I titled this post, Mindfulness practice, and My PTSD because I think both a mindfulness practice and an illness can look different for each individual. While the list of symptoms may be similar when it comes to being diagnosed, I have come to find out that the severity of the symptoms, the severity of the trauma, and how each person experiences living with their PTSD can vary greatly. My therapist has taught me that, the wonderful group of survivors I have contact with taught me that, and the unrelenting chokehold of some of my symptoms have taught me that. I imagine it’s the same for most chronic illness’s but I can only speak to the one that I deal with on a daily basis.
I have had a very steady and intentional mindfulness practice for the last twenty years. I started it years ago when I needed to change the way I was dealing with tremendous stress and hopelessness. I had two very young children at the time and needed to find a way to stay present when all I wanted to do was run away physically, emotionally, and mentally. Twenty years ago, mindfulness was not mainstream, but that didn’t matter to me. I quietly sought out teachers, read books, and practiced what I learned. It became a way of life for me and I found in the silence of my struggle it kept me steady and fairly calm.
Eight years ago, when my brain/mind/body/soul could not hold in my repressed past any longer and I was diagnosed with complex PTSD my mindfulness practice went to hell. I could no longer sit for more than 1 or 2 minutes without my memories, distress, fear, and shame, kicking in and sending me into a panic. It seemed the more I told myself, breathe in-breathe out, I would follow that up with a panic attack that lasted much longer than a short meditation practice would have lasted. So I gave up the idea of meditating. I also had a strong yoga practice but felt a surge of anger course through me every time I tried to settle into a resting or restorative pose. I was fortunate to have a wonderful teacher at the time. He pulled me aside one day and told me that sometimes in life yoga tells you to take a break. It’s about listening to what your mind and body are telling you. He assured me that one day, I would be able to come back to it and that I hadn’t failed. He was right!
My task right now is to learn to live with my flashbacks, becoming overwhelmed, triggers, and sense of fear that still are very much part of my day. But, I also want to live mindfully and intentionally. This seems so incongruent and at odds sometimes, a paradox. I wonder if the desire of how I want to live will always be shadowed by how I have to cope day to day with my PTSD. Can the two of them find a middle ground?
I try to honor being awake. The connectedness we have to all things, the impermanence of the moments both perfect and non-perfect, the beauty and wonder and power of being present. Except that my symptoms bring me back to the past. It’s what PTSD does, it’s the nature of the illness. So trying to live in the present and being flashbacked to the past is quite uncomfortable and very frustrating.
Many people have said to me, let it go, it’s in the past, you are safe now, etc. I get it, I understand what they are saying, I understand the place from where those words of encouragement come from and still that isn’t what this is about. The nature of PTSD, the nature of how the illness affects me, is that it won’t let me forget the past. In my mindfulness practice, my mind doesn’t just acknowledge it and let it go. Although, I can let it go after I have experienced the symptom, but that’s after it causes quite a stir in mind.
When I try to ignore my symptoms, I often end up in a state of mind I would rather not participate in any longer. It brings me to the brink of crisis, which is a place I have worked hard and developed many skills and tools to avert. I’m trying to come to terms with working with my symptoms instead of fighting them and also living the mindful and intentional life I choose.
I feel that I’m finding my way, I’m working diligently to have both. I’m learning to acknowledge that this is not an either/or situation. I have relentless symptoms that I deal with on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean I can’t live in the present. Even if my present is uncomfortable, I’m not in a situation where I am physically in harms way any longer. My mind and body forget that sometimes, but if I continue to practice staying present and being mindful of my thoughts when I’m not being triggered I find it’s easier to come out of that out-of-control feeling when I do get triggered.
I will continue the practice of mindfulness and pay attention to the present. I will continue to learn and grow, but I’m also going to acknowledge that sometimes it’s a struggle to stay present when my illness catapults me to the past. Perhaps that’s part of being mindful…
Thank you for reading my memoir, Untangled, A Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph