Nineteen years ago while sitting next to my father’s hospital bed in the intensive care unit, I knew I needed help. Thirty-six hours earlier, I had witnessed an accident that brought him to this place of being hooked up to more machines than I ever knew existed, which kept him alive even though his body was closer to death.
It was a freak accident. One second the weather was perfectly beautiful and in the next second a powerful gust of wind from a line of thunderstorms blew in and ripped apart a tree in our front yard, striking my father as he walked towards our house from getting the mail. I was about to step off the porch to deliver the portable phone to him since one of his golf buddies had called. A simple, mundane moment became completely chaotic.
Seeing that and hearing the sound of the tree rip apart smacked my entire being. Nothing felt still; my mind raced, my body quivered, my tears wouldn’t stop. The order of events continuously repeated in my mind like a loud out-of-tune and off rhythm guitar riff at a bad rock concert. The tree, the rain, the wind, the flashing emergency lights, the first responders. The song and the experience was stuck in me.
Thirty-six hours later, believing at the time that my father would survive, I knew I needed help. I asked my mom if there was someone I could speak with, and a nurse happened to hear my request. Less than a half hour later, a counsellor appeared.
She took me into a quiet room adjacent to my father’s in the intensive care unit. I explained what was happening in my mind and that it felt impossible to quiet the noise. She told me to write it out. She found a pad of paper and a pen and encouraged me to write down every detail that was replaying in my mind. She left the room, and for forty-five minutes I wrote down everything.
When I was finished, I felt different. My mind was unequivocally quieter. My breath, which had felt tight and shallow, now sunk a little deeper. My body was no longer shaking. The tears stopped. The paper now held the memory of the trauma, and it gave my brain a break from thinking about it.
Looking back, I realize that was the beginning of my life with post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. I’m not cured of it, and I’m ok with that. I know I’ll always be susceptible to re-experiencing flashbacks, anxiety, insomnia and social withdrawal if I’m exposed to my triggers, which are falling trees and intensely strong winds. However, I am thankful that those triggers are often rare, and when they have come, I’ve managed my reaction to them….for the most part.
Three years ago within the same week, two friends on two separate occasions approached me and asked the same question—how did you do it? What they meant was how did I go from struggling with PTSD to having a thriving acupuncture practice and a happy marriage. I didn’t have an immediate answer for either of them, but the more I thought about their question, the more I realized I had a story to share.
I started writing my memoir about my journey with PTSD a month later. At that point, I thought I was very secure and clear with how to cope with my triggers. Revisiting those moments of trauma was challenging, but remarkable things began to happen. The more I wrote, the stronger I felt. The anticipation of a strong storm didn’t bother me as much. I was able to watch a friend cut down a tree, which mimicked sounds I heard way back when, without feeling any nervousness.
I encourage anyone who has experienced a trauma that still haunts them to write it out. Allow the paper to hold the memories. Write it out over and over again if need be. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Don’t type it out on a computer. A good old fashioned pad and pen will do. Get every single detail out. What you saw, heard, smelled, said. All of it. It’s not about writing a story. It’s about getting the trauma out of your soul.
Many times while writing I thought back to that moment in that small room in the hospital with the pad and pen. It reminds me how grateful I am for that one piece of advice when I really needed it.