Case Study: EMDR Treatment – Steve

Steve developed C-PTSD after a number of traumas experienced in his childhood. After initial misdiagnosis, Steve finally received EMDR treatment which he says ‘helped no end’ and is now training to be a counsellor himself so he can help others. 

“Although only officially diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and Agoraphobia in the last year, I have and my counsellors have agreed that my diagnosis in the early 90’s of manic depression was wrong and it is far more like that I was suffering from C-PTSD right from an early stage, due to the many childhood traumas that I had suffered and which continued to suffer throughout my adult life.

Having no medically defined starting point to my C-PTSD I have to look back and I think late teens and early twenties is most likely, having suffered both domestic violence from my first girlfriend and abuse from my mother, I hid myself away not dating for over 16 years, unable to gain an erection, if turned on I would sneeze instead of any normal arousal reactions.

I would hide away from any person who showed interest in me, too scared to show affection or receive it, it was a very lonely and cold place. I grew a beard (highly unfashionable at this time) just to hide away from everyone, with no family support or a special lady, I threw myself into playing sport especially cricket and rugby, and with work took up all my time.

Three years ago, when watching a documentary about a man who had suffered domestic violence and spoke about how his wife had poured boiling water over him, I became very emotional and sought counselling, I worked with a person-centred counsellor, and I was lucky to connect with a charity that works with victims of crime. This did bring up many more instances of trauma and abuse from parents and others. I had 11 sessions and this worked well, I also had by then done the mental health first aiders course at work and that had woken an interest in supporting people with mental health issues so I began to train to become a counsellor.

Most of the effects had been buried alongside the traumas themselves until an incident, when someone who I had known for 8 years bullied me. This broke the ‘dam walls’ and the next day I found myself self-harming – something I’d never done before. I knew I was in trouble and managed to get somewhere and ask for help, I continued to bang my head against the wall and try to injure myself, some of the staff tried to help by telling me to ‘stop that nonsense’.  

In these few minutes my life fell apart. From managing a large department with six staff and over a hundred acres of sports pitches, to a man unable to do the simplest tasks such as cooking, cleaning or leaving the house unless with my wife and then only to the car. I couldn’t make a decision, or stand any loud noises especially sirens. I would cower in the corner wrapping my arms around my head at the smallest issue totally unable to cope.

Nightmares became a nightly occurrence, becoming more vivid and disturbing each day, sometimes up to 3 separate ones a night during the day I would get flashbacks – not just of the last incident, but many traumas I had buried deep into my subconscious, these were varied and so overwhelming I felt unable to function at all.

I returned to my original counsellor who worked as a person-centred counsellor and it became very obvious it wasn’t going to work now, I had an online appointment with the crisis mental health team who referred me to the secondary mental health team and then I had an appointment with a psychiatrist who diagnosed C-PTSD and Agoraphobia prescribed mirtazapine, and spoke about going on the waiting list for EMDR.

I had heard of this and in fact had done a presentation on PTSD for my counselling course and while researching this had come across a book called “The body keeps the score” by Bessel van der Kolk who spoke about EMDR and the fantastic results he had seen with patients suffering PTSD, unfortunately on the NHS the waiting list for EMDR with someone suffering C-PTSD was at least two years, this was a huge set back. However, luck was on my side.

My wife works at a local charity who have many counsellors who rent rooms from them and it just happened that a new counsellor who offered EMDR had moved into the building and as part of the agreement they have to do a certain number of free sessions, she offered me as many free sessions as I needed, I know how lucky I was.

Because I had researched EMDR I had a fair understanding how it would work, I was nervous before my first session, however because it was in the same building where my wife worked, I was able to get to the first session. Because I had had so many traumas I had written a time line of my traumas and this ran to 12 pages of A4, in the first session we went through my time line, sorted out the contract and the therapist spoke about how she worked, she would ask me to choose a starting point and then I would watch as she moved two fingers side to side at a constant speed I would then tell her what had come to my mind and score the emotional response out of ten. The therapist asked me to think of a safe place I could go to in my mind and by crossing my arms over my chest and lift each hand in turn slowly this is how I would reset at the end of each session; it also became useful when anxious in other situations. The therapist warned me that it would be tough and I could well feel worse before it became easier and other traumas may surface, both these came true however it did get better slowly.

The next session we would start EMDR, the therapist warned me that it would be very tough emotionally, however I wasn’t ready for how overwhelming it was, I started at the incident of bullying, and the therapist slowly moved two fingers side to side and I followed them with my eyes the memories came back, it was as if I was there again and I just burst into tears struggling to breath wasn’t helped by having to wear a mask due to the Covid 19 restrictions. I was asked to state what had come up and to score the emotions out of ten.

The therapist started again by asking to go back to the same starting point which I did the brain then sent me off to an incident in childhood linked to bullying and again I had severe emotional reaction to this, the session continued like this for the therapeutic hour and the therapist wrote notes as we went, I had 18 different starting points in the first session and this continued throughout my 35 sessions topping off at 21 in some sessions.

It is very draining and certainly for the first 10, sessions it took a couple of days to recover and I would take diazepam to relax and calm down, but slowly as I had more sessions the intensity reduced greatly, although when new traumas surfaced there could still be tough days following a session, including an increase in flashbacks and nightmares.

Because of the complex nature of my C-PTSD my brain could go anywhere during the sessions and things that on the surface bared no connection, would be connected by my subconscious and then I would verbalise this, as we revisited the traumas my emotional reaction to them would reduce over the weeks so eventually my emotional a physical reaction would be reduce to manageable levels.

As the weeks went by the original traumas did trigger less emotional response, however new traumas would surface and they would be at the high end of the scoring system, the adverse reactions to the sessions also diminished as did the severity and frequency of the nightmares and flashbacks to the point a year later they are a very occasional occurrence and usually after something triggers me.

Several months after my last sessions I have made huge strides especially with the C-PTSD and I know that EMDR helped no end. It reprogrammed my brain not to react so severely to the memories of my traumas to the point that I can discuss them without any severe emotional reaction, my triggers have also been reduced. I am still struggling being around large groups of people, although this is more to do with my agoraphobia.

When I started level 4 in counselling, I had to find a counsellor who worked using the same theory I wanted to work in so I had to finish with my EMDR therapist, however I was ready to move on and the Person-centred counsellor is also helping not only with my college work but also getting out of the ‘Drama triangle’ where I’ve been playing the victim for many years.

When starting with my first counsellor I was ready to talk through the issues that the programme had reminded me off but it wasn’t the right theory when in crisis, however EMDR was the right therapy for me at that crisis point, it was extremely tough but in a fairly short space of time I noticed improvements and because of the sheer number and variety of traumas I still have bad days but I use the “butterfly” technique and go to my safe space and I can recover quickly.

I have also found that doing my counselling course has helped no end giving me a focus, weekly classes with a very supportive group and my C-PTSD has not been a hindrance but will make me a much better counsellor and I may in time train to work with EMDR. 

It was very tough especially at the start; however it has made a huge difference to my life and without it I wouldn’t have been able to start level 4 and pass my fitness to practice exam, in the next few weeks I will begin my placement to work with clients and EMDR helped me to get to that point.

To those suffering from PTSD, I’d say get EMDR if you can. It won’t be an easy ride but it helped me no end. You do have to relive your traumas and this can be very tough especially at the beginning, but things do improve over time.

I was very fortunate to be able to get free EMDR and my wife has also been very supportive and I couldn’t have faced this without her.”


*Please note, to protect the identity of our supporter, his name and image have been changed. 

Photo by Kevin Bidwell

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