PTSD and Your Lost Self: 3 Ways to Reconnect
My trauma happened in childhood and completely severed me from any healthy sense of self. Later, one of my biggest problems in recovery from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was this: I felt completely disconnected from who I had been before my trauma and who I had never had the chance to be because of my trauma. I grieved that lost girl and the woman she might have become. In fact, the grief I experienced was so vivid it felt like a jab in my soul. I resented that trauma had taken from me so many opportunities at the same time that it turned me into someone I neither liked nor completely understood.
PTSD Recovery Helps You Reclaim Connection to Your Self
Then, one day I noticed that while I wasn’t who I was, or could have been, there were some good things about who I had become. In fact, there seemed to be a self that was wanting to come out but, caught in the vortex of PTSD symptoms, I didn’t know how to let her become who she wanted to be (How To Recover From Emotional Trauma of Domestic Abuse). Discovering how to engage and succeed in that process was a major hallmark of my recovery.
It always amazes me how we can feel something in recovery that feels so unique and personal to us, and then discover that other people feel it too. Yesterday I received this question from a survivor:
. . . my trauma that changed me . . . The person I was is buried deep . . . she tries to come out . . . What are things you can do to help get back to being a you that’s better and stronger?
That’s a fantastic and proactive question to ask in the PTSD recovery process. The more you develop focus and desire the more you reclaim control and purpose, which leads to success.
Connecting with Your Self Lost to PTSD
Whether you have a clear before/after break, or never had a chance to know yourself without trauma, it is possible to transform the pain of the past “if only” feeling. The process of learning how to become the person I wanted to be versus the person trauma turned me into was long and challenging, but I learned three important things along the way:
You cannot go back to who you used to be.
I spent a long time trying to go back; when that failed, I tried to imitate who I had been. Neither work. That old person didn’t know all the things you now do know about yourself, others and the world. That new information will always be present in any identity you choose.
You can bring the past into your present.
If you can remember who you used to be then you can identify what you valued back then and see how that aligns with what you value now. Offering yourself new experiences that link up to old values is one way of creating a connection between your past and your present. If you can’t remember a self before trauma, then you can use your imagination (a very key element in neuroplasticity, by the way) to create an image of who that would have been, identify what values that represents, and also create new experiences that allow you to embody those values.
You can choose to go forward into the future.
It’s easy to think that who you were or didn’t have the chance to be is better than who you can become. That’s false. While PTSD symptoms make you feel less than, your more than self waits to be discovered. One way to start moving in that direction is by becoming clear on who you want to be when you have achieved your recovery goals. What kind of person is that? Your perception of that can begin with a person who has reduced or even eliminated symptoms and then expand into how you will live, work, love, laugh, play, etc.
PTSD Recovery Shifts You From Powerless to Powerful
Trauma leaves in its wake many losses; resolving the loss that deeply affects identity is a core element of recovery and healing. In my own process, this meant acknowledging who I had become and what I didn’t like about myself, recognizing what I missed about my old self and finding ways to reconnect, creating a vision of who I wanted to be and setting up experiences that allowed me to explore, discover, embrace and embody the elements that made me feel a connection to that.
The shift from powerless to powerful in PTSD healing must go all the way down to the core of who you are—of your identity. It gains strength from linking to your other selves in ways that resolve pain and loss, plus increase action and connection.
Rosenthal, M. (2014, October 23). PTSD and Your Lost Self: 3 Ways to Reconnect, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, May 22 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2014/10/ptsd-and-your-lost-self-how-to-reconnect
Author: Michele Rosenthal
Thank you for the image of the butterfly with the shattered wing. I have tried for decades to find an image that resonates with my experience. When I saw it, it made me cry. It’s both heartbreaking and powerful.
I was diagnosed to have complex PTSD. A little over a year ago, I had a near-fatal car accident and within a 2-year span lost my dogs and had two house fires because of suicide attempts. All these recent traumas not only brought on my own traumas from childhood but also the fact that I have been "carrying" my parents' PTSD. Every single moment is a struggle. I am emotionally numbed out and just wish for death to come. I don't know how much more I can take. I was a spiritual man who seems to have lost faith (even angry at God for allowing all these traumas to happen, though most were my fault). I don't know where to turn. On medications that are not helping and see my trusted therapist once a week who is trying to help (good is that he had PTSD, too, but made it through). I get so discouraged when people say if not "fixed," your whole life can be just nothing but trauma. Makes me want to try to kill myself again. I would go to the hospital but what could they possibly do for me. I got into somatic experiencing through a healing trauma online course but don't feel like doing the exercises. The more I avoid, the worse it gets. I don't know what to do. What DO you do when your body feels disconnected (feels like someone went inside me and unplugged all my wiring). I feel like a shot; like I actually died in the car wreck. Any suggestions would be helpful.
First, I want to tell you that my heart is so sad for you right now, because I deeply understand how you feel and was exactly where you at one time. I want to point out something to you that you wrote in your message - "The more I avoid, the worse it gets." Sadly, this is the challenge with complex PTSD. We want to avoid, because it hurts so darn much, but it's in the avoidance that things get worse.
Honestly, I don't see this as a process of getting "fixed." We were never broken. The truth is, you are having a trauma response. It's what your body was made to do when it feels threatened. When you have repeated traumatic events that never get fully processed, your brain and body still think they are protecting you from the threat and so you have strong reactions to any stressful event in your life. This is why some people will say that if you don't deal with it your life will be nothing but trauma. It's not that you are inviting more traumatic events into your life, but rather, your body sees everything as traumatic, because it's never shut down the original trauma responses from your childhood.
I want you to know there is good news. Your trauma response can be interrupted and you can help it to settle down, but you need find a way to push past feeling so defeated and wanting to avoid. Right now, your fear brain talking for you. It's keep you in trauma mode and when that is happening, the part of your brain that can think through and rationalize things is not able to work, because your fear brain keeps firing false alarms and telling you that you're in danger. Also, as survivors of childhood abuse with complex PTSD, we struggle with emotional flashbacks, which can keep us trapped in the helpless feelings we had as kids.
If you haven't read it, I strongly encourage you to get the book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, by Pete Walker. This book helped me come so far in healing. When you learn to interrupt your trauma response and manage emotional flashbacks, life feels so much less hopeless. When I feel so disconnected, I often return to the part of the book that reminds me how to deal with emotional flashbacks, because my go to feeling in bad times is the same are yours - I want to end it all, but really I just want the pain to stop. It's important though to remember that when you're thinking that way, your brain isn't able to rationalize your way out of it, so you need to set yourself up for success by putting tools in place to help you through the tough times.
I'm glad you have a therapist that is supporting you through this. Does he do EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing)? It has been very helpful in helping me process through my traumas.
I promise, there is hope and healing. It's not always easy, but if you do the work even when you don't feel like it, it's so worth it.
I have so much that I would like yo write in a response to both the initial post as well as this reply. I have been in one long extended emotional flashback for months and months now - can barely function on so many levels. Thank goodness I can type this now to say that I relate to so so much and am so grateful for the feeling of validation that I have through both your words. I am just so sad that others experience what I experience... But thank you so much for the sense of hope I feel through identification... My primary coping mode is an eating disorder and its killing me, and I feel like I'm losing/lost my mind. Schema therapy just takes me back to that 2/3/4/5 year old in me that was emotionally abandoned, but I don't even understand quite why... I'm stopping trauma therapy as its keeping me in this scary and terrifying "state"... And I cant live - nor do I want to a lot of the time... Thank you.. THANK YOU.. and hang in there... I will too xxx
This just connected with me on SO many levels.. Thank you for sharing..
I'm so glad this was useful to you, kdan. We're all really so similar even in our individual experiences. Onward toward freedom....
What a powerful message.
This hit the nail on the head for me. My trauma was the end of a very serious relationship that completely shatter my world. Because of how important it was to and the extremely hurtful way they ended it. I was finally able really see it for what it was. For a while i just kind of did my thing and lived my life. At first i got right back on my feet. Then things between us got uglier. And round two of pain happened. For a while i isolated myself and then summer came and i started being social again. Making new friends. Creating a new memories as if the entire span of that relationship never happened. As time went on i noticed my mind was more aware of reality and i began questioning mine. I didn't really give it much thought other than trying to suppress it until the aanniversary of a friends death and the sheer question of why she had to die was the straw that broken my mental dam and i lost it. I started meds and they have helped but since November ive been deciphering the construction that my mind has done. A week ago i finally got my appointment with a psychologist and she labeled everything i told her as signs of ptsd. It makes sense. But it also makes it hurt more, knowing just how much I've lost. I lost all trust in myself, my thoughts, and my memories. Reading this article lets me know that I'm not alone in this. I don't have the common, easy to tell symptoms. For a year and a half no one could tell. Even my therapist was surprise , but she agreed it made sense. But this is completely accurate for what has happened to me. Thank you for these tips. And good luck in your continued recovery.
@Kristin, I'm so glad the ideas resonate with you! Sounds like you're on the road to recovery yourself. Freedom is a glorious thing -- I've been healed for almost a decade and can vouch for the powerful transitions recovery brings.
What do you do if your incest was when you were still in diapers and you hadn't even developed yet. Then how do you know who you are without the trauma?
I think that you (me) would have to try to remember the things that have spoken to me over the years - little things, wild things, almost always dismissed and certainly don't know what to do with them things. Like for me- even though abuse taught me to keep my head down and not attract any attention, I've always been fascinated by cosplay and people who dye their hair wild colors. Or sometimes it's the things that make us jealous. When I see someone doing ___ , I feel angry and jealous. (For me, people who create freely and enjoy having a body like snowboarding, sports, dance) It's hard to see who we are without the abuse in the picture, and not because there is some negative payoff like some books say. But because it's always been there. There was no before time to connect to, no safe place to go back to in memory. As I heal my stuff, I don't even know who is emerging, what she will look like, how her life will be. I just know it's good and worthwhile. And If I just take care of a piece today, eventually the puzzle will fit together.
u can just create who u want to be and then be...of course im just someone who has no idea who she even is any more and cant even remember who she was and that was the advice i was given so i been trying to work with that
I have suffered extreme PTSD I was a soldier for a few years should have died in a car accident and left me with nothing but my life recovered fully that was the easy part diagnosed with a panic attack disorder and came off clonazepam all with in 2 and half years every day I feel every emotion a human can feel but I make the best out of it nothing is imposable im 20 years old and accomplished so dam much under my circumstances and in a nut shell what I do every day is failure is not an option so the only option is success, I takes time and with ptsd although you want to wake up and you want it to be gone it wont you have to cope using the right methods that work for you :)
Wow! I love it when I hear things more than once in just a few days that's when I know to listen! I was just telling my therapist I wanted to go back to being the person I was before the memories of trauma came rushing in to my life 8 years ago. My trauma was 35 years ago and I repressed it all that time.I love what you said "The shift from powerless to powerful in PTSD healing must go all the way down to the core of who you are—of your identity. It gains strength from linking to your other selves in ways that resolve pain and loss, plus increase action and connection." Can I quote you on my blog? http://healingtakesalifetime.blogspot.com/ Don't know if it helps but my therapist told me "you have always been who you are and it is just a matter of healing" which is why I love your comment. Thanks = mauigirl
@Lisa, sorry for the delayed response! Yes, absolutely, quote me any time and spread the healing word; we're all in this together. If you have a blogpost about some positive aspect of healing feel free to contact me about reposting it in the Survivors Speak series on HealMyPTSD.com.
PTSD since the age of 5, ( incest) Have recurring more and more different PTSD's? I had tried to kill myself in the 1980's by drinking, my family labled me an alcoholic and bi polar. Yes, after 3 yrs of drinking it took alot of work not to become bi polar from drinking.I am not on med's nor seek therapy at the age of 58 now. I'm not over anything just trying to enjoy my life. ( I am afraid to enjoy A glass of wine around them, have to sneak with friends) If I show any sense of emotion like cry over the lose of my dog or my siser (who passed 10 yrs ago) or something they tell me it's ok you are bi polar OMG