I sat at my desk in my 6th-grade classroom, my anxiety mounting. I counted down the minutes until the big hand on the clock above the chalkboard finally reached noon. As my classmates emptied out of the room, headed to the cafeteria for lunch, my palms got cold and clammy, and I felt a growing sense of panic. I had to use the bathroom, but the prospect of entering a stall in the school’s boys’ room filled me with so much fear that doing so would be unthinkable. I would have to run home—fast, without soiling myself—and make it back before anyone noticed I was missing.
Fortunately, our house was only eight blocks from school. So, as my classmates ate Sloppy Joes, I flew down Oakland Avenue, never looking up from the sidewalk, until I made it to my street, down my block, into my house, up the stairs to the room I shared with my brother, and finally into our bathroom. I avoided a crisis that day… and managed to avoid the same crisis every school day of my life. Unfortunately, this extreme terror of public restrooms followed me into adulthood.
It was just one of the psychological disorders I coped with growing up. I suffered from multiple phobias, although I had no idea what a phobia was as a child and young adult. I thought being terrified of using a public restroom, having an acute fear of heights, and experiencing a full-blown panic attack at even the suggestion of intimacy with a woman was simply the way I was wired. It wasn’t until I reached my 60s that I realized I was wired that way for a reason, and it wasn’t simple at all.
I began psychotherapy in my 20s in Boston, and my search for emotional healing stretched over 22 years, three more cities, and seven different therapists. I was exposed to traditional talk therapy, CBT therapy, and intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy, but none of them offered any substantive or lasting relief. My search ended when I walked into the office of Dr. Jeffrey Magnavita in Glastonbury, CT. While my other therapists had focused on my various phobias, Dr. Magnavita zoomed out to look at the bigger picture of my life. To my surprise, he diagnosed the source of my phobias: trauma.
I was introduced to EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), an evidence-based, memory-focused trauma therapy. And from the very first EMDR session, I felt relief. Dr. Magnavita would guide me to a memory, physical sensation, or emotion from a particular time in my childhood and have me move my eyes from side to side, following his two fingers. This “bilateral stimulation,” a unique feature of EMDR therapy, allowed my brain to process memories that got frozen in my nervous system long ago, and this, in turn, led to a dramatic decrease in my symptoms. My past was no longer intruding into my present.
EMDR was life-changing. In time, I came to understand that I had suffered significant childhood trauma. The memories I processed in therapy were of extreme neglect and abuse at the hands of my parents, my brother, a school bully, and a pediatrician. These memories had been so fragmented in my conscious adult mind that I could never make sense of them. Yet, they haunted me and distorted how I viewed myself, the world, and the choices I made.
I have traded my old mental “operating system,” plagued with anxiety, doubt, fear, and a core belief of being worthless and unlovable, for a new one. I now wake up in the morning phobia-free, untethered, and at peace. I have become my authentic self, as I no longer need the facade I had created over the years to mask my internal turmoil. My brother, who tormented me when we were children, began his own EMDR journey a year ago, and this paved the way to a friendship I would have never believed possible after over 20 years of estrangement. The secrets we’ve shared over our weekly Zoom calls have created a strong and lasting bond that I will always treasure.
I disclose this part of my life story to you in the hope that it imparts two morals: 1) trauma is a part of life but needn’t be a source of shame, and 2) it doesn’t have to take a lifetime to recover from trauma; if you (or someone you know and care about) are suffering, seek out a certified EMDR therapist. It’s worth finding out if what was so transformational for me could be for you, too.
Michael Baldwin is a patient advocate and co-author of Every Memory Deserves Respect: EMDR, the Proven Trauma Therapy with the Power to Heal.