Trauma Therapy: My Road to Recovery
I am sharing the below for many reasons. I lived with a secret that tore me apart for too long. I’ve had OCD since I was a child, but the trauma from my secret rewired my brain and sent me into a spiral of symptoms that, on the surface, looked like bipolar disorder. Being honest with a therapist was the beginning of healing. And the key therapy we employed - EMDR - probably saved my life. Therapy may not be for everyone. But if you’ve ever contemplated seeing a therapist, I want to encourage you to take that leap. Not everyone needs it. Maybe not all of those who do need it will easily find the right practitioner or therapy. But after truly engaging in therapy and seeing how much I’ve benefited and healed, I wish for a world where “health” encompasses our whole health, both physical and mental well-being. Let’s ditch the stigma.
I remember the day as if it were yesterday. My new therapist Kristen had just moved offices. My husband Mike was holding my hand as we walked into the building and up the staircase. The room was spinning and I was silently spiraling. I felt completely out of control. “Caitlin and Mike, come on in,” Kristen softly said. Mike took my hand again and walked beside me into the office. Kristen shut the door and we sat down. I took one deep breath and then the floodgate of tears opened. I rambled on for what felt like an eternity. I suppose I wasn’t really rambling, I was more or less confessing, confessing that I’d been holding a secret. Little did I know that day would be the beginning of an incredible, life changing journey. I walked into that office one person and left another.
I had been seeing Kristen for a few weeks prior to this appointment. Kristen was my 6th therapist in 6 years. Yeah, it was the same old story, same old lies. I was experiencing depression and manic-like symptoms. I was doing things that were completely out of character. Usually my parents or Mike would take notice of these patterns and encourage me to seek help. Year after year, therapist after therapist, I tried to convince everyone that I was really just experiencing depression from a scary break-in that happened in college. While this did happen (just one week before the real trauma, a sexual assault), it wasn’t why I was acting so off. Every therapist could see right past my lie. Every single one would recommend I get on an anti-depressant from my GP and continue therapy. I remember my therapists always questioning me, “Are you sure there isn’t something else you want to tell me?” I often wondered if I was that transparent. I would go to any length to mask the truth. The minute I would get put on a new anti-depressant, I would claim myself healed and quit therapy. Give it a few months and I was right back at square one. It was a vicious cycle with no end in sight. That is until the secret swallowed me whole and there was no more running from it.
Reflecting back, those 6 years were nothing short of an absolute mess. I was constantly searching for validation. Like a busy bee, single-minded in its never-ending search for nectar, my pursuit of acceptance overshadowed everything. Acceptance was approval. Approval meant everything was okay. But I wasn’t present. How could I be? It was all a coping mechanism, it was a means of survival. If I could convince everyone around me to like me and con them into believing I had it all together, then I could just ride the high of validation. No one would question me and I could somehow magically be healed. During this difficult time I got married, had two children, got baptized into the Catholic Church, joined just about every club or group I could find, and had my calendar completely booked for months. Slowing down just wasn’t an option for me. I was searching endlessly for a miracle, for divine intervention. Maybe if I just kept running long enough and fast enough, my problems would just disappear. You know how they say you can’t outrun your problems, they somehow always catch up to you? They were right.
Once I hit my personal rock bottom and confessed my truth, I spent a year in intensive cognitive behavioral therapy with my therapist Kristen. I also spent a year monitored by my Psychiatrist, Dr. Curly. Both of these wonderful women stayed in touch with each other and came up with an amazing treatment plan which consisted of medicine and therapy. One of the hardest yet most beneficial things we did in therapy was EMDR. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing and/or traumatic life experiences. There are many different ways and styles of EMDR. I will share my experience with my therapist.
We started with a questionnaire and talked about my history. Then a treatment plan and goal were made. My goal was to move past the trauma of the assault. I really wanted to feel “normal” again. No more nightmares, flash backs, obsessing and worrying. No more depression. No more stretches of mania trying to run from the trauma. I wanted to be me again. The next step was figuring out what the target image for distress would be as well as picking a mental happy place/safe zone which could be utilized any time things became too stressful. My target image was basically the event itself. I described to my therapist in detail the time of the day, my surroundings, my feelings and my fear. My happy place was a secluded beach. We also did the jar exercise at this time which is basically creating a jar or container in my mind that all my thoughts can go at the end of the session. This was vital as we met once a week. My pink glittery mason jar kept all my unresolved feelings and thoughts from that day’s session. It was not to be opened until the following appointment. Next I stated the number one negative belief I felt about myself when I thought about the target image. My belief was that I was worthless and deserved the attack; I truly felt as if I was being punished by God. The ultimate goal was to replace the negative and false belief with a more positive and true belief. I know what you may be thinking. What can be a positive take-away from getting sexually assaulted? Of course this horrendous event is in no way positive, but my therapist firmly believed that if we really broke apart the event, I could come out on the other side changed and transformed. I would see this wasn’t my fault nor was it a punishment from God. I could take my power back and really do something with that power. I had doubts but was willing to give this a try. Little did I know 4 years later I would start a women’s mental health and wellness blog, trying to encourage and help other women to take their power back, to admit it’s okay to not always be okay.
The next step/phase of my EMDR was bilateral stimulation. Bilateral stimulation is stimuli (visual, auditory, or tactile) which occurs in a rhythmic left to right pattern. I choose tactile so my therapist put these vibrating plastic electrodes in my hands. While this stimulation was occurring, I closed my eyes and let my mind naturally go through the event. After the bilateral stimulation was turned off, usually after 2-3 minutes, I would take a deep breath and then talk about the emotional reactions and sensations I was feeling. Eventually as I talked my way through the event along side my therapist, my brain started to heal the traumatic event. Trust me, it didn’t happen over night. It took many sessions and tears. Honestly looking back it almost seems like a miracle. It’s like I was gifted this chance to go back in time and really see what happened to me through a different lens. Perhaps most importantly, EMDR gave me permission to forgive both my attacker and myself for the years of torture and torment I put myself and my family through. I was able to move on and that has been the biggest blessing of all.
After a long intensive year of therapy, I was able to make my appointments for every two weeks. Then every four. Then every six. We talked about my depression and all the new tools in my toolbox. We talked about self esteem and worth. We talked about limiting beliefs and also acceptance, acceptance of the fact that not everything will go how I want it, not everyone will be like how I expect. We talked about my need to control everything around me and how we are really only in control of ourselves and our actions. We talked about my OCD and ways to manage it. We talked about people pleasing and eliminating toxicity in my life. We talked about my family and how to be the best wife and mother I could be. We talked about my growing faith and how I wanted the next few chapters of my life to look.
I still see my therapist and psychiatrist for check-ins. You also better bet whenever I feel a hard season coming on, I get my butt into their offices. For the longest time I thought therapy was a place to let go of the old you and get started with the new you. That’s not how it works. At the end of the day, I still am prone to clinical depression. I still have OCD. There isn’t some magical pill or treatment for this. For me this will be a lifelong battle but it’s a battle I don’t have to face alone. Therapy has become my safe place to learn and grow, to continue on my journey of healing. So often we are quick to forget the pain, the hurt, the mistakes, the trials and tribulations, and the growing pains because who wants to remember those? Therapy has taught me that while I do not believe we should live in regret or hold onto the past, I do believe we should always remember where we came from. If we lose sight of what was then, how can we really appreciate the hard work and grit it took to transform? Therapy was much more than just healing and forgetting. For me it was more about growing and learning. I am so proud of my progress, of the person I am in this moment. I am perfectly imperfect. I am flawed. I am learning. I am growing. I am showing my children that it’s okay to ask for help, that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Maya Angelou said, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has to go through to achieve that beauty.” Perhaps we all start out as caterpillars, waiting to come out of our cocoon transformed.