|| An Open Letter to Those who Love Someone Struggling with PTSD or Trauma
Because I know trauma intimately, I forget that some people don't.
And I would never wish that thundering darkness on anyone.
But I hate feeling misunderstood. I think many of us do.
To most people, I look fine—maybe I seem a bit awkward in moments—and now, after many years of hard inner work, I am fine. I feel like myself. I feel real and whole, intact—stitched together again.
But there are still stories that lie under the surface of my skin.
The ache goes away gradually, it lessens in intensity, but there are fractions and fissures, shadows and echoes that remain. It's a constant work in progress, and I am okay with that.
There's even beauty in it.
But unless it's happened to you, I don't think you can fathom what it is to be shattered. To be numb, floating outside your body, and unable to come home to yourself because you are so afraid—afraid of the feelings that are so big. Sorrow, shame, anger, rage, and panic swirl inside, and you seem to suffocate as you struggle not to drown in their depths. And these depths seem to go on and on, into the inky sapphire of midnight.
Everything becomes tinged with danger. Nothing feels trustworthy. Safety is nowhere to be found. Much is seen through the lens of the past, of what happened.
Life becomes hard. So very hard.
Things that used to feel easy can feel impossible. Leaving the house can feel impossible. Simple things like going to the store or looking someone in the eye feel scary beyond words. Threat, threat—everywhere. Our bodies might shake, even in stillness, for we are constantly on red alert. Our bodies may feel unable to fully relax, and vigilance becomes our best friend.
We may retreat from the world, isolate, wonder what the hell is wrong with us, or fear we've gone crazy (P.S. we're not). We might react strongly to loud noises or sudden movements. We may react strongly to many things, because we so badly fear being hurt or violated again.
I don't dive into these depths to taste the pain—I've already tasted it. It is my past, no longer my present, and not my future. But these experiences will always be a part of me. They shaped me. And I know there is wisdom in that.
I know I cannot contribute to the silence on this topic. I want to honor the pain that so many of us go through.
Now, I wish for PTSD and trauma to be common knowledge. Normalized. No longer stigmatized. Understood by those who have been to the darkness and those who have not. Honored by those who love survivors, phoenixes, and fighters.
Remember these things if you love someone healing from trauma, PTSD, or abuse. Know that your support can mean the world.
Don't say we should be healed already. It's a process. Honor that it can hurt so much.
Don't tell us what we need. We know.
Don't say that we shouldn't feel this way. Because it makes complete sense that we do.
In a matter of mere moments, our lives were turned upside down. We were left confused, our eyes wide with shock, trying to make sense of it all. And it may still not make sense.
Trauma rocks our world. It shakes us to the core.
We feel it in our bodies. Our hearts. Our skin. Our nervous systems, which may never be the same again.
And even when we start the healing, it takes time. There is no rush. And there is all the time we need to heal.
Because time is what we didn't have when trauma happened and we couldn't take it in. There was no time. The clock sped up and stood still, all at once. We could not integrate the experience.
Now, our bodies speak to us in sensations that we slowly learn how to read.
We are not pathology.
We are not bad or ugly or wrong or weak.
We are healing.
And sometimes our nervous systems get raw and flash with signals that tell us to run or freeze or fight.
But precisely because we have been to the depths, swum in rivers of ancient grief, and climbed out of hollow, terrible places with grit and courage and even just a tiny flame of hope…
We change. We crack open—never to be the same. In the crevices of the brokenness, we are born again. We can choose that.
It's not easy. It's messy. It's hard to describe.
So don't you dare think that we are fragile little things. Don't look at us with pity in your eyes.
We are tender, but oh so strong.
And we know. We know things you can't imagine.
We may even come out of this experience different in truly remarkable ways—because it's not just post-traumatic stress, it's also post-traumatic growth, post-traumatic breakthroughs, post-traumatic love, post-traumatic sweetness, post-traumatic badasssery, post-traumatic wisdom.
In the deathlike feel of it all, there can be a fragrant budding of fresh, tender life.
Maybe we will find a new purpose. Dedicate to an old dream.
Maybe we will soften. Meet God. Taste the vast reservoir of our resiliency and strength. Find beauty and meaning in the simple things—like a cup of tea with a loved one while watching a yellow-tinged leaf dance into a puddle.
Maybe we will find dancing or painting or writing or art or science—and never understand how we could have lived or breathed without such soulful medicine.
Maybe we will learn to reach out for help, and see that even though there is such darkness and cruelty in this world, there is also such softness and kindness.
Maybe we will know joy again, in ways that sizzle like magnolia buds in early spring and take us over the way pain used to.
Maybe we will learn how luscious it is to care for ourselves tenderly.
We will never be the same, see. When the cracks and crevices formed, they changed us. We fought and we surrendered.
And it isn't shiny, this process. It's messy as hell. It's damn beautiful. It's so real.
But, understand. Understand the immense feelings. The fear and chaos. The bone-deep exhaustion we may still feel.
Understand that there were terrifying things—and people—beyond our control.
Support us with love as we come home to our bodies again. Support us with gentleness as we find the rhythm of our voices again.
Do not silence our stories when we are ready to speak.
Offer us respect. Touch us with care. Understand the ways that we still may ache, even years or decades later.
Listen to our thoughts, our feelings, our views.
See us. See the strength we gathered in the depths. See the the treasures we found when we thought we were buried in darkness.
Know the courage that got us through.
Helpful resources for those suffering from PTSD:
Healing Trauma, by Peter Levine
Waking the Tiger, by Peter Levine
Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
American Psychological Association