Tag: Therapy

Trauma, EMDR, and the Kobayashi Maru Test

Given today is September 11th, and it is 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, I figured it is as good a day as any to blog about trauma. This post is not about 9/11. Or where I was or what I did or some romanticized version of my experiences or actions on this day in 2001. My personal experience is not very important here. But 9/11, as the overall events as a whole have come to be called, was for MANY, including me, a traumatic event. Given that, I think it will be helpful to discuss trauma and it’s effects in a context that many people can relate to.

What is Trauma, anyway?

There are a number of ways that various organizations define trauma. In this case, I am not referring to the physical sense of trauma like a wound or injury. But rather, the trauma I’m talking about is more of an emotional wound or injury.

Trauma: a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury; an emotional upset; an agent, force, or mechanism that causes trauma

Trauma | Definition of Trauma by Merriam-Webster

Trauma: a deeply distressing or disturbing experience

TRAUMA English Definition and Meaning | Lexico.com (Oxford)

The very succinct, but inclusive definition from Lexico above captures it best in my opinion. The key being that trauma is “deeply” distressing or disturbing. So, getting pickles on your hamburger when you asked for no pickles is not a traumatic event. But terrorists taking over commercial airliners to crash them into buildings most definitely is. Those events created a massive amount of distress, even for people like me who were very far removed from the events and had no particular personal connection to anyone involved. I’m confident that a lot of you out there who would say the same.

BANG Trauma

The 9/11 attacks are a great example of a point in time trauma. An event. A “flash-in-the-pan” if you will. This is similar to an assault, a car crash, or some other moment that happens relatively quickly, but then has lingering effects on you. Let’s call this BANG Trauma.

WOOSH Trauma

Some trauma takes place over a course of time and is more environmental, but still has the nature of being deeply distressing or disturbing. A great example of this would be the COVID-19 global pandemic. While this may encompass individual BANG Trauma events for people, like the loss of a loved one, getting laid off from your job, or some imbecile trying to give you horse medicine (WTF?), it also created an environment that was quite distressing over many months and is still going. Let’s call this WOOSH Trauma.

Honor Thy Mother and Father

It is pretty common that the impact our parents have on us is not all positive. Whether through their actions or inactions, their words or their silences, their presence or absence, we’re all going to have some shit to deal with that traces back to Mom and/or Dad.

Goodbye, Florence

The majority of my trauma comes from my parents. This is not uncommon. The cliché of going to a psychiatrist or therapist to “talk about your mother” is alive in well in popular culture, movies, TV, etc. But it got to be a cliché for a reason. Our parents can have an incredible impact on us. In fact, I would argue, that having an incredible impact on us is their job. Just like it is my job to have an incredible impact on my children. It’s just that this impact isn’t always positive.

My mom, Florence, suffered from Bipolar Disorder back when it was referred to as Manic Depression. People who live with this can have their mood swing profoundly between deep depression and the more high-energy, excited “manic” state. My mom had a pretty hard go of it with a husband who didn’t necessarily understand or support her, but was quite willing to put her in the hospital when it became too hard to “manage” her. Sometimes, during these manic periods, she would decided to stop taking her medication (lithium) because she didn’t want to go back to that more subdued state that the Lithium help put her in.

These experiences, in which my mom’s showing emotion tended to land her in the hospital, laid the foundation for the wall I ended up erecting between me and my own emotions. Except anger, that is. More on that in a future post.

Hello, Flo

When I was in my early to mid teens, I don’t recall specifically, my mom had a major manic episode in and around accidentally inhaling some chemicals at work. Looking back, that was around the time we lost Florence. I lost my mom. In her stead, we got Flo who took over Florence’s body. Unlike Florence, Flo was a woman who gave no fucks and was irreverent and sometimes really fun and funny.

At this time, my dad was not living with us (BANG and WOOSH; more on this in a later post, perhaps). My older brothers (Gerry and Ray) were long out of the house, Gerry in Minnesota and Ray in Massachusetts. So, it was just Flo and me. We had lost the house I grew up in to foreclosure (BANG and some WOOSH) and were living in an Section 8 (low income rental assistance) apartment as Flo was no longer able to work.

BANGs and WOOSHes Galore

Middle Finger on Skype

Flo had her good side. We made a game of finding new and creative ways to give each other the middle finger, which was often pretty funny. The first time one of my friends saw me give my mother the finger, they were shocked, “Did you seriously just flip off your mom?!” “Of course,” I said. “Why didn’t you?” From that point on my friends were in on the game, too.

But, Flo wasn’t always fun. Sometimes, she would decide to “cope” with her own pain by causing pain for others. Not in a physical sense. But in terms of manipulation or “causing a scene” or getting someone else to have to drop everything they wanted to do to deal with Flo. Since it was just me and Flo, the most common target for this was me (plenty of BANG and WOOSH and more WOOSH).

How Do You DO This?

My oldest brother, Gerry, and I were pall bearers for my paternal grandmother’s funeral. We needed to go a bit early. The plan was for my other brother, Ray, to bring Flo and meet us there. They never showed up. When Gerry and I got back to the apartment after the funeral, Ray was huddled in corner in utter anguish (BANG). Flo was sitting at the kitchen table with a air of profound satisfaction at what she had been able to do (BANG and some WOOSH). She had taken this man who was fun and funny and always had a smile or a joke or a positive thing to say, and turned him into a pile of goo. She had broken her son. And she LOVED it. (BANG much?)

As soon as he saw me, Ray just asked, “How do you DO this?” I didn’t have an answer for him at the time. One possibility can be found in A Bully and a Hero: Depression and My Paladin » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com). Flo was able to wreck Ray in a few hours. The fact that I spent years as her only target and am still here is pretty miraculous. Please understand that this is not about Ray being weak. He is one of the strongest people I have ever met. Nor is it about me being some sort of exceptional person. I’m really not.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)

EMDR is a psychotherapy treatment for trauma-related disorders like PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). In times of great stress or danger, our Amygdala, which controls our Fight/Flight/Freeze processing in our brains, can activate our OH SHIT! system. When that happens, our logical processing centers of the brain get shut out. A traumatic event which triggers this OH SHIT! system can cause our Amygdala to ring the OH SHIT! bell whenever it perceives a situation to be like the original event. For example, combat veterans suffering from PTSD can have their OH SHIT! processing triggered by a loud noise that has nothing to do with combat.

During the Fight/Flight/Freeze process, our body chemistry is altered to enable us to have the burst of energy we need to survive a deadly situation. After that burst, we can get super fatigued as that burst of energy comes at a cost. Having our OH SHIT! system activate a lot means we get that burst of energy a lot which means we have to pay that cost a lot. It’s brutally draining.

The goal of EMDR is to try to get our Amygdala to form a new pathway in place of the OH SHIT! one in response to events it perceives as similar to the original trauma. That is the Reprocessing. It is trying to train your brain to stop triggering the Fight/Flight/Freeze response in mundane situations where we really don’t need our OH SHIT! system activated.

I’m Trapped

To start the process, I spent several sessions with my therapist, Ashley, taking an inventory of the trauma I could remember and identify. Yes. It took several sessions to get through it all. We then worked to identify a theme, a feeling that formed the core experience with each BANG and WOOSH. I landed on “I’m trapped.” That is the one sentiment that fit perfectly in all the BANGs and all the WOOSHes. So much of my trauma involved events or situations in which I felt like I had no way out. I had no way to win. I just kept finding myself taking the fucking Kobayashi Maru test. Over and over.

Starfleet Academy’s Kobayashi Maru Test

The Kobayashi Maru Test first appeared in the 1982 film Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. It also features in the 2009 reboot film, Star Trek. The test involves a distress signal from a civilian ship, the Kobayashi Maru, that has become stranded in the Neutral Zone, a region of space between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets. Starfleet cadets taking the test must choose whether to help rescue the Kobayashi Maru, and risk major diplomatic incident and attack by Klingons, or leave the civilian ship, and its crew, to fairly certain destruction. Any cadets that attempt rescue end up facing a battle with Klingons that is designed to be completely unwinnable. Starfleet uses this test to measure the character of cadets and assess how they will function in the highly stressful environment of a “no-win scenario.”

I’m Strong

The goal with my course of EMDR was to reprocess these I’m Trapped situations into something more positive. Something that would not trigger my OH SHIT! system. Ray’s question, “How do you DO this?” inspired the more positive theme: “I’m strong.” We then had our course of action for my EMDR. We would reprocess “I’m Trapped” into “I’m Strong” and I’d be good to go. Simple. (sigh)

Physically, the process can involve actually moving your gaze side while doing this emotional work (hence the “Eye Movement” part). But that made me dizzy AF. So, we used little hand-held fobs that gently vibrate on and off and in alternating pattern.

Oh my god, you guys. EMDR is the most grueling thing I have ever done. By a lot. It is such hard, draining work to jump back into trauma (on purpose) with both feet in order build a new path out of it and make your brain choose this new path over the familiar one. I was on medical leave at the time and I can’t see how I could have worked and done EMDR at the same time. There’s just no way. Each one-hour session took 3-4 days to recover from. I was very fortunate to have a friend that would drive me to and from these appointments. Thank you, Megan.

While the “during” for EMDR suuuuuuuuucked, I have to say that the results, at least for me, were MAGICAL. I can’t promise the same for anyone else. Mental health, in general, doesn’t work that way. But this childhood trauma I had been carrying around my whole life got so much easier to carry, thanks to EMDR.

To Boldly Go…

James T Kirk is fabled to be the only Starfleet cadet ever to beat the Kobayashi Maru test. He did so be changing the simulation to make it possible to both rescue the Kobayashi Maru crew and defeat the Klingon attack. Kirk took an unwinnable situation and reprocessed it into a win. But he needed to cheat to do it.

Trauma can seem like a no-win scenario. It can seem like we are trapped. That there’s no way out. But there can be. It can take work, to be sure. But it can be done. I’ve done it. And I didn’t cheat once. Take that, Jim.

A Bully and a Hero: Depression and My Paladin

Reading Assignment

Back in 2017, I posted on my professional blog about my oldest daughter, Paige, and some of her experiences with depression. That post is entitled A Bully and a Hero: Depression and My Daughter. While it focused mostly on her, it was also the first time I shared publicly that I had lived with depression as well. This post here is a direct reference to that one from 2017 and builds on some of those themes.

Before going much further here, I would recommend reading that post. I believe it will be worth your time; and it will make your reading of this one even more transcendent.

A Brief History of Mental Illness

OK. Now that we’re on the same page (this was not a planned play on words, but I like it)….

I dealt with depression a tiny bit in high school and had another obvious, but relatively brief, bout of it about ten years ago or so. But Depression was not really something that was clearly a chronic condition for me; I never had medication and only had very brief experiences with therapy until the past few years. I dealt with two different therapists/psychologists in my teen years. Both experiences were terrible.

My first psychologist experience was when I was in 7th or 8th grade. She was not my therapist, but I was required to see her. This is related to stuff/trauma I do not plan to share, so hopefully you can keep going without more detail. If not, then perhaps a nice cat video would be better for you.

This psychologist was adamant that I was supposed to be angry with a particular person in my life. She could not let herself consider that I was not. Nothing I said or did could convince her otherwise. Since her textbook said I should be angry, and I said I was not, the ONLY possibility was that I was lying to her.

I was not angry with the person she insisted I should have been angry with, but she herself inspired plenty of anger. Fuck off, lady.

My second experience was someone I went to see in high school a few times during my first diagnosed bout of Depression. He didn’t think I was really depressed so he treated me like I was just an ass hole wasting his time. You, sir, can also fuck right off.

Anger character from Disney Pixar movie Inside Out

My Bully: Depression

In 2018, or so, my Depression stopped fucking around. Paige was seeing an awesome young therapist named Corrin. She is bright, perceptive, and super helpful. I would bring Paige to her weekly sessions with Corrin, and would join them for the final few minutes. I was open about my history with Depression in the hopes it might help Corrin help Paige.

When I was starting to have trouble focusing, having bouts of crying completely out of nowhere, I thought it may be depression knocking on the door again. I shared my terrible experiences with psychologists in the past with Corrin and asked her if she would see me for 1 session, just so I could perhaps learn a coping skill or two. She agreed.

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For that one session with Corrin, I spent most of the time sharing my background, my family history with depression (my mom was Bipolar and she had suspected her father was as well) and childhood experiences. Plenty of my trauma stems from my mom; I will have posts on that in the future. As I shared all this, Corrin’s face got steadily more and more astounded and concerned.

Getting Help

When I was done, she closed here eyes, took a few breaths, then delivered a couple bombshells for me. What follows is somewhat paraphrased, but is pretty close to what Corrin actually said.

OK...

First, it sounds to me like you have been living with depression for decades and doing it without any type of support at all. I have no idea how you have been able to accomplish that, but stop it.

Second, I would strongly recommend you see a therapist that specializes in trauma. You have a massive amount of trauma to deal with and a generalist like me may not have the tools to give you the help you need.

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That first point hit me really hard for a moment. But then when I looked back at everything I had shared with Corrin for 40 minutes of near constant talking, it made perfect sense. I had been living with depression all this time. There were some periods when I handled this better than other periods. But there were clear times when my cup runneth over and it kicked my ass. I was not getting any kind of help for it. None. It was pretty clear that my solo career was coming to an end.

Corrin’s second point had even more impact. I had not heard the term “trauma” applied to my experiences before. I had only ever heard it on medical shows and war movies related to physical injury, etc. None of my “traumatic” experiences really related to physical harm to my body.

But some events we experience, like a car accident, an assault, combat, will trigger our fight or flight response. Then, later, events or even the perception of events that may remind us of that initial trauma, even in tiny ways, can trigger that fight or flight all over again. Which SUPER sucks.

You can read more here about the most common form of this, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). My traumas were a combination of several point-in-time events as well as environmental stressors over the course of years. Fun. Again, more on that in later posts.

What Is Your Quest?

I took Corrin’s advice and started seeing a therapist she had recommend, named Ashley. I also went to my primary care provider to see if medication would be a good idea. It was. I plan to write at least one post on medication, so I won’t go into it very much here.

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In my first session with Ashley, I went through my background, etc, just like I had with Corrin. Ashley’s responses were much like Corrin’s, with the exception of being a good fit to help me. I will cover more of my experiences with Ashley, including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, discussed on the NAMI page I linked above) in future posts. I need to bring this post on home and I haven’t mentioned any paladins, yet.

My Hero: My Paladin

File:Diablo II characters.jpg
The playable characters in Blizzard Entertainment‘s Diablo II, my favorite computer game of all time. The Paladin is on the right, kneeling.

You can find paladins in the realms of Fantasy, like Dungeons & Dragons and other members of that sword and sorcery genre. A Paladin is a holy warrior, using the blessings and abilities granted them by their deity to fight for those who cannot and to smite evil wherever it may be found. Think of your ultimate “knight in shining armor” trope and add in a generous helping of faith and zeal. In a very real sense, a paladin’s powers and abilities are earned through their actions, boons granted by a proud god/goddess in appreciation for their efforts.

Ashley and I talked for a few minutes about my unexplained, decades-long, experience of keeping Depression at bay with no outside intervention (divine of otherwise) at all. “What do you think it was?” she asked. I had already been picturing a sea of pitch darkness with one tiny globe of light in the center, like a single spotlight on a massive, but otherwise empty stage. Moving closer to that globe, with some encouragement from Ashley, I could see, at its center, was a champion, fending of attack after attack from the darkness and all it contained.

HOLY SHIT! It’s a paladin!

Ashley, well versed in Fantasy and general nerdery (we had geeked out on Diablo more than once) gave a laugh of absolute delight, “I LOVE it!” She totally got it. More on that in a moment.

Seal of Approval

These experiences with Corrin and Ashley provide two fantastic examples of good therapists, and two points that I want to close with.

  1. A good therapist knows when they are not the best therapist for YOU and is honest about it.
  2. Finding a therapist who understands the context you come with, the point of view from which you perceive the world, etc, is immensely important.
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Corrin was able to determine from that one session that she was not in the best position to provide me the kind of support and help that I needed. She was up-front about it and pointed me to someone who would be a better fit. It is not hyperbole to say that 1 hour with Corrin changed my life. It serves as a boundary between epochs of my timeline: before Corrin and after Corrin are two very different lives.

My experience with Ashley highlights the importance of finding the right therapist; someone who will “get” you. Having the added burden of having to explain references to your therapist just makes the work of therapy that much harder. When I told Ashley that the thing that kept me safe against Depression for all those years was a paladin, I knew I didn’t have to explain what a paladin was. I knew she would instantly understand. Our shared understanding felt like a weight being lifted off my shoulders.

I Cannot Be Your Paladin

I have learned that this need for finding the right therapist is often an especially challenging one for people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. There are a lot of straight, white folks who are therapists. But someone who is Caucasian cannot fully grasp the lived experience of being a person of color. Someone who is heterosexual cannot fully grasp the lived experience of NOT being heterosexual. Someone with what we might call a binary (Male or Female) gender identity cannot fully grasp the lived experience of NOT having a binary gender identity. No amount of education can change any of these.

I feel strongly that it is crucial that I acknowledge the advantages I was born with. My life is not made harder by the color of my skin. My life is not made harder by who I love. My life is not made harder by who I pray to (or not). My life is not made harder by my socio-economic status. My life is not made harder by the country I was born in.

But I Can Let You Use Mine

My life is most definitely made harder by mental illness. I have that lived experience. I work hard to be the kind of person that can brighten someone’s day. Or help them carry their burden (as long as it isn’t too heavy; I have back issues). While I cannot fully understand lived experiences that are different from my own, I move through live with a decent amount of empathy. I sincerely hope that my blog can help anyone who chooses to read it.