Her Beautiful Detour

Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright, sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, mixed media art, performance and inspirational speaking. Here is our interview with her. 

From the high schooler ready to go to prom to a motivational speaker, an author, artist, and a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist: what a journey! How are you feeling right at this moment? 

I'm feeling humbled actually - and grateful. Back when I was first working through the process of feeling comfortable putting my story into words, I had no idea that how I chose to get through all of those detours would be an inspiration for so many. And even further back, wondering what kind of luck i got dealt when doctors first "welcomed" me into the world as a "patient," I'm just really happy I kept going. So I guess I'm feeling rewarded, and really excited for what's ahead, even beyond the journey I've had so far!

Having faced tremendous trauma which meant that life would never be the same again, what was your journey of finding resilience like?

Well, as I was taking that journey, it felt more like I was being tried and tested. I didn't know "what for," and so I told myself to just keep going until I understood what it was all for. Eventually, I realized that you as the traveler are in charge of "creating" the "what for," and you can only do that if you're willing to think outside the box, creatively, resourcefully, and persistently. That's what my journey of finding resilience took, and the more I traveled on that path, the more exciting it became. You know - when you have to work really hard to achieve something, it becomes that much more meaningful, personal and rewarding. The journey of finding resilience felt like coming home.

Can you tell us about your work with PTSD? Why is it important for one to unpack and heal from PTSD? 

In my own recovery, once I was able to understand exactly what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was - what it made you feel like, the impact, symptoms, and why it happens - it was a big revelation that enabled me to put the pieces together myself and move through it. When I was first abused, I didn't understand why something within me had "changed." I was stuck in this numb, apathetic space of disconnect — a place I created in my head as a survival instinct. Then, I learned that in the face of trauma, you can have three responses: You can fight, flee or freeze. I was so shocked by everything that happened that I froze. I mentally left the situation, disassociated from my body, and became a passive bystander to a trauma that my body was directly involved in.

Then, I froze again, trying to cope with the medical trauma, nearly 30 surgeries, and especially the years being unable to eat or drink. Once I learned how the body responds to trauma - that this is a noble survival mechanism and nothing to be ashamed of, I could have compassion for what my body did to keep me here. I became proud of that survival instinct, and I could unpack all the feelings I needed to "store" to get through the trauma, and release them in order to move on.
Once we understand it, we can work through it and beyond it.

Your book is now out! Can you tell us a bit about the book and the journey of writing it?

Yes! I've shared my story in certain aspects, through my TEDx Talks, musical, art, speaking, but I've never put the whole journey together to take people into the world of what it was really like, suddenly waking from a coma, and then all of the ups, downs, middles, highs and lows that somehow how I was able to hang in there for. I also wanted to show the honest humor, fails and risks that I needed to take - that we all need to take - when life doesn't go as we plan. The cool part for me, has been, that people who assume they "know" my whole story are reading the book, and reach out to me saying, "Wow! I had NO idea!" As I was writing, even I forgot I had to deal with certain situations! And something I'm really excited about, is that I've incorporated excerpts of my family's perspectives, my doctors perspectives,  and you really get a full view of the world I was in. Hopefully this book will be really uplifting in the most surprising ways for many.

One of the most difficult points in the journey of healing is to find resilience and power through the difficult times. What kept you going when things were incredibly difficult?

I call this my recipe for resilience: four hardcore skills that I discovered the hard way - by getting through! This is an excerpt from my book, actually.  MY four hardcore skills to resilience - that I found, and that everyone has!

Hope: Is a job. It has to be created as a rope to hold onto in difficult times. It’s the fuel that propels us down our Detourist path. 
Creativity: We can create a safe container to be present with experiences we are still coming to terms with. Creative expression gently engages us with emotions that may be too overwhelming for words. You don’t need to be an artist to create. You just need an open heart and a mind willing to take a backseat.
Stories: Telling our stories helps us process them. We gain confidence through our shared experience, and traveling is always less scary with a partner. 

Even if you’re not ready to share your story, read a book. Hear about the courageous adventures of others. We learn by example, so when that detour surprises you, you’ll be able to pull those heroic stories out of your back pocket to guide your own hero’s journey.

You delivered a powerful TED talk on reweaving loss into memory and highlighted our responsibility as survivors. Could you take us through your key message on the talk in brief?
Yes - this was the third TEDx Talk I gave, and it was in honor of my grandparents. What do we do when we’ve lost something in our lives? Can we get it back? What if that loss is someone we’ve loved? What is our responsibility? How do we grieve?
And then…what do we do with it?
When we become a survivor of loss, do we have a responsibility to share their story? And can that help us? Can it impact the world?
We all have to deal with loss in our lives. We can lose a person that’s close to us, a material possession, an identity, our sense of home, or we can be struck by a shocking tragedy on the news. Unfortunately, the nature of life is unpredictable.
So how can we transform that loss into something positive — some way to celebrate the legacy of that loss and make an impact on ourselves,  and our world, so the spirit that is “no longer here” can somehow live on?
My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor at the age of 18 - the same age that I fell into a coma. As I recovered, I learned about her story and that provided me with an inner strength to move on, as she had done so beautifully.
You can do it too. What can the stories of your past teach you? What can you do to discover the fibers of your own life—and weave them into a beautiful piece of art—by finding the lost threads of the relatives who came before you, whose traits exist inside of you?

How does one work with their narrative toward healing when it feels like the emotional labour of speaking up is an added trauma on a survivor? 

PTSD is something I still struggle with because my traumas happened to me, they have affected me, and they will always be a part of me.  But, I’ve learned how to thrive in spite of what has happened to me and for the first time, my life feels bigger than my past. I’ve found healthier ways to deal with memories, flashbacks and emotions.

The PTSD term for finding healthy coping skills is “self-soothing.” To live a healthy thriving life, I’ve had to befriend my past, embrace my experience, and express what had happened to me. I needed to tell my story in order to heal. But first, I had to hear my story for myself, rather than avoid it.. Once I learned how to hear my own heart-shattering story, and feel the pain, the frustration, the anger, and ultimately, the gratitude, I was able to speak to it. I was able to gently teach myself how to live in the present moment rather than in the world of the trauma.
Healing didn’t come all at once. Every day I tried to face a memory a bit more. I called it “dipping my toes” in my trauma. Finally, I could put words to my grief. I was able to write, “I am hurting.”
As soon as I was able to write words like “sadness” and “pain”, I allowed myself to explore them. Soon, I couldn’t stop the words that flowed out of me. My memories started to empower me, and I wrote with feverish purpose.
I started to journal  for hours as every memory appeared in my mind. Soon, the words couldn’t do justice to my traumatic experience — I needed a bigger container. I turned to art, drawing, scribbling. I filled pages with teardrops, lightening bolts and broken hearts. For me, creativity became a lifeline — a release. It was a way to express things that were too overwhelming for words. Expression was my way of self-soothing.
Once expression helped me face my own story, I was able to share it. And the day I first shared my story with someone else, I realized I wasn’t alone. There were others that had been through trauma and life-shattering events. And there were also people who had been through the twists and turns of every day life. Being able to share my story emboldened me with a newfound strength and the knowledge that terrible things happen, and if other people can bounce back, then so can I.
Basically, I found creative ways.  And I believe creativity is the most powerful skill to work through anything!

To buy Amy's book, head here. To buy other creative merchandise from Amy's line, head here.