Trigger Warning: Trauma re-enactment
I am 65 years old and a trauma survivor. When I entered therapy, I was labeled as having an adolescent adjustment reaction. Years later, the mental health label was changed repeatedly—from schizoaffective disorder to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression and then later to dissociative identity disorder, paranoia, and bipolar disorder. It was clear to me that my trauma symptoms determined the diagnosis. I wanted a cure and a reduction of my symptoms, instead of a variety of methods to merely manage them.
My commitment to making therapy work was matched by the efforts of my therapist. She is a learner spirit and as tenacious as I am. Even so, it has taken a lifetime to arrive at an enduring sense of safety and freedom from the daily derailing of my consciousness by the intrusion of trauma memory content. Therapy changed as new knowledge of the impact of trauma emerged. I wondered if there was a way to combine therapies to improve the quality of my life and speed recovery.
I have benefited from the use of a combination of therapies within a long-term, mutually respectful relationship: “talking therapy,” “grounding techniques,” and “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)," and I have been able to untangle myself from cycles of dissociative experiences and flashbacks. My healing began with the commitment to our growing relationship and was accelerated by my therapist’s ongoing learning and use of trauma knowledge and tools. Read more of Gloria's thoughts on what is needed to recover from trauma.
In the early years, I recounted my story without support of grounding techniques and EMDR. Flashbacks, periods of lost time, and re-enactment of the trauma followed and often ramped up and took over my life for long periods of time. My therapist began to incorporate her training into my therapy. She introduced concepts that I had only read about. My disbelief was high. Although in academic settings I had begun to understand the concepts of dissociation and trauma re-enactment, the felt experience that comes with integrating the information so I could say it out loud was absent. My therapist would match the trauma language to my experience. For example, when I would experience dissociation, she would bring attention to my sudden immersion into the trauma memory. The pairing of my episodes of dissociation with the proper labels helped me to see how my reality actually changed during events of trauma reactivation.
I realized that I really did have experiences of falling into an altered state of reality. I reviewed several facts to compare with my experience. The fact that my therapist did not lose time or become overwhelmed by feelings was evident. Also, she could function and live in a reality that seemed mostly neutral. Her life was largely determined by her choices and actions. She could travel and do things that would have bought debilitating fear “down on my head.” She did not have flashbacks or dissociate and did not experience a pervasive sense of being threatened. So, I re-examined the probability that I regularly entered into altered states that were driven by chemical changes in my brain during episodes of trauma reenactment. However, I still was not certain that my process of dropping into an altered state was not visible.
My reality was radically different from that of any observer and was dictated by my traumatic experiences. Other people in the same room did not share what I was seeing, hearing, and sensing. My behavior often did not make sense to others during my trauma reactivation. They did not experience urgency or threat. Initially, these facts were unbelievable and hearing that this was occurring felt as if my personhood was being attacked. It like I was being falsely accused of being different.
As therapy proceeded and with increasing understanding of the impact of trauma, my dream of living without so much anxiety and burdens of despair in my life seemed possible. More and more, my therapist began to make sense when she explained “dissociation.” She introduced me to grounding techniques such as “Callahan Tapping.” Passive techniques of grounding did not work.
Even after the tapping was successful, I was stunned with how performing this simple technique seemed to awaken me as if I had been in a deep sleep. The tapping helped me function without melding into my usual trauma emergency response. The process seemed ridiculous, but it worked. I resisted doing the tapping because I believed that even though it worked, it was temporary and an artificial means of getting through the day. The tapping reminded me of how out of control my life could get. It reminded me that all I could hope for was symptom management.
My therapist also introduced me to EMDR. At first, EMDR seemed to be really helpful. However, there was always a backlash. My flashbacks seemed to show up more, but the strength and power of the eruption of emotion felt somewhat diffused. I already understood that when trauma is reactivated, the individual feels a surge of chemicals; this felt like an adrenalin rush. Once energized by the chemical influx, I would be off and running with the zeal of someone running away from an impending emergency. Once the cycle subsided, I would return with awareness that something major took place, but my consciousness was like muddy water; things were unclear.
EMDR helped me recover repressed trauma events that had been previously locked off from my consciousness. At first, recovering these events was followed by ripples of intrusive memories. I became aware that I needed to continue to work on the recovered content without EMDR to further integrate it into my consciousness. As this memory work progressed, my life and struggles began to make more sense.
My trajectory towards improved functioning and operating in the world improved. Using EMDR and grounding techniques while telling my story helped to reduce the power of each recovered memory, and soon I was able to speak about my experience without becoming overwhelmed.
I write this with hope that “talking therapies” will take a center stage in trauma treatment for all survivors. Without being able to explain our experiences and place our history in context, we are subject to repressed memories erupting. Trauma survivors contend with varying degrees of dissociation and experiences of reliving the trauma. I believe that “talking therapy" is the most efficient way to put the trauma in proper context. EMDR and grounding techniques make the therapy even more effective. Individual quality of life improves with techniques that bring disturbing and repressed memories into brain centers that help to integrate the experience. It is my hope that EMDR and grounding techniques will be available to all patients who seek recovery rather than merely focusing on symptom management. The combination has accelerated my recovery and matches my dreams of what it would mean to have a “cure.” It is possible for trauma survivors to use trauma memory recovery to achieve an enduring sense of safety in the world.
We should continue to have the conversation of what is working to help trauma survivors achieve an improved quality of life!
Hear Gloria's thoughts on the intersection of mental health and race by listening to a t3 podcast on "Minority Mental Health Month."
- The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and the Evolving Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress by Bessel A. Van der Kolk, M.D.
- The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma: Reenactment, Re-victimization, and Masochism by Bessel A. Van der Kolk, M.D. in Psychiatric Clinics of North America (Volume 12, Number 2, Pages 389-411, June 1989).