Chanel Miller Is With Us

I am recommending Chanel Miller’s Know My Name: A Memoir to my clients who have experienced trauma, to their partners, parents, and family members, and to anyone who wants to better understand trauma and how to begin to heal from it.

I concur with Laura Norkin, Deputy Editor of InStyle, who posted on Twitter, “Very few stories, in this seemingly endless trauma vortex, are actually worth dipping back into your own PTSD spiral in order to read. This is one – because she talks about climbing back out.”

Know My Name by Chanel MillerAlthough I learned in 2016 that “Emily Doe’s” victim impact statement had been published on BuzzFeed, I was not one of the 15 million+ who read it.  While clinicians term the primary symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “avoidance,” having experienced trauma myself, I was simply being merciful, willing to do anything to protect my broken heart and wild mind from further tragedy.

When I learned through The New York Times that “Emily Doe” had identified herself as Chanel Miller and written a memoir, again I hesitated.

I am so very sorry for what has happened to the narrators of trauma survivor stories. Many survivors can only record that miserably electrified, detailed memory set that comes with trauma. The narrator and the listener or reader re-experience the trauma in excruciating detail, became overwhelmed with horror, and stay stuck in anguish. “This shouldn’t have happened,” If only I had or hadn’t…,” and “I don’t know what to do except endure” are beliefs often underpinning many experiences of trauma.

They were part of mine as well. But these beliefs are so much less a part of how I think about the traumas I experienced. I was taken through Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) by a local psychologist about two years ago. Based on the findings of neuroscience about the traumatized brain, paired with cognitive theory, CPT helps people use their own tender hearts and wise minds to directly help themselves. Even today, I tear up with compassion for myself when I remember the dawning realization that how I was thinking about myself as a result of what happened was causing my suffering. My poor self! I was writhing and whimpering from my own mean thoughts! I had no idea I was doing to myself what I would never even consider doing to anyone else.

I rarely think in self-cruel ways now and can catch myself pretty quickly when I do. PTSD can be a tough disorder, but I have few symptoms because I treat myself kindly. As a counselor, I was eligible to train in CPT and became a rostered provider of CPT. I attempt to pass the kindness forward.

Still, I protect myself as much as I can from situations in which I feel helpless and sad. In sum, PTSD results from feeling unrelentingly overpowered and helpless. To quote CPT founder Dr. Patricia Resick at a seminar I attended, “At essence, PTSD is unfelt sadness.”

Wondering if her memoir might be helpful to clients, however, I listened to Chanel Miller tell her own story.

Chanel Miller states openly that she engaged in therapy and thanks her therapist in the acknowledgements. I don’t know if she engaged in CPT, but she takes herself through a similar restorative process.

Yes, as she recalls and recounts the details, downward trajectories threaten downward spirals. But she challenges what she’s telling herself about herself throughout her story.

As I listened to her memoir, I heard her record realities, feel feelings as a result, becomes aware of associated thoughts, and differentiate between thoughts that are about facts and thoughts that state beliefs. She then challenges those beliefs with the facts as she sees them and as those who love her see them. She comforts herself as she can, but even when she simply has to get back in bed, she continues to seek to affirm the reality of her own self.

Again, as I see it, it seems that the inner narrative she discovers, composed of facts and realities, revives and restores her to stability, even through the punishing experience of the trial and sentencing. It’s harrowing! But she uses the very skills that brain researchers – as currently formulated by CPT – reveal are helpful: have an on-going, compassionate, interested, inner conversation, feel and name feelings, become aware of thoughts associated with the feelings, identify the thoughts that are misbegotten beliefs, meticulously dismantle those beliefs with facts, and free yourself.

I felt and thought infinitudes while I listened to Chanel Miller’s story, but I only cried three times, once when she recounted something loving her mother said, once when she recounted something bold her father said, and finally when she was thanking the Swedes in her acknowledgements. I am so very sorry for her pain, but I am uplifted and strengthened by her compassion and bravery.

BuzzFeed published all 7,000 words of Emily Doe’s/Chanel Miller’s impact statement and, I too, cannot make a selection from her memoir to quote. William Zinsser asked writers to ask, “Is every word doing new work?” For those of us with trauma stories, perhaps as yet unspoken or unwritten, Chanel Miller’s words help do the work with us and for us.

CPT is the counseling protocol recently featured on This American LIfe. It is a recommended treatment for PTSD by the Veterans Administration and the American Psychological Association (APA).

The views expressed are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of my colleagues, clients, family members, or friends. This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

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