Envy, Guilt, Hope: On reading ‘Before the World Intruded’ By Michele Rosenthal

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I had a strange reaction to Michele Rosenthal’s memoir, which is beautifully written, a compelling read and offers a hopeful ending, the kind that people who feel they’re dying from PTSD need to hear. But I felt envy. I didn’t envy her trauma. I envied how she was loved, protected and supported by her family.

At 13, Michele suffered a rare, life-threatening illness, the pain of which almost killed her. While she recovered physically, she refused to face the psychological trauma and experienced 25 years of PTSD. Once she realized she wouldn’t fully heal until she addressed the PTSD, she tried the best treatments the mental health industry has to offer, both traditional and alternative. A combination of intensive psychotherapy, ballroom dancing and hypnotherapy finally led her to a life that is apparently now “100% symptom free.” She’s also a professional Post Trauma Coach and founder of the HealMyPTSD website. A loving family, financial security, a house on the beach, and the gorgeous, patient, understanding man she meets provide glitter for the path leading to the book’s fairytale ending.

I loved the book; it only took me a few days to read. I was struck by how different our traumas were, yet how many of our symptoms were similar. I can’t imagine the horror of Michele’s illness and pain, but I found myself fantasizing about being her as a child in the hospital. Her parents kept vigil at her bedside, hired specialists, and secured hard to find equipment for the doctors. I read with envy how her father went all over New York and bought the entire city’s supply of a special cream that might help her condition. I didn’t plan the fantasy. I just caught myself spacing out, trying to imagine how that kind of attention and care must feel. And then I felt bad. How would Michele feel if she knew I envied a memory that almost destroyed her at 13, then again several times over the course of the next 25 years? But whenever she faltered, her parents were there for her, physically, emotionally and financially. I spent a lot of time wondering how that felt and yearning to know. Michele also had access to the best of the best medical care. She could try any healing method available and continue if it worked.

I have a different story. At 16, while trapped in a physically, emotionally and sexually abusive relationship, my parents kicked me out of the house. I’ve had the Medicaid and Medicare- approved versions of an already terrible mental health care system. And when I called my dad and his wife (my mom died when I was 20) from a homeless shelter in a city I didn’t know with a dozen male felons as roommates, and having kept myself sober for two years, I was told no, I couldn’t come to the house I grew up in.

I’m not saying my trauma was worse than Michele’s. I didn’t experience her disease, pain, or near death experience. It’s different. I’ve chosen to accept my family’s mistakes and limitations and have a relationship with them. But I risk getting hurt. And I do. Get hurt. Re-traumatized sometimes. It’s an old hurt, but comes from deeply-grooved patterns still repeated and will likely never change no matter how much we talk about it. I’ve considered trying to leave my trauma behind by moving far away and breaking ties. Maybe I’d be free like Michele when she finally left her disease behind her. But I can’t seem to leave my family. My dad is trying, and I still long for the unconditional love that child in me didn’t feel. I don’t expect to magically one day wake up to the family I’ve always wanted. Or the life or world I’ve always wanted. But I’m not running away anymore. I’m navigating and becoming stronger, wiser, kinder, and making healthier choices than the the people around me in a world that always threatens to disappoint.

I saw a flyer for a swing dance class starting soon, part of Michele’s cure. It would force me to engage my body, meet people, not isolate, maybe have some fun while I’m trying a new way to heal. I may sign up. I’m feeling hopeful about it, the way I did at the end of her story, even though I may never have her family or her resources. But some days, hope, in any form, is the only thing that keeps me going.

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