Healing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Your silence will not protect you.” – Audre Lorde

This blog post covers the tragic story of the unsolved murders that affected my childhood and discusses a framework for healing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by violent crime.  

PTSD is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. PTSD symptoms may occur within one month of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems in social, academic or work situations and in relationships. They can also interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily tasks.

PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: 

  1. Intrusive memories.
  2. Avoidance.
  3. Negative changes in thinking and mood.
  4. Changes in physical and emotional reactions. 

Symptoms can vary over time or vary from person to person.

Untreated PTSD can have long term negative effects on:

  • Attachment: trusting others, developing codependent relationships (overly reliant) or emotionally distant / detached.
  • Physiology: sensory-integration difficulties, somatization, and increased medical problems.
  • Affect or emotion regulation: poor affect regulation, difficulty identifying and expressing emotions and internal states.
  • Behavioral control: problems with impulse control, aggression, pathological self-soothing (i.e. substance abuse, binge or restrictive eating, self injury) and sleep problems.
  • Cognition: difficulty regulating attention; problems with a variety of “executive functions” such as planning, judgement, initiation, use of materials, and self-monitoring.
  • Self concept: low self-esteem, excessive shame, negative internal working models of self, and disturbed body image.

As a trauma survivor, I struggled with many symptoms of PTSD. I hope that telling my story and sharing my strategies for healing will inspire you or someone you love to get help.

The Story of the Gasoline Fueled Pipe Bomb Disguised as a Package

It was Thursday, February 25, 1982 at 8:35am. I was waiting for my 9-year old friend, his younger brothers, and father to pick me up for school. I called them to find out why they were late but their phone was busy. They lived 2 minutes away and were never late. I had known my friend and his parents since I was in preschool. We attended school and church together. His parents were very kind people who regularly helped their neighbors. So when they left for school that morning and found a package on their front porch addressed to them, they probably thought it was a thank you gift. However, when they opened it, they found two bottles, a piece of pipe, wires, and an egg timer. My friend inspected the bomb with his parents. Believing the bomb to be a “practical joke” but disturbed by its contents, my friend’s dad called the police and sent my friend and his 7-year old brother outside to wait in the car with their 3-year old brother.  As they walked outside, the bomb exploded and the front door of their house blew out shielding my friend and his brother from the explosion but killing their parents instantly. The explosion was so severe the roof of their house lifted off and their home burned to the ground.

My mother participated in a carpool with my friend’s parents. It was my mother’s week to carpool us to school but her car had broken down. If she had been driving the carpool as planned, it may have been me who found the package on the front porch that morning.

Never in the history of my small town had anyone been murdered or had any serious crimes occurred. Almost immediately, local law enforcement and the FBI descended on my home. Our phone was wiretapped and there was a constant police presence at my house. After police cleared my father as a murder suspect, they felt my family was in danger and hoped the murderer would call us or come to our house.

My family lived in fear for our safety until 1985. In 1995, the crime became a cold case and as of 2021 the murders remain unsolved.

It would take me almost 40 years to write this story. There are two reasons I never wrote about the murders. The first reason was that I was fearful for my safety since the murderer was never caught. The second reason was that I was afraid of being judged for being affected by a crime ranked number 51 on a list of unsolved murders in New Jersey.

Over the years I would ask myself, why me? Why my family? Why did this have to be our story? I would think to myself, “I do not want this story.” “I will pretend it never happened.” But the wreckage it left behind was too severe for me to ignore.

Throughout my life, all I wanted was to be normal like people who read about unsolved murders but never actually experienced one. But not being normal is what makes me successful in life and I’ve gradually developed a sense of pride in my differences. There is a depth to me that most people cannot understand but this depth only comes from healing PTSD and working through unacceptable grief and loss.

Strategies for Healing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Healing PTSD was no easy task. For over 10 years, I received no therapy. As a result, I developed many dysfunctional thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When I found psychology in high school, I discovered that avoiding my feelings and pretending to be okay was ineffective. I also discovered that there were therapists who could help me.

In college I signed up for free mental health counseling as soon I could. However, none of the therapists had the proper training to help me. In the early 90’s, it was uncommon for therapists to have expertise in trauma recovery. PTSD was a new diagnosis that had only been identified in 1980. Regardless, talking to a therapist who validated my feelings was critical to my recovery even if the therapist’s approach was ineffective.

When I went to graduate school, I hoped to find better therapists. It would take me until 2000 to find a therapist trained in trauma recovery, but her training was in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) which did very little to help me. EMDR tends to help acute trauma not past trauma.

Luckily, I knew early on that I was not making progress in therapy so I began helping myself by reading research studies, and books on existentialism, grief and loss, trauma, and spirituality. In graduate school I was attracted to existential psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which seemed to have the tools I needed. Later in my postdoctoral fellowship, I would find mindfulness based cognitive behavioral therapy, which offered the missing link to my psychological recovery. It would be a few more years until I would address the trauma stored in the body.

From ages 16 – 30, I worked to develop a framework to heal from PTSD and for nearly 20 years I have used this framework to help my clients heal.

Although my framework develops the right mindset to heal PTSD, it does not address the tools and skills to change dysfunctional behaviors created by trauma. It also does not address how to release trauma stored in the body. However, in order to implement the tools to change behavior and to release trauma from the body, you must first develop the right mindset.

1. Accept there is no justice

Step one is to accept there is no justice. Even if you disagree with me and think that justice exists, it NEVER makes up for being traumatized. It never brings back your innocence or the people who were murdered. Justice cannot create peace or make PTSD better. The only thing that can make PTSD better or create peace is YOU! You must let go of justice as a source of healing and instead focus on developing inner peace yourself.

It would take me a long time, without proper therapy, to accept that there is no justice. Working in prison as a psychologist in 2007 helped me understand this even more. Some of the most peaceful people I have ever met were murderers. These inmates had worked on themselves to the point they achieved inner peace. Surprisingly these murderers taught me a lot, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have known them.

But even when murderers are placed on death row, justice is never served. When I think of someone being injected with poisonous chemicals as they lay there dying, it makes me sick. Supporting the death penalty and watching someone die only makes me feel like a perpetrator.

Make a fierce decision today to let go of the idea that you must have justice before you can develop inner peace.

2. Find meaning and purpose in suffering

Is there any meaning or purpose in murder? Is there any meaning or purpose to living in fear for three years?  There is NO meaning or purpose to these events but there is meaning and purpose in working through the unpredictable challenges of life and the symptoms of PTSD. There is meaning and purpose in transforming grief and loss. And there is meaning and purpose in suffering.

When I was 20 years old, I read the book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor. He spent three years in four different camps including Auschwitz and was the only member of his family to survive. While in the camp, he endured unimaginable abuse and torture. His work became a guide for my healing and inspired me to find meaning and purpose in suffering.

Below are four of Frankl’s powerful teachings.

  1. Life has meaning in all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. This means when situations seem objectively terrible, there is a higher level of order that involves meaning.
  2. Finding meaning is our primary motivation for living, and allows us to endure pain and suffering.
  3. In all circumstances, you have the freedom to choose your own attitude. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” -Frankl
  4. When circumstances cannot change, it is you who must change.

Make the decision today to embrace your suffering and see it as meaningful part of your journey in life.

3. Let go of anger and unforgiveness

How can you forgive a murderer? How can you forgive someone who set into motion a reign of terror over your life? How can you forgive the unforgivable? It’s actually easier than you think. Once you know that unforgiveness is like taking poison yourself hoping it will hurt the other person, you realize right away that you must forgive. The forgiveness is for you, NOT for the other person. You must let go of anger and unforgiveness because it is poisoning you. I decided I did not want to poison myself anymore. I poisoned myself for a long time and the poison only caused me misery. I could pretend to be happy but I was never happy. I was not depressed either. Just never happy. 

It’s impossible not to poison yourself with anger and resentment when you are in a state of unforgiveness. However when I was in college I poured my anger into fighting for women’s rights both as an activist and academic researcher. This gave my anger a socially acceptable reason to exist but it was killing me and I needed to let it go. When I began to let go of my anger and forgive, I realized I could still be passionate and fight for women’s rights, but I did not have to be in pain to do so. When I began to forgive, I experienced peace and joy for the first time in my life.

Stop holding onto anger and unforgiveness, and give yourself permission to experience peace and joy. Anger and unforgiveness only poisons you, and you do not need to poison yourself any longer. The wrong person is being poisoned.

4. Stop living in fear

Around the same time I began to let go of anger and unforgiveness, I stopped living in fear. I made a fierce decision that I would rather die than live in fear. There was no way I would live in fear any longer. When I stopped living in fear, I stopped catastrophizing and worrying about worst case scenarios all the time. I stopped approaching life like I was walking on eggshells.

For almost 20 years, I justified living in fear as a strategy to keep myself safe. I believed worrying and catastrophizing were self protective strategies. Fear was my constant companion. On one hand it helped me, but on the other hand it tormented me. Most importantly, fear blocked me from experiencing peace and joy, in the same way anger and unforgiveness did. When I realized that fear was poisoning me, I decided to stop poisoning myself.

In order to stop living in fear, I needed to learn how to manage my anxiety more effectively. As a result, I taught myself how to self sooth, tolerate distress and sit with my feelings and thoughts before sharing them with others. I regularly wrote out my feelings and thoughts in a journal, and focused on the facts vs. my emotionally based interpretation of events. Overtime I developed a more balanced thought process that was less fear based and irrational.

Make a decision today to STOP living in fear. Don’t be fooled by fear. Fear pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose.

5. Face the tidal wave of shame

Since there was a murderer on the loose, my family coached me to publicly lie about my association to our friends who were murdered. To make matters worse, my grandparents regularly lied to me to stop me from crying and worrying, to leave the house, and to go to school. They would say, “You did not even know those people, why would anyone hurt you.” “There’s no reason to be upset.” The more my grandparents lied to me, the more functional I became even though I still had PTSD.

Lying and being lied to about your life creates a tidal wave of shame because you think you have something to hide. In addition, when my grandparents lied to me, they unintentionally invalidated my feeling. They made me feel like I had no right to be in pain or to grieve. They made me feel bad for having PTSD. The tidal wave of shame began to drown me. Luckily I had a teacher who knew my story and would let me cry with her between class and after school. She had been imprisoned in a concentration camp when she was a child and understood trauma. I am still grateful to her.

Because psychological services were not available to me or my family, my family encouraged me to pretend I was healthier than I actually was. They trained me to avoid my feelings by engaging in activities and to put a smile on my face even though I was suffering. This created a “false self.” It made me feel like a fraud and created yet another tidal wave of shame.

It is critical for trauma survivors to view lying, deceiving or being fake and phony as self protective rather than a cover-up for shame. In addition, pretending to be healthier than you are is a powerful skill and you should be proud of yourself for doing it! When it comes to validation, trauma survivors must find highly skilled therapists or compassionate friends to validate their feelings, and most importantly learn to self-validate. Taking these actions will help you face the tidal wave and stop it from drowning you.

6. Stop blaming yourself

I blamed myself for as long as I can remember. Not that I should have been able to stop the murders but that I should have been a better daughter, a better sister, and better family member. I should have handled the murders differently. I should have went to school and I should have stopped crying. My PTSD symptoms created a great deal of stress for my family. But I was a victim of trauma just like everyone else and it was unrealistic to think I should have handled it differently without therapy.

Later, I blamed myself because I was unable to help my family recover from PTSD or work through their conflicts. But anyone reading my words knows this is an unrealistic expectation, especially for a child or young adult.

Remember blaming is shaming, and “should-ing” yourself is shaming yourself. The more I blamed myself the more shame I ignited. Blaming myself served no purpose except to make me suffer.

It is important to remember that it does not change anything or fix anything to blame yourself, and it just punishes you for no reason. The person who is at fault and should be blamed is the perpetrator NOT you! 

7. Stop ASKING why

“Daddy, why did this happen?” was a question I asked a lot. He would say, “I do not know, Chris.” When I asked other people “why” I received a variety of shame based crazy responses. “God was punishing them.” “God was punishing their children.” “God was punishing me.” “They had actually done something wrong and God was punishing them for their sins.” “They deserved to die because they did not throw the bomb outside or leave the house with their children.” “God takes the good people.” “God called them home.” “It was karma.” “Somewhere in their past life they were getting their karma??” People also said I had bad karma. People would say, “I had a negative energy and my family had a negative energy that attracted us to this relationship, to this church, and to this school.” The law of attraction was why they died and why we suffered. We had all drawn this to ourselves.

These are all techniques to blame the victim and avoid facing the absolute horror of premeditated murder that targets parents and children. To face the horror of premeditated murder is not something anyone wants to do. It is simply easier to blame the victim.

Trauma survivors should NEVER listen to any of these explanations. In fact there is no good explanation. Stop searching for the why and start taking control of your life. 

8. STOP DWELLING ON THE PAST

In order to write this blog post, I dwelled on the past for long periods. While doing so the dark cloud of trauma enveloped me. There was a moment I was completely taken over by the cloud. As I sat there frozen, I looked up at the sky, took a deep breath, and engaged the present moment. Suddenly the cloud disappeared.

However, the body has a memory for trauma different from the mind, and cannot handle dwelling on the past. A few days after finishing the first draft of this blog post, I developed a frozen shoulder. My shoulder was completely frozen and there was no medical reason for it! After my shoulder healed, I significantly slowed my writing process.

My frozen shoulder is a powerful example of how dangerous it is to dwell on traumatic memories. Neuropsychological research demonstrates that dwelling on traumatic memories activates a host of painful physical and emotional reactions. Even though I knew the research, I naively believed that I had the skill to overcome these neuropsychological effects.

Trauma survivors who experience intrusive memories, flashbacks, and nightmares on a regular basis should seek mental health services as soon as possible. In addition, they should practice some combination of yoga, martial arts, weight lifting, or aerobic exercise. Seeing an acupuncturist, chiropractor or medical massage therapist can also help.

Final Thoughts

Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now.” – Audre Lorde

My first funeral was covered by ABC, NBC, and CBS news. I was 9 years old and wore a peach dress. It was the favorite dress of the woman who was murdered. She always told me I was the daughter she never had.

This blog post is dedicated to her, Patricia Joyce Puskas whose life as a loving mother, wife, and friend was cut short by extreme violence and rage. Even though many have forgotten her, I will never forget her light hearted spirit. The very spirt that violent crime and trauma try to destroy.

Patricia and her husband were not the only people to die that day. The severe stress of living in fear in a town scarred by extreme violence lead to the gradual breakdown of my large close knit family. Due to untreated PTSD and conflicts brought on by stress, most of my family members moved out of state and/or lost contact.

My father is the only remaining family member. I still grieve the loss of my family. Trauma and violent crime create a series of losses that are difficult to understand or explain. Sometimes these losses are so severe that you and your life are never the same. Accepting that you are forever changed is critical to healing PTSD and transforming grief.

I sometimes compare the changes brought on by trauma and grief to losing an arm or leg. Even though you find a way to live with one arm or one leg, you are resentful and unhappy about it.

However, with the correct therapy, you learn to love and celebrate this new version of yourself. You develop a sense of pride in being different. A light hearted spirit awakens and you become free in a new way that was never possible before the trauma.

Contact Me: If you or someone you love needs help healing from trauma, please contact me through my website or call 925.523.1397 to make an appointment.

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