Q: What is it like to live with post-traumatic stress disorder?
I was diagnosed with PTSD after being violently assaulted on my way home from a peacemaking workshop in 2014, but not everyone’s experience of it will be the same. There are varying degrees of PTSD, and each of us has different capacity to heal depending on individual facts and circumstances. There are many people who have the disorder without realizing it. They are going about their lives after childhood abuse, sexual assault, and more, and they might not be diagnosed until a major traumatic event, such as military service, terrorism, or a violent crime.
It wasn’t until after the 2014 assault that I realized my PTSD diagnosis was compounded by many other traumatic events that I tried to get over on my own. The symptoms were quite subtle, until the assault, and I probably wouldn’t have sought treatment if I hadn’t seen how my partner and I were struggling to communicate at the levels we were used to with each other. I had something to lose, and I was not going to let someone else’s poor choices be my defining moment.
I was very high functioning for the year or so I went to the Crime Victims’ Treatment Center for counseling. I continued to work full-time in my business, but my PTSD resulted in new fears of people wearing hooded sweatshirts in ways I can’t assess or identify them. I still don’t like being anywhere that I can’t scan the crowd quickly, and large crowds are still a bit overwhelming. I rarely go out by myself at night now. Yet I also no longer allow people to mistreat me at the levels I used to.
In addition to keeping myself physically safe at night, I maintain better boundaries with people and am more willing to use the power of a positive no—without (much) guilt. People who claim to love me but can’t acknowledge the physical and emotional impact the attack had on me are now among those I love from afar, much as I do my assailant. I also no longer call people on my way home, thinking I was safer that way. I learned that made me a target and traumatized my boyfriend, who listened helplessly to me being attacked.
I don’t know yet whether my PTSD is permanent. There is much neuroscientific research that shows our brains are “neuroplastic”. They can be taught new patterns, and I’m not sure I need to change the new habits I created to protect myself.
I am living proof that traumatic brain patterns can be rewired to lessen the impact of the trauma. In my case, we did this without pharmaceuticals, through a combination of psychotherapy, coaching, and self-education. But that does not mean others with the diagnosis must follow my treatment plan, or that they are weak or defective because their doctors believe prescription medication would be more effective. I definitely defer to the experts on this. I am licensed to practice law, not medicine.
In short, PTSD is like every other human diagnosis. It is as unique as the individual diagnosed with it, and we must address it accordingly—with an eye toward healing, at whatever level that can be achieved. We must not label someone and dismiss him or her as a lost cause. As my late mother would often say, when we were lost while driving, “We’ve never been so lost that we couldn’t find our way home.”
Q: How do I deal with the failed suicide attempt of a loved one?
I survived a suicide attempt at age 19. Contrary to what some people think, I didn’t walk around wanting to die, nor did I for any significant period after my attempt. I know you’re scared that your loved one might attempt suicide again, but that’s not necessarily a real threat. Each case is different.
After I took a bottle of my mom’s pain killers with a lot of alcohol, I thought twice about what I had done. Fortunately, I maintained consciousness long enough to seek help that had been available all along. It wasn’t the first time I wanted to escape a home life that was chaotic, at best, but it was in a particularly dark period of a few hours that my brain couldn’t imagine things ever getting better. That was when I decided to act, then regret that action.
I wish I could tell you exactly what to watch for. I can’t. But I can say what I think might have helped and still can:
- It probably would have helped for a family member to either remove me from the abusive environment I was in or teach me to stand up for myself in ways that didn’t invite more abuse. (After years of therapy, I forgive them for not knowing what to do and struggling similarly.)
- It might have helped for someone around me to listen without judgment and empower me to take actions to change my circumstances. (Yet I understand that we were all young and feeling our ways through some uncertain times.)
- It likely would have helped for a teacher, boss, or neighbor to recognize the signs of my depression and abuse, so that I might have realized I wasn’t “broken” or “defective”.
- I could have benefited from more education in self-exploration and conflict resolution far earlier than when I was forced into therapy after my suicide attempt. (This is probably why I have become a mediator and wrote a book to empower others who have forgotten how strong they can be.)
- I wish my mother had not needed something so drastic to realize I had needs, too, and I wish she had not tried to remove me from some of the places where I felt safest and most confident.
- I wish my abuser had taken responsibility and stopped the behavior, instead of updating it for our adult roles. I forgave many times, only to be abused and manipulated again. Fortunately, I now know that I don’t have to accept this in my relationships. I am not broken or defective.
- I wish my family could understand why I need to talk about what happened and that I don’t do it to hurt anyone. It is exactly the opposite. I speak up so that we can be free from the past and that others who are struggling might find the freedom and peace they need, too.
A suicide attempt is not an experience I fully understand, even 30 years later—and even after losing a friend in college and an ex-boyfriend to suicide. But hopefully, my story will help you see that you have nothing to feel guilty about. You probably didn’t cause the attempt, directly or indirectly. For me, it was a culmination of years of pain from abuse and dysfunction that I didn’t know how to stop. Make sure you take care of yourself in this situation, too.
Q: How do I forgive the unforgivable?
I have struggled many times in my life with forgiveness. I’ve tried to forgive someone when so many people around me have told me I am justified in hating. I disagree. Hate is not what I am here to do, so it’s never justified. I don’t think forgiveness is a weakness, but it often does take tremendous courage.
We forgive the unforgivable by listening with our third ears for the hurts we can heal.
I was shocked and confused when I first saw my attacker again. He was on the ground with his hands behind his back and my iPhone between his shoulder blades. My boyfriend’s name was still displayed on the screen. He had to hear the attack and deal with his own helplessness in the situation. I don’t know if he has forgiven that yet.
Regardless, when I heard the police officers at the station taking information about the perpetrator, I learned he was a 14-year-old boy. Seeing him in that light, I immediately thought of where I would have been at 10 PM on a Sunday night at age 14. I remembered how hard it was for me, even with a mother who loved and tried to protect me.
Something just didn’t seem right for him. I wanted to know more. I wanted to understand. I wanted something better for him—and for me. I didn’t want to start hating the world again, and I didn’t want to sacrifice the partnership I waited decades for.
I wanted a more peaceful, loving world. So, I focused on that—which required forgiveness. This didn’t mean I couldn’t still hold him accountable for his crimes and the way he destroyed parts of my life, but I didn’t need to destroy his life. It was clear he was already struggling with enough for his age.
I thought it better for both of us—and the world—to limit the consequences for both of us, to the extent that I could. (He still went to jail, but more because of his violent crimes after my assault than my assault alone.)
It has been harder with the sibling who has abused me emotionally for most of my life. When we were in the same household, the abuse was financial and physical, and at age 12, it became indirectly sexual when her friend molested me. Years later, I forgave the past and tried to build a new relationship with her, hoping things had changed—without an apology or any accountability. It hadn’t.
I wanted the change so badly, and that seemed to be a weakness that was exploited. Still, it didn’t feel like a weakness. I thought I was being strong, as I stepped over new abuses and faked family harmony. I think this is what people fear about forgiveness.
There are some people who we can keep forgiving each time they hurt us, but that will not stop them from hurting us. That doesn’t mean we have to keep putting ourselves in harm’s way—or stop forgiving them. But it is much easier to love people like this from afar. We aren’t required to waste our love or energy on continuously finding forgiveness for their latest abuses.
Having a hard time forgiving someone?
Nance L. Schick, Esq., is a workplace attorney, ethno-religious mediator, and conflict resolution coach based in New York City. A survivor of abuse, rape, suicide, and crime, she frequently speaks to Victimology students and trains victims’ supporters to deal with the emotional impact of crime. She is creator of the Third Ear Conflict Resolution process, author of DIY Conflict Resolution, and an award-winning entrepreneur acknowledged by Super Lawyers (ADR, 2018, 2019 & 2020), the New York Economic Development Corporation/B-Labs (Finalist, Best for NYC 2015 & 2016), U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2015 Blue Ribbon Small Business), Enterprising Women Magazine (Honorable Mention, 2014 Woman of the Year awards).