Saturday, April 6, 2013

Helping Others Learn to Help

Today I am going to be part of a presentation to help counselors in training understand a little more about PTSD from the survivors perspective. They provided me with a list of questions, so I'm sharing them, along with my answers, here. 

1. How did diagnosis go for you?

My husband and I went into counseling together because we didn't seem to be connecting well. He really wanted to talk to someone. I didn't. After a few initial sessions, the counselor asked to meet with me alone for a few sessions. We talked about an assault that occurred in college. I felt my husband and I had dealt with it, but it became obvious it was still causing disturbances for me. I had begun having intrusive thoughts about the episode, and nightmares that were difficult to describe. I became anxious and lightheaded on my way to counseling sessions. Eventually I recalled an episode from my childhood that I had never told anyone about, and that opened the door for a diagnosis of PTSD and an understanding that I had been abused as a child, and re-victimized as an adult. I found a certain amount of comfort in having a specific diagnosis, because it removed the personal stigma of "just being crazy", and replaced it with options for treatment and hope for recovery.

2. How was treatment for you?

I've seen 2 different counselors over the course of my diagnosis and treatment. Initially I began with a marriage and family therapist. He used cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help me begin to recognize the abuse for what it was, and encouraged me to journal. In the beginning about all I could do was write, and then bring the work to him. He would read through my journaling and then ask me questions to open discussion of the things I had written about. Later I moved to a specialist in PTSD and continued with CBT, but also added EMDR in an effort to address the emotional responses I was having in addressing the repressed memories.

3. Can you tell us a little about how EMDR works from a client perspective?

In my sessions, an episode is chosen. We determine a visual to represent the episode, and then identify what the negative belief is that I currently hold, then we establish the positive belief I would like to have. There are two scales that are used to determine where I am -- one determines how truthful I believe the positive belief to be, and the other identifies how disturbed I am by the memory we are working on. Bilateral stimulation is used, which in my case means that my therapist pats my hands while I allow the episode to play out in my head. The room is silent and my eyes are closed during this phase. After a certain amount of time (I think around 2 minutes?) she stops patting and slides her hands from mine, and I begin to recount what I saw play out in my head. She takes extensive notes, and when I finish, picks a new location in the memory as the beginning point, then we begin the process again. We may do this 2-4 times in 90 minute session. She checks in with me at least twice to see if my answers have changed on the two scales. Generally what happens is as the belief in the positive message increases the disturbance decreases. Once we have completed the EMDR itself, we spend the remaining portion of the session processing the information and doing relaxation exercises.

4. What were some turning points in your treatment?

I remember when I began seeing the first therapist, he asked me how I had felt before I began counseling and experiencing the panic, disturbing dreams, etc. I answered that I felt afraid. He replied, "Not all the time?" And I said yes, most of the time. I had never told anyone about these feelings, and never fully acknowledge them to myself until that moment. When I told him about the first memory of abuse (which I couldn't identify as abuse, but rather as something terrible I had done), I recounted the episode to him with my eyes closed. When I finished, I peeked a look at him, and asked if he believed me. He assured me did, and then I ask why he believed me. He answered with a question -- why wouldn't he believe me? Both of those sessions help me recognize that this was a safe environment to begin to really look at my past.
When I changed therapists, I remember at the initial meeting with the specialist, after I had told her, what I call, "the quick and dirty" version, she said she believed she could help me. That "believe" was wonderful to hear. She didn't say she thought or hoped she could help, but rather she believed she could help me. Early on in my work with her, she was helping me to understand that simply size difference between a child and an adult was scary in and of itself. She asked me to stand up and she stood and faced me. We discussed that we were essentially the same size and she verified that I did not feel afraid in the situation. Then she stepped up into her chair, now towering over me. I immediately fell onto the couch, cowering in a fetal position. That visceral reaction helped me to understand that these memories were true, and just how much terror I was holding inside.

5. What are some things outside of therapy that have helped in healing?

I tried to reclaim portions of my childhood. I got my self a stuffed animal, Yolie, which led to other stuffed animals. I started coloring as a safe creative outlet. I learned more about prayer beads, and began making them. Having something concrete to hold on to when the panic started was very helpful in keeping me grounded in the present. For our 25th anniversary my husband asked me to learn to scuba dive, and I did! Every positive step forward has helped me in my healing path.


  1. So glad I stopped-by from Writer's Edge this morning. Every now and then, it's comforting to find kindred spirits who step out and share those painful shadows of life.

  2. Thank you for sharing. I'm glad you are finding some peace.

  3. For me, therapy is excrutiatingly painful, but necessary. I agree with you that after being properly diagnosed, I was able to look myself in the mirror and say, "See? You're not crazy!" -Hugs to you!


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