How EMDR Therapy and Cutting Contact With My Mother Saved My Life
I felt like author Brené Brown.
I related to her on an emotional level because I know what it is like to have a mental breakdown like she did. A “spiritual awakening” as her own therapist called it, but I know it doesn’t feel like that at the time.
It had been over a year since my nervous breakdown and visit to the emergency room and I was doing much better. I had spent the previous 12 months in a desperate fight for my life. I have always functioned better during stress, which likely stems from my early childhood growing up with an alcoholic father. That also cemented my desire to look after the people I loved most in the world, which included my mom, brother and sister. I was always the helper. The fixer. The one people called. And I was up for the challenge until it all became too much.
A lot had happened in the years prior to my “spiritual awakening,” including the death of my greatest friend, my younger brother Brett, who lost his battle with substance use disorder and mental illness when he took his own life. He was only 39. It was a stressful time in all our lives, and I wish I could say it brought our family closer together, but just the opposite happened, leaving me estranged from my mother and sister. I had also written a memoir, a complicated love story between brother and sister, trying to fulfill a promise to my brother of telling our story in hopes of helping others. I honestly thought I was fine. As it turns out, I wasn’t.
In June of 2017, with no warning, I was instantly someone I didn’t recognize. At the time, all I understood was Friday I was me, and on Saturday I wasn’t. I would now struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, depression, confusion, memory loss, dizziness, ringing in my ears and crying spells for no apparent reason. My daily life felt like I was in a dream. That it was no longer me in my own body. In fact, it felt like I was dead, not alive, but floating on clouds. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t be alone. And what terrified me the most is I was experiencing a constant urge to take my life. But I wasn’t unhappy, not consciously anyway, and this scared me to death. For the first time in my whole life I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to fix it.
I took my mental health recovery seriously, doing everything and anything to feel better. Therapy. Books. Articles. Massages. No coffee. Changed diet. Exercise. More sleep. More books. More therapy. All of this with eventually antidepressant medication.
After 12 months, I was feeling better by comparison, the suicidal thoughts had subsided, but I was still not the me I used to be. By now, I had opened a business with my youngest son. It was a welcome relief, keeping my mind occupied, which was good for my health, both mentally and physically. But I was still experiencing bad days, ones filled with fear, panic, confusion and jumbled thoughts bouncing in my head like a ping-pong ball. I thought I would try a different approach, researching a new therapist who specialized in trauma.
I had been seeing my new therapist once, sometimes twice a week, for about a month and I really liked her. I remember so clearly during our sixth or seventh appointment, picking up a tissue out of the box, dabbing my eyes, and then explaining to her how I had an episode the week before at work that terrified me.
“I see now, I spent too much time on my computer last Wednesday and stood up too fast which made me dizzy. Instantly I felt a tingle in my arms, a jolt of lightening in my head and alarming thoughts I was having another nervous breakdown. I immediately went outside, sat on the concrete floor and allowed the sun to warm my face. I took some deep breaths until I realized I was in fact safe and not dying. But that small experience set off my day. About four hours later when it was time to wash the dishes at the end of the day, I stood in front of the sink and stared at the shiny stainless-steel taps. Left. Right. Left. Right. For at least three minutes, I just stared back and forth.” I took a deep breath.
“I couldn’t remember which tap was hot, which tap was cold. I am a grown-ass adult, 48 years old and I didn’t know which was the hot water.”
My therapist reached over and picked up her iPad. I kept talking about my feelings, and she seemed preoccupied as she focused on something she was reading. I was annoyed, although I kept talking. It seemed like I lost her attention.
She reached out her arms and handed me the iPad. “Jodee, I want you to take this survey. Answer the questions as honestly as you can.”
I began to read, “Choose: Always. Sometimes. Never.”
Have you witnessed or experienced a life-threatening event that causes you intense fear, panic and horror?
Do you have intrusions about an event in a negative way?
Do you experience constant worry about yourself and others?
Feeling distant or cut off from other people?
And about 10 to 15 similar questions.
“What? I couldn’t possibly have PTSD,” I thought.
“I would like to try something with you next session if you feel you are up to it. It is called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy,” she said.
I like to think of myself as knowledgeable and educated. I do not have a post-secondary education on addiction or mental health, but I have taken counseling seriously for more than 15 years, including many visits to doctors and therapists with my brother. I have read over 50 books both by clinical professionals and memoirs of people like me, yet I had never heard of EMDR therapy.
My therapist explained EMDR is a form of psychotherapy where I would be asked to recall some distressing images. That when our brain processes an event, it comes through the left side of the brain and it gets resolved and remembered on the right side. Or vice versa, that is my interpretation, whether precisely correct or not. She pointed to a small box sitting on the table next to the sofa. She believed I was a really good candidate where there would be a flashing light, left to right, left to right, back and forth. And the goal was to help me resolve that experience.
Of course, I went home intrigued and searched EMDR therapy.
The EDMR Institute explains EMDR as the use of:
“Eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation) during one part of the session. After the clinician has determined which memory to target first, they ask the client to hold different aspects of that event or thought in mind and to use their eyes to track the therapists hand, or in my case the flashing light, as it moves back and forth across the client’s field of vision. As this happens, for reasons believed by a Harvard researcher to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise, and the client begins to process the memory and disturbing feelings. In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is transformed on an emotional level. For instance, a rape victim shifts from feeling horror and self-disgust to holding the firm belief, ‘I survived it and I am strong.’ Unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR therapy result not so much from clinical interpretation, but from the client’s own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes. The net effect is that clients conclude EMDR therapy feeling empowered by the very experiences that once debased them. Their wounds have not just closed, they have transformed.”
Although the internet is a wonderful place for knowledge and education, it can also scare the crap out of you. I read a few stories of how EMDR therapy can bring up hidden trauma buried deep inside and open a Pandora’s box of wounds if you are not careful. That didn’t scare me, I was sure I had resolved my early childhood trauma long ago.
I sat down with my therapist at my next session, grabbed my trusted box of tissues, and after talking about how my week was, she asked me to once again relay to her what was happening in the days or weeks leading up to my breakdown. I have watched Brené Brown’s interview with Oprah Winfrey where they discuss Brené was warned to not read comments about herself, but she did anyway and how that impacted her own mental health. I know people can be mean and hurtful: the internet trolls, the ones who are brave and fearless behind a keyboard, which sadly, can include family. I was prepared for all of that. What I wasn’t prepared for was the relentless smear-campaign by my own mother. If someone like Brené Brown can be affected by the opinion of strangers, imagine if the hate, negativity and denial was coming from your own mother.
I am not pointing a judgmental finger nor shifting blame. I am 100% responsible and accountable for how writing and speaking about my life’s journey affects others. But I can do that. I can write. I can talk. The world is full of books, including memoirs, articles, television interviews with people sharing their unique stories and perspectives. What I am not responsible for is someone else’s reaction.
I was more in-depth this time, telling my therapist how I was feeling that Friday, the day before my breakdown. On a positive note, my sister and I had rekindled our relationship after many years of estrangement. We had each apologized and forgiven so many past mistakes. It meant a lot to me my sister acknowledged we lived different life experiences. I am, after all, eight years older and our mother does treat the two of us much differently. When she told our mom we were rebuilding our relationship, that she supported me and that she was proud of me, our mother disowned her.
I don’t want to get into the specific details of what my mom was doing in the days leading to my breakdown. What I will share is I ended my relationship with her four years prior. I tried to make it work, attempting to instill healthy boundaries in our relationship. But sadly, my mother isn’t capable of supporting boundaries. I could no longer listen to her reminding me often I abandoned my brother and didn’t save him from addiction. And so, I said goodbye.
What I own is I never wrote a story to make someone choose between me or my mother. Or to disparage or show hate toward anyone. To my mom, I had committed the ultimate betrayal. I talked about what went on behind closed doors in our family. I dared to speak out.
When I got to the part of the story where I ended up on the way to the emergency room feeling like a bomb had went off in my head, my therapist bent over and turned on the EMDR machine. She asked me to keep talking, take me through those moments and concentrate on the lights. Right, left, right, left. I began to cry hard. My arms were tingling, my body was on fire. I was fearful and panicked. I continued describing my feeling of that day in the hospital. I didn’t know what was happening. I was dying. I was embarrassing my family. I kept talking, focusing on the red light. Right, left, right, left. “I am so mad,” I said to myself. “I am so mad,” I repeated to myself.
I kept crying. Harder and harder. Breathing heavier and heavier. Tissues soaked with tears. “I am so mad,” I finally said to my therapist.
“I am not mad at my mother. I am mad at me for allowing her to get to me.” And without exaggeration, my breathing started to level off and I just sat there. Holy shit.
“Everything is always my fault,” I said aloud. And then sat there astonished to what I had just said.
I knew, at least on a conscious level, my mother made me responsible for everyone in my family and it finally took its toll.
In between therapy appointments, I was still focusing on my recovery every day, eating right, exercising and our new business was getting busier which was a great distraction. I was now seeing my therapist every two weeks and between visits, I bought a couple more books, which is how I was introduced to Brené Brown. I bought her books “Daring Greatly” and “The Gifts of Imperfection,” and I learned more about shame, vulnerability and courage. For me, this journey was never about me trying to figure out my mother, it was an attempt to figure out who I was. You hear so many times people say you can’t blame your parents, none of this is about blame, it is about why we behave in a certain way. And yes, whether we want to deny it or not, I believe it all begins with experiences in childhood.
My next therapy appointment wasn’t quite as enlightening. We talked at length about my guilt and shame surrounding allowing my young children to witness traumatic events with regard to my brother, and how I felt I should have protected them. We tried EMDR again, walked through some of the events and nothing. No tears. No panic. I have apologized to my now-adult sons. If I could rewind, I would do things differently. I would still have supported my brother and been by his side, but in a healthy way. And I would not put anyone’s needs above my husband’s or children’s, nor myself. All of this I have resolved. It is amazing what a simple, “I am sorry” can accomplish. Not only for you, but others as well. Acknowledging you hurt someone else, not denying their version or experience, is therapeutic to both sides. And I thank my sons for their understanding and forgiveness of my own personal failings.
The next week was an even bigger breakthrough with my therapist. She really wanted to know about my feelings surrounding my mother. It was such a random, non-important conversation as she bent over and turned on the lights. Bright red. Left, right, left, right, and we continued to talk. Even today, I have no explanation why or how this story began. It wasn’t a repressed memory, it wasn’t traumatic. It was such a non-important event in my life. I had never shared it, not even with my husband.
“I was 5 or 6 years old, before my parents divorced. I know it was the late spring or summer months as there was no snow. Almost 45 years later, and I can still envision the street downtown. My mother and I standing in front of the jewelry store window.” I began to cry. “She points to a charm, laying in a velvet box. Plain. Gold. Rectangle. Beside it, a square charm, two adults, one male, one female kneeling their backs touching also in gold.” For some unknown reason, I was now crying harder and harder. I continued to tell my therapist what I remembered. “’Can you tell your dad I want that charm for my birthday? my mom asked me, pointing to the simple rectangle. As always, I obliged.” I take a deep breath.
“I don’t recall my mother opening her birthday gift, where or when.” Lights continue to flash. I am concentrating. Left. Right. Left. Right. “My dad had mistakenly bought her the male with female charm. And my mom’s reaction? She showed it to me and was so angry, not at my dad, at me.” By now, I was crying hysterically, barely able to breathe. “She could have simply told my father the error and exchanged it, not a big deal, but instead I had once again done something so horribly wrong and she had to let me know it.”
I sat crying, gasping, blowing my nose and reflecting on everything I just said. “My mother wore that man and woman charm around her neck for a very long time,” I thought to myself.
“No matter how hard I try, I fail my mother. So, I try harder and harder to please her. But in the end, I always fail.” And I begin to calm. My tears subside. And I sat there in my therapist’s office in silence for a couple minutes until I really understood the scope of what just happened. Your subconscious is an incredible thing. I saw my therapist only once or twice after that session. I didn’t need to go anymore. As each month went by, I became emotionally stronger and stronger. No longer the fragile stranger I didn’t recognize.
This June it will be three years since my breakdown, and I do have some residual effects. I monitor how much time I spend on my computer. I need to make sure I get plenty of sleep. My ears ring and feel plugged regularly for no reason at all. I occasionally speak faster than my brain reacts, using the wrong word I am thinking and having to correct myself. I have memory loss. If I feel nauseous, like having the flu, it is a trigger for me as my brain still recalls the traumatic experience in the emergency room where I believed I was dying. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen often as I am a healthy person, but those days are filled with anxiety as I wrestle with the thoughts in my head (a PTSD reaction). And I continue every evening before bed to take my medication that helps with anxiety and depression. Since that last life-altering EMDR session, I have never experienced bouncing thoughts, confusion, crying spells or any suicidal thoughts whatsoever. None.
What I am left with is a new, enlightened, resilient, honest, healed, boundary-promoting, at peace, grateful me with a mental illness.
Sadly, my rekindled relationship with my sister was short-lived. She needs her relationship with our mother and all the conditions it comes with. I accept that as those are her life’s choices. I wish her a lifetime of happiness.
As I sit here today, like most of us, I have more time to think, being homebound due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system. I ask myself the question, “Will I keep reading the comments?” And the answer is a huge yes. The thing is, without reading the occasional negative response, I would be shutting myself off from the beautiful, kind, heart-opening ones. The ones that inspire me, learning of someone else’s journey and feeling a deep sense of togetherness.
There is nothing I could do in this life that would make everyone happy. But that’s not my job. I used to think it was. I need to be happy. Me. Starting from my inside.
My life didn’t turn out as I planned. I lost a brother to alcoholism, mental illness/suicide. I am permanently estranged from my mother and sister. And I had a nervous breakdown at 48 years old. But what I have learned, is you can’t experience all of life’s wonder and beauty if you don’t also experience heartache and pain. What I know about myself, is I believe from the depths of my soul there is nothing more important than family. But believing that doesn’t mean I, or anyone, must give up their life or their own needs for someone else. Not even if that someone else is their own mother.
Nothing ever would have worked to bring me back to health and happiness. Not therapy, EMDR, medication, books, interviews, diet, exercise, the love of my husband, my daughter-in-law, my friends or my children if I wasn’t willing to accept there were behaviors and relationships in my life that had to go. And I do not feel guilty for that.
I chose me. Forever. Always.
As the inspiring Brené Brown says, “I want to be courageous. I want to be in the arena. I want to be vulnerable. I want to be daring.”
Me too. Fucking daring.
Original photo by author