Episode 21 - Obstacles in Recovery - How to Cope with Anxiety, Depression and PTSD
Have you ever felt crippled by anxiety and the traumatic effects of life? If so, join us for this enlightening episode as we hear from McCall Dempsey (you may remember her from episode #14). She shares the process of choosing to stay in eating disorder recovery even in the midst of depression, trauma and PTSD. Cultivating the art of coping allowed her to thrive in extremely difficult situations and shows us all that recovery is a process of living fully.
McCall Dempsey: I started to have horrific nightmares, just really, really vivid nightmares. Then, I started to have these panic moments where I could see people in front of me getting hurt, where I could visualize, all of a sudden, I'm driving down the road and I see my car flipping over and my kids are in it with me.
It became very clear to me that, okay, yes, this is-- [00:00:30] I need to move forward pretty quickly for this in finding this help and support that I deserved to live without having panic attacks when I'm driving with my kids in the car. I deserve to be able to go to the beach and not have this massive fear that Marjorie's going to drown in an inch of water. Because of recovery, I knew that there was a life that I deserved, and living in this state of [00:01:00] fear and trauma and just paralyzing anxiety was not what I deserved and that I wanted better.
Ellie Pike: You may remember McCall Dempsey's voice from episode 14, where we talked about eating disorders and her journey out of the worst of them. What happens when you find recovery? [00:01:30] Life's supposed to be better, right? Well, turns out, it looks like life. It's messy, busy, and while there's increased beauty, it still brings disappointment and hardship. In this episode, you'll hear how McCall chooses to stay in recovery even when she encounters depression, anxiety, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder. You're listening to Mental Note Podcast. I'm Ellie Pike.
McCall: [00:02:00] We didn't have a lot of recovery speakers back when I was in treatment. What I did know was from books that I read or stories online, and it seemed like-- Then, I recovered. Life was awesome. Yes, that didn't happen, and it doesn't happen because that's just not life. For me, [00:02:30] it was something that I worked really hard on my recovery, and then, I was met with just an avalanche of life changes starting in May 2014. I found out I was pregnant with my daughter Marjorie, which was great and exciting, but then, we were moving. Then, she was born early, and then, she was diagnosed with cancer.
While these cards are some of the worse that a parent can be dealt, it's certainly not what many people experience [00:03:00] after eating disorder recovery but it's also-- I think there's a parallel and that bad things are going to happen, and then, they're not. It's how can we use our recovery skills to not just survive these times but thrive through them.
Ellie: Here you were, you already had one child, you're going to have a second child, you find out her diagnosis of cancer, and you're moving, [00:03:30] and life is happening really fast, and it's horrifying, and you're feeling all your emotions because you're not numbing out with an eating disorder, what was that like for you to go through that process?
McCall: When Marjorie was born early and I had been in the hospital because I ruptured at 25 weeks, it was just this whirlwind of, "What happened?" During that time, there was also the physical [00:04:00] part of my body having gone through intense bed rest to a huge surgery to have her, and then, trying to come out of that physically. Then, also, emotionally and mentally, seeing my child weighing 1 pound 15 ounces, not knowing what the next day might bring, it was just-- You'd get into this mama bear survival mode. The only thing I knew to do during that time was to just [00:04:30] reach out and talk about it. For me, that came in the form of writing.
I know many people that read Marjorie's story-- That really wasn't for anyone else. It wasn't to update folks on Marjorie, maybe a little bit of it was, but the main thing was that was what kept me afloat, was being able to share and to write because during my eating disorder recovery, I cultivated this awesome gift and passion [00:05:00] for writing. That is what really helped move me along and helped me be honest and open about what I was feeling and what I was thinking, what I was going through, and having other people reach out and say, "Me too." That was always really important, was just continuing to use my voice and not pretending like I was fine.
I think that I spent all my years [00:05:30] in the eating disorder pretending like I was fine. During these really challenging times, I said, "No, I'm not going to pretend that everything is sunshine and roses because, obviously, it's not," and reaching out and accepting help and support and prayers and dinners at home for Manning and Jordan when I wasn't there. It's being able just to really be where you are and be open with that, and open your heart to letting others in and letting others help you.
Ellie: [00:06:00] One thing we know about McCall from our past interview, she's a deeply sensitive soul. The helpful side of this rests in her empathy and ability to connect, but the pitfalls pop up because she's highly affected by external events and traumatic experiences. You can only imagine how a big move and her daughter's premature birth and subsequent cancer battle affected her.
McCall: [00:06:30] Years and years ago, my therapist, Mary, one day said, "McCall, your sensitivity is a beautiful gift." I remember I looked at her like she was crazy because I grew up in my family with the saying, "McCall, you're too sensitive. Stop being sensitive." Mary explained that, "Your sensitivity is a gift. It helps you connect. It helps you have an intuition with people and feelings and empathy, but it's also a gift that you have to nurture and take [00:07:00] care of."
My sensitivity also makes me really susceptible to great emotions and feelings after times of trauma. When those times would come up with the grief and the loss, I really had to know how to label them and give it space. I knew from my recovery that the only way I would move through this journey, in this process, was to give it space and to grieve and to let myself feel and to reach out [00:07:30] and have sessions with Mary and talk through those times.
Ellie: It sounds like shifting the energy from fighting to accepting, and then, taking care of yourself and your family.
McCall: Yes. It goes back to a big lesson I learned in my eating disorder recovery. I spent so much of my first two weeks wanting to pinpoint the exact reason why my eating disorder started. I mean, I was journaling 24/7 in circles, just trying to figure out, "Why? Why? Why?" Christy, [00:08:00] my therapist, actually took my journal and said, "Okay, no more. You are going to use a sketchbook now," because I was wasting so much energy on the why instead of just accepting this is where I was and focusing on recovery.
Sometimes, I think the most important part is knowing that the process is just sitting and just being still in the moment and letting yourself grieve and letting yourself feel and letting yourself lean on others for support. Sometimes, the process doesn't feel productive. This [00:08:30] is what I always tell people, especially in treatment, "Your process, some days is the most productive days or the days when you do "nothing", where you sit and your journal, and a lot of times us, busy bees, want to be checking off our to-do list. Part of the healing process is learning just to be still and sit in that pain and sadness.
Ellie: At some point, you started to notice the side-effects of sitting with that trauma and just eventually starting to feel it long term. You've described to me [00:09:00] flashbacks and fear and panic attacks. A lot of people can relate with anxiety, but this is a whole another level of anxiety. When did those start to come up for you, and what did they look like?
McCall: I started to notice the nightmares and extreme worry after Marjorie was finished with chemotherapy. Probably, later in the fall, I started to feel-- She was diagnosed with cancer in May 2015. Then, [00:09:30] by October, we were done with chemo, but we were doing scans and monitoring. That's when big feelings and waves of grief and loss would come up. Those I could identify and say, "Okay, I need to call Mary and have a session, or I just need to write, or I need to do X, Y, and Z."
It got to a level where it was panic, where it was hard for me to drive while long distances. It was hard for me to [00:10:00] simply go to the grocery store and let my kids walk in the parking lot without feeling like a car was going to come and run them over. I started to really notice those. I hadn't seen Mary because we don't live in the same town now that I live in Florida. I went back to New Orleans and she said, "McCall, what you're describing is a lot of PTSD-type symptoms, and I think EMDR would be helpful."
She described what EMDR is. [00:10:30] I thought she was crazy because it is a very different therapy method or process. I left her session that day thinking about it, but we were in the process of moving again from Georgia to Florida. With the move upon us, I really didn't have time to focus or find an EMDR specialist in Jacksonville, and I just put it on the back burner.
However, with the move, it triggered everything that happened with the move from Baton Rouge [00:11:00] to Georgia. Once again, I have this panic of, "Okay, last time I moved, my entire world came crashing down on me." Then, all of a sudden, I'm facing another move and all of these fears started to come up and the nightmare started again. It started to really overtake my day, and I knew that I needed to do something.
Ellie: [00:11:30] What did the healing process look like for you from all of the symptoms of PTSD, which stands for post-traumatic stress disorder? The flashbacks, the panic attacks, the nightmares, what did help you heal?
McCall: It's really hard for me to wrap my head around PTSD and having these symptoms that were PTSD, but I didn't have what is often thought of as war [00:12:00] or sexual trauma or anything like that. I just kept saying, "That can't be right." Then, I had a horrific panic attack, and I thought, "Yes, I need some help." Thankfully, my therapist, Christy, helped me find someone here in Jacksonville, where I live now, that specializes in EMDR. As reluctant as I was, it goes back [00:12:30] to really trusting those people around me. I found someone here in Jacksonville, and we started the EMDR process.
It's definitely unlike any type of talk therapy that I've done extensively for years. That process for me was more difficult than I could have ever imagined, in the sense of really bringing everything back up to the surface and feeling just cracked wide open. [00:13:00] Then, all of a sudden, it was-- Probably, after about six sessions of full-on EMDR, all of a sudden, just noticed one day, I was in the parking lot with my kids, going through the grocery store, and I was fine.
It's not to say that I've never had a panic attack since, but in that moment, I realized this shift. I felt like I was [00:13:30] starting to feel whole again, and that this was making a difference. This crazy EMDR that I had been doing that was so difficult was starting to make a difference. It came in these really tiny moments where I could drive down the interstate and I didn't have these horrible visions, and the nightmare started to really diminish. I'm still blown away by the EMDR process and how it helped me heal.
Ellie: [00:14:00] PTSD has seeped into our cultural consciousness without most of us really knowing what it even means or how treatments like EMDR can rewire our brain to help mitigate symptoms. To get a clearer picture, I sat down with Lara Schuster Effland, licensed clinical social worker and regional managing director of clinical operations at ERC and Insight Behavioral Health Centers. [00:14:30]
Lara Schuster Effland: [00:14:30] I'm Lara Effland. I'm an LCSW, and I'm the managing director of clinical operations for Washington. I'm also one of the national leaders of our Mood and Anxiety in Insight Behavioral Health Centers Program.
Ellie: Could you just describe in layman's terms what PTSD is?
Lara: Post-traumatic stress disorder is essentially a condition that develops over time, in which an individual is really struggling to manage the internal [00:15:00] distress that one starts to experience, hyperarousal, lack of concentration, inability to really feel as though they can make connections that are starting to relieve anxiety or emotional distress. Instead, they just feel this pervasive underlying feeling as though something bad or something is wrong all the time.
Ellie: Is it pretty common to experience flashbacks, nightmares, signs and symptoms in that regard?
Lara: It's actually more common to have nightmares [00:15:30] or intrusive thoughts. You could have intrusive images or intrusive memories that occur. Rather than those commonly experiencing flashbacks, they may more experience dissociation or depersonalization. Dissociation is as though you've really lost the track of time. You're no longer really aware of what just occurred, is almost becomes lost in thought, lost in your memories, your physical sensations, or you just have no [00:16:00] awareness of what happened. Then, depersonalization is though you've had this out of body experience where you're floating above and looking down or you're witnessing what's going on versus feeling like you're present.
Ellie: Feeling really detached from yourself?
Lara: Yes, absolutely.
Ellie: How long does it take for someone to develop PTSD?
Lara: The DSM-5 says that at least one month of these symptoms and that you've actually seen a progression of intensity and severity, but sometimes, [00:16:30] it can take up to 12 years for these symptoms to actually develop into post-traumatic stress disorder. Really, it varies on the circumstances, the environment, the number of times that that individual is experiencing something because there can also be chronic trauma, where it's prolonged over time, and that person is just in survivor mode. Then, later in life, they develop those PTSD symptoms when they're no longer in that circumstance.
Ellie: In McCall's story and her effort to address [00:17:00] the PTSD symptoms, she started to go to therapy and she received treatment called EMDR, can you explain a little bit about that, and also, what other types of treatments are available?
Lara: EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It's an evidence-based treatment for PTSD and other types of high levels of distress situations. Essentially, what you do is you go back to that memory, and it's an internal process. [00:17:30] You're not sharing it out loud, you're not speaking through it, instead, you're just holding it within yourself, and you're becoming mindful of that and the whole experience of it, the physical sensations, the thought, the emotions that go along with it.
Also, there tends to be a bilateral stimulation of some kind. The bilateral stimulation can also be-- Some research has said, it's a way as a grounding tool, it's a way to stay present, to really be with the thoughts, and as a reminder of being in the present while you're doing this reprocessing.
Ellie: [00:18:00] When you say bilateral stimulation, you're talking about using both sides of the brain-
Lara: Yes, correct.
Ellie: - when someone process something.
Lara: Yes, absolutely. It's also both sides of the brain while it's also happening in between two sides. A light is going between left, right, left, right. The vibration of these object is left, right, left, right. That's also bilateral.
Ellie: The idea would be to process this trauma and to help it be reorganized in the brain in a more healthy way?
Lara: Exactly. What happens [00:18:30] with post-traumatic stress disorder is during the traumatic event, your memory is it's almost-- If you want to think of it as like Swiss cheese, there's a lot of holes to the story. The brain, as you're processing it over time, is taking a lot of core beliefs with the way that you're perceiving the world. When you've been through a traumatic event, the world feels very so it starts to make associations, it starts to make connections that are more in line or [00:19:00] evidenced of the traumatic event, not evidenced by the world is safe, the world is okay.
What happens over time is the brain starts to try to find more safety and security than it does being open and spontaneous and willing to try new things. That Swiss cheese memory actually needs to be reorganized, and that's what these evidence-based treatments for trauma are doing, is that they're taking the way that it was stored and they're starting [00:19:30] to find maybe some parts of it that, yes, we understand where it comes from but the way you're putting it together is actually making it harder for you to live, harder for you to be open to life, and actually keeping you stuck in the past.
Like McCall was saying, I think that it is really important to recognize both the PTSD and the eating disorder, and using EMDR was an excellent approach, especially if she [00:20:00] felt like it was a good fit for her because really research shows, time and time again, with trauma treatment, it's what feels the best fit for the individual. McCall, with all the work that she was doing on her eating disorder, she was getting to know herself better, and knowing that EMDR was going to work for her is excellent.
Ellie: One thing that McCall repeatedly stressed to me was her need to go back to the [00:20:30] basics in addition to doing therapy for trauma. You had to go back to the basics. You had to remind yourself, "I need to eat, and I need to take care of myself," because it would be so easy to get caught up in everything going on at the hospital and taking care of your daughter and whirlwind, right? What was that for you? What was going back to the basics like?
McCall: It would have been really easy to fall back into restriction [00:21:00] and the eating disorder because I was driving an hour and a half to the hospital and an hour and a half home, so I was driving three hours round trip, and then, I had a few precious hours at Marjorie's bedside every day. It could have been very easy to say, "No, I'm not going to have lunch. I'll eat something when I get back in the car." I also knew that not only was it not putting recovery first but it wasn't putting my family and myself first, and that in order [00:21:30] to be the mom that my kids deserve and that I deserve to be that I need to go back to the basics. For me, that's just sticking with a meal plan.
It wasn't like I have one written out. It's been many years. I don't work with a nutritionist anymore, but I knew I have to step away and eat lunch. It was a really hard thing. The easier thing would have been to sit there and just be with Marjorie the whole day. The hard thing is leaving your baby for that 1 hour or 30 minutes, whatever it is, and going to eat, [00:22:00] doing things like stepping away and eating and make sure I was drinking a lot of water and just really basic human needs that are often overlooked in these times of trial that we have to keep going for our kids, but really for ourselves.
That starts with fueling our bodies, nourishing our bodies, resting our bodies. Knowing the days when I really couldn't make that drive and listening to the nurses who would look at me and say, "You're not coming in tomorrow." [00:22:30] Nurse Lisa would look at me and say, "You're not coming." Because of what I went through with the eating disorder and learning how to trust the team and people around me-- Because during times of whether it was the eating disorder or Marjorie stuff, there comes a point sometimes when we can't listen to our own heads because we're just in such a place of turmoil that I knew I needed to rely on the people around me and the people that I trust, and that was really hard. The easier thing is just to keep pushing on, pushing on, but in the long run that does a complete disservice [00:23:00] to my children and to myself and my recovery.
Ellie: I love what you said about having friends that you called out for help but also they helped you set your own boundaries where, with their help, you could limit how much you were able to give because you had to take care of yourself too. I imagine that that's a really big challenge when you have a child who's sick and you want to take care of them.
McCall: It was really hard. It was a horrible day not being with Marjorie. You feel like you're failing as a mom because you can't be with your child, [00:23:30] but yet, you need to be with your other child and you need to heal your own body. It was a really hard back and forth and feeling all sorts of sadness and grief and grieving the loss of my baby belly. Something so simple and something that oftentimes our society is getting back to losing the baby belly, and all I wanted was to have it back, what I would give to have my child back safely within me.
Ellie: [00:24:00] A lot of the recovery process looks like stacking blocks. The first attempts may topple easily, but once you find out how to build a foundation, you can build higher and stronger than you ever thought possible. The raw materials of that foundation are our values, things that we really care about. Just like Lara explained, they help you know what direction to take each step of the way. What are those top values [00:24:30] that kept McCall's life from unraveling all over again? Purpose, relationships, family, being present, and using her voice.
Another piece of your healing process, I feel like you used the word radical acceptance earlier, and I'm just curious what that means to you, and what that was like the role of acceptance and your whole grieving process?
McCall: Radical acceptance has been [00:25:00] huge for me in this eating disorder journey to now, just throughout life. I think that there's so much in life that we can't control. Sometimes, we, myself, obviously included, I want to control everything, and that was a lot of what's came from the eating disorder was that perfectionism and wanting to tie everything up in a perfect box and have everything color coordinated on my calendar.
Radical acceptance is just about exhaling and saying, "Yes. [00:25:30] This is out of my control, but what I can do is say, "Yes, this happened. This sucks, and this is what I need to do to move through it." I did not want to go to EMDR. I did not want to do those sessions. I mean, I would have panic attacks on my way to EMDR because it was so difficult, but I just kept wrapping my head around like, "This is where I am right now, and this is what I need to do." Just putting one foot in front of the other and saying, "I deserve better than this. My kidsdeserve [00:26:00] better than this. I've been dealt some really crappy cards, but this is how I can overcome them. This is what I can do to continue driving through my life, and to be there for my family and for my children."
For me, to be a good mom means I have to have a full cup, and I have to do things that make me me. I love being a mom, but that's just part of who I am. [00:26:30] One of my top things is really doing stuff that fuels my spirit. In doing so, I'm able to be even more present with my kids, and that motivation to always be there and to give them a life in a home that's obviously filled with love, but a home that's filled with really authentic people, where our kids can show up and be seen in whatever way that they're feeling in that moment is something that I really always put as a top value because I want them to know that whatever they're feeling [00:27:00] or thinking that we have a safe house where we can share that.
Ellie: I think that your whole process is inspiring to others because really what you're saying is life is life and we're all going to have to go through hard things. It's totally imperfect, but we all have the skills that we need or we can find the skills that we need through therapy. We all have enough to know how to just make the next step. Whether that's realigning with our values or slowing down or asking for help, there's always [00:27:30] a next step. Thank you for sharing your story and for being on this journey and really using it to help others because I know it has not been easy for you and your family.
McCall: It has been a journey, but like you said, we were all got to go through things in our life. My hope is to take them and pay it forward, and also, using this story to help others know that they're not alone.
Ellie: [00:28:00] I want to turn McCall's story back on you. Where do you go when life hits the inevitable low points? Have you found solid basics to return to like remembering to eat a meal and connect with friends? What are your values? McCall had to dig down deep to find what she truly cared about. It's worth a journal entry and some digging to pinpoint your own. As always, we would love to hear from you [00:28:30] on your journey. How are you living in the midst of life change? You can write us at email@example.com.
Today's episode was produced by Sam Pike, with editing and mixing by Erica Prather and Josh Wright. Our show is sponsored by Eating Recovery Center and Insight Behavioral Health Centers, places that can help you get in touch with those crucial life values. To receive a free consultation, please call [00:29:00] 877-411-9578. Also, feel free to check out our website and learn more about each person that we interview at mentalnotepodcast.com. I'm Ellie Pike, until next time.
[00:29:32] [END OF AUDIO]
McCall Dempsey, founder and director of Southern Smash (a program of The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness), is an eating disorder survivor and passionate recovery advocate. After a 15-year battle, McCall sought treatment in December 2010. Since then she has made eating disorder awareness and prevention her life’s work and passion. McCall travels the country, sharing her story of hope and healing with audiences everywhere. From high school auditoriums to treatment centers to corporate meetings, her message of authenticity and embracing your inner-uniqueness transcends all ages.
McCall also writes the popular blog, Loving Imperfection. Her writing has been featured in various national television, print and online publications, including Today Show, Women’s Health, Southern Living and Huffington Post. A Louisiana native, McCall now resides in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, with her husband, Jordan, and her two children, Manning and Marjorie.