I’ve had a lot of experiences in my life–some good, many not so good. In fact, recently, my therapist asked me to write down all the things that had a traumatic effect on my life and the negative stories I have told myself about myself because of them. It was 3 full pages, beginning with my trauma in utero, to child abuse, medical traumas, witnessing suicide, experiencing traumatic deaths, abuse from my church, bullying, abandonment, cancer, divorce, sexual harassment at work, and much more. More than that, I have had some pretty repetitive stories I have told myself that shattered my self-esteem. I have experienced the gambit of traumatic experiences, and I am alive to talk about it. However, I had a lot of trouble working through all of it because I would feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what had gone on in my life. This often made me dizzy, and it definitely had me buzzing at a very anxious frequency. Because I am a medical nerd, I now have functional MRIs to show that it substantially changed the way my brain takes in information. In fact, scientists are now using machine learning to predict how different traumatic experiences will impact the areas of the brain. My parasympathetic nervous system has been underutilized for so long that calming down has been a struggle for me. My poor brain–it was only trying to protect me from some very real dangers. I was fed to the wolves more than once.
How did these things manifest? Well, I had a LOT of seizures and migraines, and I could barely hold my bladder, from as long ago as I can remember–which coincides directly with childhood traumas. I’m not interested in focusing on that, though. What I want to say is that my physical health was very much affected by my trauma-based responses. My seizures were even psychogenic in nature. I was rarely in a safe environment, and, therefore, I never actually was able to get my basic needs met as a child. That then didn’t allow me to accept love and belonging. That didn’t allow me to trust the way others were socialized to.
Since age 12, I have been seeing a therapist. First, therapists from LDS Family Services, then I was admitted at 15 to an inpatient facility for suicidal ideation and attempt. Upon discharge, I started seeing a psychiatrist and was heavily medicated. I was told I would have to “manage my hormonal imbalance” the rest of my life. I was a bit of a pill popper to numb the pain, so that sounded fine with me–at least my habit was regulated and paid for by insurance. On and off, I saw some cognitive behavioral therapists after that. And then I met Christie. I was a grad student at Portland State University, and I thought something was wrong with me because I had lost my libido. This opened up the world for me to understand the mind-body connection. At the time, I was married, but, because my husband was a pretty serious addict, I rarely trusted him, perpetuating the environment I had experienced as a child, and, therefore removing any chance of intimacy. Christie helped me navigate through a divorce, not my intimacy issues, for 16 sessions…and then the insurance ran out. That’s called “Solution-Focused Therapy,” and it doesn’t work for someone with prolonged trauma or a chronic mental illness.
After that time, Shelley came into my life. It took me 3 years to even feel comfortable enough with Shelley to even tell her I had been raped at 12 years old, let alone all the other things I had witnessed. But she helped me feel safe at the moment and managed my day to day trauma, which was helpful for me to understand that I could trust someone with my secrets. That I wouldn’t be judged or lied to. In the end, however, Shelley kept secrets from me and ended up very abruptly moving, without me being able to process it. I had been abandoned again. I think after that, though, I learned that I could have a therapist be a facilitator of me navigating through my trauma.
And then I met Sarah. Sarah has a very special place in my heart, as she taught me the neuroscience behind complex post traumatic stress disorder. She taught me to check in with my body. She taught a healthy partner of mine how to be a supportive partner, despite him having trouble relating to my experiences. She taught me how to have coping skills for the first time. Before Sarah, I didn’t go a week without intense suicidal ideation, without feeling like I was experiencing too much, feeling too much. Sarah taught me that it’s okay and even healthy to be angry, that suicidal ideation doesn’t mean I want to die but, rather, something has to die, and she taught me how to begin the journey out of codependency. I spent 4 years with Sarah, and it’s because of her I have become strong enough to create boundaries, to remove people from my life, to add people back in, to challenge my own perceptions…to GET ANGRY…to fall madly and deeply in love. She taught me what emotions were like and how to move through the spectrum of emotions. Not only did she stabilize my day to day interactions, but she encouraged me to dig in and face my faulty perceptions head-on. She helped me navigate a terrible break-up from the partner she worked with to support me, she helped me through the new traumas occurring, and she held my hand through the scary places I had to navigate. Then, I moved to San Francisco. In my last month of sessions with Sarah, she strongly encouraged me to find a therapist trained in a specific modality…not because Family Systems Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy weren’t working for me, but because I was finally ready to let go of those traumas and experience a new life.
On February 9, 2016, I met Linda, a renown therapist in San Francisco and an expert in the modality Sarah urged me to undergo. We worked intensely together from the start, but because I had such a complex case of PTSD, there were so many things that had to be set up prior to actually starting the practice of this modality. On May 24, 2016, nearly 3 months after establishing our relationship, I started a processing technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Linda is absolutely not Sarah–she’s a blunt New Yorker who shuts me down when I self-victimize. She balks at my cognitive distortions, and she exposes me to myself. To put it bluntly, she doesn’t take my shit. At first, and some days, I hate it…and her. But she’s an expert in EMDR, with over 25 years experience in a modality that only started about 35 years ago. And not only did Sarah recommend the modality, but there are an overwhelming amount of systematic reviews on the modality saying it’s the most effective for actually healing the brain from those pesky wiring problems that complex PTSD suffers from. EMDR is a way to re-wire and replace faulty wiring in our nervous system, and Linda is my electrician. I may not like the way she approaches me, but she’s the best electrician around–she gets the job done. I spend a grueling 4 hours a week with Linda, processing piece by piece the ugly parts of my life. I intensely focus on painful memories in order to fully grieve them. I cry ugly cries and fume with anger (though that is still painfully difficult for me). I am guided through intense feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, suicidal ideation, pain, sadness, fear, panic, numbness, and discomfort. And, what’s worse, when I get home from EMDR, I am completely beat–like I have run a marathon with no finish line in sight. And, at times, I have to go home and grieve all alone for hours or even days. Sometimes, I think, “What have I gotten myself into? Is this worth it?” And this process has pushed people away from me because I have struggled to predict the way my emotions come out sideways. These emotions hurt unsuspecting victims, they have burdened and terrified friends and lovers, they have caused me to doubt my strength and my readiness to let go of the painful parts of my past. But, one foot in front of the other, every session, every week, I am still slogging through. And in between, I am self-soothing and re-parenting myself and re-experiencing life. And, though tired, I feel absolutely authentic and vulnerable and…CONTENT.
Many people who see me now, after 6 weeks in reprocessing, have stated that I am different–that I’m glowing, that I seem happier and healthier. That it’s like I had this huge change overnight. And I thought so too–after 3 sessions, I felt more free and childlike than I ever have in my life. After 6 sessions, I felt safe enough to wander my neighborhood alone, to meet people, to go to movies and dinner and drinks alone or with new friends. After 8 sessions, I began asking for help, thanking people, and making amends. I have let go of wounds I thought were so deep that they’d never be healed. I’ve begun to stop questioning my worth and start living my life without wondering what others think about it. I’ve become sharper and more effective in the workplace and more vulnerable and authentic with friends and family. I’ve felt the pain of the past but also the present moment, and I have openly grieved. I feel renewed. Even Linda has observed a striking difference, and last week, after a particularly painful session, she stopped me simply to tell me that she is so amazed at my strength, at my bravery. It was, perhaps, the greatest compliment I have ever received.
But to those who have not walked through this full journey with me, which is the majority of individuals in my life, this transformation from larva to butterfly, from cocooned and restricted individual to the free bird I appear to be now, seems like it simply couldn’t be possible. Like it just can’t be real or lasting. I thought that too–that the other shoe would drop and I would be right back to anxiety attacks and feeling unsafe, to seizures and migraines and instability. I thought that too. But then my mother simply stated to me, “Blonde, you have been working on being at this point for 20 years. You have worked so hard at this! And now, you’re ready to let the past go! This isn’t something new–look at how far you’ve come. I’m so happy for you.” This most definitely replaced that last greatest compliment I have ever received. And she’s so right–I have wanted to be in the place where I can love myself fully, where I can be present, where I can love others, where I can accept help and also give it, where I can not feel broken, for so long…and I had subscribed to the belief that I would always be wounded. My favorite Third Eye Blind sing, Wounded, says, “Back down the bully to the back of the bus/’Cause it’s time for them to be scared of us/’Till you’re yelling, how we living cause you got the ball/Then you rock on baby, rock on, you rock on, on and on”. That’s the stage I’m in now-this bullied girl is bullied no more by those things I have shouldered for far too long. I thought I was trapped in this cocoon, only to realize that the cocoon was preparing me to fly.
By the end of the year, Linda wants to graduate me. She is helping me see that once we let go of the hold our past has on us, we don’t need to subscribe to the same triggers. The same line of thinking. Deepak Chopra says, “Instead of thinking outside of the box, get rid of the box.” I had a partner who once told me I was good at “seeing the angles”. The problem is that I never was able to see the angles that didn’t need to be there. I struggled with low self-esteem and always asked for reassurance. This was a difficult issue for us, as I just felt so lost in my footing as I started removing the layers of my cocoon. Now, while that footing isn’t always sure, I am sure of the new path. Chopra also states, “The best way to get rid of the pain is to feel the pain. And when you feel the pain and go beyond it, you’ll see there’s a very intense love that is wanting to awaken itself.” More than I could imagine, that intense love is breaking through, and, boy is it vibrant! I cannot wait to pour my love into work, my family, my friends and their children, myself, and into someone else with whom I can begin a therapeutic journey all our own-hand in hand, with cartwheels and laughter and quiet moments galore.
Thank you for being a part of my therapeutic journey. For allowing me to share in my vulnerability. For being a place where I can process, where I can evaluate all the angles. Where I can reinvent and show up every time authentically. I am excited to share the brilliance in my time as a new butterfly-my metamorphosis-knowing it will not always be easy, but it will be authentic. For those experiencing heartache and heartbreak: don’t give up–you’re nearly through.
PS. It’s ok to ask for help.