Living on the Edge – Snapshots of Life with PTSD: The Wondrous Yellow Roses (Loss of Self)

Table of Contents

by Heidi Hanson

artist, writer, trauma survivor

This short story about a train trip shows how the many symptoms of PTSD combine to have a devastating impact to one’s Sense of Self.

Losing a large percent of memory of one’s past is the equivalent of losing a large percent of one’s Sense of Self, identity, personality, etc. Losing Boundaries in relationships and perceptions of reality, merging with reality, and being isolated and disconnected constitute other kinds of losses of the Sense of Self. Always being on alert for danger puts attention always outwards, leading to not feeling inside ones body, which can also impact Sense of Self.

Summary: In this blog post, after a short story about riding the train to a therapy appointment and afterwards, the Discussion covers: (1) Merging with the Environment / Unity Consciousness coupled paradoxically with a sense of Disconnection and Alienation from other people and the process of healing Boundaries and Relationships, (2) The Wiped Memory / Amnesia of one’s past prior to the traumatic events and how it gradually comes back, (3) A Heightened Sense Of The Danger and unpredictability of reality, (4) Sensory Hypersensitivity, and (5) Therapist Search – the challenges related to trying to ind a trauma therapist.

I am creating a series of posts called “Living on the Edge – Snapshots of Life with PTSD” in which I share some of the journal entries I created over the course of having PTSD. After each Snapshot, I will provide some explanations about how PTSD shows up in the Snapshot in the Discussion section.

April 2009 – I had Severe PTSD. I wrote the journal entry for this Snapshot in April, 2009. Although the accidents that gave me PTSD occurred in 2007, in April, 2009, I was still generally pretty sick. I was not able to leave the house that often and I had spent 2 years in physical pain a certain percent of the time. This is the earliest somewhat coherent journal entry I can find that I wrote after the traumas as I was too ill and in too much chaos to write anything down for a couple years.

I kept trying and discarding therapists. The therapists I tried at the time I found to be ineffective and sometimes damaging.

In this journal entry, I am on my way to try an EMDR therapist.

Living on the Edge – Snapshots of Life with PTSD: The Wondrous Yellow Roses

I am taking BART from Ashby BART to Castro Valley BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit train). The day is clear, warm. There is a couple going to the Oakland airport to my left, black and purple suitcases. They are arguing.

The BART train speeds up, jostling and screeching. It feels of lightweight plastic. I wonder if it’s going to fall apart; it doesn’t sound healthy to me. I am surprised by the horrible metal-on-metal sounds it’s producing – truly the train must be nearing its end as I have never heard such varied sounds and never so extremely loud.

I worry and frown and then turn to gaze out the window at all the fascinating objects flying by. I feel like a child, peering out into the endless strange colorful shapes coming and going so fast.

things pass by the window

There is the gas station on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Children’s Hospital, the hardware store.

As we shoot out of Berkeley, a concrete labyrinth of shadowed overpass undersides swiftly passes by, curving up into the air like huge snakes. I feel caught up in the shapes and dramatic shadows; I am inside the strange wild forms; they take my breath away.

Fruitvale, High Street… parts of Oakland from a past life… another person’s time. A time that is faded, erased now.

We are now flying along above an expanse of small walled-in back yards. Huge numbers of cars all piled together. Oddly named faded brick buildings stand bereft, dusty, tattered, alone and totally still. My eyes rest on one for a moment. It is nothing now, stripped of its former identity, lost in time. Like me.

As the train reduces speed in its approach to the Bayfair stop, we slowly pass the parking lot of the Bayfair Mall. The parking lot is filled with trees with seriously big green leaves. The leaves seem strangely vibrant and impressive. I never saw them this way before; my body is riveted to their life-filled presence. I am puzzled by them. Why are they like that? They are stunning. I can feel them through my eyes, feel the life pulsing. They seem almost to talk to me.

I look around. A man sits with a stern look on his face. He has wavy gray brown hair. He is oblivious to the leaves? They are all oblivious to the leaves.

Exiting the train, I step out onto the whitish concrete of the Castro Valley BART station. I am up high above the world. The sky is huge and all the hills beyond the houses go on forever. Buffeted by the wind, I feel like I am floating in space, like this is a space station on another planet. I can see the train tracks snake back for a long ways; I imagine I can see all the way up to where I came from and past that to Walnut Creek where my boyfriend is.

Illustration by Dr. Seuss, from the book “Hunches in Bunches”, from the blog Seussblog

I descend one of the long, long escalators. It’s like a Dr. Seuss place; the escalators are going up and down in random places. The moving stairways seem both whimsical and stern.

I push through the the turnstile, cool smooth metal. Everything feels and looks as if I’m seeing it for the first time. I feel a little wobbly but don’t pay it any mind. The soft black rubbery floor slants down; it’s like a chute pouring people willy nilly into the parking lot. Today it’s only me and two others. They scurry out into the sun, clearly with important destinations. I am in the huge parking lot and all the blazing sunlight.

After making it across the BART parking lot with all the shining cars, I encounter a long, low wrought iron fence with yellow miniature roses growing on it. I stop to smell them. Such beautiful roses! Such a surprise to find them here. And they continue for a long time. The fence even goes along the sidewalk. I look up and around but to my amazement, nobody else sees them. It’s strange, to find such wonder, like I am in a video game and I have found a special tree maybe one with gemstones growing on it, but nobody else is playing the same game. Was I like that too, before? I don’t know.

I emerge into the main street, walk through the bright sun, cars and vans and SUVs moving fast around me, halted against their wills at lights. Walking through crosswalks, I watch them closely for any signs of danger, as if they will suddenly lurch forward out of control. As if the laws of physics that govern things may at any time simply vanish and we would enter a new, topsy turvy world of ungoverned, angry SUVs that refuse to wait at the light for one second longer. But it never happened.


This Snapshot is about a time when I had acute PTSD. In 2009, I experienced terror and immobility constantly and had no ability to self-regulate. It’s clear to me from reading this that I had serious brain impairments, most notably, I had a massively overactive reptilian brain that dominated brain processes, and higher regions of the brain that were completely offline, brain adaptations characteristic of PTSD. It was like having an invisible electrical storm in and around the brain stem that kept the focus on the fight-flight system and did not allow any access to the neocortex which held all of, what I referred to at the time as, “normal life ideas.”

One issue is the changes to the brain are not visible and you can’t feel them; you can’t really tell they are going on even though they are having numerous effects. Now that I’m not in such a high degree of hyperarousal, I can observe myself more easily. One test to check how dominant the reptilian brain is is to relax and ask yourself, “Would my brain and body change if they knew they were completely safe?” Then just sense the difference. The default setting is going all the time, and with PTSD the default is that the brain and body feel like they are currently in danger. So now you create in your imagination this other brain setting – a “safe setting” – that may feel different to some degree to the default setting. If you feel a difference, then it could be that your reptilian brain is hyper-aroused all the time, but you can’t feel it and don’t know it’s happening.

Now in 2019, I am way better than I was in 2009, but there is still a big distance to go between my low-grade hyperaroused brain and a “safe” brain. To me, it feels like the reptilian brain areas are very densely packed (abnormally), are always turned “on,” are alert, tense, stressed, tired, and kind of negative, like there’s a negative viewpoint, a seeking of the bad things, cynical and a little dark I would say – which is due to tuning to danger all the time on an imperceptible level (which is a natural response during trauma that gets left in the “on” position). Before, it was a storm – the high-grade hyperaroused brain is like an electrical storm. Now, there is no storm anymore. I have gone 70% of the way to a fully “safe” brain, I would say. But that means there is still a ways to go yet – 30%.

In 2009, I had not found Somatic Experiencing yet. ln fact, I had not found a therapist who I trusted and didn’t feel was harmful. So I had no help.

Here is a photo I took of myself around that time.

the blank sadness of PTSD – the self is erased

When I look at photos of myself from that time, I can see in my face the following:

  • blankness – vacancy of facial expression, blankness in the eyes, the vacant stare
  • feeling of floating, being dissociated
  • a feeling of timelessness, of being suspended in one moment in the flow of time
  • grief, deep sorrow from unacknowledged and unremembered losses
  • fragility
  • I don’t see this in the photo but I know I was always prone to uncontrollable terror

Actually, when I look at photos of my face at the time, it strikes me just how much of who a person is is lost to PTSD. It is not all that surprising that people with PTSD end up taking their own lives, since there is only a very small bit of the person left. It feels as if the rest has already died, so the sense is – why does it matter? Why should I keep holding on if most of me is already gone? In my case, I felt like I had died, so I felt “closer” to death than to life.

Also, after huge accidents or disasters that cause injuries such that a person can’t function to work, the economic foundation of a person’s life is destroyed – so it can feel as if there is no way to keep living anyway. That time period in 2009 and 2010 was when I came the closest to committing suicide (although, the second closest I came was one year ago in 2018 because of more trauma at that time so the recovery process has not been altogether linear). I think that just putting one foot in front of the other, taking it day by day, one step at a time, brought me finally, one year later to find a SE therapist. It pays to just keep going.

It strikes me just how much of who a person is is lost to PTSD.

This Train Trip Before PTSD vs After PTSD: Prior to PTSD, this trip from Berkeley to Castro Valley BART would have been pretty basic and routine. At the time I originally wrote this, I did not remember having taken this trip before, but I know now in 2019 that I definitely already had done this trip before getting amnesia from PTSD in 2007 because I know I went to the Bayfair Mall before this a number of times just to go to the mall or other businesses around there. I am certain that on those previous trips with normal physiology, brain and nervous system, I was not shocked and thrown off by the sounds of the train, to the point of feeling fear, dismay and real confusion. The train sounds did not sound so extremely loud to me because I didn’t have any sensory hypersensitivity. I would not have been in awe of the leaves; I actually never noticed the leaves. I would not have felt like all the other people on the train were aliens and that I had just arrived on a new planet, completely disconnected from others’ reality. I would have felt more stable and at ease walking though the BART system. The BART system, before PTSD, did not feel dangerous and precarious. The cars on the street did not seem so dangerous, and would have been part of the background rather than merged with and invading my senses. And I probably would have enjoyed the roses but likely would not have been totally in awe of the roses.

In this piece, 5 things really stand out:

  1. Merging with the Environment; the complete loss of “filters” between self and world (coupled paradoxically with a sense of Disconnection from other people.)
  2. The Wiped Memory / Amnesia of one’s past prior to the traumatic events
  3. A Heightened Sense Of The Danger and unpredictability of reality.
  4. Sensory Hypersensitivity
  5. Therapist Search. This piece also illustrates just how challenging it is to find a trauma therapist

1. Merged with Reality / Lack of Filters

Filters are the mind’s ability to parse out information that does not pertain to it and is of no use to it at the moment. Filters can determine that certain parts of reality are the “background,” and therefore are not important to focus on, and a few things are the “foreground” and are therefore important to focus on. As in a painting, the painter makes it clear what the subject matter is by making it brighter and more detailed, while the background can be more faded, blurred or muted, so your eyes know where to look.

The lack of filters I have experienced since I got PTSD seems to cover two domains – perception and interpersonal relationships.

Perception. In 2009, my perceptions were completely different than normal. I felt as if everything was bright and impactful, as if it reached inside me. I also “felt” into things around me in a completely new way. At that time, I had never done drugs (or even smoked a cigarette – it’s strange but true), but I think this kind of removal of the separation between oneself and the environment may also happen with some mind-altering substances. Whatever psychological boundary that had always been between myself and the outside world was no longer present. There was no more comfortable separation or buffer zone between me and everything else.

Relationships. With regards to other people, it was weird. I felt as if we should be experiencing the same things, and I became confused when we were not. I think the lack of filters means I didn’t see other peoples’ lives as separate from mine, because there were no filters to separate me from them anymore. Then, when they, predictably, did not see themselves as living in a unified way with me and with our shared reality, I became shocked, and felt completely alien to them. It’s almost as if I thought we were both parts of a larger organism, and anytime they acted as if they were not aware of this organism, I went into some degree of shock. I could not understand them. So, paradoxically, the lack of filters that merged me with reality alienated me from other people.

Overall Effects. Overall, losing my filters means that since getting PTSD, I have been very sensitive and easily overwhelmed, and it has not been positive, it’s been extremely disorienting and very painful. Due to the lack of filters, I have been much much more dramatically impacted than I was before by the environment and by other people. And layered on top of this hypersensitivity is the experience of being triggered constantly by numerous reminders of the past traumas.

In other words, hypersensitivity and triggers are two different things that happen simultaneously and compound eachother. The way I understand it at the moment (and it could change if I learn more) is that hypersensitivity is having no filters anymore between self and world and self and people which opens to being flooded with stimuli that is not relevant to what you are trying to focus on. All of these stimuli are related to things happening now in present time. Being triggered is different – being triggered is the nervous system going into hyperarousal (terror, anxiety) after encountering a reminder (smell, person, place, sound) because it is now back in time and reliving the trauma and all the emotions and sensations that were going on at the time.

Hypersensitivity and triggers are two different influences on a person with PTSD. Hypersensitivity and triggers compound each other; when they happen simultaneously it creates an overwhelming amount of stimuli and internal reactions to try to deal with.

Escape. I think this compounding effect – when hypersensitivity and triggers make each other worse – is one reason for numbness, dissociation, addicitons and exhaustion. Numbing is the only way to cope with all of these overwhelming stimuli from the outside world and the way the body is reacting to them.

Unity is Healthy. Even with all this struggle and pain, I actually think that this awareness of our interconnectedness, our unity, as humans, and the capacity to feel the life force in nature and in others within myself, have the potential to be healthy once PTSD is healed. I think it’s true that we are all connected. When I had severe PTSD, because my filters were destroyed, I had temporarily entered a world where I could perceive this inter-connectivity and perceive into things, like leaves and roses, much more deeply than before. Also, my psychic awareness was much greater than it had been. People are conditioned by society not to feel or notice any of this. So, I was very impaired and damaged, but I had a brief window into different healthy perceptions of the world.

Actually, that window has closed, now, in 2019, 12 years later. I do not perceive any of those things anymore.

But I think it may be possible to retain some of the wonder about the world, the awe at seeing the life force in living things, the perceptions of our unity, even as we heal all the damage.

The Recovery Process. I think that, during recovery, the following things should be done:

  1. Rebuild Filters. During Recovery, our filters need to be restored by practicing concentration and focus and regulating the nervous system many times a day – grounding, sensing the body, sensing where the body’s edges are, where “I end and others begin”. Things like self-holding and self-hug.
  2. Engage Higher Brain to Understand People Better. During recovery, we need to relearn how to use the higher brain (logic and rationality) to make sense out of others’ behaviors and motives again. This will gradually reduce the constant shocks resulting from other peoples’ behavior. In my case, this would reduce the shock I experience when I witness the disconnected way others act, when they act in ways that show that they are unaware of our state of unity and interconnection. Other trauma survivors may have other areas in which they can’t understand others’ behavior anymore after PTSD. Taking Nonviolent Communication classes where you learn to do empathy guesses about why people are behaving as they are, and where you experience a safe place for communicating how confused you feel about others, can really help a lot to rebuild these parts of the mind. NVC classes can help to restore the rational understanding of others’ behaviors, the ability to see why they are doing what they are doing and to perceive that what they are doing is separate from yourself. Regular exposure to NVC can help rebuild the edges that you used to experience around yourself, and the brain synapses you used to have, that created a healthy zone of separation between self and others.
  3. Healthy Boundaries need to be re-built. We need to internally rebuild a secure attachment system, so that we have a secure internal working model of self and world. We need to create a Secure Base from within ourselves, from which we relate to others as connected-but-individual-Others (within a safe world), not relate to others as idealized-merged-Self (we fantasize, and dream, of future safety) or removed-alien-Others (within a dangerous world). In other words, if we create more feelings of safety in our bodies, the world feels safer. As the world feels safer, we trust more and take more risks and then can find others to create secure attachment with. As we build healthy, securely attached relationships, we can start to restore our boundaries in these relationships. From this secure place, we can cultivate more and more positive connections with others and reduce the tendency to merge or to distance. We sponsor both the development of healthy autonomy and intimacy skills within ourselves. We learn to see the other person as a separate individual (autonomous) yet can experience connection at all times anyway (intimacy, secure attachment). I think that learning how to have healthy boundaries begins with creating securely attached friendships and intimate relationships.
  4. Integration. After these things are re-established – healthy perceptive filters, understanding others motives and behaviors using logic and empathy, and healthy relationship boundaries arising from secure attachment – they should then be integrated with the understanding of unity, oneness, and seeing the life force in the world around us that was tapped into during acute PTSD.

I believe that that symptom of PTSD that I experienced of a kind of “unity consciousness” is healthy, as I mentioned, but it’s a very regressed and wounded form of what it really should be to be healthy. The unity consciousness of the infant, when experienced by an adult, is a developmental regression. Seeing and feeling the unity of humanity is positive when it is from the awareness of an adult who has much greater maturity, human development, experience, brain functions and knowledge.

The matured and adult level version of unity awareness will have integrated within it many life lessons so that it is used very cautiously. You would only attempt to feel that kind of connection with others who you already know are capable of seeing and feeling it also, and can be trusted. You would not, as I had in PTSD, expect everyone to see things in a deeply unified way, and then be shocked and hurt when they act cold, self-centered, distant and avoidant. Being completely open, from a naive and innocent child-like place, leads to getting hurt over and over again, when attempting to interact with people who are emotionally unavailable. When this understanding of being deeply interconnected with others is mature, it can be used selectively and consciously and doesn’t have to hurt anymore.

2. Wiped Memory / Amnesia

The second thing this piece shows is how I experienced a dramatic impact on my memory due to PTSD. I lost almost all memory of my life before the traumatic events. I could remember barely anything prior to September, 2007.

For example, when I first edited this piece, in Aug 2014, I could look back on that ride on BART and although it was still very spotty and not at all a normal kind of memory, I could actually remember many things about my life before 2007 that I had no memory of while I was actually on the BART train in 2009. I vaguely remembered a time I went to the gas station that I saw from the train – although to this day I still have no idea what the context was, what I was doing (besides getting gas) or who I was with. I newly remembered going to the hardware store across from the gas station on Martin Luther King Way – not sure why or when but I remembered going there. I remembered driving down Fruitvale from MacArthur towards 580 or 80 or 880 (some highway). I remember the very first time I went to the first Berkeley Bowl (grocery store).

While rewriting this again, 6 months later, in February 2015 – more memories surfaced. I also was able to remember regularly going to pick up Chinese food at Ly Luck restaurant at the top of Fruitvale Avenue. I did not remember that until then.

Now, while rewriting this in November of 2019, I remember more things. I remember always getting the Rock Cod at Ly Luck – although, I had to check their menu to remember the exact name of it. I remember when my cat got hit by a car. I even vaguely remember this laundromat on Piedmont Avenue. And I I mentioned before, of course I had gone to the Bayfair Mall before that time. It’s crazy that I am remembering these things. But I still have only one image for each – not a complete memory. The memories are still fuzzy and vague, and they lack any context – as in, they are just a fleeting moment and I have no idea what else was happening – but they are not completely gone anymore.

I am almost 100% sure I did not remember any of this when I took that BART train in 2009 – however, without actual memory tests, I can’t say with 100% certainty that I did not remember those things then.

It would definitely not be technically accurate to say I remembered nothing of life before 2007 in 2009. I remembered that I had lived in Oakland, but the rest was pretty blank. Even in August 2014, when I first edited and added to this journal entry, I was only able to remember things from those times very slightly. I could not have filled in all the details of those places that I have since – for example, I definitely could not have remembered a specific name of a restaurant. The memory of the restaurant name came back Feb 2015. The memory of the Rock Cod came back October 2019.

Causes: I think that the things that might contribute to memory loss – the erasure of long periods of time like this – would be the amount of terror, the length of time in sheer terror, the length of time trying to survive, the length of the marathon or marathons to survive, how long attempting to escape danger, length of time trying to save one’s own life, the number of times the traumas repeated, the severity of the threats/danger, and the extent of the physical injuries. The lack of any support can make things more terrifying, so that is another factor. If there is brain damage, or repeated brain damage, this can affect memory as well. I was being physically harmed/ under threat of death for about 4 weeks during the first accident and for around 2 weeks during the second accident.

Recovery. A Door Opened. It was like everything was grayed out. Then the memories first began to come back between August 2014 and February 2015 – so 7 years after the traumatic events a door opened and they began to very slowly return.

A Brand New World. So in 2009, the world really was new. I was born again into a new life. It’s so bizarre but that part of Oakland I had lived in for 5 years was brand new to me. I knew I had lived there but I didn’t remember so much of what happened. The trees growing in the Bayfair Mall parking lot were totally brand new – even though I had gone to the Bayfair Mall a number of times before 2007, I had no memory – zero memory – of those previous trips, even when looking directly at the mall.

Erased. I know some of this is normal memory loss as we grow older and move to different places, but there was a different characteristic to the memory loss – it was more of a complete blankness than just forgetting things here and there. It was more things being erased than fading.

I know this sounds strange, but after I got PTSD I was a brand new person in a brand new world.

Wonder. The overwhelming sensitivity, altered perceptions and sense of everything being brand new at times lent a kind of wonderment to life, a confused state of awe and bedazzlement. Although these brief moments of awe existed, for example, when going new places, like when we went to Morgan Territory one April and the huge oaks in the green fields with sun-touched leaves were so utterly stunning, the majority of the time I was in too much terror or too immobilized to notice such things.

Relationship between Hyperarousal and Memory. I feel like between August 2014 and February 2015, the average underlying constant hyperarousal level reduced to a certain percent – I would say 10 percent (if the scale is 0-100 and 100 percent is pure terror and 0 percent is calm alert). After it reached this particular level (for the first time since 2007), my memories began to return. This is just my experience and I would be curious if this has happened to others.

This begs the question – What is the relationship between hyperarousal and memory? When the hyperarousal in the nervous system reduces to a certain level, does this make it easier for memories to begin to return?

When the hyperarousal in the nervous system reduces to a certain level, does this make it easier for memories to begin to return?

Relationship between Hyperarousal and De-linking Triggers (Higher Mind Returning). There was also a distinct shift in the last couple months of that time period (Jan and Feb 2015) in terms of my mind being unable to distinguish what is real from what is not real.

So – the mind that is 100% in a reactionary mode to past trauma cannot see what is real now. It only sees the past. Things in the present for the most part either trigger past trauma – red alert! terror! or are gray cardboard – nothing. But the hyperarousal decreased to a place (that I am calling 10%) and my system relaxed and calmed down on a subtle level and when it hit that 10%, something opened and I could begin to – little by little – distinguish between what is real now and what is from the past.

And this begs the question: When hyperarousal of the nervous system reduces to a certain level, does this make it possible for the skill of the higher mind (the logical, rational and analytical mind) of mental discernment between what is real and what is a trigger, to return? Does this open up, for the first time, the possibility of de-linking the trigger from the trauma?

When hyperarousal of the nervous system reduces to a certain level, does this open up, for the first time, the possibility of de-linking the trigger from the trauma?

It does feel like I was able to break out of a mental cage at a certain point (that 10% point) and both access memories and see what is and isn’t real.

I think this was because I began Somatic Experiencing therapy again after not having any trauma treatment for 3 years ( I had SE treatment for 1 year in 2010-11 and then in October 2014 I started SE again), as well as my own ongoing efforts with all the healing exercises.

I remember struggling to re-access my higher mind back in 2010 and 2011 when I first did SE therapy – this is when I noticed that I had little access to anything beyond the concerns of survival / life and death – concerns of the reptilian brain. I was attempting to help my brain break out of this cage and access the higher functions again and it was practically impossible to gain access.

I think that because there were so many additional traumas after I left California (and SE therapy) in 2011 that I never really “broke into higher ground,” or if I ever did I just plummeted back at the next traumatic experience. Beginning Somatic Experiencing again in October 2014 after getting settled in North Carolina helped me to approach this task a second time, and actually begin to succeed.

The mind that is 100% in a reactionary mode to past trauma cannot see what is real now. It only sees the past.

3. Perilous and Fragile: Hyper-vigilance of Potential Danger Everywhere

This Snapshot piece also shows how in 2009, I had the distinct sense that at any moment reality itself could just fall apart. I was very alert to danger. Many people probably feel safe on BART. But I knew better. I heard the screeching noises and thought the train might suddenly just fall apart.

Also, my sense of the cars in the street was that they could suddenly just spontaneously run into me. I had to really watch them and make sure they were not about to go haywire in any way.

The world was always one second away from complete chaos, fracturing and mayhem. There were no actual laws anymore. Nothing in the world could be expected to hold together or maintain any consistency, intactness or do what may be expected of it anymore.

4. Hypersensitivity / Amplification of Sounds

I don’t think that the train really was louder and more skreetchy than usual. I think that my perceptions of sound were probably actually amplified due to PTSD.

Also, I was always triggered by things around me that had anything to do with danger and potential death or injury, so the sound impacted my nervous system much more dramatically than it had before I had PTSD.

This is an example of experiencing hypersensitivity and a trigger simultaneously. The sound was much louder to my perceptions then it ever had been before because of hypersensitivity. And even though it wasn’t directly related to my traumas, because the train could conceivably get into a wreck, which is also life threatening, the sound made my nervous system go into hyperarousal to a small degree – tension, shallow breath, hypervigilance.

5. Therapist Search

I think it is common for people suffering from severe PTSD to face difficulty when trying to find a therapist to work with. With really severe PTSD, you can’t process information, you don’t trust anyone and you are extremely easily triggered. Also, many therapists are not taught how to avoid triggering and re-traumatizing a person with PTSD. Therapists can do a lot of damage to their trauma recovery clients without knowing it. When you combine those things together, it means a very large percent of therapists will not work out well. If the person with PTSD simply tries out any therapist, and doesn’t know how to pinpoint someone trained for trauma therapy, it’s very likely they will be re-traumatized by many aspects of the therapy itself. After too many bad experiences being traumatized by therapists, therapists themselves become associated with trauma – therapists become trauma triggers – which then creates a huge barrier to even going out and trying yet again to get help.

It took me three years of being re-traumatized by therapists to finally figure out what to look for. In my case, when I found a Somatic Experiencing therapist in 2010, I finally began to heal.

I hope you enjoyed reading the first episode of Living on the Edge – Snapshots of Life with PTSD. Please leave your comments below and keep a lookout for the next episode!

Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer located in San Francisco, California. She is currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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6 Responses

  1. This is great sharing Heidi. Thanks for posting this. The auditory sensitivity..flooding of senses…distrust…difficulty to finding and trusting therapists….triggers and hyperarousal…memory issues. I get it. You really nailed it. My journey also has this sensory overlap going on..auditory..physical pain and distortions in taste or scents…that “link” with each other…like “sticky notes on a windshield” that clog up my brain…kind of like having too many browser windows open and my computer freezes up…my brain has been like that. ADHD folks call it the “dirty snowball effect. It can lead to alot of anxiety..frustration and exhaustion as you mention. Yes…stuck in overdrive..hypervigilance is like being hijacked …(OVD like appearance in a way)…much like a prison of mental and physical tension that doesn’t let up. The progress I that I can see what’s actually happening now. least much more of it.

    I like your quote regarding the reptilian brain activation: “Would my brain and body change if they knew they were completely safe?”
    Oh..that is my dream. To lay the hypervigilance down. Spiritual practice helps grow hope and possibility. Some therapy..sometimes…movement…I hope to try neurofeedback. Homeopathy has been helpful. EMDR has been hit and miss. But I keep going. Trying to find that switch or dial to turn down the noise.

    Peace to you and great Thanks.


  2. Wow. I don’t know if I’ve ever consciously linked the merging with reality thing with PTSD before. My mind is a little blown.

    I love your site here. You are so generous with your experiences and I really appreciate it.

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