Cheery stuff, isn’t it? I thought this was going to be about hope, you say. Don’t make me laugh. Kidding. It’s coming. But remember: I still wasn’t at a place where I could absorb God’s promises about hope or a good future. My apparatus was broken. It needed some serious restructuring and the kind of scaffolding you see on big construction projects.
When I finally decided to get into therapy, I wasted a lot of time because my instincts were totally shot. I didn’t realize that my sense of distrust for someone wasn’t something to be suffered through—and paid for, at that! My first therapist had pictures of her kids on her desk. Trying to make conversation on the first day, I asked her about them. Nothing in depth just, “Aw. How old are they?” The second time I went, she had put the pictures away, along with all other personal paraphernalia. Then she observed me observing their absence. I immediately felt like I was crashing into a void. Something had been taken away. Something I had used to ground myself and form a picture of the person in front of me had been hidden. I shut down. But I wasted a few more months talking about nothing with this lady, because what’s a few months after more than a decade?
I’m sure she was trying to provide me a space where I couldn’t be distracted by her problems, and her life. I can appreciate this, now. But, at the time, it felt very threatening. I won’t bore you with tales of other therapists. They were all part of me learning to trust my instincts and walk away, because I could. That, in and of itself, was a huge part of my growth, because I had spent more than a decade being unable to walk away, as a child, and making myself okay with that.
My current faith-based counselor is entirely unfazed by everything I say and is a willing grand/fatherly reference point in my life. If I have trouble getting to my issues, and ask him about his weekend, he knows I’m trying to reestablish trust, not probe. He also specializes in a kind of therapy that targets trauma. I hadn’t really accepted that (trauma) is what I had experienced, because I had been surrounded all my life by family members with Much Bigger Problems (mental illness, physical abuse, etc.), but he gently re-educated me.
When you are traumatized, your brain bypasses the normal method of memory storage, and tucks the distress in a place that your conscious mind can’t reach. But it can be activated or triggered, on a dime. For example, a veteran may be walking along feeling normal, but hears a helicopter pass overhead, and flings himself under a table without thinking. He is instantly returned to a hyper-specific moment on the battlefield. EMDR therapy targets the moment the memory was created, through a series of questions and following your own rabbit trail. It’s weird, but it totally works. Then, you hold two buzzers that alternate buzzing between left and right, which activates both halves of your brain. Your brain then stitches the badly patched up area back together, and it becomes a consciously accessible memory, as opposed to a monster ready to burst forth. If the memory is severely upsetting, it can take a few sessions to bring it into a manageable state.
But it can be brought into a manageable state.
Symptoms and results.
A few examples from my own life: I have often forgotten, as an adult, that I can leave the family home whenever I want, because I still feel 8 years old, when I’m there, and an 8 year old can’t get in the car and drive away. When certain family members enter the house, I lose the ability to think and articulate my thoughts. When there is an argument, I break out in hives. Sometimes, my hands ache so badly that I can barely type, and my knuckles turn an arthritic red. During prolonged times of stress, just swallowing food becomes a full-time job. I hunch so badly that my neck hurts at that moment, when I feel I’ve disappointed someone. I shut down emotionally.
After months of therapy and focus, and some strangely revelatory dreams, I can leave the house whenever it strikes my fancy. I am far more likely to just get in the car and go somewhere, whether or not something stressful is happening. I stand up for myself, when conversations get heated. I don’t break out in hives so often. I remember to breathe. I remind myself that it is not my job to smooth everything over, all the time. I am aware of what’s happening in my body and when I need to take a breath, or a break.
EMDR has given me tools for untangling the web of symptoms. If you get a headache every time you talk to that one person, there may be something going on there. Learn to pay attention to your physical pain or discomfort. It tells you a story. Now, I look at my symptoms and can admit that something is actually bothering me, that it doesn’t have to be ignored, and that it can be dealt with. That, in and of itself, was the beginning of hope. I could be fixed.