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.”