Posted in Disability, Essay, First Peoples, General Interest, grief, Michael Watson

PTSD and the Healing Journey

Evening-WoodsThe other night I had dinner with friends. After a traditional ceremonial meal, we watched Skins. I have read about the film, heard others talk about, and planned to watch it, for a long while. The film follows a few months in the life of a tribal police officer on a fictional reservation much like Pine Ridge, and weaves together myth and contemporary experience, violence and healing. Early in the story we are reminded that although humans like to think they are in charge, the spirits shape everything.

Earlier that day I had sat in a local bakery with a couple of medicine women, discussing a Medicine Wheel ceremony we are to hold next month as part of a conference honoring aging. As we come from different traditions and teachings it seemed important to all get on the same page. It turned out we were already in agreement, so the planning went smoothly.

Later, as I thought about the film and my delightful hour at the bakery I decided PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) might well live in the North, the place of night and winter. Fortunately, the North is the home of the Ancestors and the place we seek vision; in winter there is little haze and one can see clearly for a long way. The North is often a place where the spirits seem more immediate and accessible.

As the police officer in Skins discovers, healing from PTSD takes patience and courage, and may involve the workings of mythic beings. When we seek a healing for PTSD, we can request guidance from both our unconscious and the spirit world, asking them to give us manageable amounts of information regarding our traumatic experiences, and to aid us find new, more life nurturing, meaning in those experiences. Healing PTSD may become a vision quest, very like going alone to ask the ancestors and spirits to aid us and our communities, to bring us a vision we may live by.

Of course, we are not truly alone. Whether we are challenging the domination of PTSD in our lives, or praying for a vision, there are others, human and spirit, supporting us. We are blessed by the knowledge and caring of those who walk with, and pray for, us, and we benefit from their experience and companionship. Still, they cannot  make the journey for us; we must each walk the healing road for ourselves.

As we walk sun-wise around the Medicine Wheel we discover that when we stand in the North the path before us faces East. East  is the place of birth and rebirth, the home of insight and understanding. It is also the place, in the view of many Indigenous cultures of the Northeastern U.S., where we pass into the spirit world. Sometimes facing long-held trauma brings us an intense fear of death; indeed, the  journey from the North to the East is fraught with both danger and promise.

When we go alone to seek  a vision, or begin the journey of healing from PTSD, we benefit from telling our families and friends, asking them to pray for us, help us prepare, and honor our return. For many, requesting support when healing from PTSD seems shaming; often asking for aid requires as much courage as does confronting PTSD itself. Yet healing seldom happens in a vacuum; we each need the support of others in our lives and on our healing journeys. Let us honor the courage of those who ask for our aid.

Healing PTSD, like any vision quest, is not for the faint of heart.  On the journey we need courage, perseverance, and compassion for ourselves and others. It is a good journey, holding the promise of healing, renewal, and vision, for Self, family, friends, and community.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

6 thoughts on “PTSD and the Healing Journey

  1. This was very well written. I healed from sexual abuse in childhood and although PTSD wasn’t widely used when I was healing – I understand the healing process that is needed for PTSD. I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and your explanation of Native American healing practices really resonate with what I know about emotional healing. I believe these images could have helped me heal way back when, and would have been helpful as I helped others heal from trauma, whatever the source. Thank you for the clear explanation – it was very gentle and compassionate.


    1. Hi Pat, At this point in my life I find Native American and Western ideas often feed one another, forming a sort of dialog. This is a new development. I, too, often wish I had had the tools I posses now even ten years ago. They make such a profound difference when addressing trauma.


  2. I read this again substituting my particular journey for PTSD, and it rang true. This makes me wonder if there is much difference between PTSD and a widow’s grief?


    1. I imagine there is a difference, although a widow’s grief might bring on PTSD if there were a prior, unresolved trauma. Then again, the death of a beloved is itself traumatic, and grief is a dimension of PTSD, and our journeys are rife with pain, as well as joy.


  3. I think there are many parallels that can be drawn in each of our lives with the raw, original experience of PTSD, which is felt by servicemen and women in serving at the front line. As Priscilla has already pointed out, bereavement is one such parallel. There are of course a variety of experiences, which arrive at our doorsteps in a variety of colours and intensities, with an equal variety of responses. Our occasional need to respond to stress, caused by factors that are beyond our control, either in our personal life or at work, can sometimes bring us close to that ‘journey North’ and the healing that comes from this more enlightened, more visceral perspective. Nonetheless, severe PTSD has its costs too! Thank you Michael for your insightful narrative, with which I feel a strong bond.


    1. Yes, PTSD is a demanding and often insatiable demon. It is also the psyche’s last ditch effort to survive. Childhood trauma leaves adults much more susceptible to PTSD, so much pain that appears to arise from the experience of war has roots in family wars of childhood. We are each and all at risk.


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