Here’s an exercise for your imagination, designed to help you make powerful changes in your life in the next 12 months. It’s called “If I Had Just One Year to Heal my Childhood PTSD, What Would I Do?”
I know one year is a tight deadline to heal something so serious, and healing never follows the timelines we set out for it anyway. But this is a thought exercise that I use in lots of areas of my life when I feel like I’m not making progress fast enough or I’ve lost my focus. It’s a great question to ask yourself sometimes, just to brainstorm things like “If I had to earn X amount of money in one year, what would I do?” Or “If I had to run an eight-minute mile three months from now, what would I do?”
Here’s my list, which is and should be different from your list. I’ve got the benefit of knowing all the things I did do to heal from Childhood PTSD. But I did them over a period of 29 years with lots of time spent off-track. You can go faster because I’m sharing with you some of what worked, as well as what didn’t work. But if I had it to do all over again, here’s what I’d do:
1. I’d learn the science of Complex PTSD and Childhood PTSD (which is a category of that). The information wasn’t available when I was first learning to heal but if I started right now I’d take the ACE survey and get my score, and I’d read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk and Complex PTSD by Pete Walker. There are many other books out there but that’s where I’d start.
2. I’d learn to notice and calm neurological dysregulation, which is the foundational symptom of Childhood PTSD. I’d do this with my Daily Practice of writing fears and resentments, followed by meditation twice a day. As it happens, I did learn this 29 years ago, even though I had no idea at the time what was wrong with me, or why using these techniques made me feel better. But if I had it to do over again, I’d use these techniques religiously, thoroughly, twice a day. I wouldn’t quit because somebody in my life found it inconvenient or because things didn’t always go my way. I know now that sometimes things not going my way is what progress looks like, and it’s safe to keep healing even then.
3. I’d quickly get out of all the unhealthy, dead-end, one-sided relationships with significant others and would-be significant others. These are relationships where one of us had feelings (sometimes me and sometimes them), but the other person did not have those feelings and was basically using the interested party because.. it’s kinda fun to have someone adore you. Unfortunately, it costs both people their emotional availability, and neither will tend to find true love when they’re entangled in this kind of “friendship.”
4. I’d become a Jedi at being alone. I used to have so much anxiety about it, and so I’d fill up all my free time doing social things I didn’t really want to do, and I’d hang on to friends I didn’t really like, just so I didn’t have to be alone. I know a lot of people with Childhood PTSD have the opposite problem, and I’ve been in that camp too, isolating and avoiding social interactions. So if I had one year to recover, I’d cut down my relationships to just the ones that didn’t involve pining on either person’s part, nor one person using the other to fill up the seat next to them at a movie. I’d only maintain friendships with people whom we both truly cared to know and support each other. For me, it would have meant more alone time. And these days, I totally enjoy that and take trips and go to movies and hike all by myself, even though I have a family and love hanging out with them too.
5. I’d stop spending money on therapy and cigarettes. I was using both of them to try to feel better, but in the long run, there were too many side effects, and I still didn’t feel better. I know therapy does help a lot of people, but I was feeling worse and worse in every visit. So if I had to do it all over again, I’d take all that money and invest it because, if I’d done that starting 29 years ago, I’d be none the worse for it, plus I’d be a jillionaire.
6. I’d exercise every day. No one ever told me this back in the day, but strong exercise is SO good for re-regulating, for calming emotions, and for (who knew?) your heart, your lungs, your muscles, and pretty much everything in life. Now that I exercise, I have so much more confidence in the world. I feel prettier and healthier, even though I’m much older now.
7. I’d stop all the negative stuff in my life, starting with my own trash-talking of other people and their religion, their politics, their taste in food and music and boyfriends, and pretty much everything. I would instantly challenge myself on ALL my negative beliefs that require black-and-white thinking — This group good, this group bad… this person perfect, this person evil. I’d completely embrace the understanding I have now that everything is complicated, and we’re all working out a way to do the best we can. I’d quit being so judgmental. I’d quit telling people how they should change. I’d stop putting myself down, and I’d delete all the music I used to listen to that was about death, heartache, betrayal, crazy love, revenge, and self-pity. Or I’d delete most of it. I think it affected me in a bad way.
8. I’d be a better friend. I’d go to my friends’ weddings when they invited me. I’d call them back when they called. I’d accept them and not abandon them just because I was triggered.
9. I’d be a better worker. It took me so long to learn this: When you take a job, your job is to make the boss and the organization successful, period. I used to make everything so much about my feelings and how I was treated (which sometimes was awful, and when that was the case, I should have left sooner). I wish I had made a rule for myself NOT to be in a job (if I could possibly have a choice) where I wasn’t willing to make my boss’ and my organization’s success the priority. Usually, I was not, in fact, willing, which meant yes, it was a crap job but also that I was a crap worker. I complained a lot and stayed stuck for a long time without moving up to jobs that made me happy.
10. If I were single, I’d learn to DATE. I never knew this. I thought dating was finding yourself all bonded through sex with someone where there was a mutual attraction and then retroactively trying to make them into the person you were hoping to meet in the first place. It turns out dating is supposed to be a getting-to-know-you process (!) to learn if someone might be someone you wanted to actually get close to (and maybe marry). In my case, I definitely wanted to end up married. But you wouldn’t know it by the people I “dated.” I know my confusion around this was from my childhood hurts, but the trauma that bad relationships brought into my life was maybe even worse than the trauma from childhood. Even worse, I caused other people to suffer. So I’d completely change that if I had to heal in a year.
So those are my ten things. If you want to write your ten things, I’ve created a worksheet you can request here. I’m not checking your homework; this is just so you can try this exercise and see if it inspires you and helps you dream big about your next steps! It’s not a crazy goal to change your life in a year, and chances are, you already know what to do.
Be bold and let yourself become your REAL self. Don’t let anybody tell you this has to take forever or that it can’t be done. You were born to heal! And you’ve already come this far. Be proud of yourself! I’m so proud of all you have done to recover and bring your love and your light to the world. We’re on this path together. Happy New Year, everybody!
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