I am really excited about today’s post. Last month, Karin opened up about parenting with PTSD in a Parenting With Mental Illness interview. Today, she shares her experiences with EMDR-Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
I had not heard of EMDR before interviewing Karin. After learning that she credited this rather confusing practice with an almost complete recovery from complex trauma, I began noticing mentions of it around the recovery community. People were tweeting 140 word reviews of their experiences with it, raving (and ranting) in online threads, and sharing EMDR directories across social media. I’m sure this had been going on all along, but, thanks to Karin, I was finally noticing it.
Right now, I can’t afford EMDR, and I’m still not totally clear on how it works. But my interest is definitely piqued. Maybe one day. As Karin says, even if it doesn’t help, it won’t hurt.
Karin is an academic by day and a writer and blogger by night and weekend. A single mom to Murphy, her self-named tween son with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Bella Bird (the conure), McFlurry and Cheeseburger (the hermit crabs), Eon (the clownfish) and Ion (the peppermint shrimp), and Dark Lord Cheeto and Crowned Prince Nedward (the cats), she spends her spare time taste-testing boxed wine, reading pop fiction, mastering the art of pasta-making and watching the spectacular sunsets in Key West. Her blog, www.iamthekraken.com, follows their hilarious adventures through life and their adjustment to living in paradise.
The Life Saving Effects Of EMDR
EMDR saved my life. Twice.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that, even a little bit. Much like a defibrillator can stabilize heart rhythm for a cardiac patient who is on the brink, EMDR stabilized me at times when I was having an emotional crisis. The first time I went, I was having flashbacks and recurring nightmares that were so bad I couldn’t sleep, and anxiety that kept me in a constant state of fight or flight with no rest. I was alone with an 18-month old baby for whom I wanted to be the best mom possible. Talk therapy, which I was doing, was making things worse. Medications, mostly combinations of antidepressants and anxiety medications, were becoming less and less effective. I was desperate.
I’d first heard the term EMDR, and I do think of it as a term rather than a set of initials, a few years before on a support board run by NAMI, and so, I searched out someone who was trained and experienced. I think I expected some kind of odd set up with flashing lights, which it was when it first came about as a treatment in the late 1980s. It’s evolved since then, and few therapists use the lights. Many use headphones with soft random beeps, and finger clips that buzz at random intervals in a quiet office. I was at a point where I was willing to try anything to find relief but not hopeful that anything would help. I was happily shocked.
What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Francine Shapiro first noticed the relationship between eye movement and a reduction in negative thought processes, and she began to explore it. As she and other psychotherapists refined the technique, it came to be recognized as a treatment for some mental health disorders, though it is primarily used for those who suffer from PTSD and C-PTSD. It’s a very structured process, and it tends to be short-term. It is not talk therapy, nor should it be. In fact, there is usually a distant relationship between the therapist and the patient in EMDR therapy. The therapist takes on the role of facilitator and interpreter rather than someone with whom you share how your week went and what’s bugging you at a given point.
I was diagnosed with C-PTSD years ago. I grew up in a home that looked, from the outside, just fine. Pretty great, even. I had both a Mom and Dad, though they separated when I was 16 and later divorced. A brother and a sister. Pets. A house at the beach for the summer. Expensive private schools. Lots of friends. But beneath the surface, I was never okay.
My mother has an extremely volatile temper that almost everyone who knows her fears and avoids. It’s vicious and unpredictable. As a child, my whole world revolved around keeping her happy and calm. When I couldn’t, she blamed me. My brother shrugged her off easily. She still cannot get to him. My sister absorbed it in different ways. I took the brunt of it, always. Reality was something on which we all had a tenuous grasp because she would deny that things we could vividly recall ever happened. In my mother’s world, the truth was mutable. And then there were the threats of sending me to foster care. All of this was terrifying to a child.
Growing up in a house with a dominant parent of this type makes for constant trauma. Over time, your brain develops coping mechanisms, but that comes at an enormous cost later in life. I found myself depressed, anxious, prone to panic attacks, triggered by people and events that I couldn’t connect, and avoidant of situational conflicts that could have been easily resolved. Having to say no or ask for help from an authority figure could mean hours and hours of angst. Even when I was without contact with my mother, I was still in this swirl of conflicting emotions struggling to figure out how to cope. I never felt stable, I never felt loved, and I never felt safe.
When my younger sister was 21, my mother threw her out of her house just one semester before she would have graduated from college, and I took her in even though my mother threatened to never speak to me again if I did. We lived together, struggled together, tried to figure it out together for years. It was hard. We were isolated and anxious and immobilized much of the time.
We hadn’t spoken to my mother in 5 or 6 years when all hell broke loose for me. I had just arrived back from a job interview in Chicago, and I’d gone out for a pleasant dinner with my sister. My mother arrived unexpectedly, late, and announced that she was there to “rescue” my sister. She told me what they were taking, which included my pets, and acted like a raiding stormtrooper. She told me to have no contact with my sister ever again and that they would be back for the rest of her things. My brother showed up to act as a bodyguard. I was shaking so hard I had to hold onto the railing upstairs as I watched my sister carry her things out of her room. I remember her slight, triumphant smile vividly. I felt like a criminal. I was confused. My mother kept yelling, “Don’t make me call the police!” at me, though I wasn’t speaking or moving. Somewhere, deep inside, I found the strength to tell them to take what they wanted right then and leave the key. There was not going to be any “coming back.”
In the aftermath, I struggled terribly. I married someone I didn’t know well because I wanted some connection to another human and some sense of stability that I could not provide for myself. He would ended up trying to kill me shortly after I became pregnant. I stayed with my father to have the baby. My mother became obsessed with my son, insisting that I allow her to facilitate a relationship between my tiny baby and my sister, of which I could be no part. I refused. My mother told me that she had to pick one of us to save and she liked my sister much better. She would always be her first choice. Supposedly, I had given her “Stockholm Syndrome.” She said there was something evil in me and that I should be kept in an institution away from other people. We were not invited to holidays or family events. We were not included in things where my sister would be.
And that’s what landed me in John’s office, pleading for something, anything that would help because traditional therapy had failed utterly and medication didn’t work. I was having constant, blinding flashbacks and recurring nightmares about my mother storming into my house. They left me alone without any family, without any sense of what was next, without an explanation and without knowing what to do. I was immobilized by panic and anxiety, stuck in that space emotionally while being relentlessly re-traumatized by my mother.
Who does EMDR?
Licensed therapists can be trained and certified to do EMDR with their patients. Honestly, the best ones are expensive. But it’s short-term, highly effective therapy. I found certified therapists who were practicing through a highly reputable and trained group. Back then, EMDR was not part of a common lexicon, and it was not a term thrown around lightly, as it is now.
I chose one who had not always been a therapist. He was a combat veteran, an attorney, and came to be a therapist later in life. He’d worked with war veterans and rape victims, and he’d published on EMDR. That was important to me. I’m an academic, and it told me that he was serious about the technique and interested in its various outcomes. Also, for some reason, I wanted to work with a man. When I called to make the appointment, I asked a ton of questions. How long had he been doing it? What were his success rates? Had he had any negative outcomes? Was there a hospital with which he was affiliated if things went wrong? I did not take the process lightly, and neither should you if you are considering it. It’s not just an investment of time, energy and money. You’re emotional well-being is at stake.
So how does EMDR work?
Typically, the first session is an evaluation to assess if you are a good candidate by taking a personal history that includes why you want to do it, your background, other types of therapies you’ve tried, medications you take, etc. At the second appointment, the process is explained and there you construct a “safe place” in your mind to which you can go and rest if you need. During the third and subsequent sessions, you actually do EMDR and discuss how it’s working.
So how does an actual session go? Your therapist will remind you about your safe place, and you will be there in your mind for a few minutes, relaxing. It can be anywhere; it is entirely a creation of your own. For anyone who has done any type of visualization therapy or worked through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), this is familiar. For me, when I did it, it was a beach with warm sun, soft waves, sweet scents in the air, which is ironic if you read to the end. I was alone there, away from things. When my son was doing migraine pain management with a neuropsychologist who used visualization techniques, he chose a crowded bazaar with lots of food and things to buy. That would be my most traumatic place. Now, if asked, my safe place would be a cave that was warm, with blankets to curl up in and books to read, where no one could find me. The concept of a place in your mind that is safe is different for everyone, and it can change. The safe place construct is crucial. You are not doing hard labor like lifting cinder blocks, but your brain is about to engage in a lot of heavy lifting, and your emotions are about to go on a rollercoaster ride.
When I did it the first time, the therapist had me to go the start of the most traumatic event that was troubling me: I was standing at the top of my stairs, holding onto the railing for dear life, in my own home, having just gotten home from dinner with my sister. My mother had just arrived, and I was feeling the shock.
I had headphones on that beeped randomly, and there were clips on my fingers that buzzed intermittently as I watched the scene play out. My mind wandered to other things, as our minds do, bouncing from random things back to the scene and away again sometimes to other traumatic memories and sometimes to what I needed to do after the appointment or to places in my childhood or things I’d done with with my very young child or happy memories with my sister. With EMDR, you go with the flow of your thoughts in a stream of consciousness way and don’t try to control them. It’s almost like you are watching your memories on television.
At intervals during the 60 minutes of the session, he would stop and ask me where I was and what I was remembering. I’d explain, and he’d either redirect me back to the original place we started or tell me to pick up where I was. It was calm and peaceful. In retrospect, it felt very natural, but it must seem odd. I was paying a ton of money to basically sit quietly and recall awful things and let mind wander around? Yeah, I was.
I didn’t need to go to my “safe place” during the session, but at the end, he had me spend a few moments there quietly enjoying the peace. He asked me how I felt, and I remember saying okay, and I knew I was okay but also that I wasn’t.
It was one of the most memorable and strange feelings in my life. We made an appointment for the next week, and I walked out into the spring sun. I remember vividly getting in my car and sitting there, not moving, and thinking, “My brain is different.” I didn’t understand how or what had happened, but I knew that somehow, the tectonic plates on which I based everything in my life had shifted substantially. It felt someone had taken the deck of cards that symbolized how my brain was organized, and shuffled it, but I wasn’t sure how. I just knew something had happened. I also remember feeling lighter, happier and more at peace than I had since that awful night.
The nightmares and flashbacks stopped immediately. In fact, I stopped thinking about those events at all for a long time. And in that next week, I noticed that there was a distance from my mother that I cannot explain. She hadn’t changed at all, but I didn’t care much about whether she was demanding or angry or upset or all the myriad negative things she used to keep control over me. I’d hang up the phone and not even recall speaking to her. Her emotional state didn’t register for me at all.
I went back twice more for EMDR. And after each session, I was stronger. I never had that same “What just happened to my brain” feeling quite as strongly again, but I knew things were changing. I could feel it. And other people noticed it. The difference in me was dramatic.
I remember the first time I said, “No” to my mother and did not care one bit what her reaction was. I remember not offering her excuses or making up a story about why I wasn’t doing something she wanted. I remember the freedom I felt in literally, genuinely, truly not caring what she did or said anymore. And I didn’t care about my sister any more, either. I remember my mother tried to push my buttons about something to do with my sister, and I looked her in the eye and said, “If she needed a kidney, I wouldn’t even get a blood test to see if I was a match, and neither would the baby.” I remember saying, “Of all the mothers on this planet, you are the last one who should give anyone parenting advice or criticism. You need to shut the fuck up about me forever because you were the worst mother on God’s green earth.” And not caring what she said after because I was done. I recall feeling like I had control over things I had not been able to control in a long time, if ever.
At our fifth appointment, John looked at me and asked, “What would it be like if the world was a safe place?” Simple question, right? Not at all for a trauma survivor. It set me off like a firecracker. I didn’t have an answer, and I still don’t. But I do know that’s what was missing for me growing up, and it’s what’s missing in general in my world view. Safe. I don’t know how to function under that assumption. I may never, and that’s okay because I recognize it as something for which I need to be watchful.
The changes grew and expanded over time. I mean, there was instant relief and a huge shift right away, but the subtler things took a little time. The distance that I felt initially became a more permanent state of being. I could recall and talk about what happened with my mother and sister that night and in the ensuing months with the same amount of dispassionate emotion that I would talk about going to the grocery store. EMDR created space for me from the overwhelming emotional sludge so that I could see things clearly. As time passed, I got stronger.
Is EMDR forever?
Yes, and sometimes no. That first round of sessions worked wonders for me. I had distance, I had my personal power back, but I was still stuck in the weeds in terms of distressing situational conflict with my mother. The trauma had been relieved, but the behavior patterns had remained and left me open to new trauma from her or retraumatization.
About 2 years later, the memories of my childhood and my husband became troublesome. My son and I had moved in with a guy that I was going to need financial help to leave. I was angry with myself for again putting us in a situation where we needed help. It was a pattern I wanted to break. I wanted to be free. I felt like I was a mess. But the first EMDR allowed me to see what I was doing clearly, and it gave me the sense that I had the power to change it and the tools with which to do it.
This time the work was harder. We went further back into my childhood, touching on trauma that was deep, personal, unpredictable and hard. I did end up going to my safe place at times, and the fix was not immediate. I was upset, touchy, confused and angry between sessions. I was volatile. I was crying during them and after.
We did five EMDR sessions and two regular ones, and it took about four weeks after the last one before my brain settled itself down completely. But that time, when it settled down? I was strong and I was done. I was over every bit of any connection I’d even felt to anyone in my family of origin.
How does EMDR work?
There are various explanations of how EMDR works on the internet and in books, but the truth is that no one is really sure. What is clear is that it is effective. In fact, in many cases, it’s more effective than traditional talk therapy and medication. Everyone seems to agree that it does, in some way, replicate REM sleep cycles in order to disrupt the pathway that the trauma created in your brain’s memory-cycle. It relies on stimulating both sides of the brain while you focus on the traumatic event and the things your brain has wired to it.
Think of your brain as an office with a desk where you can sit, and an inbox and a bunch of filing cabinets. When you go to sleep at night, you go to that office and you take your memories out of the inbox and put them into the appropriate files in the cabinets in your brain. But the trauma ones are way too hot to touch, and you don’t have a filing cabinet for them. So, they sit in the inbox where they can bother you day after day after year and screw up everything else that comes into your inbox and mess with your ability to find the things you’ve already filed. EMDR takes you to a place where your brain can put them into the filing cabinet full of old memories. Once they are put away, you can deal with the rest of the mess in your office because you aren’t worried about that searing hot file anymore. It’s simplistic, but I think it sums it up.
There are subtle parts of other therapies that use some of the same strategies when you don’t even realize it. Has anyone ever told you to journal about your trauma or feelings while writing with your non-dominant hand? When our dog killed our cat last year, in front of us, I downloaded Tetris onto my son’s phone, and whenever we talked about the events, I made him play it. We’d start with what happened, but I’d let him bounce around from subject to subject as he remembered and played. Yeah, it had to be Tetris, because Tetris is a game that involves both sides of your brain. See where I’m going with this?
The best part?If doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t do any harm to you.
“Now, six years later, how are you?”
When Betty asked me to write this, I was feeling strong and confident or at the very least comfortable. As we touched base later, I told her I was shaky, that things were stirred up and that I was thinking I might need to go back and do some additional work. This time, though, I had shaken my own self up. I was offered a job in Key West, and within a month, I’d packed up my 10.75 yo son, our cats, our hermit crabs and some of our stuff and moved us from the thriving metropolis that is suburban Philadelphia to a tiny island that is not joking when it calls itself the Conch Republic. The trip and the initial adjustment to a radically different culture and a new job, simultaneously, were rocky, but the journey has been worth it.
I don’t need to go back to EMDR, and we’re settling into our new lives. It was a huge change, and my hypervigilance had me worrying, and over-worrying, and over-panicking for a while. What if he gets sick and we’re so far from Miami? What if I get fired? What if my mother is right and I’m a terrible person and everyone sees that and I don’t and we’re homeless and alone on this island? I constantly deal with severe anxiety, as I explain here.
What you should know
I don’t write much about EMDR on my own blog, or anywhere else really. I don’t write about that part of my life much. I do talk about debilitating anxiety and indecisiveness sometimes, which are a behavioral result of the way I was raised. I’m not a licensed psychologist, and I don’t like to intrude on others’ pain because I don’t know their stories. But when asked, I am happy to discuss it, and how it worked. I have people who go back as far as the decision to do EMDR, and who held my hand through it, believing it was the best and only option left for me. And I strongly recommend it for people who are struggling with processing trauma with a couple of caveats.
First, if you are going to try EMDR, go to a specialist. I break out in hives when I see things on websites or in online support forums about a therapist with “throws in some EMDR every now and then” during a session. What? No. That’s pretty much malpractice. And second, prepare yourself. You must be ready to confront and get rid of the trauma, and you must be prepared for there to be some fallout afterwards because you will have changed, and not everyone is going to like those changes.
Otherwise, I think it’s the best thing I ever did for myself, and I’d encourage you to consider doing it through one of the reputable associations. I’m happy to field questions about it here in the comments or you can reach out to me personally through email.
Thank you Karin for returning to my blog to share your experiences with EMDR and trauma. Betty’s Battleground runs on honesty, so I appreciate yours.
And thank YOU, dear reader, for taking the time to read Karin’s story and to learn about another method for healing. If you would like to leave a respectful comment, please do so below.
If you have a moment to please share this on a social channel or two, that would totally make my day!
Finally, I’d love for you to click around my blog and subscribe for updates. Under the Guest Features header you can find more stories about healing, as well as the “Tales From The Other Side” series and my “Parenting With Mental Illness” interviews. You can also check out the Blog header to see my writing about living and parenting with PTSD, and Coping Tips covers everything from how to spot and help a friend going through a suicidal crisis, to how to pamper the mentally ill mama in your life. But when you’re finished here on Betty’s Battleground, please take a moment to read this whistleblowing article on Huffington Post that was written by my mental health blogging friends over at PTSDWifey and Treasure Lives. They went through a pretty scary experience with a guy who tried to scam them out of their blog (and quite a lot of money). I remember seeing him making rounds on Twitter, so please take a moment to read it and be aware. “Veteran’s Charity Allegedly Preys On Philanthropists.”
Til next time.