes with life after a horrible trauma.
What those people didn't understand is all the ups and downs were part of my healing, not my malingering. As Urgl says to Atreyu after the Swamps of Sadness: "It has to hurt if it's to heal."
Pain is part of the healing process. So is anger. And despair. And joy. And love. And every emotion you have ever and ever will feel.
Healing never ends because trauma cuts us to the bone, and there will always be some new event happening in the world -- or in your family, or with friends, somewhere -- that will poke at your wound and occasionally reopen it.
Every time I've thought I was "fixed" something inevitably happened that reminded me I wouldn't ever be the woman I was pre-trauma, and often those events would spiral me into my worst bouts of depression and self-harming behaviors.
Now, making the daily choice to heal in whatever way is appropriate -- or giving myself permission to grieve anew -- helps me keep things in perspective.
I no longer have expectations of what a finished product of a healing process looks like. I do my best to live each day and cope with all the good, the bad, and ugly of life after trauma.
Oddly enough, using my toolkit daily I sometimes find myself -- dare I say it -- almost, actually, maybe, possibly, happy.
Please feel free to add to this emotional apothecary with your own coping methods in the comments below.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.