It’s not enough to figure out how to get our symptoms under control.
We also have to develop a life that’s worth living once our symptoms ARE under control.
I know, I know. It’s kind of overwhelming to just have the project of controlling our symptoms on our plate. To think about anything more than just getting a flashback to end or body memories to stop or depression to abate kid of blows our mind…let alone to think about the project of creating a life of meaning and hope.
The thing is: in order to do something, we need a compelling “why.”
In order to do something hard, we need a PARTICULARLY compelling “why.”
I’ve worked with a lot of suicidal people. And by far the most frustrating part of that work happens when you get baited into a discussion of why should they bother preserving a life that they perceive at that moment to be filled with heartache, disappointment, and pain?
I realized early on doing that work that it wasn’t enough just to teach people how to control symptomatology.
There needs to be a life on the other side of that controlled symptomatology that’s worth jumping back into.
I, personally, got into psychology because, as a very depressed teenager, I got interested in self-help books. Self-help philosophies spoke to me at that time— and they still do— because they don’t just concern themselves with containing painful symptoms. Self-help, from its roots in the “positive thinking” and “self-actualization” movements, has always been about creating a life you love.
I don’t consider a therapy plan complete unless it includes a path from where somebody is in their life, to a place where they want to be.
Therapy must be more about the alleviation of misery.
Therapy and personal growth must necessarily be about creating something more fun, more pleasurable, and more meaningful than someone was experiencing before.
Pleasure and fun and meaning are not luxuries. They are necessities.
They are literally lifesavers.
If you’ve been reading me for any length of time you know that nary a week goes by when I don’t go on and on about values and goals. Some people ask me about why this is— after all, what do values and goals have to do with how you contain a flashback or stop nightmares in their tracks?
Values and goals provide the “why.”
Values and goals provide the fuel we need on what can be a pretty exhausting journey out of misery.
Using skills and tools to manage symptomatology is often not easy. It’s often exhausting and frustrating and inconvenient. Using coping strategies often require us to step out of our comfort zones and push at the limits of our physical and emotional energy.
We’re not going to embark upon that project unless we have a powerful “why.”
Why would we bother inviting such hassle into our lives if we don’t have something on the other side of that that we’re actually excited about?
Treatment for trauma disorders incorporates three stages. In stage one, basic coping skills and tools are taught and developed, that help manage symptomatology as the other two stages progress. in stage two, painful and traumatic memories are processed and scrambled, so they lose their power to derail our functioning. And in stage three, we come to terms with how our suffering has damaged our lives, and create a new routine going forward— we get on with our lives.
I think, as patients hack away at stages one and two, stage three needs to always be on our minds. It’s the getting on with our lives that can and will provide the motivation we need to develop the stage one skills and use those skills as we do the scary, tiring work of stage two.
Sometimes, creating a compelling future requires us to play “what if.”
It requires us to fantasize a little, to imagine a little.
It requires us to put aside our hopelessness for just a minute, and take suicide or otherwise quitting off the table for a period of time.
Yes, imagining a life worth living can seem overwhelming at first. It can stir up regrets and it can invite anger about how our life has gone so perilously off the rails.
But if you can— just for a bit— turn your attention to what that life worth living might look like…the game changes.
You’re no longer fighting to preserve a life that only holds pain.
Your fighting to begin a new life— one that you, not your trauma or your symptoms or your past— is in control of.
Take that risk.
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