By Elizabeth Cobb, LCSW
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post Blog.
I was walking down the street in DUMBO several months ago when I spotted a shop with whimsical drawings in the window and an adorable cat inside. The art (and my love of cats) drew me in, and I was introduced to Nadia Ackerman and the world of Natchie.
Nadia Ackerman is an Australian singer/songwriter and illustrator. However, she’s also much more — a survivor. Nadia uses her art to spread awareness about childhood sexual abuse and to share the message that there’s hope to heal and live again. You can see Nadia’s inspirational and uplifting work in the offices of Cobb Psychotherapy.
I recently got the chance to catch up with Nadia at her shop in DUMBO where I learned more about how EMDR changed her life, and talked about her Emmy nominated film, Time to Live Again.
EC: You’ve struggled with depression since your teens, but never sought help. What was the turning point where you decided to reach out?
NA: In my teens I thought everyone felt the same way I did, so I never talked about it to my parents. I started having flashbacks in my early 20’s and realized that something had happened to me. I don’t really have any memories from my childhood, so it was confusing. Then, I felt like I wanted to take my own life, and realized I had to do something. I took myself to a random doctor and I explained how I was feeling and he set me up with a therapist straight away. I worked with this therapist for a year and one day she asked, “Were you sexually abused as a child?” I said, “Yes.” And she said, “You never told me.” And I said, “You never asked.”
At this time I was also involved in a weekly support group for women who had been sexually abused as children. I was struggling, but because I didn’t have any details (of the abuse) to hold onto, there was a voice that always got in the way of healing that said, “You’re making it up, it didn’t really happen, it wasn’t that bad.” So after six months, I left the group. The voice said, “I don’t need you guys, I’m fine. You’re all really sick and I’m not.” I shouldn’t have left. I thought, “I did the work for one year and I’m done.” I was 26 at that time.
EC: You talk a lot about how EMDR changed your life in your film. How did you reconnect with therapy again?
NA: Fast forward to age 32 and my life was unmanageable. I was drinking, out of control, and doing everything I could to numb myself and avoid what was inside. I had a breakdown — a physical and emotional breakdown that presented itself as an epileptic seizure. I was taken to the hospital and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I was in the hospital for five days, continuing to have the seizures every few hours and going into catatonic states. I was sleeping 18-19 hours, had constant migraines, and was not eating.
At a certain point they couldn’t get me out of the catatonic state. My eyes were open and I could see and hear everyone, but I couldn’t respond. I had these two voices in my mind. One said, “It’s so much better here. You don’t feel anything. Just stay here forever.” And there was another voice that said, “You’ve gotta go back. You can’t stay here. You’ve got your animals, your boyfriend, your life, your friends, your music.” These two voices were arguing with each other.
Eventually, the doctor was able to wake me up and I saw a psychiatrist. After being evaluated I was admitted to the psychiatric unit to start treatment. I knew I was very sick, but this wasn’t the place I was going to get better. I told them that I knew I was sick and that I would get the help I needed, so they let me out. I was ready to admit that something was wrong mentally.
After going home I kept having the seizures several times a day. At this point I decided that it was migraines, and I went to see a specialist. Of course nothing worked. The doctor realized she had misdiagnosed me and that the seizures were related to dissociative disorder and PTSD. She connected me with a therapist who specialized in EMDR.
What is EMDR?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with EMDR (probably most), it stands for Eye Movement Deprocessing and Reprocessing. Nadia describes it as reprograming your brain:
“With the trauma your brain has a pattern, almost a track in the brain where the trauma lies. You can actually trick the brain to change these patterns and change the trauma.”
The EMDR International Association describes the therapy like this:
“One moment becomes ‘frozen in time,’ and remembering a trauma may feel as bad as going through it the first time because the images, sounds, smells, and feelings haven’t changed. Such memories have a lasting negative effect that interferes with the way a person sees the world and the way they relate to other people.
EMDR seems to have a direct effect on the way that the brain processes information. Normal information processing is resumed, so following a successful EMDR session, a person no longer relives the images, sounds, and feelings when the event is brought to mind. You still remember what happened, but it is less upsetting. Many types of therapy have similar goals. However, EMDR appears to be similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Therefore, EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically based therapy that helps a person see disturbing material in a new and less distressing way.”
For more information on EMDR please visit the EMDR International Association.
EC: Once you started the EMDR what was it like for you?
NA: The process was really difficult and scary. At first it was cool and fun, but the actual process was very confronting — you have to go back into the trauma, relive it, and then change the outcome. There were some days that I was totally into it and couldn’t wait to get there, and other days I didn’t want to go and would be late. It could be a real struggle.
EC: What kept you going even though it was hard?
NA: My therapist. She wouldn’t let me leave. And as difficult as the sessions were, I was getting immediate relief, which kept me going back. With EMDR, you work on something in that session, process it, and then it’s done. For example, I struggled with getting dressed and choosing what to eat in the morning. I learned in therapy that as a child I struggled with self-image because of my mother, and as an adult my mother was still in the room with me. We did all of this work to remove her, and literally the next day I woke up, had breakfast, got in the shower, and got dressed. Before I had struggled with it every day of my life, and everything had to be perfect. The short answer is that I had instant results, and that was motivating to me.
EC: How long did this process take to fully go through everything?
NA: I worked with Sue (my therapist) for 7 years because we had a lot to process. Once you get in there and take the lid off, you realize that the thing you thought was the problem is just one of many.
EC: When you discontinued treatment was that because the work was done?
NA: The work is never done and I’m gearing up to go back. My therapist has been wanting me to go back, and now I’m ready to do more work and some fine tuning. My daily job for myself is to stay present. Because my diagnosis was dissociative disorder and PTSD, my job is to stay in my skin 24/7, even when feelings are bad. If I’ve got a feeling that’s uncomfortable, my daily job is learning to sit with it and be ok with it. Another one of the things I struggled with was feeling joy. It’s something I’m still working on.
EC: You have a very unique creative process where your drawings are visualizations of songs you’ve written. You mentioned that one in particular, called ‘When?’ is very meaningful. Can you explain this picture?
NA: This should be the poster for EMDR. When I did the therapy, I pictured it in my mind as my adult self working with all the different ages of myself. The goal was to integrate all the parts of my personality, so that the voices of all the pieces of me were at the same volume. Our job was to bring everyone to the line and make them all equal. So this drawing is the strongest part of myself having a meeting with all the other pieces of my personality. In the song they’re all asking her questions like, “When will I see things the way you see? When will I love the skin that I’m in? When will I wake up and feel rested? When will nothing stop eating my time? When will I stop hiding?” To me it’s probably my most important piece of all. It’s captured exactly how it felt for me during this time in my healing.
Click here to listen to “When?’”
EC: You have an amazing documentary about your journey that’s now nominated for an Emmy. What made you decide to share your story?
NA: I had been wanting to share my story for a while, but I knew it was a very sensitive topic and I wanted to wait for the right platform. This time last year a woman came into the shop and bought some stuff. It turned out that she was a producer and director and was looking for her next project. She wanted to do a documentary on me and I thought, “I’m going to take the plunge and I trust her.” I took a leap of faith even though I did have thoughts such as, “Now everyone is going to know and then what will happen?” “Everyone is going to know this about me. Scary!” Now it’s whatever. It happened to me and I’m going to share my story.
‘Time to Live Again’
It’s a short documentary where Nadia opens up about the sexual abuse she suffered when she was a child, and how through therapy and perseverance, she was able to heal herself and turn her past into something positive. Her songs and drawings are thematically centered on childhood, and contain whimsical characters and settings. There are, however, some heartbreaking aspects to her art—and that sadness becomes even more apparent once you understand Nadia's past.
This is a story of hope, told from the perspective of a true survivor. Nadia's past is painful, but she has been able to spin it into a positive light by channeling her feelings into art. She hopes to become a mentor to young girls and boys, and to encourage them to speak up about abuse.
Click here or watch the Emmy nominated film.
Look out for Nadia’s art in our offices, or visit her at her retail shop at 141A Front St, Brooklyn, NY. You can also see a wide selection of her work at natchieart.com.
I am also proud to announce that Nadia and I will be co-facilitating a new support group for women who are survivors of sexual abuse. The group is called “Survivor’s Circle,” and is open to all. Cobb Psychotherapy will also start offering EMDR therapy in the future.