I was physically assaulted riding my bicycle to work one morning. That began my long journey with PTSD and healing. This was written a few years into that process.
One of the debilitating symptoms of PTSD is emotional vulnerability and distress. With the primitive brain ‘in charge’, we may experience feeling out of control or at the mercy of our thoughts and emotions. It may be difficult to find trust and faith in our capacity to cope and heal. Awareness of the following key areas and strategies can help us to fully recover and enjoy life again.
Expect ups and downs, strong moments and anxious ones. Tailor your strategy to what you need in the moment. I knew overall that I wanted to build strength so when I was able, I practiced strengthening yoga poses. When I felt I needed a quiet, restorative practice, I focused on that. My emotional state was volatile at the beginning and I often changed practices midstream as my mood changed.
Kindness and compassion was the key. I experienced a huge trauma. Loving kindness and reassurance on all levels supported my healing. It is helpful to know that the symptoms of PTSD are common and are a logical response to trauma.
There are certain symptoms and patterns of trauma and the cyclical path of healing. Even though for months I felt unsafe and threatened most of the time, I understood there was hope for a cure.
Cocooning and protection from threat allows the system to settle down and step back from state of red alert. This includes creating physical safety as well as accepting the need and value of emotional diversions.
I learned to respect the power of the unconscious mind. The trauma was at a level not readily accessible to the conscious mind so telling myself I was safe was not particularly useful. A fact based approach didn’t dissolve the anxiety attacks. I had to let go of judgments and expectations about how I should feel and how fast I should heal.
The best way to heal was to create safety so my system could heal itself. I returned again and again to kindness and compassion for myself. Honoring my process of healing was far more helpful than pushing myself and denying reality. Judging myself for my feelings was always counter-productive. A better use for my conscious mind was to recognize the changing reality of what I needed and be willing to work with that.
Comfort and not scaring myself further were and continue to be a key to healing and recovery. Gentle patience with myself in this slow process of healing is necessary. I find myself developing a deep sense of compassion for myself, and for others feeling this fear. My psychologist gently reminded me again and again that I didn’t cause this, to give myself a break, to take my time, and let my mind and body heal without expectations of how long it would take or the ‘proper’ way to work with it. That was both good and hard advice. I came to appreciate times when I could work with staying present and releasing the trauma, and times when I needed to give myself permission to curl up safe at home with a reassuring movie and some ice cream.
Staying present while traumatized takes courage and energy. I had to balance venturing out with cocooning as I healed both emotionally and physically. I was committed to staying present and to not push the trauma underground. With that as my intention, I also observed my capacity and was gentle and allowing of diversion when needed.
To heal from PTSD, a person needs all the courage you can find and cultivate. Recovery from trauma is hard. It hurts. It takes real courage to give yourself what you need to heal. We need to feel safe in order to deeply heal.
I found it hard to ask for what I needed because I wasn’t fully accepting the fragility of my emotional state. When I was able to release judgment and expectations around my ‘progress’, I was better able to identify and ask for what I needed without feeling weak.
Some people judge themselves around the choices they made that put them in the situation where they were attacked. Another person’s violent behavior is never your fault. The Calgary Police Victim Assistance Unit sent some information a week after the assault that stated unequivocally that I was not to blame, that many victims of violence experience emotional and physical trauma and lists of resources where I could get help. I also had the opportunity to prepare a Victim Impact Statement. These formal steps of recognition are helpful in healing.
Forgiveness of a violent offender
Don’t rush into forgiveness. It is natural to be angry at people who commit violent crimes. They have harmed you and temporarily stolen your health and peace of mind. I am angry at a society that does not keep violent people with schizophrenia off the street.
The man who assaulted me has severe mental health issues. He has lived on the street and in jail for many years. The knowledge of his mental health issues defused much of my anger. I could only guess at the mental pain and anguish he must live with to have sought relief through this act of violence to a stranger.
Having worked with my own mind, it is also easy to understand that he would want to escape from his present mental state through street drugs. His mental ‘present moment’ is filled with anger and violence and pain. Most of us try to escape from mental anguish. No matter our external circumstances, we have that in common.
I have a nephew who was brain injured at birth and has many similar mental health issues to the man who assaulted me. My nephew does take his medication and it is still not enough to diffuse the aggression in his mind. My nephew does not take street drugs and has not crossed that line into a life where physical violence is the norm. I have been with him so many times when he is sweet and loving. I have seen him despairing of ever being happy, of leading a ‘normal’ life with a family, a home and a job. He knows that is not likely in his future. I also know he is physically threatening to his caregivers and sometimes physically assaultive. Two days after I was assaulted, my nephew was locked out of his caregiver’s home for assault and sent without even his winter jacket to live on the street. He stayed three months that winter at a homeless shelter. The man who had assaulted me left the homeless shelter and lived in jail.
We all want to be happy, loved, secure and safe. The mind of the person who assaulted me, like my nephew’s mind, makes that impossible much of the time. They are both at the mercy of an unstable mind full of delusions, paranoia, compulsions, extreme narcissism and a limited or non-existent ability to understand or feel empathy for others. PTSD is an illness caused by trauma. During the healing process, the primitive brain and subconscious mind hijack the conscious mind. Observing this lack of conscious control over my own trained mind gave me a glimpse into the working of their minds.
Yoga philosophy does not have a concept of sin. There is a concept of avidya, which means ignorance. Harm and pain arise out of our ignorance or being unconscious. I do have faith in basic goodness, in our True Nature as being full of light and goodness. I know many people are not in touch with that on a regular basis. Some are so covered over with darkness that in daily life and behavior their basic goodness almost seems irrelevant. Responding to harm caused by someone else’s unconscious behavior with more unconsciousness (our own) is not helpful. I have found that judgment and condemnation are so painful that most of us disappear into unconsciousness when these arise. As much as we are capable of remaining conscious and aware, we are able to stop disappearing and live with sanity and compassion.
Accepting and understanding the fear
I keep this all in my mind and continue to be willing to stay open and present as much as possible. The assault did happen. I was traumatized. I won’t minimize that. My meditation skills and yoga philosophy heal the layers of fear in the mind, breath and body.
Fear for my safety became a huge issue for me the year after the assault and it was not just fear of another assault. I was surprised I was afraid while driving. We rely on the people around us to be sober and paying attention and I couldn’t be sure they were. At any time in a crowd of people, someone could pull a knife on us or shoot us. The presence of a crowd doesn’t guarantee safety. We are really not safe anywhere. We just play the odds. At some level, we all know that we can’t control this process.
The material world is subject to change and dissolution. Yoga philosophy teaches of the fallacy of relying on the ever-changing material world. One of the ways we apply yoga philosophy is to ‘practice’ this awareness in daily life, letting go of attachments to this idea that our happiness depends on arranging external circumstances to our liking.
One question I regularly ask myself is ‘to whom is this happening?’ By keeping this awareness, it helps give me some perspective, a bit of distance. I can observe the effects of the trauma on my body and mind without feeling so ambushed by the primitive brain and unconscious mind. It helps me to stay in touch with the vast part of the mind that is not full of fear. Part of my healing is to be willing to live with this fear in a more conscious way. I need to both honor and protect myself and stay open.
Conscious awareness is the key to lifting the fear and the fog. Maintaining awareness as much as we can moment to moment creates an environment for healing.
Emotions and Commotions
Yoga philosophy talks about six negative emotions and five kleshas or stains on the mind.
The first klesha is avidya, or mistaking our emotions and the thoughts in the mind to be who we really are. It is like thinking the top ten feet of the ocean’s turbulence represents the whole ocean, ignoring the thousands of feet of stillness just underneath.
Asmita is ego or I-ness. Self-centeredness creates a veil or a block to living with awareness of our true nature. Self-absorption and narcissism are the problem, not a healthy sense of self, something many people in our culture are lacking.
Raga is attachment that colors the mind, our thinking patterns and the way we perceive. Dvesha or aversion is the same as attachment, only opposite.
Abhinivesha is self-preservation, fear of death or of losing one’s sense of self. This is something many of us with PTSD have had to face and is related to the primitive brain going on to red alert.
Emotions that can cause difficulty for us include:
Kama or desire. This is the root of the other five negative emotions.
Krodha: anger or hatred.