How I Kicked Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder And Reclaimed My (True) Laugh
Many years ago I lost my laugh. Oh, true, I could laugh, but it was a hollow, I’m-laughing-just-because-I-should kind of laugh. You know what I mean, when everyone else is laughing, or the punchline of a joke comes and you know you should [insert laugh here], so you do but you don’t really mean it. I had the kind of laugh that hovered at the back of your mouth but never came from a tickle in your belly.
The reason I had no real laugh was because I lost it unexpectedly. To be honest, it disappeared when I wasn’t looking. In 1981, at the age of thirteen, I survived such a rare, life-threatening illness none of my doctors had ever seen a case. An allergy to a medication turned me into the equivalent of a full body-burn victim almost overnight.
I was released from the hospital after a few weeks. Back at home is when I discovered: My laugh had not come home with me. Prior to my illness I had laughed a lot. Everyone in my family has a terrific sense of humor so laughter was rampant in my family. But in the hospital I had been so terrified and in such enormous pain that somehow my laugh had gone into hibernation. Even as I tried to resume my normal life the laugh would not come out.
How Trauma Holds On
For the next twenty-five years a fake laugh was all I could muster. Something about the hospital experience had left me completely altered. It wasn’t just my laugh that was gone: my ability to relax was gone, too. Suddenly, I was full of fear and anxiety. I stopped sleeping and developed a bad case of insomnia. I began having nightmares. I worried that at any moment something awful would happen to me. I coped with intense emotions by suppressing them into numbness. I couldn’t talk about what happened to me in the hospital. All I wanted was pretend it never occurred at all.
Without knowing it, I sank into a very long and deep state of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Characterized by three categories of symptoms including avoidance, arousal and re-experiencing, PTSD causes a survivor to feel in constant danger. In order to hide my symptoms of fear and anxiety I put in place coping mechanisms designed to keep everyone (including my family) at a distance.
The fact is, the mind is capable of producing 50% more stress than the body can handle. After a decade of coping that involved the addition of strict anorexic behavior, my body began to break down. My immune system weakened, muscles and joints ached; my digestive system and even some organs shifted into a state of deep dysfunction. My primary focus in life became managing my compromised psychological and physical states. Many times my health became so impaired I had to quit my job and stay home to recuperate.
While I saw a slew of therapists and internal medicine specialists, it would not be until 2005 that I would discover the base root of all my problems. The reason my laugh had abandoned me was that I had fallen into the 20% of all trauma survivors who struggle with PTSD. Diagnosis was the beginning of wooing back my laugh.
Overcoming the Past By Laughing in the Present
Once I had a name for what ailed me I set out to overcome it. Studies suggest that over 90% of all PTSD cases are wholly treatable. That is, survivors can overcome the effects of trauma and go on to live happy, even joyful, real laughter-filled lives. I decided to be one of them.
While there no single treatment protocol for PTSD, there are a vast number of options. Ranging from traditional methods such as talk therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy to such alternative techniques as Emotional Freedom Technique, hypnosis and Somatic Experiencing, the goal of every survivor’s recovery process is to find professionals they trust and modalities with which they feel safe.
PSTD recovery is challenging. You have to release all of the coping mechanisms you’ve put in place, plus face all of those feelings you’ve worked so hard to suppress. I dove into the work of recovery thinking it would happen right away only to find out that progress happens s-l-o-w-l-y. I reached a day that I was so despondent, so full of despair that I would never be free, that I realized I needed to do something to help me feel otherwise – and fast. I decided that in the midst of all that depression I needed something that would help me feel the opposite: joy. I knew that when I dance I feel transcendent and free. I decided to dance a lot!
I signed up for a dance class every day of the week at a local dance studio. That’s when a funny thing happened: each day I spent an hour or two completely focused on dancing and feeling very happy. It made me feel it was possible for me to be that person again, a woman who was able to feel joy and to smile with authentic pleasure. I started looking forward to every day and the time I would spend on the dance floor. I had no idea how to partner dance; all I’d ever done before was freestyle. Partner dancing means you have to collaborate with someone. The opportunity to make mistakes is huge – and can be terrifically funny. It was on the dance floor, doing this activity that I loved, that my real, true laugh came back.
Over a course of treatment that included many different types of techniques, eventually I did overcome all of my symptoms of PTSD. I am now 100% PTSD-free. I laugh often and am regularly reminded by my mother that my laugh has returned. “There’s the real laugh I remember!” she says gleefully. She’s right, feeling peaceful and joyful has opened my throat so that my laugh now tickles my belly and comes all the way back up.
Michele Rosenthal is a Post-Trauma Coach and the author of Before the World Intruded: Conquering the Past and Creating the Future, A Memoir.