Therapist Courtney Armstrong interviews trauma survivor and author of Your Life after Trauma, Michele Rosenthal about how to reclaim your identity after trauma.
How do you move forward after something happens in your life that challenges your ability to feel safe, secure, and hopeful? More important, how do you reclaim your identity when a life event challenges everything you used to believe about yourself, others, and the world?
Michele Rosenthal’s book Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity provides the answer to these questions. Her tone is comforting, compassionate, and encouraging. Her exercises are easy to follow and she gives lots of stories and examples that help the reader feel less alone in their experience while inspiring them to discover new ways to reclaim & redefine their lives.
I recently interviewed Michele to find out more about her story of trauma, how she healed, and how her book can help other trauma survivors heal too. Click the audio player below to listen to our interview and hear Michele’s engaging voice. Or, scroll down below the audio player to read the highlights of our talk.
Excerpts and Highlights from my Interview with Michele Rosenthal:
To start us off, I asked Michele to tell the story of her own traumatic experience.
“At the age of 13, I had an allergic reaction to a medication and developed toxic epidermal necrolysis syndrome (TENS). Almost overnight, I turned into the equivalent of a full-body burn victim. I lost 100% of the first 2 layers of my skin and was in the hospital for 3 weeks.
When people have TENS today, they are immediately put into a coma and don’t come out until it’s over. In 1981 when I had it, you were awake the whole time and it was excruciatingly painful. I believed I would recover physically, but emotionally, I did not bounce back.
My mom knew I could not come out of this without some psychological scars and asked the doctors at the hospital what we should do. They told her, ‘Kids are resilient. She will be fine.’”
But, Michele wasn’t fine. Once she was discharged from hospital, she experienced all the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress including extreme anxiety, hypervigilence, flashbacks, dissociative episodes, insomnia, and chronic feelings of helplessness. Worst of all, she felt completely stripped of her former identity and developed an eating disorder in attempt to feel a sense of control over herself and her body.
Understanding the Symptoms of PTSD
Michele believes she would have recovered from the PTSD sooner if she had been given at least a little education about its symptoms and what to do if she began experiencing them. She told me:
“If the first psychiatrist I saw had told me what to look out for I might not have hidden all my symptoms when they started happening. People need to hear that they’ve just been through something horrific and be told that it’s normal to have insomnia and nightmares, or that they could feel frightened even though there’s nothing frightening in the moment.
Explaining to people that [the trauma symptoms] are normal and something their brain is doing removes the blame for their symptoms off the survivor. For example, understanding that the reason you are hypervigilant is because your amygdala is overfunctioning makes you feel less crazy. When I finally learned this– 20 years later– it was such a relief! To know that this was science and that I was totally sane was a huge turning point for me. I realized I could be okay. I just needed to learn how to heal.”
Putting Your Own Recovery Plan Together
In learning how to heal, Michele had to become her own advocate and put a unique recovery plan together for herself. While we were talking, she emphasized that no one treatment approach is going to work for everybody so you have to research and explore what feels right for you.
Michele’s plan included Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), Thought Field Therapy, and Tappas acupressure techniques. She also practiced Transcendental Meditation daily for an hour, which helped manage her anxiety and negative thoughts.
Although she felt the combination of these treatments helped her gain some stability, Michele still felt like she had too much of a trauma-victim identity. She even wondered if she had some kind of addiction to trauma because she continued to do things that were unsafe for her and her body. One day she heard an ad on the radio about how hypnosis can cure nicotine addiction and thought maybe it could cure her “trauma addiction” too.
Initially, she felt a bit skeptical that hypnosis would really work. But, after her first hypnosis session, she slept through the night for 8 hours with no nightmares, something she hadn’t done in the 20+ years since she left the hospital. Within 2 more months of working with a therapist trained in hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), her symptoms were completely gone.
Here is Michele’s view on why hypnosis was so helpful to her recovery:
“The thing that I thought was so extraordinary [about hypnosis] was that it was so gentle and we didn’t talk about the trauma over and over. Courtney, it was exactly like what you talk about in your book, The Therapeutic “Aha”– it’s about creating new experiences that change your beliefs about yourself and your future.
My first therapist asked the wrong question. The question wasn’t, “Who would you have been if this hadn’t happened to you?” The right question, the one the hypnotherapist asked me was, “Given that this has happened to you, who would you like be?”
I decided that I wanted to be a person who experiences joy. My book Your Life after Trauma offers a lot of practices that help people discover who they want to be now and move beyond the traumatic event.”
To accomplish this, Michele’s book provides simple-to-use worksheets, examples, and assessments that assist people in getting a handle on PTSD symptoms and shows them how to put together a recovery plan to reclaim their lives. Michele also advises readers to start with small changes, acknowledging that recovery from PTSD can feel daunting at first. She explained:
“Healing from PTSD can be frightening initially. All of our symptoms are really coping mechanisms that have helped us feel safe and in control. At first, to think I could feel joy seemed ludicrous because I felt emotionally numb, mentally frazzled, and full of despair.
I worked on it in tiny bits and pieces and set an intention to find at least 60 seconds a day that I could connect to a feeling of joy. For me, that meant I went to a dance class every single day of the week because that gave me a structure to connect with a part of myself that could feel joy. I couldn’t access joy on my own. I needed the class, I needed the music, and I needed a partner.”
Setting Intentions, Not Expectations
Making a commitment to set daily intentions to do something healing for oneself without being attached to what the outcome should look like is an important part of recovery according to Michele. She believes that setting daily intentions for oneself is more realistic than setting daily expectations for oneself.
She explained to me the difference between intentions and expectations:
“Intentions are what we decide about how we want to show up in the world at any given moment. That’s it. All we can really control is ourselves. Intentions don’t depend on the outer world to do what we expect it to do, or what we want it to do, or what we need it to do.
Expectations are beliefs we have about how something should go. We think, “Well if I do A, then B will happen.” But, when you’re healing from trauma you can do “A” and “X” happens! What you get is blowback instead of the green meadow full of flowers that you expected.
In recovery and creating a new post-trauma identity, you have start with more intention and less expectation. I intended each day to show up in this dance class and be open to connecting to joy. Whether it happened every time is another story but, I had no expectations about it. I just intended to be open to joy. Eventually, I started feeling joy not only in dance class, but also in other areas of my life.”
I suggested that making commitments and then doing what you say you’re going to do also builds confidence and gives you a sense of having power over yourself and your life again. Michele agreed:
“Yes, doing what you say you’re going to do is incredibly important because learning to trust yourself, and being someone you can depend on, is a huge part of recovery. You have to feel like you can protect yourself and be someone you can count on.
Having something solid to stand on when the river of recovery is crashing all around you is essential. If you’re crossing a river, you’re just stepping to one stone and then to the next. You can’t just do it in one big leap.”
Michele’s book, Your Life After Trauma, offers the stepping-stones to help trauma survivors navigate the river of recovery and come out stronger on the other side. It’s one of the most comprehensive and user-friendly guides I’ve seen for people healing from trauma and it’s also a great book for therapists and others who want to understand and support a trauma survivor through recovery.
Courtney Armstrong LPC
2nd July 2015
COURTNEY ARMSTRONG, MEd. LPC, is a licensed professional counselor specializing in grief and trauma recovery. With a career spanning more than two decades, she has helped thousands of clients overcome trauma, grief and anxiety, and experience personal transformation. She also offers face-to-face and online training to mental health professionals and coaches, showing them how to help clients clear underlying emotional blocks that may be affecting their health, their relationships and their lives in general. Her professional expertise has made her a much sought-after media guest, and she has appeared on CBS Radio News, NPR and on networks in Europe, Asia and Australia. Courtney is a regular contributor to Psychotherapy Networker, The Neuropsychotherapist and many others, and is author of Transforming Traumatic Grief (2011) and her latest book, The Therapeutic “Aha!”: 10 Strategies for Getting Your Clients Unstuck (2015).