The 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 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.