A childhood taboo on expressing emotions caused Michael to suffer from PTSD
A childhood growing up in a home where expressing emotion was taboo had a major impact on Michael’s mental health throughout his life. However, he didn’t know that was at the heart of his suffering or seek help until his early 40s, when it reached a crisis point:
“I was feeling low, getting very little sleep, and eventually found I had pretty much stopped experiencing emotional reactions to anything”, he says.
Michael tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but over a period of several years he found that the impact was only short term and didn’t get to the root of the problem.
He began to see another therapist, and after completing an assessment form, she was shocked to find that his scores were above the threshold for post-traumatic stress disorder. Michael was offered EMDR. He says:
“At that point I was willing to give anything a go. I was waking up at 2 or 3am and unable to go back to sleep; I had a lot of psychological disturbance, and a whole area of myself felt locked away. I couldn’t explain it. I just knew something was wrong in a major way, and it was sapping all my energy. I was going to work, coming home very tired and going straight to bed, there was no more to existence than that.”
Through EMDR Michael started being able to access painful memories. It emerged that his emotional reactions had been effectively shut down from a young age. His father had a temper and Michael and his brother were not allowed to express anything ‘negative’. Their mother was also emotionally distant.
Michael loved his grandfather who was a kind man, and what happened when he died was a defining moment. After two evenings of crying, Michael’s mother told him his father said he was not allowed to be unhappy anymore. “It was a terrible thing to do to a nine year old child”, says Michael.
“It was like there was another human being – a sad little boy – frozen inside me, which EMDR allowed out. I started having tantrums like a three year old! I was expressing my feelings for the first time, and then, as an adult, learning how to cope with them. I started to make connections. Rather than splitting off the emotional part of myself and denying it, I began to accept that side of me.”
As part of EMDR, the person needs to establish a ‘safe place’ they can return to in their minds. For Michael it was running through beautiful countryside with his dogs. Then the therapist starts from a traumatic memory, such as Michael being a little boy afraid in the dark, and gradually, staying with that memory during bilateral stimulation – moving the eyes from side to side or alternate tapping – the very scary painful thought changes. Michael says: “I went from intense fear to a sense that I’m not there anymore, I’m nearly 50, and I’m not dependent on my parents. EMDR allows you to reach an open state where you’re able to transform and heal.” Every now and then he would report back to the therapist, who guided him. Gradually they worked through and reprocessed each painful memory.
Michael has had a successful career in education and is a head teacher. He says:
“I used to be totally driven at work and became really stressed. There was a voice inside me saying ‘If you do well your parents will be pleased with you’. Since having EMDR I’m taking my working day more steadily and focusing on the important things. I no longer go home a total wreck; I sleep well and I’m able to take enjoyment in life. I’ve learned to accept that I will be triggered sometimes, and emotions will erupt. I might feel like a rejected three year old but as an adult I can recognise and manage those emotions in a healthy way.”
Calm and stability after years of trauma following an assault
Having a mother who was quite emotionally abusive meant that Lucy had struggled to assert herself from a young age, and often felt overpowered. She grew up in a small hamlet, and when she left home and moved to London as a student it was quite a shock for a young girl without much confidence or experience. Appallingly, whilst she was working at a summer job in the capital a male colleague took advantage of her vulnerability.
Lucy says: “I had no idea I was being sexually harassed, and this led up to a serious assault. If it had happened when I was older with more life-experience I may have realised, but I was missing certain cues; I didn’t recognise a dangerous person.”
Following a police investigation and a court case, Lucy developed symptoms which were akin to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), although this was not recognised at the time. She suffered a mental break-down, made three suicide attempts and was hospitalised.
The serious side effects carried on for many years afterwards, during which she had counselling specifically for people who had experienced sexual assault or rape; psychotherapy in a private practice; and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) on the NHS. She only heard about EMDR therapy by chance through a friend taking a psychology course.
By this time Lucy was 32 years old and feeling she may never escape the past but decided to give EMDR a try. She says: “I was a bit shocked when I looked into it. It seemed odd to do rapid eye movements, but the more I read, the more it seemed to be directly targeting the automated responses ingrained in the body. Other therapies I had tried looked at thought patterns, but they didn’t help on a deeper level. I was still having intrusive thoughts and flashbacks. I wasn’t eating properly, I lost sleep, I had psychotic episodes, and my anxiety was triggered by certain men.”
After scoring very highly on a questionnaire to rate the symptoms of PTSD she was offered a time limited number of sessions with an EMDR therapist on the NHS. Lucy says: “It helped me that EMDR is a very visual therapy. I could picture things rather than talk about the details, and as such had more sense of control. I was taught how to return to a safe place in my mind – for me it was a trip to the mountains of Armenia – when the memories got too much. It’s a phenomenal therapy, very quick, and hits the spot other avenues and other therapies don’t quite reach. There is something at play in the body and the mind together. EMDR suddenly got rid of so many nightmares and memories.”
She had a lot of trauma to process; as well as the sexual assault, there were issues in her childhood, so it wasn’t possible to cover everything in six therapy sessions. A few months later she was able to secure a further 10 sessions with another EMDR therapist.
Lucy is now living a stable life, working at a university providing pastoral and learning support to students. A friend remarked on how calmly she came across after having EMDR.
Lucy says: “I can now talk about the trauma as if it’s a cup of tea. For so many years I had all these thoughts and reminders and mental exhaustion – I didn’t quite realise the effects until I looked back after having EMDR. It has literally erased all of those bad memories.”
As a young mother in the 1980’s, Anne suffered a double tragedy when she lost two babies to cot death, an extremely rare occurrence. She went on to have two more children, and some-how managed to cope with the terrible loss.
However, many years later, the trauma she’d experienced was brought to the fore when her first grandchild was born. Anne found that she was very anxious about the baby’s welfare. “I had a strong sense of her fragility and wondered if she could survive,” she says. “I kept checking on her and saying: ‘do you think she is alright?’: I didn’t want her to go to sleep. It was a powerful feeling which took me right back in time.”
Anne realised that she was contributing to her daughter’s own anxieties as a new mother and decided to seek professional help from an experienced EMDR therapist friend.
“I was dealing with primal fears that talking therapy probably couldn’t reach,” says Anne. “It seems EMDR goes into the non-conscious workings of the brain and is able to confront trauma swiftly and effectively. The therapist needs to be very skilled and intuitive. Helping the person establish and return to a ‘safe place’ in their mind and making sure they are ready to re-imagine and process their trauma safely requires a huge degree of creativity.”
It took just four sessions for Anne to experience a change in her feelings: “In the final one I didn’t need to go back over my fears, they were no longer disturbing to me. Instead, we focussed on positive thoughts and plans for the future.”
Not long afterwards she became a grandmother for a second time when her older daughter had a baby. With the first grandchild Anne waited to be asked to visit, but with the second she felt able to go straight over and be supportive from the very beginning. Her whole attitude to what she can offer as a grandparent has been transformed. “It feels completely different, just wonderful, and I want to be the best granny there could be,” she says.
As well as being able to relax and enjoy being a hands-on grandmother, Anne’s experience in relation to other parents has also changed. “Before I didn’t want to be too open with people who had babies,” she says. “I had had a conscious feeling I had better not go there as it might be bad for them or upsetting. Now I’m able to accept what happened is just how it was. I can send new-born presents, whereas I used only to do so for the first birthday when perhaps subconsciously I felt the baby was out of danger. In some way it felt like a hidden horror but having EMDR has helped
transform that to being able to welcome new lives and celebrate them as they should be.”
Whilst on an American exchange programme, theatre student Luke experienced a terrifying lockdown at the university when a suspected armed intruder arrived on the campus.
“We were in the middle of Shakespeare class on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon when an announcement came through the speakers like Big Brother, warning us that a potentially armed suspect was on campus,” says Luke, “so the lights were turned off, the windows closed with the blinds down, and all the doors bolted together. I was sat at the front on my own in the dark feeling very apprehensive.”
The teacher left the room to try and find out whether the building they were in, on what was a large campus, was under threat. Luke says: “American students are brought up to expect such warnings since their school days but they were becoming frightened whilst she was gone, and that’s when it hit me that this was real and we could be in danger.” He was overwhelmed with fear, not being able to see or hear anything, not knowing whether the intruder was close by or whether they were surrounded by armed police.
Fortunately, they were given the all clear, but after that incident things really got worse for Luke. He was already feeling under pressure with a heavy workload and emotional difficulties. He saw a counsellor who suggested he had situational environmental depression, but when the exchange ended and he returned to the UK things didn’t improve. He kept waking in the middle of the night, reliving the lockdown and other bad experiences he’d been through.
Luke never considered he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, saying “I always thought it was war veterans or some other kind of person who gets it.” He was diagnosed by the counselling service at his university, and a medical friend of his mother suggested Luke try EMDR.
The therpist gave him a pulsing device to hold in each hand – these vibrate alternately and can be used instead of eye movements to provide the bilateral stimulation part of EMDR therapy. Luke closed his eyes and pictured images of the lockdown and other incidents which had distressed him. Gradually, memories which at first took a whole hour to process would only take him ten minutes to work through, as their emotional charge was greatly reduced.
“At first, I just couldn’t believe I would be able to think about events in a different way or talk about them without becoming extremely upset,” says Luke, “but now I can look back at that difficult chapter in my life without feeling traumatised, and go to places and feel safe.”
Luke was able to continue at university during the therapy, gaining a first class honours degree as well as a special academic achievement award for his year group of which he is immensely proud. He even found the confidence to get back in touch with his directing mentor in the US and has now joined her theatre company showcasing new work on Zoom.
Luke says: “Before I had EMDR I just wanted to block everything out. Now I’ve got a fantastic opportunity. There will be lots of people experiencing trauma, and I want to tell them that with help it really is possible to get past the worst experiences and get on with your life.”
Trina had been pushing the self-destruct button for most of her life. As a teenager she went out drinking late. She got married when she was just 19. But after she had her first baby, the problems got much bigger.
Her mental health took a nosedive. She developed an eating disorder which put her in hospital, and then spent the next 15 years in and out of mental health services.
She self-harmed and made suicide attempts. Trina spent a whole year on a psychiatric ward at her lowest point. It was when she was hospitalised for the second time that Trina had the courage to tell somebody what had happened to her as a child. She had been sexually abused by a family member from the age of four until she was nine years old. All of her self-destructive behaviour was a way of trying to cope with the vivid, terrifying memories.
Looking back, it’s clear that Trina was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She had frequent flashbacks. Certain smells would trigger disturbing memories. She struggled to spend time with her brother’s daughter who looked a lot like Trina as a child. “I found it hard to be with my niece,” she says. “I couldn’t even look at old pictures of myself as a child as it brought it all back.”
Trina was diagnosed with several other disorders: anorexia, bulimia and borderline personality disorder. She went through lots of types of therapy over the years, including drama therapy, various psychotherapies, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) but unfortunately not the type that is specific to treating PTSD. Even when she was spending five days a week in therapy, none of these techniques really helped Trina – she would improve for a while and then relapse over and over again.
Around 2011, the family moved to Camarthenshire, Wales, and Trina decided to go and ask for help from her new GP. She was put in touch with psychologist Debbie Jeffries. For the first time, Trina was given a definitive diagnosis of PTSD, and Debbie suggested trying EMDR.
“I was really sceptical to start with,” says Trina, “but EMDR was amazing, and turned my life on its head.” She spent just under a year in EMDR treatment with Debbie. They worked through every single disturbing memory until their power and vividness faded, and Trina says her whole life was transformed.
After being treated for PTSD with EMDR, Trina’s eating disorders, self-harm, and all her other self-destructive behaviour finally stopped. She can now look at photo albums from her childhood, and even give her niece a big hug.
Inspired to make something positive out of her experiences, Trina graduated with a first class honours degree in mental health nursing in 2016, and now works as a mental health nurse in a nursing home for the elderly. She says, “I want to be one of those nurses who can understand.”
In the summer of 2000, Jane’s 21-year-old daughter Lucie was murdered in a horrible case that made headline news around the world. While working in Tokyo, she was raped, murdered and her body was dismembered.
This would have been too much for any parent to cope with, but Jane felt like she was in a waking nightmare. Her mind created awful images of what she imagined to have happened, and these went around and around in her head constantly for more than three years. She barely slept, and certain triggers, like the sound of a chainsaw, or a child who looked a bit like Lucie, would cause the images to become overpowering.
Jane had some counselling sessions but they didn’t stop what was going on. She felt she wasn’t moving through a grieving process at all but was trapped in trauma.
Jane’s son also sought professional help to come to terms with what had happened, and it was his psychiatrist who told Jane about EMDR and suggested it might help her.
When Jane saw her EMDR therapist for the first time, he asked her what she thought would make her feel better – Jane knew she just wanted to feel that Lucie was safe now. Jane had four EMDR sessions, but only had to tell her therapist what had happened in the first one. During the following three sessions she focused on the phrase “she’s safe” while thinking about what happened and following the therapist’s fingers back and forth.
That feeling of safety became ingrained. When she thought about Lucie and started to be bombarded by frightening images, Jane now heard a voice saying, “she’s safe”, and the images instantly stopped. The pictures quickly started to come into Jane’s head less frequently and with less emotional power. Jane was able to think about Lucie and feel sad rather than completely traumatised and to progress through the grieving process.
Thanks to EMDR, Jane could focus better on her life. She was able to visit Japan and stand up in court at the trial of Lucie’s killer and give a victim impact statement as he sat opposite her.
Today, when she sees a girl who looks like her daughter or has to think about what happened, Jane still hears the voice telling her, “she’s safe”. “Quite simply, EMDR gave me my life back,” she says.
Andrew*, aged 4
Around the age of two, Andrew began to behave in a violent way. He would hit out at his parents and other children at his nursery. The problem got worse until, aged four, he couldn’t be trusted around babies and toddlers and even attacked his dad’s cousin.
“I couldn’t understand what was going on,” says his mum Karen*. Some of her friends hurtfully blamed his behaviour on poor parenting, but Andrew couldn’t have come from a more stable family background. Karen started to worry about the future. “How would I defend myself from his attacks when he grew into a teenager?”
At dinner one evening, a family friend who was an educational therapist asked whether Andrew had been through a traumatic event at any point in his life. “What about an operation?” she asked. This rang a bell with Karen. “She was spot on – Andrew had actually had an operation shortly before his behaviour changed,” she says. When he was just two, he stuffed a tissue up his nose which had to be removed under anaesthetic. He had been given gas and the experience was very upsetting – the mask had to be held forcibly over his face and his arms were pinned down to stop him pulling it off.
Karen’s therapist friend suggested giving Andrew some EMDR therapy, explaining that it has been found to be very effective for children as well as adults – even children who are too young to be able to describe what happened to them.
Karen was a bit sceptical but decided to give it a shot. During the therapy session, Andrew sat on Karen’s lap while she told the story of what had happened to him in hospital. Meanwhile, the therapist gently tapped Andrew on each shoulder. As Andrew heard the story he became very upset, ran away and hid under the kitchen table.
Later, when he had calmed down, he was asked to make a drawing of himself having the operation, and then scrub it out in black pen from left to right. The therapist also produced a story in simple language affirming all the positive things about Andrew’s life, referring to the operation and describing it as something confusing that happened when he was two. The story describes the behaviour it caused, and how he doesn’t need to do that anymore because he’s safe now.
The change in Andrew’s behaviour after his first EMDR session was instant. He stopped lashing out, and he was much calmer at nursery and school. “He didn’t start fights anymore,” Karen says, “and if there was an argument he would take himself off and calm down. It was a really dramatic improvement.”
Andrew is now 12, and Karen says the change has been permanent. “He’s the sweetest child and won’t lift a finger against anyone.”
* Andrew’s and Karen’s names have been changed