In the recent edition of Time Magazine, their special double issue of the 100 most influential people in the world, Edna Foa, age 72 from the University of Pennsylvania was featured. She has developed a therapy known as prolonged exposure, or PE. Although it works with any PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) patients she has focused it specifically on combat-related PTSD. It involves identifying thoughts and situations that trigger the most fear and then gently exposing sufferers to them. Patients first summon up memories of the trauma. Next comes physical exposure to places or circumstances that call it up more vividly. Facing the memories strips them of power. The approach not only works; it works fast – usually within 12 sessions.
What a powerful idea! It was familiar enough to want to share my own personal experience with my readers, my experience with PE years before it was first used by Ms. Foa. I had done it out of desperation, my instinct honing in to capture the truth of what I needed to do.
I had been in recovery for almost five years, at times despairing of ever completing it. I knew that as long as I was still living with my abuser, still addicted to him in any way I could not count myself as healed. I had hesitantly entered my Bridge of Recovery not knowing what needed to be done. By trial and error I took baby steps across that bridge. I knew that on the other side lay happiness, healing and all the other “good stuff” that I wanted in my life. I developed techniques and exercises, and utilized the tools of John Bradshaw, especially his tape Healing the Shame That Binds You. I wore out three copies of that tape. Through hypno-therapy and the help of a specialist who claimed he could have me totally healed within 8 sessions I had relived all of the memories. I had one more session left. I had moved almost to the end of my bridge. My Twelve Step program needed nothing but the final step. I could see all the “good stuff” waiting for me at the other side but I couldn’t make it through those last few steps. What to do? What to do?
I thought of that house where my father had raped me and began a five year incestuous relationship with me. I thought of the beatings that my mother had egged him into committing against me as “punishment for what I was doing.” I wondered. Just maybe. What if I went into that bedroom and confronted all of the ghosts. What if I were able to take the power away that they had over me? Finally, I made the decision, bought a plane ticket and headed for Petersburg, NE. I landed at the Omaha airport, dread and fear accompanying me. Every time I thought of going into that house and especially into that bedroom I became nauseated and shook with tremors. Would I be able to do it? Did I have that kind of courage? I had to find out.
I knocked on the door of the red house sitting on the highway as it headed out of town. A woman named Margie lived there now. Was that a sign? I’d become so used to looking for signs along the way that I intuitively grabbed at any that came my way. What were the chances? Yes, it was a sign. I told her I used to live in that house and wondered if she’d give me a tour of it. She was happy to oblige and began moving from one room to another as she described the changes they’d made. Now we headed down the hall. The knots in my stomach threatened to paralyze me. I was unable to make any comments because of a huge lump in my throat. We came to the end of the hall and stepped into the bedroom where I had slept many years earlier. I heard her say that since her husband had died she slept in this room because it was the only room in the house where she felt safe. My terror accelerated. My body seemed frozen in time. The years moved away as the room became my room, the one with bunk beds against the wall and a crib where my three year old sister had slept. I had slept in the bottom bunk, my sister, one year younger than me, in the top bunk. I could almost see our dog, Rusty as he slept under my bed snoring lightly, his tail twitching. I heard the wind up clock ticking time away.
Now, here it was. My memory became my reality. Dad entered the room and headed for my bed. Everything became a whirl of shame, of pain, of confusion and despair. Time spun round and round, back and forth between the present and that cold November night so many years ago. I heard myself screaming for help. I rose above all of the chaos and looked down on it, standing my ground as the memories from the past slammed into me threatening to knock me to the ground. My jaw tightened as I nodded my head to Margie’s comments.
I felt myself grow taller, stronger, filled with an emotion I had never experienced. My legs were shaking as my knees bumped into each other. I felt nauseated and dizzy, moving from a scene from years ago and mingling with current time. The terrified, anorexic young girl lay helpless in the bottom bunk, her rosary creeping out from under her pillow. I reached over and grabbed her, clinging to her as we moved out of the room. I felt my father’s presence fade and the room moved out of my vision.
I thanked Margie and left the house, walking through the yard, still feeling disoriented. It had changed. The willow tree that I sat under as I read Nancy Drew and munched buttered popcorn and drank lemonade was gone. It had been a haven, the branches sweeping the ground and hiding me in their midst. The bed of iris surrounding the house was no more. My mother’s flower garden with the trellis at its entrance had disappeared. I looked over at my bedroom window. Once upon a time a lilac bush lived there, its fragrance awakening me every morning. It too was gone. In front of me used to stand a bird bath on a trellised tower, a bed of tulips surrounding it. All of nature, the black walnut trees, the vegetable garden where I used to steal carrots, rub them on my jeans and race barefooted for Rae Creek were all gone. But they had been there when I needed them most. Nature had comforted me in my darkest hours. I left the yard and headed for my dear friend Ginny’s house across the street, my steps stronger now, my legs no longer shaking. I knew there, as in years gone by, I would find love, comfort and stability.
My emotional pain was gone. I had eradicated all of the ghosts. I had empowered myself. In the midst of my fear I had found that emotion I couldn’t identify. It was called courage. I knew now I would always be at peace with the world. I would be happy.
I went home, got rid of my abuser, got a restraining order against him, filed for divorce and moved across that bridge to the other side. My motto now was: “If I had known life was going to turn out this good I would have started it sooner.”
Please see my Blog at http://www.thelamplighters.org
My book, REPAIR Your Life: A Program for Recovery from Incest & Childhood Sexual Abuse can be purchased from any on-line book distributor. Amazon.com has several 5 star reviews on it.