Monday, 18 February 2013

Trauma Therapy: Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR)

If you struggle with painful memories from a past trauma, and are considering what types of therapy might be most useful, let me be your guinea pig today and tell you about Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR).

In a nutshell, EMDR basically aims to help you reprocess memories of past traumatic events that your brain has failed to properly process. 

The hippocampus is an organ in the brain that deals with storing emotional memory.  When a traumatic experience happens to a person, the logic and reasoning centres of their brain are overwhelmed, so the hippocampus fails to communicate with them effectively to process the memory of that event.  

This can result in a person experiencing severe distress when remembering this trauma, and sometimes finding they relive the experience as though it were occurring in the present, because the memory has not been properly stored by the brain as a (sometimes very distant) past event.

The purpose of EMDR is to reprocess traumatic memories by manually involving both the emotion side of the brain and the logic side of the brain, given that they previously may not have been working together, to properly place that memory in the past.

During EMDR, I was guided to remember the traumatic memories that I continue to find distressing by bringing into conscious awareness the memories themselves, as well as the thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations that come with them.  

This means that if you are considering EMDR, you need to be willing to experience reliving a distressing memory through recalling it in detail.  Your therapist should help you to come up with a safe place to use if you need it.

This is quickly followed by having to follow the moving fingers of the therapist rapidly for a brief period of around 30 seconds.  And I mean, RAPIDLY.  It was actually a little bit hard to keep up at times!

It is possible for this therapy to be conducted using other external prompts, like sound or touch, but prompted eye movement is usually the most common and most accessible for the majority of patients.

The process produces a distinctive and naturally occurring pattern of electrical activity in the brain, which causes the stored trauma memory to quickly change.

During EMDR the therapist is not meant to talk or offer suggestions.  I was not asked to change any aspect of the memory, but just to notice the experience.  

At the end of each set of eye movements I was asked to report how I was feeling.  I found the emotional and bodily sensations reduced in intensity quite consistently during the whole process.  Sometimes the physical symptoms would change or come back a little bit, but then further "rounds" of eye movement helped those feelings subside again.

The next step is to associate a more useful thought to the now more distant trauma memory.  The EMDR process is complete when the new perspective feels true even when the old memory is recalled.  For me, I worked on accepting ideas that "I did the best I could" and that "I was only a child" to help me experience these memories in a less distressing way, as previously I had been experiencing strong feelings of shame, self-blame and guilt.

It's apparently common to feel tired after an EMDR session, and this was definitely true for me.  I recommend scheduling in time for rest or something soothing afterward.

Whilst EMDR sounds simple (and let's be honest, a little bit like hocus pocus!) there are many important procedural steps for the therapist to follow.  It actually takes over 50 hours of training and supervision to fully train an EMDR therapist.

EMDR can be effective whether it is conducted once or over a series of sessions, depending on the patient's needs.  I am currently approaching my fourth session.

Overall, I can say I do recommend it as being very useful.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Falling Apart & Beginning Again: Jess' Story

Today I've decided to share a bit about my story.  

You may find it interesting or entirely purposeless :) either of which is okay, but I thought it might be useful for giving you an idea of context when reading my blog. 

I'll start when adulthood sort of did...  The first two years out of high school weren't that exciting for me.  I finished school at 16, when the usual age for graduating high school in Australia is around 18, because I was skipped a grade after being told I had a high IQ.  I have my doubts about this!

Aside from a retail job and a hospitality job during school, my first "real" job as an adult was a youth worker position.  This 25 hour per week job had very little support, and I did it while I tried to simultaneously pull off a full-time study workload at University.  I ended up just doing a second-rate job of both tasks and didn't find much fulfillment.  

I also enjoyed a little bit of travel and had a couple of healthy relationships.  I sometimes got the sads, which affected one exam period at worst, but life was alright.

Then at eighteen I entered an industry in which I would spend the next six years of my life and where I would meet some of the best and worst people I've ever known.  I worked full-time in very intense and stressful environments during which I experienced upwards of half a dozen instances of workplace bullying.  (Of course, I am now better able to acknowledge my role in these situations, and no doubt those people were influenced by their own distress in our ridiculously high-pressured industry, but it truly was horrible for me and some people were just jerks... Perhaps a topic for a future post!)  

I also spent most of these years in and out of an extremely traumatic relationship with someone who was twice my age and newly divorced.  They and their ex-wife worked in the same industry as me.  Everyone knew and had to work with each other despite hatred and tension.  It was unpleasant, to say the least.

Throughout these years there was not a single day that my work tasks were limited to working hours.  There was a constant expectation to attend events and socialise with colleagues out-of-hours, which was made all the more unpleasant by the goings-on of my emotional life.  And socially it wasn't that great either - there were complex networks of who liked who, who hated who, and who was undermining who just for the heck of it.  Even my recreational reading time needed to include media and literature relating to work.  I was passionate about the cause and willing to work hard, but geez!  Years of this stuff wears you down.  On top of this, all of the actions and choices in your personal life reflected directly on your career. 

I should also point out that there were some great aspects to the jobs I worked in and that I was very privileged to have had some of the support and opportunities I did.  In amongst the hard times there were some people who were great to me and there was some very cool stuff I loved doing.  I really believed, and still do believe, in the cause behind my work, and I wouldn't change that for the world.

But it was still killing me.  So, why didn't I change anything?  Why did I stay?  And why did I lock myself into a lifestyle that was clearly making me unhappy?

I'm not one of those people who is particularly wrapped up in money or appearances.  I never pay for designer labels and I'd seriously rather shop at K-Mart.  But I locked myself into a cycle of expectations where I had to keep earning money and then keep earning more.  Once you sign a rental lease, you pay that for a year.  Once you've rented one place, you want to rent a nicer one.  Once you have your own place, you pay bills.  And once you are sitting alone in your own place with all bills paid, you eventually get bored or lonely, so you go out with friends or do some activity to keep your mood up.  (Especially when you're always feeling the blues!)  

I also did all this because I just thought I had to, because it was what adults did.  Adults have their own place, buy furniture and groceries, drive their car, go to dinners, work their jobs, get promoted, get new jobs... meanwhile, my mental health kept deteriorating.  I couldn't understand why I was feeling worse and worse despite doing all the "right" things with my life.

I really was trying hard to improve things for myself.  I would complete an extra university subject or make a new friend or try to find hobbies and projects I could volunteer in.  There were even a couple more overseas trips with family and friends.  But my condition kept going downhill.  I began to dream about just throwing it all in and running away to join the circus.  As time wore on, I dreamt about doing worse things.

And do worse things I would!  Sometimes I was just sad, and I would fill my time with sleep or food to escape.  Sometimes the emotions were stronger.  Emergency rooms and ambulance rides became a nauseating blur.  So many times I fought off the panic of oncoming pain with drugs and alcohol.  If I really couldn't even bear the minutes it would take for those to kick in, I would resort to self-harming - cutting, scratching, burning, hitting.

I've poured boiling water on myself.  I've torn my flesh off in chunks.  I've smashed my forehead onto cement walls.  I know that there are others who have no doubt experienced worse than me, but I can tell you that within myself I went over some cliffs.  Whatever I could do to fight off the surge of emotional pain that was coming, I would do it.  And sometimes the emotions were just a never-ending dull ache that made me choose not to put my seat-belt on when I was driving or be pretty careless about looking before I crossed roads.  I would imagine my funeral or the actual process of dying just to soothe myself a bit that there was an ending available.  In general, it was safe to say I spent upwards of 80% of my life wishing not just for death but for respite from my feelings.


By the time 2012 rolled around and my family had caught on to all of this, I found myself hospitalised and on four different psychiatric medications.  Something had to give.  Eventually, it all did.  The ridiculously dysfunctional relationship finally began to cave in for good.  (Though, he only ever truly left me alone when he found a new half-his-age partner.  Make of that what you will.)  I couldn't handle being bullied at work each day by my line manager and gave my notice of resignation.  I opted not to renew my lease, sold my furniture instead, and told everyone I was leaving to go travelling overseas.  I didn't know what I was going to do, but I just had to get away.

I was alone in Amsterdam when the nervous breakdown hit.  Hard.  I ditched the rest of my travel plans and came home to a serious psychiatric hospital stay and more medication and even more therapy.

I'd quit my job and relationship.  All my things were sold or packed up.  I had almost no friends left.  (My social circle had become entirely full of work relationships and pretty much no one was interested in me once I quit my job - like I said, they weren't the nicest of people.) 

It feels like a doomed airplane was careening and breaking apart through storm after storm for so many years, as I desperately taped its wings together and pumped the fuel lines and wrestled the yoke, like some maniacal pilot... when what I really needed was for the whole mess to finally plummet into the sea.  Now I'm sitting on a life raft, alone, at last able to tend to my wounds, and rest.  I'm bobbing along in this deafeningly quiet stillness.  You get the metaphor.  It's over.

And it's a new year, I've had a break and a lot of treatment, and I'm officially "stable" according to three doctors.  So does this mean I'm almost Recovered?  HAHAHA!  No, wow, not even remotely close.  What I am is (finally) Beginning to Recover. 

Or, more accurately, I will be in a process of "Returning to Work/Study" for some years to come - which is an Australian concept of only having one job or course of study at a time, and only doing this on reduced duties, while incrementally returning to a full-time capacity, under the supervision of treating doctors.  This means I can do things, but they will need to be balanced with medication and therapy for a long time.

I've chosen to move to a bigger city and go back to University.  I'd like to study so that I can enter a new industry, and because I truly enjoy it.  I also think a new city is going to give me the space I need from old friends and old habits.  I'm still keeping some of the support with me though, as my best friend and her lovely sister are also moving at the same time.  (Plus the city is super cool and much bigger than my boring old home town.)  My family have even agreed to help me out with financial support and ensure that I'm returning home very frequently for stability.  This all fits in with my doctors' plans, so it's looking good.

In finishing my story, here are some lessons I have taken from my years of misspent youth which I implore you to consider lest you ever find yourself in the same place I was in...

A job is a huge part of your life, and any problems at work should be taken seriously.  How you are treated and whether you have a healthy work-life balance are especially important.  Report instances of bullying or harassment.  Talk to your boss about fair expectations from you as an employee.  And if you just don't enjoy your job, keep looking around for others until you find a better fit.

Try not to get stuck in one mindset and never cut off your own options.  All the cliches are true, the world truly is full of limitless possibilities and if you want to wake up tomorrow and do something completely different, DO IT.  

Screw the norm.  You don't need a big house, car, or impressive-sounding job, to be truly happy.  In fact, you can have all these things and be very unhappy.  Believe me!  What really matters is family, friends, and doing what you love.  The rest is negotiable.

Never sell yourself short because you really do deserve every good thing in life.  You deserve happiness.  You deserve a vocation that you love.  You deserve happy and healthy relationships.  Even if you have some crazy dream job or lofty ambition, give it a go!  You'll never regret the immense love and respect you show for yourself when you seek to achieve your goals.

If I could speak to my seventeen year old self, they are the things I would tell her.  Instead I have written a long and boring blog post to you!  If you have managed to read it, please know I am sending you a genuine and heartfelt thank you for doing so. 

P.S.  Of course, I should say that my mental illness likely required a genetic predisposition and would have involved contributions from other traumas in my life.  But, would I have ever reached such a severe point of crisis had I spent those years in a normal workplace and normal relationship where I was not prevented from living a healthy life?  No.  Never.  (Again, I'm an adult, and I am responsible for my choices.  But seriously, I encountered some messed up people and was put in some extremely distressing situations.  TO THE MAX.  If I ever write a book it'll be titled "Crap After Crap TO THE MAX" and no one should read it.)

P.P.S.  If I can somehow keep myself intact despite many attempts to achieve the opposite, I truly believe that other people going through mental health challenges can get there too.