Thursday, May 6, 2010

EMDR and Trauma therapy

Good morning, gentle readers. :)

I am at a loss for words (never thought I'd see the day!) but as you can tell I'm going to do my best to put some out there anyway. I wanted to be transparent about what life was really like for this Christian home schooling family at the very least. I think the church can only benefit from more honesty.

I wrote earlier about what I was feeling/thinking/experiencing when my husband begins to engage in what I have identified as obsessive/compulsive passive aggressive personality disorder. Because it is so highly personal, and does not only involve me, I take these posts down after a few days. I have put them all back up today for research sake, but I will take them down again Friday, fyi.

I also told you, my internet friends, that we each had appointments with a counselor recently. And so I should fill you in, no?

Many good things are coming out of this so far. First of all, the counselor who is trained in EMDR techniques, was able to explain what happens in the brain when a persona experiences trauma, and how that continues to affect a person over the rest of their lifetime unless they submit to trained intervention.

So as best as I understood her, I will share it with you. When a person experiences a great emotional shock (war, abandonment, violence, etc.) that experience releases a flood of stress hormones at the time. The presence of these hormones in the brain affects what part of the brain is accessed by the person experiencing the trauma.

Traumas get stored in the back of the brain, in a place where what we might call instinct is triggered. This means that a strong overwhelming feeling of danger will accompany the storage of this event in the brain, and that when something stirs up this memory, it will activate more as an instinctual fight/flight/freeze response to a feeling of being in the actual situation again, and not as a conscious memory.

Conscious memory and thought are activated in the frontal cortex. This is the biology we access when we make conscious decisions and recall non-threatening memories, like we access our lungs when we sing.

EMDR is a therapy used with first responders, war veterans, victims of violence, etc. very successfully. Using what neurologist know about brain activity, it is possible to actually change where the painful memory is accessed in the brain, moving it from a place of instinctually reliving the sights/sounds/feelings to the frontal cortex where it can be processed objectively and consciously.

I know all about PTSD from certain traumas I experienced in my early years, but the only treatment I knew about was talking about the trauma. This meant re-living the trauma, so to speak, in a safe environment where it could be reprocessed in the logical part of the brain and put in the framework of the present. This is only somewhat helpful. It helps a person to identify what sights/sounds/smells trigger these experiential memories of trauma. It has enabled me to rationalize the feelings of helplessness and panic I experience when I am around someone yelling or screaming, but it doesn't stop those feelings from recurring when I am in around what is called a trigger (yelling, for example).

I recognized that for myself, the escalation of the abuse from my husband was adding to my childhood trauma PTSD and that even though his incidents of PAPD are less severe now than they have been, my reactions (unbidden and unwelcome, I assure you!) were getting more overwhelming to me. EMDR looks like it can help me do more than just rationalize the panic and fear, it can eliminate those feelings altogether!

This makes me very happy.

But what makes me hopeful, is that the therapist is convinced it can help my husband too. And he is willing and eager to get started as soon as he can. She is a compassionate and kind person, with an interest in anthropology. She is empathetic to his experiences among the Indians, as well as recognizing that being sent 1200 miles away to the care of disinterested overworked strangers was a serious emotional trauma.

Another way that talking with the therapist has helped me tremendously is in understanding what exactly is happening when my husband slips into PAPD mode. Yes, he is trying to chase me on the basketball court to relieve his anger, but IT IS NOT A CONSCIOUS DECISION ON HIS PART. He is reacting out of the trauma center of his brain- rational, conscious thought is not even possible at that time.

So now, when I withdraw, as I must in such a circumstance, I will not be thinking to myself that I am not safe with him because he is being abusive. I will not be wondering if he will ever change. I will be thinking "at the moment it is not safe to be around him because he is reacting out of the trauma center of his brain, in fact it would be detrimental to try to talk to him right now.

That is a huge difference.

Now I understand and believe him when he says, after an abusive episode, that he didn't mean the things he said. He admitted that often he doesn't even remember what happened! The events are fuzzy in his head, but rather than admit that it was easier for him to say that I was making things up. That took a lot of courage to admit. I highly respect him for that.

Also, knowing that shame and guilt are such a source of pain for him, my therapist is helping me to find more neutral ways of communicating that there is a problem happening. His precious young heart is so full of shame and guilt that even rationally pointing out what is happening feels to him like an accusation. In the past, I would not have had much sympathy for that, but not that I see how much pain he has been hiding all these years, I am motivated to put on the kid gloves out of love.

The therapist is also helping me find ways to nurture myself and keep a clear head if/when I find myself interacting with my husband while he is the grip of a PTSD/PAPD situation. This is extremely important and very worthwhile to know.

Of course there is still much work ahead to be accomplished. Simply being able to identify the problem and map out a plan for dealing with it is such a relief, though. I am really hopeful for us.

For those of you interested enough in PAPD to shell out $90, here is the link to it on Amazon:Passive-Aggression: A Guide for the Therapist, the Patient and the Victim.

Most of what causes a person to develop this way of dealing with anger- shame (being taught anger is wrong-a sin), guilt (you experience the emotion anyway because you are human), rejection (up to and including punishment for being human), fear (because of the punishment, which can even be violent or with strong emotion) and confusion (a person raised this way really has no idea how to experience emotions in a healthy way) is present in rigidly religious households. (One does not have to be religious to parent in such a way that your children become passive-aggressive, but it is the most common motivation for a person to parent in this manner.) If you have married a fundamentalist man from any branch of Christianity or other religion, he may have been parented to become passive-aggressive.

For those of you interested in EMDR, here is a link the professional training site: EMDR Institute, Inc.

Once my husband has completed his course of EMDR, a suitable therapist will take over for any remaining talk therapy needed. We are excited to have found a good therapist who is a graduate of Regent University, so he can really understand life from a Christian perspective.

One more thing, since Mother's Day is coming up. We are trying to be pro-active about this and head off trouble before it begins. I purchased and mailed out Mother's Day cards early. We are going to brunch at a nice restaurant and skipping church in an effort to avoid bad triggers for my husband. He is not calling his mother! We are heading to the great outdoors in the afternoon for a hike, a place and an activity that are always soothing to my man and which I also enjoy.

Okay, that catches everyone up on the highly personal and sensitive news concerning this Christian home school family/marriage. As in the past, this post and all the other highly personal posts will disappear in a few days. Copy and paste them in a word document if you find them useful in any way. I give you permission to send them out to your friends that way.

Thing are definitely looking better for me and my marriage today than they did last week. So thanks for all your prayers and good will!


  1. Ack, my phone ate the comment I made! I'll try again but it probably won't be as good.

    I'm really, really happy that you sound so hopeful--not in the "oh, it's all fine now" sense but in the the "oh what a relief to have named/owned the problem and decided a plan for resolution".

    I used EMDR for some phobias and repressed memories to great success. I will warn you that it can be emotionally intense--a couple times I had copious tears, anxiety and palpitations--and usually felt pretty fragile for a day after while all that "stuff" worked its way out of my Being. But I would do it all over again if I could.

    I'll be sending you both lots of love and goodwill this weekend!

  2. Thanks! I appreciate that. And so does my husband, to be sure.

    It looks like it will be a more difficult journey for him, because he has spent so many years repressing his true feelings and supporting the family image of perfect fundamentalist missionary/pastor heroes. It is really a huge, huge thing he is doing in owning his feelings and not blaming them on me anymore. I can not tell you how much I respect that effort. Words are not enough.