Everyone tells you when you’re having a hard time, especially when you had a lot of trauma as a kid, that you should “go talk to someone.” “You should “find a good therapist.” But for me, talk therapy didn’t help, and I want to tell you why.
At the beginning of 2020, I posted a video called “If I Had Just One Year to Heal,” and I listed ten things I’d do, if magically, I could go back in time knowing what I know now about what allowed heal from Childhood PTSD symptoms — but this time I had to heal in just one year. I listed ten things — stuff like getting out of unhealthy relationships, reading the groundbreaking books on trauma right away, getting off cigarettes, not talking so much about my problems all the time — things like that. And I even made a worksheet that viewers could download to list their ten things they’d do if they, just as a thought exercise, knew they had just one year to heal. This was one of my most popular videos of the year, and two months later, dozens of people are still downloading it every day.
But a few people have asked me to clarify why one of the things I put on my list was that I’d quit therapy long before I actually did quit therapy. I said in the video it wan’t helping me.
So I wanted to follow up on that and affirm that yes, I definitely wish I had quit therapy earlier. But I want to clarify that I’m not saying you should quit therapy. And in this article and video, I wanted to elaborate and tell you what did work for me — how I learned to heal my trauma without the downsides of therapy that were making it so destructive for me.
So first — if you are in therapy and it helps you, you have my 100% encouragement to keep doing that. I have therapist friends, and I’ve known many, many people who find therapy to be a positive and transformative place of healing. They love their therapists so much they can’t imagine how anyone could have a different experience.
Well, I had a different experience. I know why now, and it makes total sense, but I didn’t know why back then and it was crushing to me. And because the thing that works for other people so well didn’t work for me — I felt extra broken, and truly alone.
My aunt and uncle paid for me to go to my first therapy visit when I was 14, and the way it felt yucky then was the same way it felt yucky every time I ever tried therapy over the next many decades. All In all, I saw eleven different therapists, several of them for a year or more. A couple of them turned out to be not very capable people, but the rest were well-trained, kind, and sincere in their willingness to hang in there with me. Only two of the therapists — and this was only in the last five years when I scheduled appointments for EMDR and then professional advice for this channel — really knew about Complex Trauma and how to handle it (and this makes sense because this science has not been published very long).
But even then, talking with them about my trauma was a miserable experience for me. In each case it cost me about three days of any ability to focus or work or express myself clearly, either speaking, or writing. That’s how much talk therapy doesn’t work for me.
There’s a word for what happens to me when I talk about these things: It’s called dysregulation. It’s a brain and nervous system “state” where brain waves and body rhythms get out of sync, or irregular, in some cases disrupting physiological and cognitive processes. I talk a lot about this in a lot of other videos, and in my online courses, but just in case your’re new to my channel or this concept, I’ll just say that, when I’m dysregulated, it can feel like sensory overload, or sometimes like a big flat nothing. I get numb and clumsy and have trouble stringing words together. My handwriting changes and if people ask me a lot of questions I get completely overwhelmed.
If I’m asked to talk about hard things that happened in the past, I feel like I want to talk about it, but very soon my abiliy to be present or focused just flies out the window. I’ve often described it as being like wearing headphones with loud, chaotic music blasting in my ears — and then trying to pretend I’m right here and everything’s fine. But it’s totally stressful.
I used to think everybody felt this way when they went to therapy. I’d come in with some normal-sized life challenge and within the course of the hour, I’d just deteriorate into confusion and crying. I’d be a wreck for days. The next week I’d come back composed, and announce that I felt better and hoped to continue the conversation, and then by the end of the hour, it’d be like the headphones again. I could talk about my feelings, but my feelings would kind of amplify and the point I was making would get completely lost. It felt more like a rant than anything therapeutic, and I would secretly be feeling really defensive because every comment or question hit me like a bombardment. It was too much.
I was always treated kindly while this went on. Therapists accepted this reaction as me just “dealing with my stuff,” but the life problems that had me seeking therapy — most of them problems of my own making, and some of them quite hurtful to other people — never got their proper air time. In fact I never solved those problems or developed even a plan to do so while I was in therapy, in one case talking about other things for two years. And this is a slightly different reason why therapy didn’t feel helpful to me, but there never seemed to be much emphasis on finding my role in my problems.
So one strategy I used, just to keep the conversation moving in a constructive direction, was limiting how much I told them about my worst emotions. I felt like I couldn’t afford to deal with all their feelings about my despair, and the way I’d come to fear they’d make me talk about that. I was hoping that just moving ahead and trying to solve life problems would do more to lift my depression than just talking about the depression. I didn’t feel safe to be honest with therapists, and that does kind of defeat the purpose!
The science of trauma and the signs that it’s activated, weren’t known at that time. So again, it’s not their fault. But I wish those therapists had the eyes to see that for heaven’s sakes, talking about traumatic memories was destroying me! I needed another way!
I remember at the end of every session, it was always time to write a check. And no therapist ever seemed to notice how much I struggled to do this one, simple thing. Write their name, write the date and the amount, spell out the amount and sign my name. My hands would be shaking, my handwriting was illegible, I’d get so discombobulated I’d have tear up three or four checks before I could get one right. These are classic, overt signs of dysregulation! I would actually feel embarrassed to be such a dope that I couldn’t even write a check. But now I just want to go back and hug myself and say It’s OK, when you feel this way after something that’s supposed to help you, it’s NOT helping you!
I’d feel so after every session I’d have to go sit in my car and cry, and wonder what the hell was wrong with me. It’d be 45 minutes sometimes before I could pull myself together enough to drive.
They didn’t know… I didn’t know. But I had Childhood PTSD, and just like so many people who have what I have, I was dysregulated.
Maybe you have that too, and maybe you’re hearing this for the first time, and if you’re identifying I just hope you feel the huge, warm wave of relief that I felt when I learned that that’s why all this talk therapy never helped me.
But I did get help. I got help and I recovered. I stumbled on to what worked for me, and I just hope I can save you years of stumbling so you can find more quickly the kinds of professional help and self-help that work for you.
So I’m going to tell you, just so you know, what worked for me. I teach all this in my online courses if you want the full story, and to be walked through it. But in nutshell, I was able to process my trauma through techniques that didn’t require telling stories. I’ll tell you the smaller solution and then the really big one.
The smaller, quicker solution that helped me was EMDR — that’s a technique considered legitimate by mental health professionals, and effective for many people. It helps to change the triggered reaction we get to traumatic memories. I’ll put a link down below in the description section, so you can get more information about that if you want. But when I tried it, my practitioner didn’t make me tell the stories. He said “Think of the traumatic memory — what you saw, what happened.” And then we proceeded without me ever having to tell the details of that memory at all. And it worked! Did you know that? EMDR does not require that you talk about hard things, at all, to work! How about that?
The second, more significant solution was that I lucked into the writing technique that’s part of the Daily Practice I teach. That’s a free online course, and I put a link to that below too. The woman who showed it to me told me to write my fears and resentments on paper — and again, this is a specific technique — and then periodically call her and read to her what I wrote. I could write about my trauma no problem, And it turns out I could read what I wrote also with no problem.
So I was able to share what was hurting me, without having to just tell stories. When I called her she’d say “Did you write today?” and make me just read — not just talk off the top of my head, about whatever was on my mind.
There are many reasons why this was brilliant, but especially, in my case, it saved me from talking about trauma. Reading to her once in a while, and writing my fears and resentments several times a day, always made me feel better, more composed, more regulated. It would be years before I had words for the radically healing effect this had on me, but I know from day one I wanted to keep doing it!
So flash forward to the present, I’m still using these techniques, and teaching them to other people is the foundation of what I’m doing on my YouTube channel and on my website and in my courses. At the time of this taping more than 60,000 people have connected with me to learn it, and I get literally hundreds of mails and comments each week with expressions of gratitude and amazement how helpful it is, as well as questions about how to make it work better. Serving all of you is the happiest and most purposeful calling I could ever hope to have.
And I get a tiny bit of critical mail. Sometimes just garden variety hate mail, which happens to anyone online. But I’ve gotten a few angry mails and online comments from therapists saying things like, “You should know that people with trauma must only work through these issues in the care of a licensed therapist.” Or they say flat out: “Who do you think you are to try to help people!”
Here’s who I think I am. I’m someone who suffered with Childhood PTSD to the point that it was life threatening, and even though conventional methods of treatment didn’t work for me, I persevered and found techniques that did work for me. I experiment, I read, I offer help to others around the world who relate to my story and are as desperate as I was to find a way to calm and heal their symptoms.
To be truly helpful, I have to be honest about what it was like before my healing, what it felt like when I tried to heal, and how healing ended up happening (it’s still happening; we’re never done, right?).
And the end result is so much more than some online chat among people with a problem. The Crappy Childhood Fairy is a place where people everywhere come to learn from each other and help each other. It’s not just bunch of videos, it’s a movement, a revolution. And thankfully, many of the most passionate supporters and contributors of knowledge are therapists, as well as doctors and psychiatrists and social workers and teachers and parents and writers and social media influencers. It’s a movement that recognizes healing as the outcome we want, not merely treatment, not the preservation of old rules and ideas about who is in charge of healing.
I am in charge of my healing. You are in charge of your healing. We ask professionals for guidance and we ask survivors for guidance, and when it doesn’t serve, we try something else. I am grateful for everyone drawn to this cause, into the service of helping one another to heal!
If you’re a therapist, I offer my thanks for everything you have contributed, for dedicating your life to the service of healing, for getting us this far and being part of everything we are now learning.
We’re not just victims and we’re not just patients or populations or at-risk youth or whatever label denies each of us the dignity, the sovereignty over our own healing. Now we are one movement, professionals and people who seek professional help. We are leaders and visionaries and warriors for change. We are human beings, each of us with tremendous potential to be more than we are right now, to have more knowledge and more joy and more connection to our true purpose in this world, and yes, more healing than anyone thought was going to be possible.
I’m happy and proud to be here. I feel called to be a voice of this movement.
So if anyone out there is still wondering who the hell do I think I am? That’s who.
And I hope you will be too.
You can learn more about my online course, Healing Childhood PTSD, here.
You can learn the writing and meditation techniques I mentioned in this article in my free online course, The Daily Practice.
If you’d like to learn more about common symptoms experienced by adults who grew up with abuse and neglect, you can take my quiz.
If you love videos, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel!