I did not do EMDR at my last session. My therapist was correct. My brain caught on very quickly that it was time to “open it up”, so to speak, and every unresolved trauma left came pouring forth with relentless haste. I was none too pleased about it, but, at the same time, I wanted to grind it out as soon as possible.
Let’s just get this done! I’m ready, but then again…
There were details emerging that I had forgotten. I “forgot” them for a reason. I never wanted to remember them again. I had to go in my room and collect myself more than a few times.
One of my father’s preferred methods of behavior shaping was torture–animal torture in specific. He would torture and kill animals in front of me making sure that I understood that the animal was a proxy for me. If I were to ever disobey or defy him, then what I was witnessing in that moment would be done to me. Yes, this is brutal and horror-inducing. It was supposed to be, but my father had no problem doing that. He had a craving for sadism, and he was very good at planning and carrying out torture in all its forms. The US government had paid him to do it for years. He had a gift after all.
Recalling it all in such detail was, needless to say, extremely unpleasant, and that is what was discussed in therapy. How does one put meaning to the meaningless? Truly, how?! This is why some sorts of trauma–the nihilistic sort–are so hard to come back from. Watching your parent torture and kill animals in front of you all the while knowing that he would really rather be doing that to you counts as an annihilating sort of trauma. It breaks you down in a way that few other things can, and the brain can never make sense of it. It is next to impossible to adaptively process it. It goes right alongside something like incest.
So, what does one do? How do we adaptively process something so unspeakably horrible? Evil even?
My therapist actually hit a wall in session at this. Speaking only for myself, I can usually process something if I can add meaning to it. No matter how horrible, if I can take meaning away from it, then I can adaptively process it. That is how I’ve managed to make peace and heal from almost everything I’ve experienced–even the trafficking. But, some of things my father did have languished in a compartment in my mind, untouched, because I did not know what to do with them. The time has come, and all I have been able to do is circle those memories like a wolf under threat.
During session, as my therapist sat in his chair looking puzzled, the story of a Jewish man came to mind. He had survived Auschwitz and immigrated to America to begin again. He lost his entire family. All of them. He was completely alone in the world. He enrolled in medical school as a non-native speaker and became a physician. He got married. He had children. He built a life with everything against him. Can you imagine the horrors he witnessed? The depth and weight of the grief he carried? Can you imagine having no one to speak to about it? Can you imagine there being no one in the entire world left who knew you? You would be a stranger everywhere you went. No friends. No family. No countrymen.
So, how did he get up again? That is the question I asked in session. This man. Many, many people have done what he did. They overcame insurmountable odds and built something much bigger than they were. What is that quality? Why even bother? I eventually said, “I think he must have continued on because he had hope. Why else would a person continue to try if not for hope?”
And that was the moment that my therapist looked at me and said, “Is that why you keep going? In all the absolutely terrible things that your father did to you and made you witness, how did you continue to get up again?”
I had to think about it. It was hope, yes, but it was something else. He never broke me, and that is what he had tried to do. Yes, he did torture me, but I never called him ‘sir’. I never gave him what he wanted. And, I always believed that if he was ever successful in breaking me down to a point that I did break, I would get up eventually. I would resurrect. He was powerful, but I was somehow more powerful because he could not snuff me out entirely.
And I was right.
And therein lies the meaning to all of the meaningless trauma.
If you are alive and breathing, then you were not completely annihilated. You were not broken down into nothingness. You may have seen and experienced things that you worry you won’t ever be able to tell another person lest you traumatize them in the telling. I understand this. But, your breath and heartbeat both tell you that you can rise again, and that means more than you might realize.
Your life might look like a pile of ash right now, but sometimes starting over from nothing is exactly what is necessary in order to build something new. Discovering that you can’t be erased, that you have what it takes, that you are, in fact, a survivor removes the self-doubt that has kept you from getting up and walking an uncertain road. Once you know, however, what you’re really made of, the uncertainties that lie ahead aren’t nearly so scary because you’ve already been scared. The future? As uncertain as it is, you know you have what it takes now.
And knowing that you have what it takes to face every uncertainty is worth more than almost anything. That is how you turn trauma into meaning. Lead into gold. That is emotional alchemy. And that’s how you get up again.
So, keep going no matter where you are in your process. You might still be dealing with lead. Just get up. Start walking. That is how it begins. Every story must have a beginning before you get to the middle. And every narrative has a dénouement and a terrible villain; otherwise, there would be no need for a hero.
And every phoenix needs fire and ash before it rises again.
Keep going. Make that your mantra.