The Monkey on My Back—Therapy, Teaching, and Overcoming Trauma

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When I was in the second grade, a speaker came to our school and gave a talk about his battle with addiction. He was animated, and kept walking around our little cafetorium talking about having a “monkey on his back.”  At the time, I had no idea that when he spoke about a monkey on his back he was referring to addiction. 

This July marks 20 years since my life changed due to a violent act when I was studying abroad. It was the summer before my senior year of college, and after being diagnosed with PTSD I was encouraged to take a semester off so that I could heal. Being the stubborn perfectionist that I was (am), I refused; taking a semester off would result in me not graduating on time. In my mind, graduating late would allow the three men who abducted me to have control over me for much longer than the three or so hours that they did. So, I set out to show the world that I was fine. I got a 4.0 that semester, and the one after that, and felt like I had proven that I was okay. I won the battle, but had no frame of reference for the war that I would face.

 Little did I know I had a monkey on my back. For me, the monkey was not addiction, but rather my own mental health. I had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and took medicine for a while to help with nightmares. I saw a therapist during my senior year, but after I graduated and could no longer use the University therapist, I had initial visits with six or seven therapists and could never find the right fit. After retelling-and reliving – that horrible event over and over, I finally decided that I was “fine” and did not need any more therapy. I just couldn’t bring myself to keep telling the story and having someone tell me it dated back to my childhood or something equally absurd.

I became a teacher, which was a job I loved for many reasons. The fact that I was off during the month of July wasn’t something I even factored into my decision at the time, but it became extremely important. Most of the time I was able to keep my emotions under control (bottled up), but summers were really hard. More than any other month, July was one that I had to take each day as it came.  Some days I would sleep all day long (my coping mechanism), other days my mom would come into town and we’d have a blast shopping and going out to dinner, and I’d be “fine.” July 26th was “R-Day,”  and I alternated between bawling, being overwhelmed with rage, and being grateful that I was alive. On July 27th I woke up in a great mood because July 26 of the next year was 364 days away. Good or bad, teaching allowed me to dance around the impact of what had happened, never truly facing it. 

As I moved into Administration and started working through the summers, my challenges related to July got harder to manage. Fortunately, I was usually able to take off the day of July 26th, and had reconnected with the therapist I found so helpful my senior year, who had started a private practice. I was able to keep my head above water- but didn’t realize that the tide was about to rise. 

I was more or less able to manage life with this monkey on my back until I turned 31. I was single and had moved to a city that I hated for a job I also hated, yet the frustration and self-doubt that hit me had nothing to do with any of those.  Rather, it was the 10-year anniversary of the traumatic event, and I realized that I was still captive of the events of years before. I really and truly hit rock bottom.

Right after I was initially diagnosed with PTSD, I read about EMDR therapy as a treatment for PTSD in war veterans. At the time, It wasn’t something that to my knowledge was widely used with people who had not experienced combat. Now, as I was searching for a way to be truly okay, the EMDR option came up again. I found a therapist who was licensed in EMDR and started sessions. After a number of sessions to build up trust, we began the eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. It was horrible, draining, and completely exhausting. After about ten sessions, I could see the word grape without first zeroing in on rape. I could see a white Volkswagon Jetta without my chest tightening. There were so many tiny triggers that I had been living with for ten years (yet thinking I was “fine”)- looking back I feel so sorry for the person that I was.

As much as I tried to run from my monkey- it caught up to me. If only I had allowed myself to process, grieve, and heal from the events when they occurred. But the ten years of hell I endured have made me the person that I am today- a strong, passionate, compassionate individual who recognizes that mental well-being and physical well-being go hand in hand. I met my husband about two weeks after my last round of EMDR therapy– and wouldn’t trade that for the world. 

Additionally, I am at eLuma because I recognize the importance of mental health and wellbeing. It’s okay not to be okay, and it is okay to ask for help. I want other people- whether they’re 6, 21, or 80,- to get the support they need. eLuma is committed to ensuring that K-12 students have access to therapy and counseling, and I am grateful to work for such an incredible organization. I think my 21-year-old self would be proud. 😊

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