Holly Heniford

Holly Heniford, pictured in her office in North Myrtle Beach. Photo by Christian Boschult

As Hurricane Dorian threatened the Grand Strand in early September 2019, thousands of Horry County residents were busy getting out of town or bracing for the storm.

That included then-school board trustee Holly Heniford, who had represented North Myrtle Beach since being elected in 2014.

Heniford had recently broken up with her fiancé. They had been together for 13 years and had said their wedding vows, but the marriage paperwork wasn’t complete. Heniford, a realtor, moved out of the Windy Hill house she lived in and into one of her boss’ rental properties shortly before Dorian was scheduled to impact the coast. She rode out the storm by herself.

“And at the time, I was in therapy for my CPTSD,” Heniford said. “I had quit taking my anti-depressants abruptly. One reason I didn’t like them, because they made me shake. I thought that was the cause of my tremors. I had gotten out of the rhythm of taking them through the storm, and so I just quit abruptly."

The antidepressants were just another problem in a pile of issues that Heniford said led to her DUI arrest.

The diagnosis

Heniford was diagnosed with CPTSD – Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – after her parents passed away in 2004. PTSD is generally caused by a singular event, but CPTSD is a bit different.

“Complex PTSD is repeated or prolonged trauma over a period of time,” said Diane Winchester, who’s worked as a therapist for 10 years, and who’s worked with Heniford for about seven months. “So most typically it results from long term physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Neglect is abuse, a lot of people don’t know that. Examples of that are childhood neglect and abuse, domestic abuse or war. In Holly’s case, she’s had a series of traumatic events.”

With PTSD, the brain tends to relive a traumatic event, even when it’s not happening, and patients will try to avoid situations that trigger the traumatic experience, Winchester said. Additional symptoms with CPTSD include negative self-image, disturbed relationships and experiencing either extreme emotion or no emotion at all.

“The amygdala is the part of the brain that’s the fight, flight or freeze,” Winchester said. “It’s as if you’re stuck in that or that’s triggered a lot. This is the part of the brain that tells you that there’s a real or perceived threat. A perceived threat is like a panic attack: there’s nothing going on right now, you’re creating it. But you’re making it up based on past experiences. When you’re recreating the trauma in your brain, the amygdala is ignited, turned on, and that’s when you think something’s really going on."

Heniford’s first trauma stemmed from her dyslexia. When she was a child, the medical community didn’t know how to adequately treat the condition, which made it extremely difficult for her to read.

“At that time when I was growing up, they didn’t know what it was,” Heniford said. “They didn’t know how to deal with me. I had a teacher that made me wear a sign that said “lazy girl” all day long. I had teachers that made me stand in class and read aloud when I could hardly read. The nervous energy of that made it even worse. It was constant failure and humiliation all through my school years.”

Two years after Heniford’s parents died in a car accident, she split with her husband. She said the divorce left her as a single mom and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. In 2008, the market crashed and Heniford’s family lost the fortune she could have inherited.

About a month before her September DUI, Heniford broke up with her boyfriend of 13 years, and abruptly moved out.

“So what happened that day I got my DUI: another log got on the fire and I found out a few confidants of mine were telling my ex everything I was doing,” Heniford said. “And as my therapist says, my top blew off. Because I had never recovered from all the trauma that I was carrying, and then you throw that on top of it and the situation… Yes, I had a few drinks, but you know I have cocktails. I’m normally quite fine. But because of the environment of that day, I physically collapsed. It just took me out. And that’s what happened when I stopped on the road.”

Heniford said she doesn’t remember driving before her arrest. The last thing she recalls before talking to police was going to sleep on her couch.

She had been to a meeting at Captain Archie’s, and admitted she’d had a few drinks. But then she went home and took a nap. The next thing she remembered was a North Myrtle Beach police officer knocking on the window of her SUV parked on the S.C. 31 northbound exit ramp onto Robert Edge Parkway.

“I had $50 worth of Uber credits on my phone,” Heniford said. “There was no reason for me to get in that vehicle. I don’t remember getting in the vehicle. The next thing I know, I am where I am.”

Heniford hasn’t gone back to watch the dashcam video of her arrest, which shows her asking the responding officer if he knew her dad who had died 15 years earlier.

Watching the video is “not mentally healthy,” she said.

One part of the video that got lots of attention on social media was Heniford’s compliment on the officer’s eyes. She said it was part of a “programmed” response to de-escalate tense situations.

“I negotiate contracts for a living,” she said. “I deal with difficult people all the time. So when I walk into a room and I’ve got a tense conversation that I’ve got to have, the first thing I do is compliment the person in front of me. Then they say ‘thank you.’ Guess what that does? It breaks the ice. You’ve already created a kinder environment.”

Heniford was arrested and charged. The charge was eventually dropped and her record expunged after her attorney pointed out that her Miranda Rights were not captured on video.

Since her arrest, Heniford said she’s been drinking less. “Miss Uber Queen,” as she called herself, said she no longer gets behind the wheel with any amount of alcohol in her system, and said she doesn’t let herself get into situations where she can’t responsibly care for herself.

She’s started relying on meditation and therapy to treat her CPTSD, and has weaned herself off the antidepressants.

“I haven’t decided, through therapy, if I need to go back on that or not, because we want to see if this type of therapy that I’m going through works,” she said of the antidepressants. “Because it is working. And there is a physical change in what I’m doing and it’s been very obvious in the last six months of just learning to take care of yourself, mentally, before you take care of others.”

Treatment

Heniford is going through therapy, group therapy, and has started meditating - or more accurately, practicing mindfulness - more often since the arrest. Doing that at least twice a day (once in the morning and once before bed) helps clear her head, she said, and dampens situations that would normally trigger her PTSD. Since she’s been meditating, she said she’s more relaxed and sleeps better.

“It takes you a while to be able to understand how to control the thoughts in your head,” Heniford added. “It helps for situations where you would normally think you would get upset, and you won’t. Traffic is a perfect example. Because of my meditation, I don’t get as upset when things go wrong, because it allows me to release that energy, that angst, from my body.”

Here’s how it works: when CPTSD patients are reliving a trauma, their brain is reacting as if the trauma was still occurring. That reaction triggers the rest of the nervous system to respond the same way, causing physical reactions such as dry mouth, sweaty palms and shortness of breath.

Mindfulness, or focusing on “now," brings the brain and the patient back into the present.

“You’ve tricked your brain into [thinking] there’s a threat,” Winchester said. “You can trick your brain back into presence. That’s the whole premise of mindfulness, of grounding yourself in the five senses. What do I see? I see the trees. What do I hear? I hear the lawnmower going. What do I smell? The fresh-cut grass. What do I taste? The mint in my mouth. Feeling the cold chair. You’re getting present, because right here, there’s no threat. You can distract yourself by getting present and mindful in the present and it will shut that threat off. The body will start to come back. Breathing is the best tool we have to get present and mindful in our bodies.”

Winchester uses the metaphor of being hit with shards of glass to explain how mindfulness and therapy heals trauma. Not dealing with trauma by finding distractions and otherwise dissociating from yourself is like putting a bandage over a wound with the glass still there, she said, while using therapy and mindfulness is akin to removing the glass so the body can heal.

“You are changing the brainwaves by getting present, you are convincing yourself that it’s safe to be in your body, that trauma isn’t happening right now, that you’ve made it through the trauma,” Winchester said.

Heniford is still ambiguous about her future in the public eye, but wants to bring this chapter of her life to a close by raising awareness of an issue she’s dealt with for most of her life.

“I don’t want to look like a whiner, because I’m not,” she said. “If I was a whiner, I would not be taking responsibility for this, but I am. And I want to. I really want people to know, that are dealing with emotional trauma, that there is help out there. And if you’re not getting over it, you really need to look at maybe going into therapy. Find a group, at the minimum, get with safe people that you can talk [to].”

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