After the Attack, the Work

I’m not sure if this was a “secret,” if I intentionally haven’t written about this because it was too personal, or what. Well. The thing is, since I was beaten to a bloody pulp by a couple of thugs outside my home Metro stop back in DC over two years ago, I’d been in therapy to deal with the psychological aftermath. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and I underwent two years of treatment using a therapy known as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), working to heal some of the damage that was not visible on my face, head, and body.
And today was my last day.

So I’m cured! I am now officially devoid of any psychological problems. I am the very picture of mental health. I have the perfect psyche.

Well, no, but I’ve come a long way, and if I haven’t written about therapy before, I figure a good way to mark the occasion is to talk about it in this public forum. Or maybe it’s not, and this is a bad idea. Maybe I’m looking for something of a back-pat from the interwebs, and maybe I just need to, as it were, say it out loud to make it real.

When I started therapy two years ago, I was a wreck. My wife and I had decided to leave DC rather suddenly after the attack, figuring that we’d be better off in Maine, surrounded by my wife’s family (which is an awesome family), living in an environment far less hostile than DC, and giving our then-infant son a better place to grow up.

But of course, we arrived with little in the way of plans. We lived with relatives for a time, and I scrambled for employment (I had been working for the Secular Coalition for America at the time of the attack, but was already on my way out). It was a long time before I felt together enough to work, or to even look for work, and the pickings were rather slim. My work experience, my advanced degree in political management, none of it mattered much now that I was far away from Washington. I had to take what I could get.

So during my first session with my therapist, the cast had just come off my arm, we were broke, I was unemployed, my wife was still looking for permanent employment, we were living with one of my in-laws, and I was in such a dark, ugly place that I began to see my very existence as a detriment to the well-being of my wife and son. I had nightmares and would sink into reveries of sadness and guilt, or from out of nowhere would experience a sense of panic, feeling a need to physically run away from…toward…I didn’t know. Sad, scared, ashamed, paranoid, embarrassed, weary, resigned, terrified.

Therapy, if you’re doing it right, will get to work on the problem you came in for, yes, but will also address whatever might surround the event in question, other things in my life and mind that gave the attack the meaning that I would come to give it. I think we did it right. The work we did in therapy certainly targeted the assault — heavily — but managed to clean out a lot of other cruft that had built up over the years, over the decades. The attack was an extremely traumatic event, of course, but it had been colored by myriad other events from my past, a sickly array of self-conceptions and assumptions that I had spent a lifetime inculcating myself with, being miseducated about by the world around me. We targeted that stuff, too.

We didn’t fix it all, but we shrunk it. We got me to perceive those things as closer to their actual size, to their actual power. I didn’t lose all my misperceptions about myself or how others see me, but I learned to at least acknowledge that they may not all be true. Guys, I’m telling you, that’s huge.

You know what? I got bored with the memory of the attack. What was once a horror movie I would replay in my head over and over with new feelings of terror and dread with each mental reenactment, eventually became a sad rerun of a show that I was tired of seeing. That, I’m telling you, is huge.

So I’m not “cured.” I don’t think I ever will be, and quite frankly, I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to lose what will now forever be a part of my story, a part of who I am. What the work helped accomplish was making the attack no longer define who I am. And it began the work of not letting all the darkness that came before it define who I am — the years of mockery, bullying, and harassment all through middle and high school, the professional failures and life mistakes made in adulthood, my hangups and neuroses. Not exclusively define me, anyway. They will all always be a part of me, but I learned that they’re not all that I am.

You know what I think was the big tip-off that it was time to wrap things up? When my therapist realized that the things that troubled me, that the things that consumed me, were, well, predictable. Banal. My toddler is behaving badly. Work is stressful. Money is always tight. But that’s stuff everyone deals with. And that’s what was consuming me. Not self-doubt. Not a tar pit of guilt and shame. Not terror and fear. Just, you know, the life of a grownup with kids. It’s, well, normal.

I never thought I could ever describe anything about myself that way. I’ll take it.

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(For previous writings on this topic, you can read posts under this tag.)

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About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.