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How Therapy Helps Me Find the ‘Hidden Gems’ in My Trauma Memories

I was 13 when I experienced a psychotic break, which landed me in a pediatric psychiatric hospital for three weeks. My breakdown was the result of enduring at least 10 years of sibling sexual abuse. I’d finally had enough and I could no longer allow my sister to abuse me. However, when the sexual abuse stopped, my sister turned to emotional and physical torture. She started to bully me at school and I really began struggling. School was my safe zone. It was the only place where I could forget about my home life. Through learning about other countries, I could escape; I imagined traveling to Egypt, Rome and Greece.

It’s hard work for me to recall many events in my life with sharp detail. My memories come back to me in short hazy clips, like trying to watch a movie through a kaleidoscope. At times, certain smells or familiar sounds can catch me off guard and hurl me into a memory. This is are often accompanied by physical sensations. For example, seemingly out of nowhere, I’ll get a strong urge to vomit or run screaming through a crowd. My body remembers the trauma even when my mind chooses not to. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a bitch.

With the help of my amazing therapist and years of hard work, I’m able to look past the trauma and abuse and put away the painful memories. I have learned it is possible to change the brain’s autopilot narrative; therapy can change the neural pathways in the brain. From the safety of my therapist’s office, I am able to go back in time, into those moments and “install” important tools and skills that were missed because my brain was protecting me from trauma. I’m learning to search for the hidden gems tucked away in my memories. These gems are the moments of peace and love I experienced during all the chaos and pain. These gems are my treasures; they are payment for enduring years of pain. As I sift through my childhood to put the pieces of me back together, I hunt for these treasures and they fill me with the strength I need to continue.

I lie here on this soft purple couch in my therapist’s office. The alternating vibrations and sounds from the eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) machine take me back in time. I am 13 again, I just had a psychotic break and hospitalized for three weeks, only this time I’m looking for hidden treasure…

I’m restless and can’t sit still on the hard floor of fourth-period gym. There’s an electric hum inside my brain and a throbbing sensation behind my eyes. I’m overwhelmed by the sickening scent of body odor, dirty socks and rubber. The smells make me irritable and more restless. The electric hum in my brain morphs into a loud buzzing; my head is pulsating. These stupid gym shorts are rubbing against my skin wrong and the too-big t-shirt feels heavy on my chest. It’s becoming harder to take a full breath, I need to leave. A stuffy breeze blows through the gym and I feel ants scurry up and down my spine. I can feel my skin crawl, I shudder and can’t resist the urge to brush the ants away. I hear whispers and I look around, but it’s no one. My eyes dart around the gym; they’re all looking at me. My agitation increases and I can hear my eyes blink and there’s more whispering. I feel the ants crawling all over my body. I snap. Streaks of blood run down my arms as I dig in with my fingernails, trying to scratch the invisible ants off. I can’t stop. I need to get the ants off me.

I squirm on my therapist’s couch. We slow down and breathe. She reminds me I am safe, I am an adult, I have control and can stop at any time. Deep breath in and a slow exhale; I’m ready to continue.

I wake in an unfamiliar room with no sense of what day or time it is. My head is heavy and I could be dreaming, but it’s hard to know for sure. The overhead fluorescent light reflects the blinding white of everything and my eyes have trouble adjusting; the room is blurry. I attempt to sit up but find my hands restrained to the sides of the bed and I’m wearing a hospital gown instead of my clothes. I look around and see no windows except for a tiny one toward the top of the door. This isn’t like other hospital rooms I’ve been in. My mouth is thick and dry and I feel panic start to set in. I close my eyes and try to wake up again, but the room is the same. This is not a nightmare.

Breathe, don’t forget to breathe. I take a deep breath in and a slow exhale. You are safe, you are in control. There is no danger here. I have complete trust in my therapist. Keep going.

The doctor gives me a shot in my butt and the room swirls into darkness. I try to lift my head in protest, but it’s too hard. Waves of dizziness wash over me and a sick metallic taste in my mouth feels like cement in my belly. The two nurses assisting the doctor are instructed to undo the restraints and help me out of “the quiet room.” They shuffle me down the hall to my room, where I’m put to bed. Sleep crashes over me like sudden darkness; it takes my consciousness and leaves only restless dreams that swallow up my world. I slept until the next morning, but it could have been the next week.

I’m safe. I’m safe. I’m safe.

My roommate Tomika was big for her age and could be intimidating, especially when her temper flared, but her smile was warm and she took good care of me. Her smooth skin was beautiful and dark, and her almond-scented hair was kept in intricately woven braids. I felt tiny next to Tomika and found her enormity to be comforting. She helped me cope and kept me safe from the really violent kids.

Take slow, deep breaths. I look for the gems hidden in this dark place.

The hospital was Tomika’s second home. She knew the rules and the routine of our locked unit and she knew how to “work” the night staff. Tomika and the girl in the room next door found a way to pass notes and small items through a vent in our shared wall. Apparently, Tomika wasn’t allowed to have her toothbrush or comb without supervision. We had to earn our belongings back with our behavior. Good behavior could earn points, the points added up and you could “buy” your things back. I wanted the security of my pants back, I wanted warm socks, and most of all I wanted out of the flimsy hospital gown. I followed Tomika’s advise and quickly learned how to get by while in the hospital.

My weeks in the hospital blend together and I eventually earned back my clothes — minus strings, belts or anything that could assist in causing harm. When we were stuck in our rooms, I would sit in Tomika’s lap while she would braid my hair and tell me stories. My brain, thick like mud from antipsychotics, made everything move in slow motion, as if the world was too heavy to run at normal speed. Tomika’s deep voice was soothing and cozy like warm milk and combined with the drugs, drowsiness set in and I would drift off into dreamless sleep. Here in this moment with Tomika, I was safe, I was loved and I was cared for — this is my gem.

Photo by Josh Boot on Unsplash