healing after sexual trauma

Content Warning: This amazing story of hope and healing includes references to sexual trauma.

By Janell P

Sitting in Dr. B’s office for my first EMDR session, she asked me what had brought me to see her.  I told her, “After everything that has happened to me, I do not know if I am capable of loving or being loved.”  It was 2001.  I was 20 years old.

The abuse started when I was 3 years old.  My parents were struggling in their marriage and sent me and my older sister to stay with our maternal grandparents on the weekends.  My grandfather, “Papa”, said I was his favorite.  He called me “Red” because of my bright red hair.  He drank heavily and started touching me at night, at first gently, but progressively becoming more aggressive.

When I was 5, Papa took me and my older sister to a bar.  That was not uncommon for him to do.  I sat on my stool and told him that my orange juice “tasted funny.”  He made me drink it anyway.  After that, we drove to a barn in a rural area.  He stood by the barn door while 3 of his friends raped and assaulted me.  I remember the smell of the dirt and hay.  I passed out during the attack.

When I came to, Papa had put me in a bath and made me promise not to tell my mom, saying “it would kill her.”  I believed that to be a literal statement.  I had bruises, blisters, and was bleeding out of my vagina and bum.  The abuse continued regularly until Papa died, when I was 7 years old.  He drank himself to death.  When my mother told me, I turned around to look at her and replied, “Good.”

I never talked about the trauma.  I didn’t want to.  I was focused on academics.  I wanted to get into Stanford and worked very hard to get a 4.0 GPA every semester of my life.  When I was in high school, I had my first flashback in a computer class.  I was 16.  It terrified me.  I was back in the barn.  As a result, my parents sent me to counseling.  When my mother learned it was her father that had hurt me, she said she “wasn’t surprised.”

My English teacher had been dropping notes on my desk since the beginning of my Junior year in high school, offering me his phone number and email for support.  I had written in what was supposed to be a private journal about being abused as a child.  Because I was still experiencing flashbacks in class, my teachers got together with my mother to form a plan on how to best help me in my classes while I was going through these episodes.  My English teacher took the lead role and I was to report to him on everything.  After that, he started becoming very forward with me and after I turned 17, he sexually assaulted me on multiple occasions, both on and off school property.

When my parents learned what the teacher was doing, they sent me away to a rehabilitation facility in Utah for troubled teens.  They said it was to keep me safe from my teacher until he was criminally tried (it’s a felony for teachers to sleep with students in Nevada).  I was treated very harshly there, including being made to wear a leash even while I was using the restroom.  I ultimately graduated high school from that facility and was released back to my parents, who promptly kicked me out the house.  It was Christmas, 1 month before my 18th birthday.

“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”  Jean-Paul Sartre

I lived in my car until I saved up enough money from working as a receptionist at a law firm to get an apartment.  I did not have healthy relationships with men, or with my family.  There were many other traumas, too countless to list for purposes of this piece.

When I was 21 years old, I was dating someone and wanted to have sex with him.  When he told me that he actually wanted to get to know me, I felt rejected and left furious.  I started to think about how unhealthy the fury was in that situation.  I wondered what it would take for me to feel like I could let someone know me.  I confided this to a friend at work.  She told me that she had recently started seeing a psychologist who specialized in EMDR trauma therapy.  When she described the process—headphones, a light bar—I was very skeptical.  I made the appointment only because I had nothing else to lose.

Back to that first session in 2001, Dr. B explained to me how the process worked.  She asked me to succinctly describe the trauma I had endured.  She told me that she believed I was an excellent candidate for EMDR because I had a strong brain, didn’t drink or do drugs, and that I genuinely could heal if I committed to doing the work.  She told me that the goal of EMDR was not to be in “therapy” for life; rather, it was to process the trauma and change my cognitions so that I could lead a healthy life.  She encouraged me to do research on EMDR and directed me to www.emdria.org.  She asked me to call her back to schedule an appointment once I’d done my research.  The cost of each session was $190 and she did not accept insurance.  She recommended that we start with 3 sessions per week for the first few months and then scale back to 1 session a week for approximately 6 months.

I went home and studied the website.  I spent $79.99 on “EMDR”, a book by Dr. Francine Shapiro, which is essentially the clinician’s guide to EMDR.  I read the entire thing over one weekend.  I had been through so many bad therapists over the years that I was very protective of choosing the right healing process for me.  I also knew that I would have to earn more money to be able to afford these sessions.  I worked for a law firm as a paralegal Monday through Friday.  I accepted 2 jobs doing paralegal work on a contract basis in the evenings.  I got a job delivering flowers on Saturdays.  I got a job as an attendant at an art museum on Sundays.   I needed all 5 jobs to pay for my sessions and could only afford to eat boiled white rice and soup.

My second session with Dr. B began with her handing me a detailed treatment plan.  She had logically detailed which traumas we would start with and each session had a focused target.  Then she put the headphones on my ears, the sound bouncing back and forth bilaterally, the light bar in front of me moving slowly from right to left, green to red.  She told me to keep my eyes moving with the light and adjusted the speed until it was the right pace.  Then she told me to go back to the barn.  The smell of hay.  It didn’t take very long before I was right back there.  My body physically tensed up and I stopped breathing.  She put her hand on my leg, told me to breathe, and take off the headphones.  We were finally beginning to process.

EMDR was not a new method of treatment, but in 2001, not many people had heard about it.  I felt very isolated because it was hard to explain to my family and friends what I was doing and why I believed the medical research supporting its efficacy.  I found myself isolated, without a support system, processing my most traumatic moments alone.  It was not easy.

The sessions continued, just as outlined in the treatment plan.  I was very diligent with my homework.  It was very hard going back to work after sessions.  I was physically exhausted, emotionally spent, but I had no choice other than to put aside those feeling until work was over.  I’d get home, cry, sometimes I’d drive around and chain smoke all night listening to music.  It was one of the few ways I could really wrap my head around all of the emotions and new feelings.

After several sessions, we had processed the major trauma and she asked me how I felt.  I told her, “I feel worthless.  I feel ashamed.  It was my fault.  I’m bad.”  Those are the beliefs inherent in the trauma.  Then she directed me to do the EMDR again with appropriate cognitions, “It was not my fault.  I’m lovable.  I’m safe.”

I started to notice that my brain was changing.  I questioned whether people were being appropriate with me.  I started setting boundaries.  I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a beautiful woman instead of a damaged nobody.

After 6 months of treatment, my life was totally different.  Dr. Bay said that we had completed our plan and that she had never had a patient like me, so committed to and worthy of help.  She told me that I might need her again over the years for “tune-ups” if new issues arose, but that my last assignment was “to go and live my one and beautiful life.

I still maintain a relationship with Dr. B.  I am now 40 years old.  I have gone back to her twice over the years, and am seeing her currently, but have not needed EMDR treatments again.  I’ve need simple modifications in my thinking that related back to the trauma.  EMDR, and specifically Dr. B, saved my life.  I am not perfect.  I still can be triggered, but my trauma no longer is my identity.  I am in a healthy and loving relationship.  I own my own business.  I also run a non-profit (www.opdera.org) and sail across the Pacific Ocean conducting research on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for scientific institutes.  I’ve sailed over 40,000 nautical miles in 3.5 years.  All of my childhood dreams, so long ago abandoned, have become a reality.

I was just recently called a “Pioneer of EMDR”, which is a badge of honor which I wear with humbled pride and gratitude.

For all of you who are going through this process, or considering if EMDR is right for you, I wrote this very personal piece for you, to give you my insights, with the hope that it gives strength, courage and freedom.

Your one and beautiful life is already yours, waiting to be claimed.

Do you have a story to share? Your voice is important. If you’d like to share your story on our blog, leave a comment below.

trauma healing starts here - leave a comment