After the Attack, the Work

I’m not sure if this was a “secret,” if I intentionally haven’t written about this because it was too personal, or what. Well. The thing is, since I was beaten to a bloody pulp by a couple of thugs outside my home Metro stop back in DC over two years ago, I’d been in therapy to deal with the psychological aftermath. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and I underwent two years of treatment using a therapy known as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), working to heal some of the damage that was not visible on my face, head, and body.
And today was my last day.

So I’m cured! I am now officially devoid of any psychological problems. I am the very picture of mental health. I have the perfect psyche.

Well, no, but I’ve come a long way, and if I haven’t written about therapy before, I figure a good way to mark the occasion is to talk about it in this public forum. Or maybe it’s not, and this is a bad idea. Maybe I’m looking for something of a back-pat from the interwebs, and maybe I just need to, as it were, say it out loud to make it real.

When I started therapy two years ago, I was a wreck. My wife and I had decided to leave DC rather suddenly after the attack, figuring that we’d be better off in Maine, surrounded by my wife’s family (which is an awesome family), living in an environment far less hostile than DC, and giving our then-infant son a better place to grow up.

But of course, we arrived with little in the way of plans. We lived with relatives for a time, and I scrambled for employment (I had been working for the Secular Coalition for America at the time of the attack, but was already on my way out). It was a long time before I felt together enough to work, or to even look for work, and the pickings were rather slim. My work experience, my advanced degree in political management, none of it mattered much now that I was far away from Washington. I had to take what I could get.

So during my first session with my therapist, the cast had just come off my arm, we were broke, I was unemployed, my wife was still looking for permanent employment, we were living with one of my in-laws, and I was in such a dark, ugly place that I began to see my very existence as a detriment to the well-being of my wife and son. I had nightmares and would sink into reveries of sadness and guilt, or from out of nowhere would experience a sense of panic, feeling a need to physically run away from…toward…I didn’t know. Sad, scared, ashamed, paranoid, embarrassed, weary, resigned, terrified.

Therapy, if you’re doing it right, will get to work on the problem you came in for, yes, but will also address whatever might surround the event in question, other things in my life and mind that gave the attack the meaning that I would come to give it. I think we did it right. The work we did in therapy certainly targeted the assault — heavily — but managed to clean out a lot of other cruft that had built up over the years, over the decades. The attack was an extremely traumatic event, of course, but it had been colored by myriad other events from my past, a sickly array of self-conceptions and assumptions that I had spent a lifetime inculcating myself with, being miseducated about by the world around me. We targeted that stuff, too.

We didn’t fix it all, but we shrunk it. We got me to perceive those things as closer to their actual size, to their actual power. I didn’t lose all my misperceptions about myself or how others see me, but I learned to at least acknowledge that they may not all be true. Guys, I’m telling you, that’s huge.

You know what? I got bored with the memory of the attack. What was once a horror movie I would replay in my head over and over with new feelings of terror and dread with each mental reenactment, eventually became a sad rerun of a show that I was tired of seeing. That, I’m telling you, is huge.

So I’m not “cured.” I don’t think I ever will be, and quite frankly, I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to lose what will now forever be a part of my story, a part of who I am. What the work helped accomplish was making the attack no longer define who I am. And it began the work of not letting all the darkness that came before it define who I am — the years of mockery, bullying, and harassment all through middle and high school, the professional failures and life mistakes made in adulthood, my hangups and neuroses. Not exclusively define me, anyway. They will all always be a part of me, but I learned that they’re not all that I am.

You know what I think was the big tip-off that it was time to wrap things up? When my therapist realized that the things that troubled me, that the things that consumed me, were, well, predictable. Banal. My toddler is behaving badly. Work is stressful. Money is always tight. But that’s stuff everyone deals with. And that’s what was consuming me. Not self-doubt. Not a tar pit of guilt and shame. Not terror and fear. Just, you know, the life of a grownup with kids. It’s, well, normal.

I never thought I could ever describe anything about myself that way. I’ll take it.

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(For previous writings on this topic, you can read posts under this tag.)

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16 thoughts on “After the Attack, the Work

  1. I got bored with the memory of the attack. What was once a horror movie I would replay in my head over and over with new feelings of terror and dread with each mental reenactment, eventually became a sad rerun of a show that I was tired of seeing. That, I’m telling you, is huge.

    This is a fantastic description of “getting over” trauma and it is huge. The rest of the post is fantastic too; it very much resonates with my experience of the aftermath of a traumatic event.
    *back-pat*

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  2. It is so nice to read something that resonates so much with my own life experience. It sounds like therapy was of benefit. I am sorry that you have had such a destructive event impact your life.

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  3. Beautiful, Paul! And thank you for speaking out. If I’d had a story like this to go by, I wouldn’t have done the work alone. Hopefully, someone who reads this will remember this message on the day their life shatters, and enlists help picking up the pieces.

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    • Well frankly I think it helps when you know you have little ones watching you, you know? How would you want them to deal with a big setback?
      And thanks.

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  4. Congratulations on getting help and getting through it.
    And thank you for talking about it publicly. The more people who do that, the easier it becomes for others to admit that they need a little help here.
    (And yes, toddlers toddlers are terminally cute and utterly gorgeous and very, very stressful)

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  5. Sadly, therapy doesn’t work like antibiotics: Take this healthy dose of better perspective and apply self-esteem 3 times a day and you’ll be fine.A good therapy is hard work and takes you to places you’d rather have forgotten about.
    I can identify with many of the things you’re writing about, how not only the events get you, but also how life just grinds you down, desperately trying to catch up with all the expectations.
    BUt I also found out that there are tools that allow me to deal with this, that allow me to recognize the bad patterns and change them. Actually, it’s a bit like being an alcoholic: You may be dry, but you’re never unbroken again.
    Glad you had help to find the power and the tools, too.

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  6. From following you on twitter it was my impression you handled the incident bravely. Now it seems you handled the recovery just as well. The measure of a person is not that they don’t feel vulnerable or uncertain. It is how we identify and handle those states.
    I raise my drink in respect.
    Cheers!

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  7. Sounds as if you had a very good therapist. I am curious however, as to why you chose EDMR. Do you think it possible that your good therapist would have been just as effective without the eye movement element? From what I have read I gather that there is a great deal of scepticism of this technique. I wonder if it is a bit like EFT which I consider to be an elaborate placebo. All this aside, I am glad you are doing so much better. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for you,

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    • As a non-expert, it’s hard to know. I don’t want to get too detailed about my therapy, but I will say that I suspect it may have had less to do with the specific technique, and more to do with the ritual, and repetition, and the fact that my therapist was just a wise, smart, good egg.

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  8. I think it’s possible to get bored of the terror long before it stops being terrifying. Like being on a too-long roller-coaster. It’s like, ‘okay, another thing, yeah, okay, emotions, you can stop this now, please, okay, stop, okay, darnit…’
    It’s good to hear someone else’s success story! They’re never as exultant as TV would lead you to believe, fiction never is a banal and dragging on as real life can be, so it’s often hard to see those points when you’ve won.
    I crashed the car a couple weeks ago – a couple thousand in damage, almost totaled, but not enough to make it undrivable. Spouse said I was horribly depressed; and I can see I was getting little done. So she bought me a car x-x I told her that was an unsustainable solution and she told me it’s not like it costs more than therapy. x-x I mean, sure, that’s true, and I was frustrated with myself about the car, and I’d been looking at new cars, but…

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