When I was 18—a freshman in college visiting home one weekend—my dad woke me from sleep to break the news to me. My older sister, Bethany, had been in a car accident. The driver had been drinking. The four words my dad spoke to me that morning shattered me.
“Bethany didn’t make it…”
That life-changing sentence as well as the impact of the crash and those words on my life, on my psyche, was immediate and ongoing. I didn’t realize it then, but the idea that began to overtake my mind upon hearing of my sister’s death was: what happened to my sister was not okay. Nothing would ever make it okay and, therefore, I could never be okay.
The night after her funeral, my parents had to hold me down as I writhed and screamed, begging them to let me go sleep on her freshly covered grave, so she wouldn’t be alone in the dark with the thunderstorm raging outside. I remember waking up the next day realizing it wasn’t all a bad dream. This was the new reality I was going to have to face as life moved on without her.
I thought that, now, I had to take my place as the older sister. I had to be strong. I handled my grief mostly by keeping as busy as possible. I was in college, majoring in psychology and missions, a member of Army ROTC, and many clubs on campus, taking a full load of classes while also working part time as a nanny. Later that same year I got engaged to my first love while serving on a missions’ trip to help orphans suffering from AIDS.
Outwardly, I seemed okay, but I was afraid to process my feelings; they were all so strong, yet so muddled. It seemed like they were a dark edged abyss in the back of my mind. I was afraid that if I let myself explore them, I could lose myself, like I might drown in a deep dark sea, boiling with anger and pain, that I wouldn’t be able to escape.
I didn’t tell anyone I was having trouble falling asleep, keeping disturbing thoughts at bay, only to then have nightmares of my sister dying in some new way, night after night, without me ever being able to save her.
My fiancé suddenly broke up with me in 2006, months before our wedding date. For three days, I literally did not eat or sleep. I cried as I poured over my sister’s photo albums. The floodgates had opened up on my grief. I flipped back and forth between thoughts of my sister and my ex-fiancé. My hormonal 19-year-old brain now had a crazy person at the wheel.
I felt that my pain would always be there. It would always hurt this badly, or worse. The only way for me to end the pain was to end my life.
I grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer, and a bottle of my dad’s pain pills from the bathroom cabinet. As I felt myself beginning to fade, I remember thinking about what a horrible thing it would be for all my friends and family to have to go to my funeral less than a year after my sister’s. I remember feeling scared that I couldn’t take it back, but thinking, “I just want to be free of the pain and be with Bethany, wherever she is.” When my eyes opened, I was in an ER trauma room with bandages on my wrists.
Fast-forward a few years. It’s my senior year of college. I’m folding laundry when suddenly, everything looks blurry and I start having double vision. A mental fog comes over me. My tongue feels swollen and numb. I notice ringing in my ears. My ability to speak, see, and think disappears. I lose consciousness.
Later that night, I find myself in the emergency room. The doctors give me a series of tests, but my results are all normal. They chalk it up to stress and send me home with anti-anxiety meds and tell me to take it easy.
The same thing happens again the next day, and then two more times that week. My memory and ability to concentrate rapidly declines as mental fog, slurred speech, and fainting spells become a daily occurrence. Attacks of vertigo, panic, and seizures happen without warning. A complete a loss of muscle tone, tingling, and numbness invades my limbs so strongly that I experience sudden falls that leave me in a heap on the floor.
Repeated trips to different doctors, emergency rooms, and neurologists yield no explanations or help. I’m referred to the Mayo Clinic and wait for my case to be considered. My husband and I have no clue what to do in the meantime. We end up going to a Walgreens to buy a seizure helmet and four-pronged cane. I quickly realize there’s no way I can pull this look off. Especially after my husband adds the final touch—an envelope with my emergency contact information pinned to my chest.
I take one look in the mirror and burst into tears. I say, “I can’t take it. I’m dropping out of my classes.”
I now spend my time “taking it easy” as per the doctors’ advice. My symptoms become even worse. Long days of isolation, boredom, and worry take their toll. Seizures begin striking at any moment—day or night—violent fits that come while I’m wide awake or fast asleep. They are triggered by feelings of vertigo that happen when I see things zoom in or out, or even take a few steps backwards. They are resistant to, or become worse with, medication. Scans and tests say nothing’s wrong. With up to 9 attacks per day, I start using a wheelchair to get around for my own safety.
By the summer of 2008, I’m finally taken on as a patient at the Mayo Clinic. Tedious diagnostic testing goes on month after month with no answers or successful treatment. My symptoms escalate while my spirit fades.
In May of 2009, the Mayo Clinic officially diagnoses me with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Major Depressive Disorder, and Conversion Disorder; myprimary symptoms are pseudo seizures. They believe I’m suffering from traumatic grief—my body converting stress into physical symptoms. Due to the frequency, length, and severity of my symptoms, and the fact that I’ve seen six different mental health professionals with no improvement, I’m given a 20% chance of recovery.
There’s one alternative left. The Mayo Clinic recommends hypnotherapy. “Hypnosis with a qualified, experienced professional has been shown to be particularly helpful for this kind of thing,” they say. My dad finds and calls Dr. Jon Connelly, a clinical hypnotherapist. On June 20th 2009, I have one session lasting about two hours. It’s the most life-changing conversation I’ve ever had.
As Dr. Connelly speaks to me, I feel peace occurring for the part of me that’s had nightmares reliving my sister’s death every night, trying to prevent it from happening. My anger, my shock, and the overwhelming pain of traumatic grief seem to wash away.
As I open my eyes, I feel lighter, and notice that I can see and think more clearly. I know I’m okay. As Dr. Connelly opens the door to the waiting room, I lock eyes with my dad and we both start crying. I run backwards around Dr. Connelly’s office and I’m seizure free—to this day!
Life hasn’t been perfect. I’ve had my moments, but I haven’t had a seizure, anxiety attack, or depressive episode sense that session. I went on to train with Dr. Connelly and other leading, world-renowned hypnotists. I built my own practice where I have been paying my healing forward hypnotizing hundreds of people for better health and well being.
If there is anything I’ve learned from my experience with traumatic grief it would be that it’s important to find a way to healthily process emotions instead of trying to avoid them and that it’s equally important to commit to finding an effective form of treatment. Alternative therapies like hypnosis may not be the best solution for everyone but I’m sure glad I stuck it out and ended up finding what worked for me. I can only wish the same for everyone else dealing with tragedy or challenge in their life.