EMDR, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Mental Illness

My doctor psychologist lady tells me I’m holding back. She tells me I’m ‘blocking’: I am not letting the EMDR process move forward at anything other than a snail’s pace. Which is ok, she says, but I only have 18 sessions and then I have to go back on the waiting list if I need it again. So if I want to be seeing real improvements I have to allow her in, as it were… No, I don’t have to allow her in. I have to allow me out – the me that stays hidden, locked inside the vault. This tomb was created so that I could survive. If I hadn’t, I would have lost my sanity or, worse, lost my children.

It is the existence of the vault that causes the PTSD, because occasionally the vault is shaken, and occasionally, outside of my control, one of the terrible things hidden inside escapes and wreaks havoc, even if only temporarily. It happens often enough that they give it a name and call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is quite a polite-sounding name for what happens when your own head screams danger! danger! danger! because the man walking by looks vaguely like your ex-husband, or emergency! emergency! emergency! when you hear a certain type of sound that sounds a bit like something far worse. Mind you, I’m very good at hiding it. Abuse teaches you to hide your thoughts and feelings because they make you more vulnerable, so you become a master of disguise.

I think PTSD occurs because human beings are wired for survival. It took me time to figure that out. I thought I was weak and that that’s why it affected only some people. I don’t now. PTSD occurs when you have to push your emotions down in a hostile, sometimes life-threatening situation, in order to think rationally and clearly – in order to survive. It’s a great survival technique. The trouble is that you then have to be able to process the memories of those terrible events, because that’s what the brain does every night as you sleep, but if you’ve had to push it down far enough, and if you’ve had to push it down over and over and over in order to survive and continue to survive… well, then you end up with PTSD, because we’re not made for intense and unrelenting distress.

The past two days I have been giving what the psychologist said a lot of thought. She’s right and I know she’s right. I have talked it through with my dear Frank. I have talked, in less detail of course, with each of my children. It occurred to me that if I was diagnosed with a different kind of serious illness, I would allow myself the time and space for the treatment to work, and I would explain to the children what was happening (because they’re all old enough to understand) so that we could muddle through together because that’s what families do. So why had it not really occurred to me to do this for EMDR? Why did I think that my treatment and its effects were not ‘worthy’ enough to be given consideration?

I don’t think the fault lies solely within me. I don’t think it’s just me wanting to push through and just get on with it, because, as St. Teresa of Avila says in The Interior Castle, ‘getting on with it’ is just common sense. No, I think that our culture looks upon mental illness and its treatment with cynicism. Sufferers are often perceived as weak-minded or morally deficient, as malingerers or somehow less human. Our culture subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) degrades those with mental illness. They become objects of fear, scorn or pity, as if they’re no longer worthy of the same respect and dignity as someone with a ‘physical’ illness. Yet even Jesus experienced mental anguish:

‘In his life on earth Jesus made his prayers and requests with loud cries and tears to God, who could save him from death. Because he was humble and devoted, God heard him. But even though he was God’s Son, he learned through his sufferings to be obedient. When he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him…’

Hebrews 5:7-9 (GNT)

Mental illness is a physical illness. If my brain doesn’t work properly because the neurons got screwed up by too much adrenaline, or if the brain’s hormones are too high or too low, how is that not physical? Who in this world can look into my malfunctioning brain and know what I am thinking or feeling? No one. Yet still the fear within ourselves makes us view the mentally ill at arms’ length. In the 21st century that is nothing short of a disgrace.

I read an excellent post from Ann Voskamp today. She could have written it just for me at this exact time. Praise God for His provision! How can I be anything but thankful for today? Here’s an excerpt. I pray it blesses you as it did me:

Dear Thriver

I once held a bird in my hand.

No one else could see it, but I felt it. I felt it’s heart thumping hard and afraid.

It happens– there are ways to look fine on the outside…. and no one knows what you’ve really survived.

But honestly? You didn’t just survive, so let’s toss that myth right at the outset.

The way you keep walking? You may be wounded. You may be hurting. You may be limping. You may feel alone and overwhelmed and an unspoken broken — but you’re no victim. And you’re not just a survivor. You’re a Thriver.

You may bleed but you rise.

Yeah, it may not feel like it — but you are seen… how you just keep keeping your chin up and living brave through the hurt and how you keep taking one step out of bed and another step through the door — and how you keep scaling mountains by relentlessly taking steps forward.

But I wanted you to know — your wounds are seen and it’s okay… 

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