A young woman’s journey to overcome buried traumas
She sits in front of a blinking machine.
Her crystal blue eyes follow a darting green light. Left, right, left, right, left, right. The light stops.
She sees a red light on the wall.
The blinking light is back. Left, right, left, right, left, right. Stop.
She inhales, unsteady for a moment.
She sees a cartoon with four time-travelling teens. There’s no time to try and remember what show it was because the light is back. Left, right, left, right, left, right ...
It’s during these moments of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) that Sam Stockton learns her brain has buried some shocking memories.
Stockton, 22, studies communications at the University of Calgary. From the outside, there isn’t much about her life that seems unusual.
She works an administrative job at the university. She goes to class and gets good grades, spends time with friends and lives at home with her family.
But Stockton’s seemingly normal life has been marked by a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and almost every day she is engaged in a constant battle with the disorder and the events, now memories, that caused it.
Stockton is not alone.
According to a 2008 study by four McMaster University scholars, approximately one in 10 Canadians will experience symptoms of PTSD in their lifetime. A disorder generally associated with survivors of war or genocide, that high number might be surprising. But trauma of any kind can lead to PTSD.
A timeline of trauma
With her pale, round-eyed openness, Stockton could easily be mistaken for someone who has never experienced adversity. But she has, and she tells her story with the broad-minded acceptance that sacrificing her privacy can help other people. She is intelligent and self-effacing in her unconventional knowledge of the world and its institutionalized conventions. She speaks with the wisdom of a person who is, or is at least trying, to accept the cards she has been dealt.
Three years ago — or 15 years ago, depending on how you look at it — the course of her life changed forever.
After her first year at U of C, Stockton landed a job at a museum where she dressed in old-fashioned clothing and explained artifacts to visitors.
One morning during her shift, she noticed a man alone at the exhibit. Tall, bald and wearing baggy pants, he hung around for two or three hours until there was a lull in the throngs of people coming in and out of the exhibit. Once they were in the room alone together he approached Stockton, grabbed her arm and dragged her into a strange, forced dance.
“'I want to dance with you',” she recalled him saying.
Stockton used an emergency signal to convey to her co-workers that she was in trouble. Her manager rushed in after the man left.
Although he did nothing more than force her into an unsettling “dance,” she was shook up by the experience. “I was a mess,” she says. “I was having a really bad panic attack.” The man was never caught and Stockton never saw him again.
After the incident she didn’t stop panicking. She quit her job the next morning, unable to face the thought of returning. “It was as if the anxiety from that moment ... it just didn’t stop,” she says.
In the days and weeks that followed, Stockton’s stress reached a new level. She started experiencing a combination of horrifying audio and visual hallucinations that left her locked in her bathroom or closet. These hallucinations started occurring every day.
“Sometimes I would feel like the walls were closing in but they were whispering to me,” she explains. “Or sometimes there would be eyes everywhere and I could hear them breathing.”
In one particularly troubling incident, Stockton was at Walmart with her mother when she suddenly felt eyes surrounding her, touching her and breathing on her neck. She tried desperately to escape them.
“I’m crawling, trying to get out of the store and my mom was going, ‘What is happening to you right now?!’”
After two public hallucinations, she stopped leaving her house. But the hallucinations followed her wherever she went.
“I pretty much just crawled in a ball and cried until they stopped,” she says sadly.
The situation became harrowing. Stockton and her family decided she needed help. After another day of painful hallucinations, Stockton called Distress Centre Calgary. The woman who answered talked calmly and listened as she described her hallucinations, anxiety and an all-consuming depression.
“’It sounds like you might have post-traumatic stress disorder,’” Stockton recalls the woman saying.
In a lot of ways, this is a moment of incredible hope.
“At that point I’d been calling myself crazy,” she says. “[Now] I had a name for my brokenness. It’s a blessing and a curse.”
Soon after, Stockton saw a therapist from Distress Centre Calgary but discovered PTSD sufferers require a specialist because of the potentially disastrous effects of resurfacing trauma.
Her doctor eventually referred her to a PTSD specialist.
Finally on her way to getting the help she desperately needed, there were still setbacks: Stockton had to wait two months before she could see the specialist.
“I had more hope, because I knew I could do something about this ... but you can have as much hope in the world [...] but your brain still isn’t working,” she says desolately. “So it was hell. It was hell every day.”
That summer three years ago she tried to kill herself twice.
“Everything was pain,” she says. “All I could feel was pain and I just needed to end it. I just needed to stop the pain.”
Stockton’s family intervened. Her mother slept in her bed every night, even followed her to the bathroom to make sure her daughter didn’t raid the medicine cabinet for pills to swallow.
After a long wait and a tumultuous summer, Stockton started seeing the PTSD specialist in September 2013. He confirmed the PTSD diagnosis.
According to the PTSD Association of Canada, the disorder develops in people after they experience or witness a traumatic experience or event in which “serious physical harm occurred or was threatened.”
The sufferer’s brain basically gets stuck in a high-stress “reactive mode,” trying to protect them from threats or danger that are no longer present.
Stockton’s brain, stuck in a high-stress PTSD state, caused extreme anxiety, depression, and hallucinations.
At that point Stockton and her therapist didn’t yet know the trauma causing her PTSD but after starting therapeutic EMDR therapy, some memories begin to surface.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is defined by the EMDR Institute Inc. as a “psychotherapy treatment designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.”
EMDR works by using an external stimulus to bring repressed memories to the surface. In Stockton’s case, the stimulus was “therapist-directed lateral eye movements,” the moving light that she followed with her eyes.
Once the memories start resurfacing, a complex assortment of therapeutic protocols are used to create new associations with the memories, taking traumatic memories and other adverse life experiences closer to an “adaptive resolution.”
In other words, patients can begin to heal from the lingering emotional wounds of suppressed trauma, but first they have to remember it.
When Stockton started EMDR therapy, alarming memories start flashing into her mind. Smells, sounds and feelings like hurt and shame started coming back to her. Then there were the more tangible visible memories that came in broken pieces.
First, she was brought back to a teenage relationship. Stockton met Brad (not his real name) at a school function. He pursued her relentlessly, she recalls. She eventually gave into the continued pressure and started dating him.
Brad quickly became sexually, physically and emotionally abusive.
“The whole relationship was him controlling me, him telling me what to do,” she says.
She explains that when she didn’t do what Brad wanted, she was punished with physical abuse — sometimes even being punched in the face or back of the head.
Brad also punished her “disobedience” with sexual abuse. He used rape as a tool to assert his dominance or admonish her for doing things he didn’t like.
“I never wanted to have sex,” she says softly. “There was not a single consensual time. And I thought, ‘This is totally normal, women aren’t supposed to want to have sex.’”
Domestic violence and abuse is complex and cyclical. Stockton, in her youthful vulnerability, was targeted and exploited by her older boyfriend.
“I really thought that’s what relationships were like,” she says.
Connecting the dots
Stockton and her therapist addressed the memories of the abusive relationship through therapy and continued EMDR.
One day during a session, a new memory surfaced. She is only seven years old.
“I have little flashes of things that happened,” she says. “We’re dancing ... and then all of a sudden my clothes are off. And then, she’s choking me.”
The memory of dancing in the basement invokes a powerful reaction. Stockton ended the session in a state of panic.
Stockton’s therapist connected the dots between the forced dancing incident that summer at the museum and the memory of dancing in a basement more than 15 years ago.
Her strong reactions to both incidents are the first pieces of a complex puzzle.
Through extensive EMDR therapy, Stockton and her therapist learn that her babysitter sexually abused her for about three years when she was a child.
They begin to put the memories together chronologically. They use “talk throughs,” a therapy method where Stockton described the memories in first person. Together, they drew diagrams of the basement and other rooms where Stockton remembered being assaulted.
Some people choose not to learn about abuse they repressed, but Stockton says that finding the memories was vital to improving her mental health.
“Not having chunks of my past ... it was like, how can I know who I am?” she says.
“Being able to use therapeutic methods to deal with the memories has extremely helped me.”
She explains that even now she doesn’t know how many times she was assaulted or all of the details of the assaults. She never retrieves memories about the lower half of her body but remembers sounds and feelings, like soreness and shame.
“I know it happened,” she says quietly.
Although clearly not directly connected, Stockton says that her experiences with sexual abuse, both in her teenage relationship and as a child, are related in terms of the development of PTSD and severe mental health issues.
“Because my mental health was already not in a great state, (from the childhood abuse) when I got to that period in my teenager years, I wasn’t as resilient ... and I was more prone to mental illness at that point because I had already experienced that as a child.”
The long road of healing
It’s been three years since Stockton started the journey of diagnosing and treating PTSD.
After about 150 hours of therapy, Stockton still sees her therapist every week and says she is still not over the abuse, and in a way, never will be.
“Therapy has helped me immensely. I am so much better mentally then I was three years ago. It’s outrageous, I’m almost like a totally different person,” she says, smiling.
Stockton has not pressed charges against any of the people who abused her. She says there is no proof of the assaults and she wants to continue looking forward in her life, not backwards.
“I’m still angry at the people that did this to me and that fact that this happened to me,” she says. “But I’m doing okay.”
Stockton is incredibly open about her PTSD experiences with followers on social media, saying that it feels good to share and be positive. She’s received many messages, some from strangers, praising her honesty.
Stockton feels that talking about mental health in an open and realistic way is important for eliminating stigma and a lack of awareness.
“I don’t try to hide the gross details of mental illness,” she says.
While there is no “cure” for PTSD, Stockton says that living with the disorder doesn’t change who she is at her core.
“I had something bad happen to me, but that doesn’t change who I am now. I can grow from this experience,” she says, smiling again. “It doesn’t have to negatively effect me forever.”
- By Nina Grossman