When we left off, I had completed my first session with EMDR, and had one revelation on my way home from the appointment. I was still a little skeptical, but still open to trying more. My therapist had told me that it appeared that I more strongly identified with using the tool of a “container” for dealing with negative thoughts and emotions, and that we’d “install” that at our next session.
We started the session with a quick check-in about anything that came from the last session. I shared my thought that the appearance of my parents by itself didn’t signal the contamination of the comfortable place, but that the not knowing where one of my parents are might have been it. She thought that was interesting and pointed out that people showing up does not always mean contamination, and gave me an example. But we returned to the “container” tool, since I’d had such a strong and immediate reaction to it.
My therapist told me that the container is a contract. The container is a place you can ask the thoughts and memories to go, and that they will go there willingly, and stay there. Then we began the stimulation cycles. She asked me to visualize all the negative thoughts, all the negative memories, everything that caused me distress. Then she asked me to invite them into my journal, and I just visualized writing in my journal. She asked me if they were in there, and I replied “yes”. She asked if I was feeling any distress or discomfort, and I wasn’t. Installation complete.
So we moved on to my first troubling memory. She asked me to set the stage – describe the memory. Without getting into details (for here… with the therapist, I did get into details), it was a memory from very early childhood, where I was playing with another child (opposite of my assigned gender), and we were having a good time. Something caused the child to suddenly pay attention to our genders, and they told me we couldn’t play, because “I’m a [one gender], and you’re a [the other one].” Pulling up the memory brought back the pain. My therapist asked me to rate the level of disturbance this memory was currently causing me, and I rated it rather high. She then asked me to provide a statement that I would like to be true about myself when I recall the memory. I had a hard time with this. What positive outcome could I possibly derive from this memory? We discussed a few possibilities, and a little bit of what I had felt (emotionally) at the time this happened. I realized that I had felt inadequate – that I hadn’t been identified the way I saw myself. It must have been because I hadn’t been [gender] enough. I came up with “I want to feel like I was enough.”, but that still didn’t feel like something believable to me. So we finally settled on “I want to be able to survive this.”
We began the stimulation cycles. She started by asking me to describe what I saw, what I heard, what I smelled, what I felt. (A period of reflection while the buzzers alternate in my hands) “What do you notice?” I felt hurt and rejected. “Ok, go with that.” (focus on the feeling of hurt/rejection). We continued many cycles of this – “What did you notice?” … “Ok, go with that.” (stimulation). It became a kind of stream of consciousness, free-form interview with only one question: “What did you notice?”. Anything I noticed was fair game – from parts of the memory, emotions, sensations in my body, thoughts that popped into my head. I noticed: feeling anger; feeling misunderstood; Why couldn’t people see me for who I am on the inside, instead of what’s on the outside?; feeling like I don’t fit in; feeling I’m not accepted; stomach discomfort; stomach churning, tightness; anxiety – am I preparing to fight or to fly?; I don’t want to fight, and I don’t want to run; tension in my upper body; I want a release; fatigue in upper body; sorrow for missed opportunities; “I want to fit in. I want to be accepted.”
We wrapped up the appointment. I felt… I don’t know – dazed? Overwhelmed? Blindsided? A million things were swirling in my head, and I couldn’t make sense of them. I could hardly latch on to any of them to even be able to identify an individual thought. Since the therapist had warned us that we wouldn’t know what to expect as a result of my session, my spouse had driven me to the appointment, in case I wouldn’t be up to driving. That turned out to be the right choice. I dissolved into tears, sobbing uncontrollably before we even got out of the parking lot. What had I done? What had I gotten myself into? The memory had hurt any time I had recalled it, but this hurt even worse!
We had planned a lunch with some extended family for that day, so we drove to pick one of the family members up from his place. I couldn’t answer any questions. Everything was “I don’t know. I need some time.”; “I don’t know what happened.”; “I can’t even think right now – a million things are going on inside my head.” Our drive quickly went silent, except for the occasional sobs as I worked to understand what had happened. For me, lunch was spent not paying attention. I ordered something safe from the menu and sat and stared into the distance. If someone engaged me in conversation, I responded and returned to my 1000-foot-stare as quickly as I could. Thankfully, the rest of our family was ok just letting me be and had a good time amongst themselves.
After lunch, I laid down in bed to think, to feel, to process. I realized that the silence was not helping me at all – I felt like I needed something to stimulate my ears – maybe distract me just a little, but not too much. I searched for something that appealed to me in the moment, and settled on Depeche Mode. It turns out that Depeche Mode is a really good group for me to listen to while processing – I’ve returned to it many times. Violator, Music for the Masses, Songs of Faith and Devotion, Sounds of the Universe – each of these albums has something that has helped me at some point as I’ve processed after an EMDR session. As I lay there, listening to tracks from Violator, I suddenly became curious about a song that was playing. I didn’t even know the name of the song, but looked it up and pulled up the lyrics. Those lyrics had a brand new meaning to me – one that the songwriters almost certainly never had in mind, but nonetheless the words just fit me in the frame of mind I was in.
But I still didn’t have any answers. I had just went through an emotionally wrenching and draining therapy session. When does it get better? How is this supposed to help? The only thing it’s done for me is turn me into a zombie! I moved to the couch and lay there. “I don’t think this is worth it.” “I’m feeling worse now than I’ve ever felt recalling this memory.” Then, WHAM! I put something together that I’d never realized before. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! More connections, more realizations, more epiphanies! They came fast, and hit me like a ton of bricks when they did. Here was the benefit of EMDR therapy: these epiphanies were all things I think I would have eventually realized, but it would have taken a really long time for me to have made these connections had I just been left to myself or only engaged in conventional talk therapy. EMDR sped this process up significantly!
So that evening, I realized “Ok, I think I believe that EMDR isn’t just some sleight-of-hand parlor trick. It worked for me!” I wasn’t expecting results that quickly, but I couldn’t argue with it – I knew I had just made a quantum leap in understanding what that memory had really done to me, and was still doing!
More on that next time.