How the Act of Tea helped Treat my PTSD
The Shape of PTSD
Mindfulness is something therapists talk about a lot. The act of connecting with the moment. With feeling your feelings without being consumed with the past and future. It is vital in treating PTSD.
I have had crippling PTSD for as long as I can remember. The reasons are long, varied, and nobody's business. The important part is that anything and everything reminded me of my trauma. I could be doing anything and I would be reminded of the things I have spent my life running from in an instant.
Existing in the world is hell for people suffering from PTSD. The intensity is overwhelming and all-consuming. The best experiences can still remind you of being abused because it's the little things. The innocuous things. The things that are everywhere because the world is a complex and varied place. It is an all-consuming condition that weakens the strongest of people.
I would be having a good day and something small would remind me of something that had never stopped crippling me and suddenly I would be obsessing about things I couldn’t change. I would try to fight the feelings and the memories, but it meant nothing. My days were lost to endless suffering and it showed.
If you’ve seen Season 5 of Samurai Jack or Season 4 of The Legend of Korra, you’ve seen PTSD. If you don’t have it, you cannot understand that world. PTSD looks strange to outsiders and make no mistake, everyone who does not have it is an outsider. It’s easy to watch someone who has it and think they are overreacting because it is easy to misunderstand how deeply the pain runs. Being an ally is a challenging if not impossible task. Every day is a new mountain for everyone involved. This is one of the reasons victim blaming is so common from both the sufferer and the outsider. Because it feels completely unreasonable to both that you feel this way.
How the Pain Shaped Me
The most difficult part of PTSD is that nobody seemed to understand. Yes, the people who loved me would listen to the things I would relive every day, but they couldn’t relate to the endless cycle of hate, bitterness, and vicious victim blaming that occurs.
I was a very angry person. My interactions with others were bitter and I spread my hatred like poison through the people around me. You convince yourself that if you spread your anger to others that you will have less (See my post about trolling). It’s a lie you tell yourself because nobody else has answers.
I could keep it at bay in short interactions, but it was never truly gone. It was waiting for any moment resembling weakness and through the years more and more things felt like weakness. Happiness, love, vulnerability, friendship, sharing, and any other enriching experiences that lower your guard could invite the next painful experience. Anyone you trust could be the next abuser. So you trust no one.
PTSD breeds a large amount of symptoms that look like other conditions. Paranoia, anxiety, depression, mania, chronic anger and exhaustion, and various other forms of instability. I was diagnosed with bipolar at 14 because I was afraid to share my trauma with my psychiatrist. It’s truly an invisible and completely misunderstood condition. If you have experienced something traumatic, one of the best things you can do is talk to a therapist. Not a psychiatrist, not a friend, not a spouse: a therapist. Because they are professionally trained to give you tools to cope with everyday life. Because simply talking about it doesn’t fix it. Because though medicine helps ease the pain (and is necessary for anyone who wants to live a normal life), it doesn’t make it go away.
Surrendering to Tea
In tea tasting you surrender to the moment. Nothing else exists. Nothing else matters. All that is, exists in that little cup in front of you. If you are brewing tea in a gaiwan Chinese style, you have roughly 5-10g of tea in a 120-150ml gaiwan or teapot. The leaves fill a large portion of the cup depending on the shape of the dry leaves. Your brew time is 10 seconds at first and each infusion is 5-10 seconds longer. There isn’t downtime to be distracted. There isn’t space to remember.
For me, tea tasting completely envelops the moment:
Appearance- Every color, every curve, every description that feels correct
Smell- Any scent that you place and any tasting memory you’ve experienced that relates to the profile
Taste- How the liquor feels in your mouth, the retronasal effects (how the breath impacts the taste), your first impression, the follow through, the aftertaste, and everything you can remember that helps describes the experience
Wet tea (infusion time, temperature):
Infusion # (Brew time, temperature, vessel size/mL, size of sample/g or tsp)
Appearance, Smell, Taste
And then you keep brewing it until you decide you no longer want to drink it or it degrades.
Degrading - the tea’s taste loses complexity, falls flat, or just generally stops being good
A good tea evolves and changes in interesting and delicious ways over the course of several infusions. It is filled with nuance and beauty. Drinking tea and having sex have a surprising amount of overlap: both are wet and the quality is often determined by it’s complexity, length, and how much it pleases you. A bad tea is like a woman having sex with a man who doesn’t care about their pleasure: short and disappointing. You spend a while preparing, 20 seconds becoming increasingly disappointed, and the rest of the time completely regretting your decisions. A good tea is interesting and satisfying.
When you drink a good tea in the Chinese style, you become lost in the moment in the same way you would a good book. There are no pauses. You are either pouring water, waiting a brief amount of time, pouring tea, or studying your cup. Your thoughts are about your tea and if they aren’t you are probably losing interest in your tea and should move on.
It’s great to have a bunch of 15-25 gram quality tea samples lying around. Places that sell good tea usually sell samples. I have only been to a handful of good online tea vendors that do not offer samples under 50 grams. Many times an expensive tea can be found in sample size for like $5-10. If you don’t have a lot of money to buy new teas, there are a LOT of tea trading groups online. Keep in mind that a normal Chinese style tea session only uses 5-8g of tea. For non dark teas I usually stick to 5g. So a 25g bag of tea can be spread through 5 sessions. If the tea is worth drinking, you can get 500-1000 mL of tea from your tiny teapot or gaiwan easily. If the tea is bad, just put it in your tea graveyard.
Tea graveyard- a grocery bag or box dedicated to tea, coffee, or herbs that you do not enjoy and are willing to trade to others for tea, coffee, or herbs that you want to try.
I have an entire room for my tea at this point because I am lucky enough to have the capability of just buying cool new teas often and no children. These two things are not unrelated. If I dislike a tea I can just brew something else. You can spend an entire day drinking tea if you want to and if you have something good in your cup, it’s an easy decision.
Tasting tea breeds mindfulness. Mindfulness is all about studying the moment. You pay attention to all senses and how the world around you influences your body. It’s difficult to get lost in your trauma when your focus is constantly drawn to the moment and that’s exactly what tea tasting does.
How Taste Testing Tea Has Influenced My Life
I have struggled with mindfulness for my entire life. Without mindfulness, there is no peace from PTSD. You need to be engrossed in something in order to be grounded in something other than pain. Some people craft, some people play videogames, some people get high, some people consume media, and I have done all of these things to try to escape. None of it was enough. I was able to ignore my trauma for a while, but something would always bring me back because those things are rooted in my past experience in some way. There was always a trigger hiding somewhere in the lining.
It wasn’t until I began practicing tea tasting that things changed. Drinking tea is not the same as tea tasting. When you simply drink tea without examining the experience, there is room for triggers. But when the entire experience is shaped by your senses you are in the moment. Even when a smell or taste or shape reminds you of your trauma, you are drawn back into the moment when you move into the next section. If a smell brings me back to a bad place, I can just move on to a new section of the tasting or in the most severe cases: a different tea.
How Tasting Tea is Practicing Consent
Something to remember is that there will always be a new tea. There will always be a different job, a different friend group, a different lover, or a different home. You are not obligated to stay somewhere that makes you miserable. Your life should not be an extended case of Stockholm syndrome. It’s okay to decide you are unhappy and move on. It’s okay to say goodbye.
With tea you can put or throw it away and never drink it again. You can practice consent literally every day. You can decide “I don’t like this. I’m going to stop.” and if someone gets mad at you about it, it’s easier to recognize the absurd nature of the gaslighting you are experiencing. If that person is freaking out because you are not drinking some dried plant trash, they are being the crazy one.
Anyone with diagnosed mental health problems can tell you about someone in their past who told them they were “crazy” for enforcing personal boundaries or otherwise saying no. Abusers flock to “broken people” because it’s easy to convince someone who already feels crazy that they are being weird for pointing out abuse.
But the tea isn’t going to argue with you for getting rid of it. It’s a bunch of dead leaves. You can say “this isn’t for me” and never deal with it again. This is vital for the healing of PTSD. PTSD pushes your boundaries constantly. You never feel safe saying no because chances are that your trauma was caused by someone who abused you for rejecting something that made you unhappy. Someone who called you crazy for saying “you are hurting me”. Someone who raped you when you didn’t want to sleep with them. Someone who hit you when you said no. PTSD is often caused by the people closest to us. It isn’t just a condition that happens to veterans. It’s pretty common and heavily under diagnosed in civilians.
But tea isn’t going to abuse you for saying no. It isn’t going to hit you or scream at you for enforcing boundaries. It isn’t going to rape you when you don’t want to have sex. Tea just exists in silence waiting for you to make your own decisions. Tea is serenity.
So if you are stuck in your trauma, boil some water and taste test something. It doesn’t even have to be tea. It can be coffee. It can be food. It just needs to be something you can focus on to bring you into the moment. Find your moment and you will find peace.