Creating a Life Mission Statement
I was on mandatory bed rest with minor PTSD when I finally decided to write a Life Mission Statement. It ended up being four words.
My mind didn't take to bed rest with the same enthusiasm as my body. I had terrible cabin fever. I missed my job, however chaotic. Reality started to take on a strange, detached element, as though I had woken up in someone else's life. I woke up at night and decided to walk into the kitchen. The entire process of going from my bedroom to the kitchen took about an hour, and I crawled for a portion of it because my back hurt so much. I put my head down on the cold granite countertop and stared around the room and out the window. I couldn't remember why I chose that light fixture, or that couch, or those tiles, or that color for the cabinets. I couldn't remember that last time I had paused to look at the moon and was startled by how bright it was.
The next day, I woke up and wrote only four words:
Love. Passion. Generosity. Creativity.
I vowed right then and there to make only choices that aligned with these four words. Over the last several weeks, I had been plagued by one recurring thought: I had been working so hard for such a long time and I was the only one benefiting from that fact. I had let my career become the end, instead of simply a means to it.
Slowly, I started to heal and gain enthusiasm for regaining some of my previous routines. I was especially excited to retain my routines in order to dismantle them forever. Soon after my recovery, I moved across the country, started my own consulting firm, and rekindled a love for art and writing fiction. Many years later, I look back on this period of time as one of my greatest periods of personal growth.
How PTSD Helped Me Discover My Purpose
It strengthens the power of mental imagery.
In its most unpleasant forms, this mental imagery comes as terrifying nightmares, vivid flashbacks, and reliving painful events. The last form is worth focusing on for a moment. To relive an event is to have harnessed the powers of your mind to not just remember what happened, but to experience it as though it is completely present and real.
Even years later, I still struggle with this a little bit. Almost every single time I come to a hard stop in my car, I can hear, see and even smell another car slamming into the back of it. This is an important distinction about the mental imagery related to PTSD – it can manifest at any time, including during the day. For most of us, we may casually recall things or informally focus on future events, but we don’t necessarily live them as though they are real. Our dreams may seem real, but we don’t experience them just sitting at our desk in the afternoon.
Over time and with an extraordinary amount of focus and patience, I learned to capture this sensation a bit and focus it into a positive place. Instead of approaching my nightmares from a place of anxiety and avoidance, I started to approach them from a place of respect and curiosity. Instead of praying every night that I wouldn’t greet my alarm clock at three in the morning, drenched in sweat and shaking like a leaf, I started to devote my focus to trying to remember all of my dreams, in the vivid detail in which they were offered, and I would ask my subconscious: “What are you trying to show me?” I slowly found that my mind transitioned from harrowing nightmares to meaningful discussions with deceased loved ones and inspired visions for the future.
It creates dissociation from reality.
A common symptom of PTSD is the sensation of being disconnected from your career, friends, family and former interests. I still remember returning to work after the trauma, and how surreal it felt. I can best describe it as being an alien in your own body, witnessing even the most mundane activities as completely novel and fascinating. This kind of dissociation can certainly fracture families and foster alienation and depression if left unaddressed. However, it can also un-link you from the negative emotions and relationship patterns that existed before the trauma.
After having the kind of thoughts that follow trauma ("Am I going to be in physical pain for the rest of my life? Why did this happen to me?”), the cursory small-talk that people engage in seems out-of-place. I was only asking big questions, so suddenly things like a coworker’s stressed out rant about a difficult supplier, or a car cutting me off in traffic, had no meaning. Dissociation removes your emotional connection from things and people and allows you to view them for the first time, in a completely neutral way, and awaken to the possibilities.
It can make you question your existence.
Once you’ve had a meaningful brush with your own mortality, it is not the kind of experience that you can quickly shake. I went through a significant period of deep paranoia and soul searching. While working with my therapist, Pat, she once said to me “It’s like you don’t feel you have a right to be here,” “here” being the Earth. “Here” being Existence. Her words struck a deep chord.
Learning to say to myself and others, through my thoughts, beliefs and actions, that I deserve to be here, was a profound act of self-affirmation. I had never been overly concerned with other people’s opinions, but before the trauma, I had a serious tendency toward perfectionism and a not-inconsequential fear of failure. After learning to stand strong in the truth that I deserved to be here, I found myself filled with considerable forgiveness for my own flaws. I didn’t have to earn my right to be on the Earth, and I wasn’t valuable only so long as I was contributing to a relationship, family, group, workplace or community.
It forces you to harness your inner strength.
I reminded myself every single day that PTSD was not my brain and mind betraying me, but rather trying to help me. The brain changes in response to trauma. Remember those vintage commercials that would say “This is your brain,” while holding up an egg. Then, the egg would splatter in a frying pan, and the voice over would say “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”
We all like to think of our brains as being very static, but, our brains adapt to environmental stimuli all the time, and are much more dynamic than we give them credit for. Those who suffer PTSD may demonstrate a reduction in gray matter in the parts of the brain associated with survival. Trauma does not harm the brain, it puts it under new management. This management is no longer concerned with studying for finals, but on securing basic needs. Basically, this is a pretty stressed out, hyper-vigilant version of your brain. This version of your brain is not interested in connecting with friends over tapas and Netflix. No, this version of your brain is scanning the room for additional threats to your well-being as if it were a T1000 cyborg.
It’s pretty hard for people who don’t have these kinds of challenges to just chill out, so you can imagine the uphill battle PTSD sufferers undergo to just relax. I once checked my horoscope for four straight hours because I was desperate for proof that I would wake up the next day. This is the kind of stress response that takes a little bit more than green tea and a few sun salutations.
The toolkit you develop to conquer that kind of anxiety is not for amateurs: It requires a careful curation of every single aspect of your life until your overwrought PTSD brain finally learns to look around and say “Woah. I’m safe…and I kind of like it here.” My life became simple. Many years later, my life is still simple and my levels of anxiety are low.
It highlights the differences between the terrible events in your mind and the actual events in reality.
Before the trauma, I worried about all of the typical things that people in their twenties and thirties worry about, but I can say with absolute honesty, that I never once worried about either being in a car accident, having internal bleeding, or losing feeling in my legs for six months. Acknowledging this disconnect forever changed my relationship with worry; forever diminished its power.
It also brought about an intense sense of utter humility. Never had I truly pondered how much of my life – of everyone’s life – rested on the benefit of favorable circumstances. My gratitude for simply being alive and simply having an opportunity to regain health was overwhelming. Knowing that your fate has rested on a stranger’s car being several additional feet away, or the fact that the emergency room was five miles away instead of twenty will make you understand gratitude in a completely new way.
It changes your relationship with time.
People talk a lot about how “time slowed down” when an important event happened. Reliving events makes it feel like they are happening “this instant” instead of in the past. I found that I spent a lot of time simply looking through my physical pain and anxiety by focusing on the future. When I was on bed rest, I would have entire conversations with children I didn’t have yet, partially out of boredom and partially to stay connected to a vision of a life after recovering.
Since then, I have simply lost my belief in time. Sure, I allow it to have a minor role in my life, so that I can drop my son off at school before classes begin or make it to important work functions. I also honor the abstract nature of time, in the sense that if enough of it passes, even our sun will cease to exist in its current form.
Still, during that time of recovery, my discussions with people from the future and dreams of people from the past remained as real to me as anything else. I’ve often said since then that the people you love are always every age at which you ever loved them. I believe that while our bodies may be subject to the laws of time, our souls are not. The part of us that is untouched by our external circumstances has never lost anything, has no idea that it is ever any time other than now.
I know that especially after the pandemic, racial tensions and political unrest of the last few years, I am far from alone in having suffered trauma. If you are someone who has struggled with anxiety or trauma, I hope that this helps you feel less alone and more optimistic about the future. There are many resources for those suffering from mental health issues, but I would start here: National Alliance on Mental Illness.
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I've included stories, anecdotes and useful tips I've gained over my career as an Entrepreneur, Board Member, Executive and Senior Counsel. I hope you can find ways to navigate to your own dreams by learning from my experience! Don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or want to share your own stories. Stay inspired!