One of the greatest challenges in living with PTSD is the feeling that most days it’s deciding what I can do and when and how. There are days when I can balance caring for my emotional wellbeing with taking action to create positive change in the world. But most days, even though I want to fight for social justice, I really don’t want to leave my bedroom. Or even if I want to, it feels like I can’t, so I do the best I can at home. On the worst days, it feels like PTSD is running the show, and even if I engage in social justice work, I find myself putting others’ needs ahead of my own.
I am trying to learn not to pour from an empty cup. But how can I when it feels like residual trauma is lapping up all the water before I can get a drink? I don’t have all the answers, and sometimes on a bad day I’ll grumpily insist that I have none. I keep on going on, though, and there must be something behind it. Here are some coping strategies I’ve developed as an activist with PTSD that may help you too.
Love Myself Through It
I need to move with self-love before all else. And when I can’t, it’s an act of self-love to notice that I’m struggling and pause to dig deeper into why. Because if I am not grounded in compassion for myself – even enough to fill my pinky toe – then how can I help others love themselves too? Activism is ultimately about loving ourselves enough to speak up, to advocate, and to take steps towards a world that harms us all less.
When I’m low on self-love, I often read or consume media by other queer people of color. Talking to a friend can help. I’ve also been learning to practice self-forgiveness to loosen the grip of shame that comes with surviving trauma. And sometimes I simply accept that I’m in a difficult relationship with myself in that moment and try to recall another time when I felt differently. When was I proud of myself? When have I felt loved by others? If all else fails, I bother my cat for affection or watch cat videos to remember there is a pure sense of love within me, even if I’m struggling to direct it at myself.
One red flag that I’m not showing myself enough love is that I’m neglecting basic needs like drinking water, eating, and getting up from the laptop to stretch every now and then. I may not always prioritize my wellbeing, but I can try to push against these impulses of self-neglect. And that little push is a small act of compassion for myself, a tiny seed that can be planted, watered, and will sprout more fully over time.
Don’t Cancel Self-Care Plans
Unfortunately that activist self-neglect can, on the surface, take the form of activism. With PTSD survivor guilt, it can feel “right” to only focus on how others are doing and “wrong” to care about ourselves. But no matter what, stick to some self-care plan. Now I’m not saying this is easy. There are countless reasons why this is tough for anyone, and extra tough for those of us with PTSD, including that self-care needs change from day to day. Flexibility is important in planning.
I used to pick three self-care things a day, and if I didn’t do those three exact things, I felt like a failure. If I wrote down stretching and chose to sing instead, I wouldn’t meet my goal and therefore didn’t self-care well enough by my judgment. If you see yourself falling into a similar trap, do what you have to in order to reframe self-care success in a way that supports your wellbeing. How I cope now is by having a bunch of potential self-care plans, which I’ve developed over time and trial and error. I strive to choose any of them or take bits and pieces to fit my present needs.
Sometimes it’s not just needs that shift, but the definition of self-care itself. From one perspective, this makes it feel like my PTSD is managing my life. What if I want to cook, but it feels inaccessible that day because I’m low on energy or don’t feel comfortable venturing outside my room? It’s depressing, but what makes it less depressing for me is accepting my needs as they are without judgment. Then I know to shift my definition away from active self-care like cooking and toward survival as self-care.
Of course I don’t want to feel knocked down by PTSD on any day, especially if I planned to be out with my activist community. And I don’t want you to feel that way either. But once I remember that breathing, eating, and staying alive are radical work too, I no longer blame myself or devalue myself for staying home.
Healing Is Not Linear
I don’t like this either. But disliking something can’t make it less true. The more times I cycle through a “setback” and remember it’s a natural part of the healing process, the better I feel about having to slog through it. I can recognize that I’m on the right path even though I hit an unpleasant patch, no matter how long that patch lasts. I know that feeling low will lead me back to a sense of empowerment and strength even if I don’t know how yet. Of course the longer the bottomless pit seems to get, the harder it is to feel ok about any of this shit. Sometimes not being ok has to be ok, meaning that I accept that the dark cloud won’t go away if I pretend it’s not there. I have to move through it.
Non-linear healing means there are inevitable times when we can’t give anymore, when we have to stop handing away our energy and receive some support instead to get through. When I’m nearly out of hope, I go back to the beginning: What does self-love look like for me in this moment? Maybe it tastes like ice cream. What kind of self-care do I need? Maybe I need a day to not care at all, to do less than the bare minimum, and to wait it out because maybe the next day will feel slightly different.
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PTSD is a challenge no matter what life choices I make. For me, I find activism to be empowering because I feel like, on a good day, I can spin my trauma into something healing for myself and others. But activism comes with a lot of deep emotions, violent pushback, and processing grief. It’s rarely pretty, which is why it’s important to stay grounded in motivation to uplift yourself first, rather than self-sacrifice to help others.
When it feels like there’s no way to help yourself get through the day, rely on the most basic aspects of self-care and don’t worry about bigger goals. Sleep as much as you can. Eat as nutritious as possible, including when that means eating something rather than nothing. And don’t feel guilty when PTSD capitalizes your time and energy; addressing trauma in your own life is a powerful form of activism too.
[Featured Image: Individual with long curly black hair sits outside on a curb in jeans and a t-shirt looking up at the camera. Pexels.com]