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Mental Illness to Mental Health: How I Turned 40 And Finally Reclaimed My Life

Michele Rosenthal 2013
 

When I was 6 years old, I used to lie in bed at night and wish that, for just ten seconds, I could be every person in the world. I imagined that overnight the “essence” that was me could whip around the world, assimilating into the mind of every man, woman, and child just long enough to know what it felt like to be him or her. I don’t know where this idea came from, or why I was obsessed with it. Simply, I wanted to be connected to people around the world. Working out the details of the plan was what I did each night before falling asleep.

Needless to say, my plan never materialized, and I began looking for other ways to connect with people outside of my local playground. Two years later I wrote my first “novel.” It was a way I could provide something that could connect with lots of other people all at once. It took me a year to write the book about a family with two kids and a dog, and their adventures. The summer after third grade, I begged my mother to help me find a publisher. Instead she sent me to day camp where, on rainy days, they entertained us with such violent movies I crouched down on the floor behind the seat in front of me, out of view of the screen and not wanting to connect with anyone.

By the summer I was 13, in true adolescent fashion, my focus turned away from the world at large toward the smaller world of myself. I was caught up in hairstyling, clothing trends, and boys, when, just a few weeks before school reopened, I developed an infection for which my doctor – without reading my chart – prescribed a popular antibiotic. Had he taken the time to read my file, the doctor would have seen that the antibiotic he prescribed could possibly be deadly for me. Instead, we all figured that out together as the medication prompted an allergic reaction that turned me into the equivalent of a full-body burn victim.  I was hospitalized, quarantined, and tended to by a burn unit team.

The Birth of Trauma
By the time I left the hospital weeks later, I’d lost 100% of my skin. More than that, I’d lost myself. If I was a happy-go-lucky kid before after my illness, I was an anxious, angry, insomniac trying to fake being okay afterward. Fear drove my actions, reactions, and emotions all day, every day. Not wanting to look like a coward, and desperately wanting to reclaim the life and self I’d had before, I developed a chipper persona that I used to fake my way through every day.

While I could fool friends and teachers, to my family and me it was clear there was something very wrong. I became enormously depressed, raged if anyone asked me to discuss my hospital stay, and developed a recurring nightmare in which someone was trying to kill me. When I was released from the hospital, the staff made it clear that I would not survive this illness if it occurred again.

Trapped in a body that had betrayed me, and could again at any minute, I set off on over two decades of finding ways to both punish and detach from my body.

Because “posttraumatic stress disorder” was not a popular diagnosis back in the 1980s when my symptoms first emerged, and because I worked hard to hide every symptom and refused to discuss what was wrong, 24 years would pass before I actually began to heal the emotional and psychological damage that my illness caused.

By the time I was in my late 30s, decades of self-destructive behaviors and mental anguish had turned me into an isolated, high-anxiety, out-of-work, mental meltdown with serious physical health complications, including bone, muscle, liver, stomach, and intestinal dysfunction. Finally, I decided to admit the truth: That horrific trauma when I was thirteen had changed me in more ways that I had expected. It was time to learn to change again.

Making Change Happen for Myself
I set out on a healing rampage to find both a diagnosis for what plagued my mind (was I crazy, or was there something seriously wrong for which there was a cure?) and a process to heal my inner landscape as well as my body. The path to identifying the right diagnosis — posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — and healing from it led me to utilize both traditional and alternative methods for recovery.

Starting with talk therapy and cognitive behavior therapy, I also incorporated Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, Emotional Freedom Technique, Thought Field Therapy, Tapas Acupressure Technique, acupuncture, and kinesiology. The combination of all of this got me back to functionality. I got out of bed; I went back to work. However, I wasn’t free. My quest continued until dance, hypnosis, and neurolinguistic programming finally pushed me through the last stage of PTSD recovery and out the other side. Today, I am 100% free of PSTD symptoms and have been for several years.

At the time of my recovery I was 40 years old with no job, no career, and none of the other things you might have expected a 40-year-old woman to have acquired, either socially or professionally. Not knowing what to do with myself in this new, PTSD-free world, I immediately felt moved to give back, to connect with trauma survivors of every type and help them on their journeys of recovery. Yes, trauma changes us, but we can change again and I wanted to help pull together information that allowed others to discover their own journey toward healing.

Making Change Happen for Others
With this goal in mind I founded the HealMyPTSD.com website, became trained as a posttrauma coach, launched a radio program that focuses on healing, began speaking about mental illness and health, and published BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED: Conquering the Past and Creating the Future, which gives an overview of trauma, PTSD, and the recovery process.

All of this work has put me in touch with people from around the world. In different cultures with varied traumatic experiences, I hear the same refrain from people: “How do you know exactly how I feel?” I always reply, “I don’t. I’m sharing how I feel.”

This connection between what I feel in my own self, and what people around the world feel, both thrills and stuns me. We can feel so alone and disconnected in our experiences and their impacts. The truth, however, is that we are all enormously connected. While we are unique in our traumas and healing paths, we are universal in our posttraumatic experience.

All those years when I was a little girl I thought connecting with the world meant you had to actually be everyone else in order to know them. I didn’t realize that the experiences we all have individually actually connect us globally; while we are unique, we are not special. The pain and grief and sadness and fear I have experienced are the same as so many people on earth. I didn’t have to go outside of myself to connect with those around me. As it turns out, all I had to do was go more deeply inside myself and then share that with the world.

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Comments
  • margo May 23rd, 2013 at 3:09 PM #1

    That’s a pretty amazing journey that you have led in life. I know that we always say that things happen for a reason, but you and your family all must have at times wondered what in the world was the reasoning behind all of that!
    With that in consideration, your story really touched me because I am the absolute worst at never being able to see past what is right in front of me at the moment, never taking the time to learn from it, only showing my dismay at the discomfort that it could be causing me right at this moment.’\
    Your story, though, has inspired me to begin trying to see things from a new angle, looking at ways to learn from every oppportunity that I am given rather than only seeing it for the bad. For this, I thank you very much. Your story and your work is greatly appreciated by this reader.

  • Nicole May 23rd, 2013 at 9:31 PM #2

    You’re a very strong person,you know that!

    To have been through so much,to overcome it and to help others takes some doing.And you have done all of that.Kudos to you.And I am especially impressed by his you didn’t just go about your life once oh recovered,that you decided to help others through their pain.Hats off!

  • Rob May 24th, 2013 at 12:07 AM #3

    Good for you! An inspiring message for sure.

  • Erica F May 24th, 2013 at 12:10 AM #4

    You certainly have a great imagination! When I was six years old, the only thing I thought about before going to sleep was what cartoons would be on TV the next morning.

  • Jerricha May 24th, 2013 at 12:14 AM #5

    Isn’t it funny how parents don’t realize what our true dreams really are? If your mom had known it was so important that your book be published that you’d be writing about it this many years later, would she have taken the afternoon to find publishing companies to send your novel to? l can remember having the ideal family in my head when I was younger. I came from a very nice family, so it wasn’t like I needed an escape or anything. If I could have, I’d have jumped right into the Cosby Show family. It’s a shame that kids can’t express what they really want. Or is it that they can and parents just aren’t listening?

  • pax May 24th, 2013 at 12:16 AM #6

    um so whatever happened to that doctor who gave you that medicine without looking at your chart. i sure hope he don’t practice medicine no more. i mean i ain’t never heard of somebody being so irresponsible i can’t even believe he’d do that to some poor kid glad you are better now though.

  • HEATHER May 24th, 2013 at 12:18 AM #7

    SO MANY OF US HAVE MASKS THAT WE WEAR AND PRETEND WE ARE OKAY WHEN WE ARE REALLY NOT WE ALL JUST NEED TO TAKE THOSE MASKS OFF AND LET PEOPLE IN YES THERE IS A CHANCE WE’LL GET HURT BUT AT THE SAME TIME THERE IS A EVEN BETTER CHANCE THAT SOMEONE WILL HELP US IT IS VERY HARD AND SCARY BUT WE NEED TO LET PEOPLE HELP US IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANYONE GO TO A THERAPIST THAT’S WHAT I DID IT’S LIKE HAVING A BEST FRIEND WHO HAS TO LISTEN TO YOU FOR AN HOUR A WEEK BUT THEY DON’T JUST TELL YOU WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR THEY MAKE YOU THINK UP STUFF YOURSELF

  • Potter May 24th, 2013 at 12:19 AM #8

    You lost 100% of your skin? How does that work? Sounds so painful!!!!!!!!

  • g.t.f. May 24th, 2013 at 12:22 AM #9

    I just think it is very sad that those early adult years were ruined by such a trauma
    it seems unfair you had to go through that
    i am glad we know what ptsd is now so maybe so many people don’t have to walk the same path you did
    i am hoping someone reads this and goes and gets help
    you never know who is going to be reading something you wrote that really needs to hear it right then

  • arizona May 24th, 2013 at 12:25 AM #10

    getting frustrated with myself.

    i feel like i have been ona destructive path since i was 21.

    i overeat and am always overweight.

    every once in awhile i’ll get it together.

    i’ll exercise, eat right, and lose weight.

    the funny thing is that it never is emotional when i lose weight.

    i am able to separate the emotional from the physical.

    but as soon as any weight starts to come back on it’s emotional again.

    and then it pours back on.

    so frustrated

  • Kyrah May 24th, 2013 at 12:27 AM #11

    It is often said that the best way to help yourself is to help someone else. I think you have done an excellent job proving that point. And, it shows how together and mature you are. You are really quite an inspiration. It’s very hard to change at age 40 whether your current choices are working for you or not.

  • Harley May 24th, 2013 at 12:32 AM #12

    Funny how different experiences can evoke the same emotion. we are all connected by our emotions no matter where we are from how old we are or what we’ve been through that is great thing about the human experience. As soon as you think you’re alone in it God puts someone in your path to learn from and to make you realize you are not alone.

  • Beatrice May 24th, 2013 at 4:07 AM #13

    Funny how turning a milestone age like 40 kind of forces a little more perspective and focus on you, isn’t it?

  • david May 25th, 2013 at 12:09 AM #14

    when you mention PTSD not being so ‘popular’ back then I was thinking of how we treated those with mental health issues a hundred years or two hundred years ago.first we thought they were demonic or witches, then we kept them imprisoned and now we treat them with stigma.when we look back and realize how barbaric we the ‘normal’ people were back then, how is it going to be any different when future generations look back at how we stigmatized those with mental health issues in an age we consider to be ‘the best and most advanced’?

  • Anonymous May 25th, 2013 at 4:48 AM #15

    Jesus Christ
    Actually, people don’t want you to take off the mask. Nobody wants to deal with someone else’s baggage or issues, ok? As one of my first therapists said “we all have our cross to bear in life”. Suffering in life does not make you special or unique, though somehow you seemed to think so. And you must be white, otherwise how could afford the luxury of taking that much time to get your shit together?

  • anonymous May 29th, 2013 at 12:19 AM #16

    This is a wonderful post.And You have done a great favour in writing this out .I am from India and going through a rough phase in life.Thanks for the consutructive way you have put your life to be.Its an inspiration.I would liek to connectw ith you more.Also,please totally ignore people who write nonsense comemnts because may be they are stillf rustrated with their lives and do not want to seek happiness nor want to help others.God Bless you.

  • Latrice May 29th, 2013 at 3:20 PM #17

    Michele this is very inspiring to me I to had PTSD undiagnosed for many years and thought for so long I’m just a loser and no one understood. When I got help for my PTSD finally years and years later it made me so much better and others finally got me. I am glad this happened for you also.

  • Greta May 29th, 2013 at 3:47 PM #18

    Your medical trauma sounds a lot like something I suffered at age 2- Steven Johnsons Syndrome (SJS). Like you I didn’t recognize for decades that as a result I also suffered from PTSD. Though I didn’t try many of the therapies you mention, I did ultimately find healing by being mediated in Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment (FIE), a program created by Jewish Psychologist Reuven Feuerstein. In Mediated Learning Experiences (MLE), a trained mediator seeks to take advantage of Structural Cognitive Modifiability (SCM) by growing Metacognitive skill in the mediatee so that cognitive dysfunctions can not only be identified but overcome. Anyway, thanks for sharing your story, your struggle and your hope, Michele!

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