Stuck?  Five ways to heal after tragedy.

When tragedy strikes, the world seems to stop. It’s hard to imagine moving — much less moving forward — ever again.

If you were anywhere on social media or the news this month, you saw the massive container ship ‘Ever Given’ get stuck in the Suez Canal. For almost a week, this one ship paralyzed shipping around the world, holding up billions of dollars in revenue.

I think that ship is a lot like tragedy in our lives.

In my own life, tragedy paralyzed me for years. In 1990, I was a 27-year-old with great aspirations. My public relations career was building momentum. I was happy in my marriage and loved life and the vast opportunities that lay ahead.

Then, in a hotel hall, I was attacked. In just 15 minutes, the assailant stopped me in my tracks, overpowered me, held a knife to my neck and took me hostage. He gave me an ultimatum to open my hotel door or kill me, and then he robbed me and sexually assaulted me.

In essence, he stripped me of all sense of security I had ever known.

And I became stuck…for a very long time.

Fortunately, two decades later, I finally got the counseling I needed to navigate life successfully again. I believe if I can accomplish this, anyone can because I was firmly cemented in fear, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.  Here’s the five methods that unlodged me and led me back to a purposeful and peaceful existence.

  1. Search for a new perspective. Tragedy can make us feel like victims, like the universe is working against us. That’s how I felt. Until I wrote my book, Room 939, I felt like a crime statistic.  I identified as a victim and clung to a victim mentality.  But the truth is, I was actually a survivor.  I survived something so horrific and didn’t die that night in the downtown Atlanta hotel room.  I learned that my survival was something that I needed to celebrate every day. I found the goodness in everything around me; and I thanked God each day for the simple gifts given to me.  I was able to see that so many people around me had it far worse than I.  Women struggling with chemo and breast cancer.  A man losing his family because of drug addiction. Mothers and children suffering in poverty and living in their cars.  What had I lost?  Nothing, compared to these people.  I had an abundant life!
  2. Create a new soundtrack in your mind.  Take some time in the next few days and explore what you are telling yourself repeatedly? Are there self-sabotaging thoughts on instant replay? Carry a notebook around and record these untruths in a journal. What I discovered was there were about 10 negative “self-talk” messages that I kept on a continual reel. One was that I was going to be assaulted again. This became a pattern of belief.  The good news is you can hack into your brain and reprogram it.  I started doing cognitive behavioral therapy with a psychologist and I retrained my brain to stop the negative thoughts and replace them with others.  Major takeaway:  thoughts become things. Get control of your thoughts and change your destiny.
  3. Do the work to get back to normal living. Most of us have a fear of ripping the bandaid off of our painful past because we believe if we do so, it will hurt more, bleed more and reopen the wound in such a way the pain will be unbearable. That’s what I believed, but I was wrong!  By hitting rock bottom with depression in 2010, I had no place to go but in a new direction. I found enough courage to reopen the wound and began counseling.  In my great desire to get well again, I found a strength I didn’t know I possessed.  The commitment to do cognitive behavioral therapy was arduous, but it led to wellness.  Ahhh….peace, wellness, happiness. The gift of peace is priceless!
  4. Allow grief to play its role. If you are reading this blog, you most certainly have experienced grief in your life.  It’s important to allow the process to take place because to disregard it is to prolong your suffering. I mourned the loss of innocence in the world as I had known it. I felt despair, vulnerability, sadness, anger, loss of self, and most importantly, loss of the future I had envisioned.  Years later, I learned I had experienced disenfranchised grief because if we are honest, no one wants to talk about rape and sexual assault.  It’s ugly to the core, horrifying, messy. It’s easier for families and friends to not talk about it and keep it swept neatly under the rug.
  5. Open up and talk about it. This last point is the mother of all advice to get unstuck. It’s a tough one, no doubt! You must talk about the life event that causes you pain and suffering.  Air your laundry. Get it out in the open.  Claim it. Openly admit and discuss that you are incapable of doing this alone.  Your friends and family will likely fail to have the right words and advice.  But there are hundreds of thousands of therapists that can help you.  To listen and to guide you to a better place in life.  Joy is attainable, but you cannot remain in a silent bubble if you are to heal. The toolkit is there.  You just have to pick it up and start using the tools to get the job done.  The most useful keys to my recovery were and continue to be yoga, meditation, mindfulness, reading the Bible, spirituality, speaking to groups, cognitive behavioral therapy, and journaling to find restoration.

What life experience is keeping you from moving forward today? Help is out there.  You don’t have to remain the lone ship lodged forever in immobility.  There are plenty of dredgers and tugboats out there to pull you out of your despair.  You just have to be willing to let them get close enough to help free you.

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