For the past year or so, I’ve been seeing a therapist who specializes in trauma recovery and personality disorders — specifically how those two things often intersect. It is, by far, the most healthy and adult thing I have ever done for myself. It is also really fucking hard to do. Not just because it took me most of that year to trust this therapist in the first place, but because she’s trained to do EMDR, a very effective but very intense form of trauma therapy.
I did not always like EMDR, and even now, “like” seems a sort of shallow and saccharine way to put it. I thought it sounded like a genre of rave music, and after hearing the mouthful of a title (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, aka The Most Scientology Sounding Psychotherapy Ever), my “woo” alarm fired off before I could listen to what the treatment was actually about. I spent the first few sessions with a perpetually raised eyebrow, skeptical of any treatment that claimed to “reprocess” memories. But eventually, I gave in. I’d tried Literally Everything Else, so what could another failed attempt at healing really hurt?
You guys. I was so wrong. EMDR is the most compassionate and empowering therapy I have ever undergone.
It is so powerful that it is often too much — at least that’s how it feels for me. Not every therapy is good for every brain, and that’s OK. I know a lot of people, for example, who swear by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but it has never been an effective method for me because I already spend enough time telling myself that I’m wrong. Likewise, EMDR can be very overwhelming for some people, myself included. I’ve just done my own risk assessment and decided that the temporary distress is well worth the long term effects. When it comes to mental health — and health in general — YOU are the most qualified expert on yourself. All I have are my own experiences, but I hope that in sharing them with you, they make you feel more comfortable about sharing your own. Whether or not that experience involves EMDR is not my business.
For the uninitiated, EMDR is kind of like time travel. You immerse yourself in a traumatic memory, processing it from the back of your brain to the front. It starts with a simple stimulus, typically an object to track with your eyes (or if you’re me and everything in the world is a total sensory overload to begin with, you hold onto two alternately vibrating sensors that are basically really expensive bullet vibrators). Then you talk about the memory, describing everything from what you see to what you smell. The therapist will pause and ask you to tell her how you’re doing. Is there any pain or discomfort? Where? How are you feeling? What images came into your head? Eventually you get to the big ticket question:
What does this memory lead you to believe about yourself?
The answer is usually really, really sad. And hard to say — to another person, sure, but mostly to yourself. I am worthless. This is my fault. I do not deserve love or trust or home or safety or anything at all, ever. The aim is to change that belief into something better — something you get to choose instead of something that was chosen for you. You do that by going through the memory over and over and tracking how you feel each time.
You save yourself.
It’s supposed to be “fast” compared other forms of therapy, but in my experience it is not. For me, EMDR is as exhausting as it is profound. It takes me a while to recover, and even longer to work up the courage and stamina to do it again.
But today I want to talk about the profound bit.
This is the part that feels like time travel: the super detailed process of conjuring up the most immersive memory possible is so you can insert your present self into it, which is especially powerful when it comes to childhood trauma. You walk in, scoop up your tiny scared self, and tell her how much you love her. You sing songs to her. You hold her. You promise her that it is not her fault, and that she never has to explain herself to you. You give her the safety she deserved in the first place.
You’re given the power to be the person you needed, to actually change your memory of the memory. You save yourself. And after you’re done (and also quite a bit in the middle), you sob and sob and sob until you feel so empty that you’re full.
I walked out of my first “processed” memory determined to try to be the person I needed all the time, if not to myself (because being compassionate to yourself in the here and now is WAY harder than being compassionate to yourself in the past), then at least to other people. For the first time in my life, I regularly ask myself what I need. I thought I wasn’t allowed to. EMDR gave me the permission I needed.
This therapy has kind of totally changed how I look at the world, which is no small feat for a trauma survivor, seeing as that survival depended on creating a world of my own so impenetrable that even I have trouble accessing it a lot of the time. It’s a world that became a fortress that became a prison. The principles I’ve learned from EMDR are the light that gets in through the cracks.