Sunday, June 9, 2013

PTSD & EMDR, a follow-up by Anonymous

Last week in the Wednesday Writer's Workshop series, I shared a post about familial dysfunction shared with me by someone who requested anonymity.

Of course, I know who this person is, and I know that this person and I share similar journeys, even if the specifics are a little different. They are just further along in it than I am. This person has been under EMDR treatment for a little while now, and....well...I'll let them tell you the rest.

Much love to the person behind the mask, the person who has been my biggest cheerleader/asskicker when it comes to getting me to get the help I need. xoxo


I am back. My first post, was so liberating for me; I was able to release so much emotion and pain and shame, really, deep shame in that post. I am forever grateful to Kelly for having me back to follow-up. I also understand a couple of you had questions basically asking, "Now what?" Well, I'm here to tell you "what" now. 

I will say this: I was surprised to see that many people who read the first post presumed I am female. I never said anything about my gender, for good reason, in that first post. My gender doesn't matter. Don't make assumptions -- men have this stuff happen too. 

I realized after I submitted the first post that I didn't really tell you what I'm doing, therapeutically, to confront these woes and rid myself of them for good. "For good," that's an interesting phrase, isn't? We don't say, "for bad" we say, "for good" but when we say that we usually imply that "good" means "ever." But as I look at that idiom, I rather prefer the usage of "good" as in the opposite of "bad." 

I'm an in-the-moment writer. So what you get, save for some edits or perhaps some elaboration for style, is what I produce. The bigger message is usually quite clear. The messages in the last post were: 1) you're not alone and neither am I (that is SO gratifying); 2) we must confront our past to stop its reprise; and 3) that kids are paying attention and our memories have lives of their own. 

So "for good," here we go: 

The message in this post is to tell you what I'm doing and what I've done to confront these emotions and how I got to be where I am (therapeutically) today. Without going too much into detail because it might give me away, I began therapy a long time ago, shortly after our second child was born. The baby was fine; it was me. Our older child was acting out in a way that I found offensive and horribly embarrassing and I didn't know how to stop it. My older child was fine. Again: the problem was me. I couldn't deal and I was essentially shaming the first child for acting appropriately in reaction to the massive change in its life with the arrival of its sibling (I'm being gender neutral here to protect my kids). 

At the second child's 3-month well visit, I remember gesturing to my older child who had gone from super-articulate and verbally advanced to a babbling and thumb-sucky pile of chromosomal mush. I said to the nurse, "What the hell, right? I mean, what's going on? Why the waah-waah and baby-talk?!" I turned to the child and I said, "STOP IT. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE. WE ARE NOT HERE FOR YOU!" and I turned back to the nurse, who was furiously writing notes, and I said, "What do I do? I mean, what's the freakin' problem here? This is embarrassing! This kid needs a specialist!" and the nurse said, "Yes, I'll make note of it and we'll talk to the doctor before she comes in." "Awesome!" I said and scoffed at my older child. While my second child was asleep in my arms, its sibling proceeded to try to get in the infant carrier on the floor of the exam room. I lost it. I didn't hit or scream, but I hissed at my older child to "Cut thissss out eeeemeeeediaatelllly!" My older child was just under three years old. 

The nurse, as I learned later, briefly left the room and came back to wait for the doctor with me because apparently I was unhinged. No one was in danger, but she came back to occupy my older child. I felt like she was just rewarding the behavior and no one could appreciate my struggles. I felt betrayed. When the pediatrician came in, she conducted the exam on the baby and was chatting with the older sib. "You're acting like a baby today, huh?" and I said, "I know! It's so weird!" and this type of exchange continued for a bit  between the toddler and the doctor until the exam was over. The baby was fine and she referred me to a pediatric and family therapist in the practice to help the situation. I thought for sure my older kid was bonkers and I was hosed. I had crazy parents and now a crazy child. 

A week later, I get a call from the therapist. We made an appointment and I said, "So I'll bring everyone, right? I mean, you need to see my kid's weirdness. I'm really worried about this…" and he said, "No, just you and your spouse. I have all I need right here. Maybe in a later session we will bring in the children." I countered with, "I'm pretty smart and I read lots of books; is there a book you can recommend in the meantime I can read so I can get up to speed with how to fix this?" and he said, "No. I'll see you next week." 

I thought he was a dick. Immediately, I thought, "He doesn't care about my problem, he just wants to bill me… therapists are for losers." 

I went in and he had notes from the pediatrician and we went over them. I agreed with everything and then he said to me, "Tell me about you."  

My back stiffened and I said, "This is about my child. I am here to fix my child. I am fine." 

"You ever hear the phrase, 'it's not the problem but how you react to it that makes the difference"? 

"No." I said. 

"The reason you're here, the acting out? It's fixable in five minutes. Here's what: your child is behaving naturally and appropriately. Your child's life has been unalterably disrupted. For you it's exciting and new and cute babies and tiny diapers. For your older child it's an intrusion, a threat, a horrible, horrible threat. Your child is doing the only thing it knows to survive and thus get attention: cry and act like a baby, because that's what is getting your attention from the baby. Do you follow?" 

"Yes. I follow. So what do I do about it?" 

"You let it happen."

"But it's making me crazy." 

"I understand. It's making you crazy. Not only do you let it happen, but you encourage it. You mirror it and you affirm it. Once you do that, you will have met a very basic human need: to be seen and heard and understood and appreciated. Once that is processed by the older child and the emotional fears are allayed because you no longer reject the behavior -- which your older child naturally equates to its existence because it IS the behavior at the time -- the behavior will diminish and then stop altogether. It will take about a week; maybe less." 

"So what do you mean? Mirror and affirm?" 

"It's like when your older child was learning to speak. It was all mumbling, but you echoed back, right?" 

"Right. That's what all the books say to do and what the doctor said." 

"Right -- to the toddler, at the time, it meant you connected, that you heard the toddler's voice and a conversation -- despite its basic nonsense -- was occurring. A relationship on a whole new level was happening. You didn't correct the mumbling but repeated it and then used the proper word. That's how your toddler gained confidence and security. This is the same thing in a different suit.  When the toddler acts like the baby, you say, 'You want to be the baby now.' That's it. When it gets mad at the baby and tries to strike out, you say without judgement or editorializing, 'You're mad at the baby; you want to hit the baby.' And the toddler will nod and the exchange of the message is over. It's frustrating as hell and not easy for parents -- you will need to do this all your child's life; they will always need to feel safe and heard -- not because you are a mad bone-crushing ogre, but because it's a basic human need. It's what we all need to not only survive but to thrive. Got it? Let's role model…" 

And we did. He was the baby and I said the things. I was the baby and he said the things. After a while it felt so stupid, but I began to understand the point. I couldn't wait to leave, I started to gather my things.  

"We still have time. Tell me about you. And then I want to hear about your relationship with your mother."

All of my fears had come true. Every Freudian nightmare and cliché had been realized in less than 30 seconds in that man's office. I laughed at the nerve and I looked at my spouse, "Do you believe this guy? Get a load of this…" and my spouse said "I think you need to tell him about your mother." 

And so I did. At the end of that first session, we covered a lot of ground. I shared that my mother was a screamer and that I was seeing I was repeating her behavior because I had no other model of appropriate parenting. I gave the high level: both parents are alcoholics and angry narcissists. I can feel it again right now, that I was resisting his every approach with all my might because I just didn't want to go there. I insisted I was fine, that I just needed to get this toddler / baby stuff underway and I'd be all set. Please let me go.   

He was no dummy. He knew I wasn't ready. What mattered most was the triage for my kids; my "foundation" was firm, I was a good parent, the pediatric practice had known us for years now and we were not "regulars" and my older child was usually quite affable and pleasant.  

"Do the mirroring and the affirmations. Call me in a week and we'll see how things are going." 

"Thanks, I will. I understand the motivations in all of this now; I think it will really help and I appreciate your concerns. I'll call you next week." 

"Take care, I'll see you again; I'm here anytime." He said. 

Three years later, I had a trigger in my subconscious (I can't go into it) that had me calling that man first thing in the morning. He ad no openings for a month, but told me about an ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) group a colleague was forming that would be helpful in the meantime. For three years after that, I had weekly, deep and hugely transformative sessions and I was becoming stronger and healthier every week. My progress astounded and pleased him and it was sincere. I was working HARD and while it was all rooted in my childhood stuff, as 95% of our behaviors are, I was changing ME. I was ushered out of the nest and he retired. I suspect I nearly killed him. (Ha!) He lives in Tuscany now with family. 

The thing is: if we're going to move forward with our lives we have to accept our pasts and we also have to get the hell out of our own way. If we have kids: double-time it. This is not theirs, this is not their problem and we have to be the grown-ups. 

Then a few years later, I had another situation. My mother overdosed on wine, xanax and barbiturates. She wanted out. My youngest sibling had recently married and in her mind I guess, her existence, her reason for living was nullified by that marriage. All her life she'd had the role of "taking care" of people (despite her lousy job of it) and her marriage contract with a controlling despot was difficult to say the least. So I think she hit a super-low low and decided she was ready to check out. 

I went back into therapy; I had all my tools from beforehand, but they weren't quite doing it for me. This overdose almost killed her and despite all my years away and assurances that I was over the pain, the act of seeing my mother in a self-induced drug-powered stupor brings me back to the days when I was tiny and saw her all the times before and was told to find the drugs and the bottles that did that to her; to take them away so that she could never do it again and to get her better.

I was thrust into some sort of odd functional depression and was likely suffering from PTSD. I have no doubt. 

So I went into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT); we spent a good six months teaching me to reframe. With my first therapist, I learned to slow down, see my triggers and my predilections and be more self-forgiving, self-aware and mindful. With this second one, the trick was to see these things happen and either re-route them or reframe them. Here's an example: say you hate making your bed, it's a chore and you're just gonna get in it later on tonight anyway. All of this is true. My therapist told me to think about what's nice about a freshly made bed: "It's comfortable, I feel like I'm at a hotel, I feel like someone cares…" She asked, "Do you feel worth that effort? Of a clean made bed? Flat and ready for you to slide in and sleep right away and restfully because the sheets aren't wrapped around your ankles or bunched up in a corner and you don't have to deal with them so you can doze right then?" And I honestly didn't feel worthy. So she asked, "What about your spouse? Is your spouse worthy?" I said yes. So that's some CBT for me. It's reframing; other times, it's confronting the panic or the anxiety. I had work to do regarding my parents, but I reframed it so that I was in control, I wasn't a child anymore and I could always leave. That helped. More CBT. It's good. So if you're in traditional psychoanalysis and it's not working for you, try CBT. 

And I thought CBT was the best for me for the past four years after mom's xanax OD until…

We had a difficulty in the old family of origin a few months ago and my father and I ended up having a disagreement. It was about the care of our mother. He likes to play the martyr. Doesn't ask for help. Woe is me. And shit doesn't get done. It's untenable. And it's familiar -- we'd been down this road immediately after the xanax overdose. All the same requests, all the same data and advice and therapeutic plans and missions. Almost a carbon copy. So I said, "We've done this before and you did nothing then. Here's all the Same Information as Last Time… Do it or ask for my help to get some of it done (I'd drive to appointments or manage deliveries or grocery shop, etc.) or leave me alone with it." So I drew a boundary and he considered that an act of hostility and so I was largely OK with that. "That's his reaction," I would say to myself, "It's not mine. I can't control how he reacts to my behavior." … It was actually a relief, but then he stopped talking to me. That really bugged me and clearly, I'd not dealt so much with him emotionally in my therapy. It was too hard. I wasn't ready. My mom stuff was major, but my dad stuff was so insidious and smarmy and plain wrong that I'd never wrapped my arms around it. In the midst of this current not-speaking campaign (I'd experienced at least a handful), I started to read a book, "The Emotional Incest Syndrome" by Dr. Patricia Love based on the online recommendation of another book that was quite good, but that wasn't hitting it for me, "Children of the Self-Absorbed" by Nina Brown. 

The Emotional Incest Syndrome hit the nail on the head for me. My father … against my mother … me … tactics … avoidance … gross. It's complicated. 
Oh, the books. There are myriad books about this stuff by therapists and doctors and survivors. I have read a lot of them; they are informative and they have "Aha!" moments. I don't know how many therapists can actually write about it all in an entertaining way, a captivating and relatable way that isn't so clinical; I think that requires some more loosening up and humor and ability to look at it the giant pile of fallow and miasma and say, "that's some fucked-up shit… let's pick it apart and see where it started to grow legs…" -- that's what I'm attempting to do in the book I want so desperately to release to the world but my fear, in my middle age keeps me from doing that. My parents don't have long. I don't mean that to sound opportunistic. The hardest part of all of this that even though I strap on my John Wayne bravado, there is the truth of the matter that they gave me life and that I'm largely a happy, optimistic, and resilient person. And so because they gave me life, and I do love myself, that the logic would follow that I must love them too. It requires a tremendous softening of the heart and what many therapists term, "Radical Acceptance" (another book, by Tara Brach). And I'm getting there, session by session, but it's hard. 

Back to my father and the silent treatment: so I was mostly OK with it. It hurt a lot at times. But I knew that I had to stick to my guns. What hurt the most about it is that I was the one he relied on most to go after my mother when things were bad and I would not be surprised that my father felt, on some very deep, unconscious and center-of-his-world core level that I had betrayed him when I put this stuff back on him and refused to carry it more steps further. But during this entire gruff old-man silence out of the solitude came a call on the phone from my mother, the supreme meddler in all of this, the truly sick one (for I believe she created his condition -- of course we all have narcissism on a continuum within us: it's a survival skill. A baby's first smile and we fall in love; the giggling and cooing; the cries at night, the whimpering for attention and holding: this is all our id, our infantile and most basic ego, telling the world we matter too and that we have needs that must be met BY OTHER PEOPLE. Yes, this stuff is real -- but she's a mess and the only way to survive with her in your world is to either treat her like the check-out lady at a Walmart or as an enemy combatant, she's really smart). I honestly try not to answer her calls more than twice a week because afterward I want to go on a bender, which I don't, I go for a long, hard run or beat the hell out of our heavy bag instead. Her mind is addled from all the drugs and her topics of conversation run from the super-fantastic, cheerful andl heroic videotape of her life to popular culture which I couldn't care less about. 

But I answered this call. About 30 seconds into it, she said a phrase that I haven't heard in SO VERY LONG, I mean, we're talking decades, that it vaulted me back to being a 7-year-old kid who just walked into the kitchen at dawn where shards of broken plates blanket the linoleum like confetti after a V-Day parade. She's quietly sobbing with dignity, he's storming out the back door and I hear the engine of the car rev in macho defiance and the German reverse gears wind down at the driveway increasing pitch until I can't hear them anymore. 


She hears me enter. She looks over and growls, "Go back to bed. Don't come in here." 

"I have slippers on. I can help." She moans, she lets me. I get the banged-up steel dustpan and the wooden hand broom from behind the door and get started. As I clean up the jagged, sharp, pointy, curved, shiny, dull, dangerous remains, she says, 

"Go easy on your dear old dad; he's doing the best he can."     

That phrase; I can't tell you how often I heard it. The worst part is that I was her enemy; he had trained me to be his spy on her; his dog on the hunt and his bear in the cave. I got "love" (survival) from him, and mostly control, sadness and pity and rage from her. 

So repeat some scenes, replace some of mine with your own and fast forward say, 40 years. We are about three weeks into the radio silence between my father and myself because of the boundary I'd drawn. I'm in my own home, walking around my own yard and the phone rings. I check the caller ID. It's her. He and I aren't speaking; he used to call me only on his cell phone so I know calls from her are from the house. I answer and she immediately starts in. The triangulation, "your father" this and "your father" that. I told her to stop; I told her it was it was unhealthy; and I told her it was none of her concern. And she sarcastically replied, "That's right, it's triannngulaaation; that's dysfunnnnctional. Well, we can't have any of that, can we?" 

I deeply inhaled, looked for a stick to throw at a tree.  

But then I corrected myself. He and I are feuding because he wants to be able to get away with doing nothing for her, as he has all his marriage. So I explain in high level terms that the reason he's where he is with me is because he won't do right by her, as directed and requested even, by Himself. 

She sighs, moans again like she did 40 some-odd years ago and said, "Go easy on your dear old dad; he's doing the best he can."     

You could have hit me in the face with a seasoned 20 oz Everlast boxing glove and I wouldn't have flinched. The reaction was as I described above. Deep, cellular, emotional, intense, gripping, intellectual … stunning. I was rendered silent. She went on and on about how hard he works for all of us; about how it's hard for a man, about how his mother treated him … the man is 81. I couldn't listen any more. I told her I had to put down the phone and get something out of the oven. I don't bake. But I guess I did have to get something out of the oven: my heart. The amount of guilt I had was consuming. I knew --intellectually-- that I had nothing to do with all this; I never did. But my emotions? Totally different story. It was like my brain was Tweedle Dee and my feelings were Tweedle Dum. They Simply Could Not Connect. 

Case in point: I knew I wasn't in danger. I knew intellectually the situation was fucked-up but I was safe. Emotionally I was overwhelmed. I wanted to hide, find a solution, fix the problem, make it go away. I wasn't "anxious"; I was "on patrol." Logic smacks my face whereas feelings pull my hand and run away. Have you seen that Star Trek where Spock had to deal with his humanity as well as his Vulcanity? Exactly. I was stuck. And this stuckedness has affected a lot of my personality and ability to complete projects over the years. The big picture view is that because I couldn't fix my mother which basically meant I was a failure to my father has translated into my inability to ever really feel authentic achievement and pride with anything I do that is based on independent variables (i.e., other people or influences) so my "achievements" have thus been relatively solitary in nature. Running, yard work, writing, health…  

Immediately after I got myself together using basic CBT: "It's 2013, I'm in my own yard, he's not here. There was no fight. This is my dog; I have a marriage and a mortgage. My children are safe; my spouse is not angry with me; I am not a child…" all that stuff, I contacted my CBT therapist and my retired therapist and told them what was up and they both wrote back to me within two days and basically said this: "EMDR. You need EMDR. This is PTSD and you need EMDR. Here are some names of people in your area." 


I Googled it. Later conversations with these sages were helpful and enlightening. They both know how hard I've worked and how much I treat mindfulness and self awareness like a military campaign. 

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and I can tell you this: I don't know how the hell it works but for me it does. I want to say it's probably the last stop before ECT (electrical current therapy) which is mostly for seemingly intractable depression. I don't have depression; I have memories and feelings from hell coming back to me without a moment's notice based on the shit that people say to me when they're unaware, asleep, assholes and thinking only of themselves. That's PTSD I think. I asked my EMDR therapist if I have PTSD and she demurred. "I don't like to brand people's stuff. It's not helpful. You're having tremendous success with this therapy and that's all that matters." I like her. She won't give me a label. That's huge. 

But the EMDR is work like no other work I've done. I had a taste of it with my first therapist about 10 years ago I think, but we didn't really do too much of it. There was none of the tapping that my current therapist does now. The first four sessions with an EMDR practitioner are typical intake stuff. One session requires you to take home a form, 9 pages on its own, 19 when I was finished! to go through "nodal moments" of your life and provide a written genogram (your life story, family tree, big moments good and bad in your life as best as you can recall them). 

Here's the deal: If you truly want peace, progress and your life back, you must be willing to GO DEEP, tell the truth, hold nothing back, be judgmental about yourself, allow the ugly stuff and behaviors and choices and reactivity to reveal themselves or you may as well just stop because you're a liar and you still like the victimization because it allows you to have a sob story and get attention. This stuff is serious and it's about growth so I'll be a dick: don't steal the training, time and talent of an EMDR practitioner for your own fucking ego and to tell your sob story to when there is very likely someone out there who would LOVE to have your appointment to shed some heavy duty shit and really move on. If you're a chronic boo-hooer, please: get off my bus. I have an ugly truth for you: no one likes you when you're like that. 

Before I started any session, I wanted to make sure I was on the right bus. I proposed of EMDR to this therapist that I was seeking it to unstuck those feelings of guilt and inauthentic achievement. She said I was on the right bus. What I have gotten … Oh My Lord, is far greater clarity and peace. The therapist will use your genogram to help you unearth your issues and your stuckness. That's why you must be honest: these old bones in the yard of your psyche have got to be dirty and hardened. You will start with a mission for each session and it will begin. You will fall apart emotionally. The tears will come and not stop; you will relive those moments. You might get nauseated; make sure there's a bucket to boot into; you might get light headed, tell the therapist about your blood pressure or any medications you're on. You are actually reliving those feelings again only this time: you will be safe. You will not be told to "shut up" or "buck up" or "pipe down" or "get over it" or "move on" or "go to your room." You will sit with this stuff and it will take you over and the feeling will process until it is completely over and filtered and then you will have other thoughts or memories come to your mind. Let them. Talk about them in the session, express them. Hold nothing back if you want your life back. And it will repeat and then you will come to another one and another one and all of them will be expressed and processed and "honored" and allowed to seep into your parched soul where they can be turned into mental compost to help you grow. I will stop there; I don't want to feed your brain with what happens next. This has to be pure and uninfluenced. 

My first few sessions have focused on my mother. I have a totally neutral view of her now. I feel like I am a neighbor who sees her and says, "Look at that beautiful old woman. She has had a hard life. That is too bad." And I can say a prayer for her and mean it now. That… my friends is a miracle. 

Soon we will begin on my father. I sense it will be more challenging than my mother because while she is many layers and twists and her story is tragic and she's an emotional mess, she's a product of her environment and I believe has a good heart despite her addictions and her behaviors, plus she's really old now and she hasn't much energy and I do want, deeply in my heart to move on and regard her with some wistful ideation; we both deserve it. Her life was consumed by him, he imprisoned her to a certain extent. My father… he is machinations personified. He works the angles. He feigns unawareness, but it's all charade. I have to own my stuff too -- that I went on campaigns against her to win his favor and edge her out. It became a game to me, and I was conscious of a lot of it as I aged. That is heavy duty and I knew it was wrong but I did it anyway. What I need out of my sessions about him is detachment and peace as well as some freakin' self-forgiveness. 

Wish me luck and get on this bus. It's the bus to health and life. For good. 

Thanks again, DeBie.

1 comment:

  1. The raw honesty in this post...just WOW! I can see parts of my life in your journey. Thanks for being courageous and putting this in writing.


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