My days have been running into each other. One day crashes into the next, barely time to dream outside of the wash, rinse repeat cycle. I hate how much I’ve relied on becoming a creature of habit to help manage the world around me, and despise the anxiety that follows subtle changes in my daily ritual. No matter how much “work” I do I struggle to stand in surivorhood as strong and tall as I’d like; I have one foot planted firmly in the present and I’m accounted for, going through motions like a fully functioning member of society. Yet there’s a part of me raging underneath it all, I’ve dated her back to six years old, maybe seven. I’ve given honest attempts at resolving my underlying issues, years under my own critical gaze, picking apart everything I have to “fix”. I’ve spent countless hours, days, weeks, months, even years attempting to reconcile with my past traumas. I’ve gone as far as naming the various working parts of my past, as if they’re living, breathing, cognizant entities, aware of me being aware of them. There are the days I’m haunted, heavy boned and sensitive to touch, whether by presence or memory, the floods of emotion brought on by sound or scent.
Talk therapy was a success! I quickly mastered verbalizing how I needed everyone to leave me alone and was able to articulate that I was angry and anxious and wasn’t sure why. In group therapy I went from victim to survivor, and before that there were countless other attempts at being guided through the rest of my life by licensed and certified professionals, equipped with billable interventions and credentials. Somewhere in the midst of trauma’s aftermath mess my anxieties blossomed into lovely panic attacks. Somewhere under childhood trauma’s lives an older heavy, something predating my own existence. This is called intergenerational trauma, and I wear these scars like I wear my father’s features and my mother’s mannerisms. It’s been easier to distinguish between my PTSD and “the before memories”, which I don’t recall, but haunt like ghosts from generations past.
In August of 2016 I packed my life and moved half way across the country, I left behind a decade of consistency, of friendships, of family, of homelands that my people, my tribe, my clan, my blood had thrived upon before Europeans came. I’d grown roots there, kept a career, raised children, lost a sister, gained a brother. I became alive again, I became woman again. Not a victim, or a survivor. I began writing a new story. It’s been exciting and heartbreaking, new beginnings and farewell to journeys that were ending. Several weeks into starting at a private university in Virginia I began having “flashbacks”, I hate using that word but that’s what they were. I started having crippling panic attacks, I couldn’t get through a class without having to talk myself down; heart palpitations, trouble with my vision, the words I spoke sounded foreign and muffled, as if I was talking under water. I felt as if I was simultaneously shrinking and invisible, as if it was happening but no one could see. I spent several weeks tackling this on my own, telling myself it was all in my head, and maybe it is. At the peak of this I woke up swinging on someone who I love, trust, and feel safe with. I’d fallen asleep on the couch in the living room while writing a paper, a family member attempted to shake me awake. I realized I was punching the air as I met their wide eyes, surprised and apologetic. This wasn’t the “six year old me” who was bitter and jaded, this wasn’t the young woman who has become survivor of a violent sexual crime, this was a part of me that’s been in survival mode for generations. This was the heaviness of it all, this was the PTSD and intergenerational trauma coming to a head.
I’ve found that there’s been a difference between survival mode and being a survivor. When you’re in survival mode you’re always on edge, you learn to live with your baseline sky high and keep the world at arm’s length. You develop coping skills and rely on them while running through your daily rituals; examples of this are finding routes to avoid people and triggers, you sit with your back to the wall, eyes on the nearest exit and don’t let anything get between you and the closest door. You cringe and tense up with people walk behind you, you learn to sleep light as a feather and stiff as a board. You minimize your presence and distance yourself from social situations that could be too far out of your control, so you’re “anti-social” or claim introspective. You learn to survive in dominant, unwavering society. When you’re survivor you’ve reclaimed yourself, your body. You’re operating on the fact that you’ve outlived something that should’ve broken and destroyed you. You’re learning to live under new information. Sometimes these spheres blend together. Sometimes being survivor means being in survival mode and you mistake your anxiety and adrenaline for strength.
I shift from survivor to survival mode, and have for as long as I can remember. I resorted back to what I knew when faced with potential danger to the survivor I’d become during this last move: fight over flight. I began questioning any “progress” I’d thought I’d made over the years, maybe I never made any at all. Maybe I’ve attempted the “fake it until you make it” for so long that I’ve just believed my own lie. I saw one therapist through my university, she made some recommendations that made sense and sincerely tried to help. But it was mostly nice just to have someone listen. She said, “It sounds like you have a lot going on, but it also sounds like you’re used to surviving in that chaotic mode.” Which absolutely floored me. I could feel myself grow defensive, I wanted to say something about not being so privileged, someone like me could not afford the luxury of a life that wasn’t constant struggle. However, she was correct and I nodded and said I’d like to change that. I had become very calm in a chaotic state of being, yet here I was struggling with it. Interestingly enough, in the same time frame I met a local woman who works and studies in the mental health field, Jennifer D. Watts, M.S. who has been training with Neurofeedback out of Newport News, Virginia. We developed a friendship and bonded over seafood, similar non-profit backgrounds, and common interests. She introduced me to another option in addressing my PTSD and swift arising symptoms of intergenerational trauma.
Neurofeedback. I’d heard of it, never had any direct experience with it but read how they’d used this to treat homecoming Veterans with PTSD from combat. I’d also read critical articles in various online journals. The woman I met shared some information with me that sparked my interest; she’d said they’d used this treatment with people in the Congo who were in the midst of violence and had generations of trauma they were surviving. I felt I should at least try neurofeedback after doing some further reading on my own. Jennifer has kept routine sessions with me, where I’ve had fairly consistent neurofeedback treatments for several months now. Other than these sessions this is the only treatment I’ve had. These treatments are painless, noninvasive, and do not include psychotherapy. As I was filling out the forms to begin treatment I ran through the questionnaire and realized just how much was going on within me. I checked the boxes for trouble sleeping, racing thoughts, cravings for using (mostly cigarettes) drugs/alcohol, sometimes food related, and having a physical reaction to people touching me, as well as sound and scent. I believe that due to the circumstance and specifics of the crime and assault being triggered by sound, scent, and touch are especially triggering for me. There were other boxes checked, I was kind of shocked to what I was willing to admit when it was just me, pen, paper, and Jennifer. I noticed a change after my first treatment, I had been especially anxious over academic and financial concerns and was losing handfuls of hair a day. I started having discoloration and bruising around several of my scars and where I’d been burnt and stabbed during my attack, which was two decades ago. I had not been sleeping and I really had little to no patience and was unable to focus on seeing anything through to “complete” due to being distracted and having racing thoughts. After the first treatment I slept. I still struggled in falling asleep, but I felt my body relax before passing out. When I woke up I felt refreshed for the first time in months. All of my worry over stressors was still there, but it didn’t feel as unmanageable as it had.
As far as “the treatment” goes this was what I experienced. I went into a small closed room with the technician who was “hooking me up” to the system. I sat in a comfortable reclining chair and several electrodes were placed on various spots on my head/scalp (this varies depending on what treatment/s you’re undergoing). My technician, who is also my friend, communicated exactly what she was doing and let me know where she was touching me and why. It really helped put me at ease, as well as helped establish trust within our relationship. This is very important in building a relationship for anyone and everyone, this is key in therapeutic interactions with anyone who has PTSD and a history of trauma. I had two options of “activity” to do during the treatment, I could play a computer game or watch a movie/television show, I opted for watching something and learned very quickly what you watch has an impact on your results and your treatment. Good to know! And after working in the mental health field for over fifteen years, I should’ve realized this! It’s pretty typical for the client to sit in a chair facing a laptop screen, television connected to the computer system, or a double screen set up. Whichever system set up the office or technician has is then connected to the electrodes which are applied to the head/scalp. The special software program, in this case it’s called Cygnet, monitors the electrical activity in your brain. In particular, it measures rhythmic patterns known as theta and beta waves which you can visibly see on the screen and or have a print out of after your session. This was interesting to me because not only was I experiencing this but I could see and monitor my own baseline, where my comfort levels were at and have been able to follow those form the beginning to present time. I can also give a few tips on do’s and don’ts for your treatments. Aside from the obvious, using the restroom, making sure you’ve eaten, you’re not hyped up on caffeine, you’re comfortable and you’re able to minimize your movements so you can sit as relaxed as possible the system picks up your movements. Also, leave your phone out in your car or put it away, allow yourself this time to be disconnected. Don’t use gum, or candy in your mouth. Mentally slow down and minimize your external stressors before treatment, don’t argue or engage in anything that’ll get your blood boiling. Listen to music, shake it off, walk it off. Just take a moment before hand and focus on breathing and keep in mind that you’re retraining your brain. Even simple visualization techniques, or meditation techniques help just before heading into a session.
I’ve also been very mindful of what I have been feeling, thinking, I’ve kept a diary, even logged my dreams, made notes, and stayed focused on what I’ve been hoping to get out of this, I’ve monitored what has been very stressful and triggering for me. Aside from very “normal” adult life stressors, like bills, money, deadlines, and such there are some specific triggers. For me, having some focus on what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and being able to keep my eye on the prize helps calm me. Remaining goal oriented has made me feel as though I’m making progress. It’s been several months since I’ve started Neurofeedback sessions and I can honestly say that I’ve been able to sleep better, I still struggle with relaxing and have vivid nightmares, but it’s not as bad. My bruising and physical reactions haven’t been as intense; the skin around my scars is beginning to even out and I don’t feel flashback as intense as I had been. I haven’t had as many cravings as I was, which has helped since I quit smoking cigarettes. I also still have anxiety attacks but they aren’t debilitating and don’t keep me from doing my daily routine and rituals, I can usually talk myself down and through these with ease, as I had been able to do. I highly recommend to anyone contemplating giving neurofeedback a try to be very honest with themselves, their provider, and to keep a log to monitor their progress and struggles. It helps to see patterns, triggers, and is a good way to see what’s not working and to keep track of what is.
It’s important to also note that it might be good to have psychotherapy along with your treatments, or to be in some sort of group, or be under care, have someone to talk to, I’ve been solid with my journal, talking to my technician, and knowing I have a therapist through my university and my medical provider. You’re also not treating the PTSD and trauma, not just masking the symptoms with medications, this is giving you a window of opportunity to work through underlying issues and truly help yourself. My pre-adolescent son has also started these treatments, he’s not been exposed to the same traumas that I was but has a history of seizures and has also struggled in facing a lot of anti-indigenous micro-aggressions since moving to Virginia. We immediately noticed that he slept soundly the night after. We are keeping a diary of how he felt before, any specific problems he’s having, or concerns, and how he reacted and slept after, as well as any seizures he’s had. He’s had none. Overall, I would recommend neurofeedback to others, I’ve very curious at this point to know how other Natives would react to this, especially those who’d been at Standing Rock, those who’re dealing with trials for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and in communities reeling from suicide and murder in both the United States and Canada. My friend, Jennifer D Watts, M.S. who has been working with me out of Fly Family Therapy and Neurotherapy out of Newport News, Virginia is also working on non-profit programming for future work in the field, so perhaps one day this could be taken to people where they are as opposed to having to see them in an office. I feel this would be ideal for programming on Reservations, where they’re trying to act more traditionally and “decolonize” therapy, just as they did with people from The Congo.
After my last session I walked out of the office feeling hopeful, which is feeling and sensation that it’s always present for me. Which hasn’t always been part of my life. I feel like everything I’m dealing with is manageable, and I’ve slept. My basic needs are being met and I’ve also felt like my brain has been able to process information and external stimuli in manner that is allowing me to accomplish more on my daily checklist of Things To Do. I’m more productive in my daily life, for a full time student and career woman, that’s so very important. 10/10 recommend trying neurofeedback for PTSD and anxiety related issues.