Step Two: Self-Rescue
The second step to recovery is to learn how we can be our own hero and rescue ourselves.
The thing that stayed with me so profoundly from the time I spent with my psychiatrist was not the somatic work, or the lifeline integration, or the EMDR, or any of the many modalities and techniques whose names I have no clue about that she used to help me put my panic attacks into the dustbin of my past. No, the thing that stayed with me so profoundly was the time she said to me (very firmly) that she could not help me if all I did was turn up at the allotted time every Friday, that nothing she did with me would have any lasting help unless I did the work in the other 166 hours of the week.
It was a refreshing point of view. It put the responsibility for my recovery very firmly at my own door. It was clear I couldn’t just ‘go through the motions’. And I had done before. In the one to one counselling that I’d had before, I’d just turned up, resentful at the smiling face in the chair opposite, playing with the swirls on the carpet in my mind. I’m sure it helped in some way, having some space to tell my story and not be judged for it; but it didn’t seem to move me forward and it didn’t help me to manage my panic or depression. In the group sessions I just sat there, maybe joined in sometimes but not really (I had this thought pattern that what had happened to me wasn’t bad enough to share in comparison to the others. Absolute rubbish, of course. But it silenced me). The psychiatry was different. There were things that I had to do in the intervening time, that could help move me forward. It was empowering.
And it’s vital to feel empowered. When we know that at any moment, with no warning, we can be struck by panic, triggered into an attack that might even take us back to that place, that we might lose time, we might find ourselves in a different place when we come to (the number of times I found myself locked into a toilet stall that I had no recollection of going to); when we know that this can happen we live a life of avoidance. We choose not to go out to that party in case the crowds and the noise are overwhelming. We choose not to see our closest friends in case they have to witness us break down. We don’t go on the underground in rush hour. To keep ourselves safe, we consciously choose to live a smaller and narrower life.
When instead we know that if we are to experience a panic attack, we can rescue ourselves, then we can make different choices.
When we know how to ground ourselves, what that really means, what it feels like, how to do it with all five of our senses keeping us in the present, then we can be free. When we can orient ourselves to our surroundings, understand what feels like a threat, without being swept into the fear of hypervigilance, then we can be free. When we can breathe into ourselves, and keep ourselves mindfully in the present, following the breath, then we can be free. When we can be empowered to literally shake off the panic, then we can be free. And there are so many more techniques that we can learn, that we can practice, day in and day out, that give us that freedom.
Getting free from the panic attacks entirely takes more of course. But we can retrain our brain to let go of the crippling fear to be so crippling. This is why I always spend so much time with my clients ensuring they have the knowledge to build the skills to rescue themselves. It’s why I also curated those which I found to be the most useful for me into my mini guided self-help Taste of Recovery. Because when we know how to help ourselves we are empowered.
And isn’t it so important to feel empowered after trauma? The act that caused the trauma was the definition of DISempowered. We had no autonomy, not even over our own bodies. To reclaim that power over the debilitating symptoms of what the trauma brings with it, is so necessary.
Yet, the energy to have the hope, to have the desire to take those steps that empower us is so fleeting. It’s true what they say, the first step is the hardest. To step forwards and believe that there is a way out can seem a huge risk. Isn’t it best to just get used to this new reality of panic and fear? What if we try to get better but fall down again (and we most likely will)? What if next time we don’t have the energy to climb back up? When the self-talk of depression works hand in hand with the self-talk of fear, then taking that first step to learn how to breathe through the panic, or ground oneself into the chair and into the present, can feel like a step too far.
When we know that it’s up to us to be our own hero, and yet when we don’t feel like we can ever rely on ourselves, then this can be frightening. (And we have the evidence that we can’t in the three panic attacks we just had before attempting to leave the house). We can feel resentful that there is even work for us to do, because we didn’t ask to be blighted by the panic attacks. It’s bad enough what happened, it’s unfair we have to conquer the after-effects day after day after day. And we’re also battling the counter-intuitive feeling that if we do conquer and overcome it would make what he did less bad; we have to stay fragile to fulfil the societal expectation that rape victims will be forever broken.
None of this serves us. It doesn’t serve us to stay where we are in fear, in living a half-life. What does serve us is listening to what my psychiatrist told me so very firmly: to get better, we simply have to do the work. Every day. And when we do something every day, then we do reap the rewards. What does serve us is taking the step for ourselves towards recovery and practicing the techniques that will keep us safe.
The second step in the path to recovery, en route to living a ReConnected Life, is knowing we can be our own hero, knowing we can rescue ourselves. When we’re no longer fearful of what might happen, we can stop living a small, narrow, or half-life, and instead feel confident to stretch our boundaries into living a fuller life. We can rescue ourselves.