Part of my trauma recovery and personal development transformation process was organizing the history (across a span of almost 30 years!) of my trauma and response. This was an arduous task - and for a brief time it made all of my symptoms worse.
But then, an interesting thing happened:
The clarity I gained in putting language to all of that pain and suffering led me to learn new things.
Those new insights gave me strength, courage and creativity that helped me free myself from the merry-go-round of trauma, addiction, self-sabotage, depression, anxiety, panic, fear, sadness, guilt, grief, regret and shame.
Finally, the day of my ultimate freedom came. That was 15 years ago.
Here I'm sharing with you a peek behind the scenes in this excerpt from my first book, the award-nominated, BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED.
WHAT THE BOOK IS ABOUT
I think the editor nailed it with this description....
At the age of thirteen Michele Rosenthal survived such a rare, life-threatening illness none of her doctors had actually seen a case. Out of the hospital and making a full recovery, she believed if she only looked toward the future she could escape the trauma in her past. Twenty-five years later, however, the young girl had become a woman imprisoned by memories, fear and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In a bid to reclaim her life and heal her soul Michele boldly left the world she knew in search of a self she could barely imagine. From New York City to South Florida she traveled on an odyssey that took her from the depths of despair to the heights of joy, from her kitchen floor to the dance floor, from a child frozen in helplessness to a woman who is powerful, courageous and free. In her transformation lie the seeds for anyone who wants to conquer the past and create the future. This transcendent book shows what can happen when you discover who you are and then choose who you most deeply want to be.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
NOW, IT'S YOUR TURN
Alex Pattakos, Ph.D.
The philosopher and scientist Thales of Miletus, considered one of the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece, said that "getting to know yourself is extremely difficult." About a century later, another Greek philosopher by the name of Socrates espoused that "the unexamined life is not worth living." And a contemporary of Socrates, the Greek playwright Euripides, considered one of the greatest dramatists of all time, advised: "Don‘t attempt to heal others when you yourself are full of wounds."
The ageless wisdom of these famous Greek thinkers is alive and well in the twenty-first Century. I think that most of us would agree that "getting to know ourselves" is still extremely difficult. And I suspect that while not everyone would agree that an "unexamined life is not worth living," at least in a literal sense, I have observed over the years that more and more people are on a quest for deeper meaning in their lives. In fact, I would say that the search for meaning has become a "megatrend" of the new millennium as people of all ages and in all walks of life are being more comfortable asking existential questions and yearn for a life that is both authentic and fulfilling, not simply for one that is grounded only—or even primarily—in pleasure or power.
At first blush, the idea of attempting "to heal others when you yourself are full of wounds" would appear to be self-evident. But I‘m afraid to say that this is not the case. My personal and professional experience with the healing "arts" and allied human services professions suggests that many people enter the arena with the best of intentions but haven‘t done the inner work (suggested by Thales and Socrates) that is required to live up to Euripides‘s premise. Rather, they become human services warriors as a way to help, if not heal, themselves or to hide their "wounds" from others and many times from themselves.
This is certainly not the case of Michele Rosenthal who, in her memoir Before the World Intruded, demonstrates how to apply the wisdom from each of the ancient Greek thinkers mentioned here to her own life and work. To be sure, as Thales warned, confronting the struggle within is no easy task, nor is the process of discovering meaning in pain and suffering whatever their source or level of severity. On the contrary, as Ms. Rosenthal vividly illustrates, it can be— and usually is—a formidable challenge worthy of the mighty Hercules. And since we don‘t always recognize that we possess the inner and outer strength to confront what life calls out to us, more often than not we find ourselves wading in thoughts and feelings that are more akin to the plight of Sisyphus, the Greek hero who was ordered by the gods to push a big rock uphill only to see it slip out of his hands at the last moment, forcing him to start over—again and again and again for eternity.
When Michele Rosenthal asked me to write a foreword to her book, it was because she recognized that both of us were passionate about life no matter what the circumstances, that we both were intrinsically motivated by the search for meaning in our lives, and that we both wanted to make a positive difference in the world by helping others reach their highest potential. This recognition, as you will discern by reading her book, did not come easy for Michele. First, she needed to recognize these qualities in herself before she would be able to see the reflection of them in others. In the process of eventually overcoming the trauma that plagued her like the big rock of Sisyphus, Michele has done much more than survive; she‘s thriving in a new world with a new identity—one grounded in joy, meaning, and a renewed sense of self-awareness, self- worth, self-confidence, and self-empowerment.
Not being a stranger to trauma, I was able to resonate with Michele‘s ordeal in ways that only kindred spirits would understand and experience. At the same time, there are lessons to be learned from Michele that will benefit everyone. The deeper meaning of her message, in other words, offers practical guidance in the dance of life, which is something about which we all should be concerned. That is, if we really want our lives to be happy, healthy, and meaningful!
I was blessed to have had as a mentor, the world-renowned psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, whose personal story of finding a reason to live amidst the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps has inspired millions. Dr. Frankl, I‘m also very proud to say, personally urged me to write my own book about the human quest for meaning, Prisoners of Our Thoughts. As I consider the core principles that I introduce in my book and, importantly, how they are put into action, Michele Rosenthal has come to exemplify all of them.
First, she has learned through first-hand experience that, in all situations, no matter how desperate they may appear or actually be, that she always had (and always will have) the ultimate freedom to choose her attitude. Second, she grew—not just changed—into a person who has committed authentically to meaningful values and goals in her life; values and goals that only she can actualize and fulfill. Third, Michele learned that only she can answer for her own life by detecting the meaning at any given moment, including the meaning milestones, and by assuming personal responsibility for weaving the tapestry of her own existence. Fourth, she learned, albeit often the hard way, to avoid becoming so fixated on an intent or outcome that she actually worked against herself and the desired result. Fifth, Michele learned (and experienced) that she had/has the capacity to look at herself from a distance and gain a sense of perspective that not only helped her to cope but also to find "freedom" and possible solutions to whatever she was confronting in life. Sixth, she learned how to build her coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and change by deflecting or shifting her focus of attention from the problem, including trauma, situation to something else, preferably to something positive. And seventh, by learning how to direct her attention to something/someone else and relate to something more than herself, Michele has learned the deeper meaning of self-transcendence.
It is on this self-transcendent plane that the human spirit manifests itself and where the true essence of its resilience may play itself out in real life. Dr. Frankl learned this lesson while experiencing the horrors of the Nazi death camps and it became the hallmark of his life/work and legacy. I suspect that in Michele Rosenthal‘s case, she too will find out that her life/work and legacy will be guided by this meaning-centered principle.
Like all of us, Michele‘s life path has been like walking a labyrinth—a path of meaning to be experienced. Whether we may know it or not, when we walk the path we are never really lost even though we can never quite see where we are going. Along the path we sometimes move forward with ease and confidence; sometimes we creep ahead cautiously; sometimes we feel the need to stop and reflect; and sometimes we feel the urge to retreat. The center of the labyrinth is there but our path takes us through countless twists and turns. Sometimes we are at the heart of our life experiences, sometimes we are at a playful turn; sometimes we share our path with others, and other times we don‘t. No matter what, we are still on the labyrinth path. It holds all our life experiences. Indeed, in so many ways, the labyrinth is like life.
But the labyrinth is also a metaphor for what is sacred in our lives. Through its twists and turns, it holds everything we experience—our minds and emotions, our physical beings and our spirits, our losses and gains, our successes and failures, our joys and sorrows. When we walk the path inward, we carry our burdens with us. When we meditate or pray in the center, we ask for grace, forgiveness, and understanding. When we walk the path outward, we are lighter, more joyful, and ready again to take on life‘s challenges.
You can change without growing but you can‘t grow without changing. In Before the World Intruded, Michele Rosenthal reminds us that just because you change doesn‘t mean that you‘ve grown. At the same time, she underscores that with growth, including post-traumatic growth, comes change that really means something.
When you survive a life-threatening experience you become another person justlikethat. It happens in an instant. If it‘s happened to you, you know exactly what I mean. One moment you are minding your own business, aware (or, if you‘re a child like I was, vaguely aware) of who you are and what it means to be you – and then, Wham!, all of a sudden that self is gone. That self is who you were ̳Before‘. Suddenly, it is ̳After‘ and a new self exists. Of course, it‘s natural for an identity to evolve. People change all the time without distress from newborns to infants to toddlers to children to adolescents to adults. It‘s a gradual progression through stages. Changes occur slowly; they do not occur justlikethat.
For survivors of abuse, violence, accidents, natural disasters and combat, however, things change quickly. In a matter of moments, everything that ever felt safe, familiar, secure and normal disintegrates, to be replaced by a world that is dangerous, unpredictable, hostile and untrustworthy. The self that understood its surroundings and its place in them is suddenly thrown into question. A new figure takes control, one that is full of fear, anxiety, distrust, chaos and confusion. Many survivors go through this process and not long afterward emerge with strength and resilience. Many let go of the past, live in the present and look toward the future. I am not one of those survivors.
I was thirteen years old when I lived through an illness so rare none of my doctors had ever seen a case. For the following twenty-five years I was always looking over my shoulder, trying to go back to who I was Before, trying to make sure I was safe After. I survived in the present by being able to see what happened in the past. I verified, understood, marked consequences, guaranteed history did not repeat itself. I kept panic at bay by remaining alert. And all the while, I searched for a way to make the whole experience meaningful.
Instead of succeeding, I descended into deep depressions. I contained an enormous rage. I suffered recurring nightmares, occasional flashbacks and nightly insomnia. I existed in a state of emotional numbness, hyperarousal and hypervigilance. I avoided anything that reminded me of what I had survived. I found it difficult to concentrate. I had trouble remembering simple things. In order to relieve the enormous stress I grinned and screamed and gritted my teeth. I cried and talked and howled. I sank into silence. I saw therapists, healers, Chinese doctors, a slew of Western medicine specialists, or: I refused all medical attention. I went out every night of the week, or I collapsed into a hermetic existence. I quit or was fired from eleven jobs in five industries in thirteen years because I was unable to decide what I wanted to spend my life doing and because sometimes, I just wasn‘t functional enough to work. I refused to love, and then knowingly chose to love the wrong man. In order to purge myself of the stain of one life-altering experience I swung along a pendulum of extremes. Traditional therapy and popular alternative techniques didn‘t free me. I vacillated between feeling a little better and feeling a lot worse, going through the motions of a young woman‘s life and suffering dire new inexplicable physical ailments or complete emotional meltdowns.
And then something in me snapped. Or, something decided it desperately wanted to be free. Finally, I couldn‘t bear to live in the Before/After gap. I decided to haul myself out. It all began with the need to put into some chronological order the many fragments I carried of my past. I wanted to understand what had happened to me, plus how I had become the lost woman I was. When I started writing this book I was physically debilitated by stress symptoms and in a dark fog of emotional and mental disturbance. As I wrote, however, circumstances began to change. This is the story of how I finally found freedom from horrific memories, terror, fear, anxiety, chaos, confusion and powerlessness. This is the story of how I found myself 'Now‘, and the very unexpected way it happened.