July is usually a rough time for me. Okay, “a little rough for me” is a bit of an understatement. 24 years ago my life was rocked by a series of traumatic events, the most devastating of which was the shooting death of my first husband when I was 6 weeks postpartum with my second child. As a result, I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ve gone through intensive individual and group therapy and worked hard to rebuild my life. For the most part, I’m healed. My psychological scars run deep, though, and this time of year usually brings panic attacks, fear, intense grief, and depression.
Many of my friends and family members have faced life threatening health conditions over the years: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, addiction issues and others. I have PTSD. That’s my life-threatening health condition. It’s not a character flaw. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a health condition.
The other people in my life who have faced serious health conditions have all made major changes in their lifestyle as part of their recovery. I know there are healthy lifestyle choices that can boost my resiliency and increase my odds of survival.
So, after a suicide attempt in 2010, I made three big changes in my own life:
1. Be my own friend. At some point after my attempt, I realized that I was far meaner and more insensitive to myself than anyone else had ever been. Turns out I was the most toxic person in my life! I remember the day I caught myself bullying me. I was sitting in my car in a movie theater parking lot on a Thursday afternoon, yelling at myself for crying. Not surprisingly, that strategy didn’t improve my mood one bit. There is no way I would let anyone else who said those things to me stay in my life. I realized that something had to change. What if I was as kind and supportive to myself as I was to others?
I’m getting better at self-compassion, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. I still catch myself getting embarrassed and ashamed when my PTSD rears its head. After all, it’s been a long time, and I can be impatient with my recovery and those pesky lingering symptoms. If I catch my internal voice being mean to my scared self, I stop; validate my feelings; and try to think of what I need to do to feel better.
Basically, I’m learning to be a kind human being to myself. Practice makes perfect.
2. Strengthen connections with supportive people. I’ve been very blessed by some incredibly kind and loyal friends. In my roughest of times, though, it was hard for the people who love me the most to be so close to my suffering. It was also uncomfortable for them to spend time with someone who was being so cruel to me… even though that person was me.
When I learned to take better care of myself, it became easier to stay connected with my biggest supporters. Over the last few years, that circle has gotten bigger. I now have an incredible network of friends, family members and professional colleagues who have my back through good times and bad.
On the flipside, once I learned to be nice to myself, I became more sensitive to the negativity of others. I began to limit my exposure to toxic people who seem to delight in pointing out weaknesses, flaws and imperfections. Instead of seeking their elusive approval, I shifted my focus to the people who mattered.
3. Practice vulnerability. For many years, I took to heart what a therapist once told me: that no one could hurt my feelings without my permission. As a result of protecting myself, though, I realized I was overdoing it somewhat, and keeping most people at a distance. Now that I’m healthier, I’m learning to let others get close.
This means that I have had to learn to be vulnerable, and let people know when I’m struggling. It’s scary for me. But you know what? I’ve learned that when I give supportive people the opportunity to show me they care, they don’t let me down. Their support has allowed me to be very public about my past struggles and my recovery process. I’ve shared parts of my story in videos, magazine and newspaper articles, and in front of large crowds at national conferences. The compassionate and overwhelmingly supportive response has been indescribably rewarding.
I’m still fairly guarded and protective when it comes to any current personal struggles, like getting through the month of July, which is the hardest month of the year for me. Last year, in order to pursue an amazing opportunity in my professional life, I moved to a new city, away from my closest friends and family. When that summer began, I knew I needed to create new connections with supportive people in my new environment. Fortunately for me, at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, I work with some of the most compassionate people on the planet. So that was easy.
As the potentially rough time of year for me grew closer, I took an emotional risk and opened up to a few folks, and let them know how I was feeling. I tested the water to see if I could be vulnerable with them. Of course, they did not let me down. I told them about my past traumatic experiences and they accepted me. I knew that if I started to spiral down, I’d feel comfortable reaching out. I let them know which days were the hardest for me, and we planned activities so that I wouldn’t be alone.
At the end of the month, one of my good work friends celebrated with me over lunch. The usual emotional storms had rolled in — as they do every year — but this year I was prepared. What has historically been a time of acute pain and loneliness became a time of personal pride and strength.
So what about this year? Let’s just say that as I type these words I’m planning my end of the month celebration, and looking forward to another lunch with that same coworker to mark the occasion.
To hear more from Shelby and others with lived experience, watch AFSP’s Voices of Hope.
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