Intensive Therapy Session # 3: Trauma & Mental Illness

Today was a bit overwhelming, in and out of the therapy session: I no longer stuff my negative feelings only to later turn them into self-harm; instead, I am like a toddler who doesn’t recognize she is irritated, angry or agitated until that feeling is on overdrive and it is like I am learning to regulate myself for the first time.

I am in a period of self-discovery: the book I am reading, “The Body Keeps The Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk (psychiatrist) is like reading my very own psychic chart…I feel like his “proverbial patient”: my new struggle to heal and integrate the damaged part of myself that dissociated the incest experience because I had to freeze for survival, the option which leaves the abuse survivor with the most lasting damage, this new struggle is one that I barely have the vocabulary to discuss in therapy with Dr. Allison because it is so brand new, but this book is like the story of my journey and is giving me the words I need to work through this period of my life.

I learned today that the majority of adults with mental illnesses experienced trauma as children, and that the majority of female incest survivors try to commit suicide. I learned that from a young age that it wasn’t safe to express my negative emotions towards my caregivers, so I had to stuff my negative feelings down deep until I would eventually turn them inward on myself by starving myself, terrible self-talk, self-punishments or even attempting suicide.

Dr. Allison and I have a plan to deal with my powerful negative emotions. Before just popping a pill, I will spend 15-20 minutes meditating or listening to soothing sounds to calm down while stretching, doing a body scan or progressive relaxation. If I’m still feeling out of control when my alarm goes off, I can take a pill and do the relaxation exercises again. I think this plan is pretty solid—I can endure almost anything for 15-20 minutes!

It is very eye-opening to look back on my past with a critical, unemotional eye, as if Dr. Allison is my English professor and my life is a novel and we are critiquing it—what did which character say and do and why? What was motivating whom? How was I feeling? etc. I can see my parents and I very differently now that I have recovered my memories, from the benefit of time and the benefit of my experience with my own family, to see the dysfunction that was there. I can see, without blame, how I reacted to the trauma my dad created and how my mom not believing me all these years perpetuated it. Being a latchkey only child in a household with a father who was an unmedicated bipolar with his own history of incest, and a Pollyanna mother who filtered out all negatives until one day she asked for my permission to divorce my father, presented me with a childhood that was rife with mixed signals and many chances to confuse “real” and “imaginary.” The best thing that resulted from the experience was my ability to write and paint.

It turns out that all the things I’ve been preoccupied with to heal myself since I first told my story of childhood abuse to, and was believed by, my husband, mother-in-law and therapist when I was 39 (3 years ago after a suicide attempt) in 2016 until now—writing a novel (about my childhood), meditation, Buddhist literature, breathing exercises—these types of things are the majority of the work that Van Der Kolk uses to prepare his trauma patients in order to help them process their terrible pasts. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or some kind of divine intervention that I’ve been focused on these same activities, but I do know that I am doubly ready to take on the past head-on today now that I’ve discovered that I happen to be engaged in these prerequisites…

But, learning to integrate the ashamed and helpless child-part of my past self who froze and couldn’t protect me with the struggling current part of myself which is reawakening after years of being numb and afraid to feel my feelings for fear of losing control of my faculties if I let myself feel the trauma of my past is no easy feat, and this work (even at a fast clip) could take longer than I think.

I think I could benefit from EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) and have texted Dr. Allison to see if I can do this with her. It doesn’t require a good relationship or any relationship with then therapist though, so I could always get this done with someone else. I am really into the promise EMDR offers: a quick resolution to long-held trauma by helping the patient reorganize the experiences they’ve had to feel that “that was then, this is now.”

So, here’s to therapy and self-help books paving the way for us to look objectively and clearly at our pasts to see how they inform the present so that we can reasonably expect that we can enjoy more agency, calmness, meaning and success ahead of us in a future that is devoid of the kinds of trauma we’ve endured in our past.

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