In the Beginning

In order to understand the nature and flowing references throughout my blog, I recommend reading my initial post The End of the Beginning first.


Intro to EMDR

I had many failed attempts at therapy beginning in late college. It took quite some time to get my mind-body to cooperate with me in order to get there. My state university had a student health program including low/no cost visits with a campus mental health professional. I tried many times, even going as far to schedule appointments. Each time the appointment day came, I would mysteriously get a migraine that prevented my attendance. Ah, the student was not ready.

It wasn't until I began working full-time that I actually went to my first therapy session. Kris was a jolly, santa-looking man with full white beard and bowl-full-of-jelly mid section. My time with him was brief and relatively meaningless other than to get me comfortable with the therapy experience. I remember no significant breakthroughs during my time with him.

A few years later I worked up the courage and awareness to seek professional help again, this time through my company's Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Having grown partial to all things holistic, I searched for and found a therapist whose philoshopies aligned with mine; her name was Elle. I loved seeing Elle and did so for more than a year. She played fluty new age music in the waiting room which felt a lot like yoga nidra. I was safe in her office.

Elle introduced me to a technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). She helped me understand that what I had witnessed and continued to experience in my adult life was a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The nightmares, anxieties, and flashbacks from my mother's first suicide attempt were the focus of our work together.

Simply put, PTSD causes trauma survivors to hold onto memories in the wrong place. There are specific areas in the brain designed for housing and categorizing memories of people, places, and events. But when trauma occurs including life-or-death situations and abuse, memories get trapped in alternate parts of the brain and in the nervous system. This is why a survivor will still feel and elicit panic and debilitating fear even when no actual stressor is present; when triggered, the nervous system remembers and recreates the trauma situation, sometimes over and over again. The goal of EMDR is to alleviate and eliminate these trauma-like experiences so that the survivor can live a panic free life.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. Memories that are "stuck" can be processed and integrated so that the accompanying exacerbated emotional turbulence can also be alleviated. In some ways, EMDR is like wakeful dreaming. Dreams occur in the lightest stage of sleep known as REM - rapid eye movement. Likewise, EMDR uses repeated lateral eye movement to recall, enhance, associate, and develop new insights for painful memories. Thus the word REprocess. These things were not completed processed or correctly stored in the brain the first time around; EMDR helps to put memories in their proper order and place - namely, out of the nervouse system and into the functional parts of the adult brain.

EMDR work centers around a target scene. The work is done in "sets," usually 1-2 minutes in length, whereafter the client and therapist briefly discuss the memories and insights that arose during the set. A set involves using synchronized hand tappers, lightbars and/or headphones emitting beeping sounds alternating from left to right.

With this technique, Elle helped me process the vivid mages I had from the apartment and the hospital. There was one specifically horrific image from the hospital that my mind-body had molded its fear around: that of my mother lying on the gurney being wheeled away from me, hands outstretched, pale as a ghost, with a black mouth from the charcoal solution they made her drink to absorb toxins. She looked like a classic horror movie monster. That image had haunted me for over 15 years.

Interestingly, all kinds of other memories surfaced during my EMDR sets. Things happening in my life around the time of the incident. Feelings, people, events; longings, fears, disappointments; pleasantries, hope, healing. It really is an amazing process to help offset unpleasant memories but also to recapture the lost self which becomes fractured and hidden in the face of trauma. This technique was particularly easy for me to both relate and connect to, and it was the first great success and source of healing I experienced in therapy.

Another interesting thing about EMDR is that it elicits all kinds of "body stuff" - physical formations and remembrances of fear and panic trapped inside the body. In my sessions with Elle I always, always felt pain in my arms. In fact that is the barometer we would use to begin and end our sessions - by the weight and usefulness of my arms. During particularly difficult memories my arms would become heavy like lead to the point where sometimes I could not move them. That was my first experience in recognizing that I had bodily manifestations of fear. Elle and I never talked about the origin of this body communication. It would be years and therapists later before I began to comprehend. What I have learned since then is that everything has meaning. Everything. There is an explanation and origin for everything the mind-body uses to communicate its pain and past.

(Note: as I typed this last paragraph I am experiencing the arm heaviness, as I have in constructing most of these blog entries. Even after years of hard work and healing I still have this fear manifestation.)

Prior to my time with Elle, I could not and had not really ever talked about my mother or the traumatic events I experienced in relation to her. I am happy to report that today I can have an intelligent conversation about the matter. It is not robotic; I can feel and express the sadness and grief I have from going through this. I am simply able to express and process it as an adult, not frozen in a childlike state of terror. I do feel healed from the trauma portion of this part of my story.

The residual psychological and behavioral results are a different matter. It's much like peeling back layers; I had to get through the outer layer of trauma before I could even begin to delve into the deeper wounds. The horrific images and frozen memories prevented me from getting to or even seeing anything else. In some ways, and as absurd as it may sound, PTSD protects the survivor from accessing things for which the student is not ready. It takes time and a variety of healing modalities to get to and process all layers of the trauma onion. Fortunate for me, I was and still am determined to heal from my experiences no matter what or how long it takes.

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