Michele Rosenthal isn’t only a certified post-trauma coach and an award-winning author; she’s someone who struggled herself with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for 25 years before achieving full recovery. Addiction.com contributing writer Barbara Trainin Blank talked to Rosenthal (who’s also an Addiction.com expert blogger) on the occasion of the publication of her new book, Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity, a practical recovery handbook for those who suffer from trauma and PTSD. Rosenthal is also the author of Before the World Intruded: Conquering the Past and Creating the Future.
Barbara Trainin Blank for Addiction.com: What’s the difference between trauma, PTSD and simply going through a difficult experience?
Michele Rosenthal: Trauma is an event that overwhelms your ability to cope, that changes you and your place in the world. We all have daily stressors and challenging moments that do not impinge on our ability to function. There are ‘big traumas,’ such as a car accident, major illness, assault or military service, [and at] the other end of the spectrum, there’s post-traumatic stress syndrome, which is based on a diagnosis four weeks after symptoms have been present; these include hyper vigilance, looking for the next bad thing that’s going to happen. The memory keeps popping into your head – nightmares, flashbacks. Or there’s avoidance, the opposite. Only about 20% of ‘big trauma’ survivors end up with PTSD.
BTB: Can you talk bit about where trauma, personality and dealing with a mental illness intersect? How can you sort through all of these to figure out what’s really happening in your life and recovery?
MR: They all have an impact. A lot of people in the military were victims of abuse, so they’re already coping with big traumas. Then what they experience in Iraq or Afghanistan overwhelms their ability to manage [their emotions and/or their life]. Who you were before the ultimate trauma does matter. It matters if there’s PTSD in your family; it can be handed down. If you’re dealing with bipolar disorder and something else rocks your world, it’s going to be more difficult. We’re all like pitchers of water, which can hold only so much. If you pour even a quarter of a cup more into the pitcher, it overflows.
BTB: Can a person not realize until later that he or she has gone through a trauma?
MR: Definitely. We’re not taught to look for trauma. On the other side, we’re taught to get over it, move on, buck up. Our whole society is based on moving forward … We’re often quicker to see trauma in somebody else’s life than in our own. We feel for ourselves that we don’t deserve to be upset by this, that no one else would be. We’re very self-critical after trauma. Child abuse or sexual abuse survivors tell a story that they were bad, and that’s why it happened.
BTB: On the other hand, isn’t the word ‘trauma’ overused?
MR: ’Trauma’ comes from the Greek word for ‘wound.’ It doesn’t mean embarrassed, like the woman who says she was ‘traumatized’ by running into her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. PTSD doesn’t mean a stressful test or someone having PTSD from, say, the weather. When we start using these words in this way we lose the meaning and it becomes even harder for people who have been traumatized to acknowledge it. There’s also the impact of stigma: Holocaust survivors came here in a curtain of silence. They were told, ‘don’t tell the story; get on with your lives.’
BTB: You talk in your new book about a loss of self after trauma. Is this a new idea?
MR: The biggest and most difficult question survivors [of trauma] have is, who am I now? There are lots of handbooks about trauma, but only a small section is devoted to identity. My book gives you a step-by-step process to reclaim that positive sense of self after trauma. We’re all unique in our traumatic experiences, universal in the post-trauma response and again unique in our reclaiming process [in recovering from trauma].
BTB: What role does psychotherapy play as opposed to self-help in recovering from trauma?
MR: Therapy is a fantastic place to begin, but it’s once or twice a week for 50 minutes. The value of the self-help component is that you have to keep working on your recovery for your recovery to work. You can extend the work you do in therapy by experimenting [on your own] with other processes and moving through the recovery exercises. The whole process of recovery is trial and error; you put together a ‘cocktail’ of modalities. Try what resonates with you, then respect the response you get back. You can always stop it and move on to something else. You can always come back to it later. What we need at every moment changes.
BTB: What is ‘trauma identity’?
MR: Trauma identity is where you get stuck. You see the world as a trauma survivor who could die any second, always in danger. That’s not what we want. You want to be able to acknowledge and be aware that you’ve survived a trauma and yet move into a place of being comfortable, stepping out of survivor mode to say, ‘this is the person I want to be.’ You are not the little survivor who is always vulnerable; you are so much more.
BTB: Is there a last point you’d like to leave Addiction.com readers with, from Life After Trauma?
MR: No matter when your trauma happened, it is possible to create a post -identity and to heal. So often people say, ‘I didn’t have a ‘before’ self; I was too young.’ None of us can go back to our ‘before’ self. It’s irrelevant whether you have a clear ‘before’ or ‘after’ self; everyone has the ability to create a post-identity that’s good. That’s the main mission of post-traumatic healing, whether the trauma occurred at two or 82.