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Making It Through A Sad Day: PTSD
By Josie Sanders

November Fifth. The date approaches again. Every year, like the first frost,  it appears and passes. I have measured the years – and my progress through them – by this mid-autumn number on the calendar. As a person with PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, I find that the date on which the worst trauma in my life occurred  is for me a day permanently etched in my subconscious.

No, I never served in a war zone. My PTSD is the result of what I jokingly call “domestic combat.” I am a five foot tall, one hundred pound person who was beat on for years. There were days when I thought that surely I would be killed. The most traumatic day of my life was not any of those events, however, but the day a judge set free and rewarded the person who hurt me. That may sound strange, but the effects of PTSD rarely make sense.

Even if you don’t have PTSD – and especially if you do –  you probably have a date like this in your life. Perhaps it’s the birthday or the date of death of a loved one who has passed on, or the wedding anniversary you can only wish you were spending with a spouse who has divorced you and married someone else. Maybe it’s the date you were wounded in war, or in a car wreck, or by a violent person, a date when your life was changed forever.

If you are anything like me, you may not be consciously aware of the impending arrival of this one day of the year, yet as the date approaches you will feel odd – you will feel out of sorts and wonder why. This very phenomenon happened to me last week. Usually, October finds me dreading “the awful date” the whole livelong month. This autumn, with more pressing concerns than in the past, I forgot to worry about it. But out of nowhere this October I have found myself crying, forlorn or just mildly melancholy with no explanation for my downer moods.

After all of this time dealing with my PTSD, I have learned that doing an “emotional and physical inventory” often solves the mystery of an unexplained sadness, anger or frustration, so that‘s what I did, ticking off the questions one by one in my head:

“Am I physically okay? Have I had enough of the right foods to eat and none (or not too many) of the bad ones? Am I in physical pain? If so, what can I do about that? Have I drunk enough water today (dehydration can cause irritability and exhaustion) and have I taken my vitamins and other supplements that help me feel energetic? Has someone said or done something that might have triggered a bad memory from the past? Has a nightmare or TV show or song reminded me of someone or something that makes me sad/angry/frustrated?”

You will have your own checklist, based on your individual personality and drawn from your particular past experiences and lifestyle. The final question for any of us with PTSD, however, should always be: “Is there a date I associate with these negative feelings I’m having?”

After I asked myself that question last week, all of the mystery was gone. Even though the date is  not one that normally makes me happy, it pleased me to find the cause of my low moods. It almost thrilled me to know October was nearly over before I remembered the calendar was dragging the “dreaded date” back around.

In the past, autumn was a bittersweet time for me, anticipating the impending day, but this year, I have simply delighted in the orange leaves against  the cobalt sky, in the way the trees covering the mountainsides simmer golden and red and emerald under the bright sun. I have basked in fall and pumpkins and mums and South-traveling geese, and I am accepting the blessing of gratitude as a sign of my healing.

This doesn’t mean I haven’t felt pain knowing that day is coming. It doesn’t mean I won’t feel dejected or tearful or remorseful on that day when it does come. But it means I have control. Rather than wondering “What is wrong with me?”  I can say “I’m anxious about November Fifth and that’s why I‘m having these mood swings.” I can focus on ways to help myself cope.

One way I might manage the pain of that day is in spending time with my animal friends. Brushing the horses or petting the cats or taking a walk with my dog can cure many a bad mood. Animals give that wonderful unconditional love that accepts us even when our eyes are red-rimmed and teary, and even when we are grumpy or pre-occupied with our problems.  Of course, we want to be sure not to handle them in anger, or to take out our frustrations on them, but to focus positive energy through our contacts.

If you don’t have animal companions, you can always find wild birds to feed, or you can volunteer to walk a friend’s dog or to help out at a nearby animal shelter. Our furry, wordless friends speak with soulful eyes and grunts and wagging tails and whinnies and chirps, making them perfect friends to know when we want to transform a bad mood with their wordless loving energy, their inner wisdom and energy.

I live in a beautiful place, on acreage in deep woods, and being outdoors helps me put my trauma in perspective. For me, a bad memory can seem so large when I keep it inside my head and keep myself to the indoors.

Once I step outside, the glory of nature around me often distracts me from obsessing about the negative. I can always seem to find something that needs doing, and, in spite of myself, I’ll more often than not find that the fresh air revives my lethargic home improvement genes. Gardening and building fence and collecting eggs not only give me something to do, the work has a tangible result, reinforcing the rewards available to me when I spend time using my hands rather than exercising my worry bone.

A hike in a nearby park, a small picnic next to a beach, or a drive in the countryside to buy some farm veggies are all wonderful ways to get out of your own head. Museums, libraries and theater or symphony performances are also great ways to get lost in good things. The important thing to do on a bad day is to imprint your mind with good memories. This doesn’t make your troubles magically disappear, but consider it a substantial deposit in your “Healing Account.” Over time, the positive will overcome the negative.

Being around supportive people also helps. My friends and I regularly have large dinners where we cook and eat and clean up the dishes together. Being a part of a community – even if it’s only coffee with one other good friend and me – helps me feel connected and accepted as a human. Spending time with emotionally healthy people who care about me lets me know that, no matter what happened in the past, it didn’t stop me from being able to enjoy life today.

You don’t have to be in a crowd to benefit from human companionship, but on your down, alone, miserable days, if you find that you would like to be around others, seek out those people who make you laugh, who challenge you, who respect your space and your dignity, who share their friendship and your values.

If I am feeling very tender, I will choose to be around people who are particularly sensitive to my condition. For example, this past weekend, a friend was repeatedly rude and short with me. She recently underwent surgery for cancer, and she is not feeling well, so I can understand her negative attitude. Still, it hurt, knowing that I have been trying to help her as much as I can. It hurt to feel unappreciated, as if I were merely a nuisance. Once I realized that I might be feeling a little tender because of that soon-to-arrive date, I made the choice to stay away from this person for a while. A family member has arrived from another state to care for her, so I don’t feel guilty taking a break. If I were forced to be around my friend because there was no one else to help, I would use some technique to  help the negative comments roll off my back. I would recognize that I must exercise control over the way I respond to negativity.

This is easier said than done, as most people with PTSD have already learned about themselves. When I am feeling worthless, abandoned, ashamed, fearful, or any of the other feelings associated with my PTSD, the biting comments of others affect me in very harsh ways, often reinforcing the negative feelings  and self-talk I’m fighting. It’s best to avoid negative people, but what if I can’t?

Sometimes you can explain to people a little of what you are going through.

“When I hear someone say that to me, it reminds me of some very bad times in my life. I’m hurting right now over those times and need to be around more positive energy. Can you help with that?”

A good friend or loving family member will accommodate you. Family and even friends can be obstinate sometimes, though, stuck in their own patterns of negative communication.

Using  filtering and redirecting techniques can often help you get through a day or evening with insensitive folks.  This means anticipating or practicing moments when you might face a trigger. Imagine someone has said or done something that evokes a bad memory. Rather than letting yourself get caught up in that negative energy, picture a place you love in your mind and memorize it as if your life depends on it. Practice conjuring that positive, peaceful image so it’s available whenever you may need it. For example, I will often imagine being in the sweat lodge when I am stressed by something. The image of the dark, all-encompassing peace of the sweat lodge centers me. Or I will remember an island I love, and picture myself sitting on the beach watching the gulls and the dolphins. This redirects me and distracts me at the same time.

You can also redirect others by learning more about the people who might trigger your PTSD or bad memory. Find positive things about them so that you can change the subject to something neutral they will find attractive. Just remember to take a lot of deep breaths. Every day you muddle through moves you closer to healing.

Sometimes we don’t need to be around anybody, for their well-being as much as for our own good! It’s better to give yourself permission to hide for a while than to feel guilty over having taken your pain out on someone else. If you know you’re likely  to snap at people or say things you don’t really mean, spending the day alone makes perfect sense. It’s good to have a little ritual for those days. Maybe some herbal tea and chocolate chip cookies, or a good movie and popcorn, or a favorite book. Meditation and prayer are also often effective ways to center yourself.

If you’re too nervous and on edge to focus on a film, or to concentrate on the words written on a page, or to even think about holding one of your favorite bone china teacups, try to work out your excess energy by dancing to  music that you love, music that makes you get up and move, music that lifts your spirits. Sing along to words that help you heal or that help you work out the emotions you’re feeling, be they sadness, anger or guilt. Pour out your feelings in a journal or in your own songs, or in a painting or poem.

Write down your fears on slips of paper and burn them ceremonially in a small bonfire, or paint them on rocks (use plant-based paints) and then toss those rocks in a river. Or find someplace where no one can hear you and start venting all of your negative feelings into the air. I have done all of these things at different times, and each technique has helped me. I have learned which songs pull me out of a rut and which can suck me back down. I have learned that writing my thoughts in a journal, over time, can help me find answers to my triggers and responses. My journal entries have also helped me see all the critical moments I have survived, and how the end of the world all those times really wasn’t. Now I can say to myself with confidence:

“You can get through this.

You will feel better tomorrow.

Things aren’t as dark as they seem right now.

You deserve happiness.”

And now, I am able to comfort myself and rise from my dark moods much faster and with far less drama or fear for the future. This is the beauty of writing during my worst moments. Over time, by studying my journal entries,  I am able to detect patterns of thought and reaction, which helps me avoid triggers that may lead to negative behavior and response.

When I am at my lowest, I pour out my most negative words. In my head, when I’m at my worst, those ideas are larger-than-life. Once they’re on paper, they shrink to their proper perspective. When I reread my words, I can see that clearly. When I give vent out loud to my worst thoughts – through dance or song or just yelling in my car on a lonely stretch of road –  I get them out of my head and they grow smaller as well. When I spend time with others who care for me, I realize my problems aren’t going to keep me from the ones  I love. Those huge, all-encompassing worries are really not so mighty after all. I survived those worries and I will survive any more that come calling in my mind. I am bigger than all of my worries, just as you are more than the sum total of your traumatic experience.

Yes, I am bigger than November Fifth. I will survive it. The date may loom around the corner like a long forecast storm, but I have an umbrella or two, and friends whose homes will shelter me from the rain, and cats to curl up with me as we stay warm together, listening to the night winds howl over the mountain.

Josie Sanders Bio:

Josie Sanders is a freelance writer and mother of six living on the South Cumberland Plateau on a small farm, where she raises chickens and herbs and berries and enjoys the company of her cat, dog, hens  and horses.
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COMMENTS (3) | abuse, PTSD, self growth
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Comments

3 Responses to “Making It Through A Sad Day: PTSD”

  1. Linda
    April 6th, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

    I loved this PTSD article

  2. Donna
    April 7th, 2012 @ 6:29 am

    I am grateful for your honesty & wisdom. From you terror & misery you have become a compassionate woman. Your generosity has lifted me from my sorrows & regrets. Thank you for sharing, you suggestions about self care & hope.

  3. JudithJean France
    May 7th, 2012 @ 7:42 am

    Well said. Real transparent reader can feel the emotions. You express what some find impossible to put into words. Blessings…-

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