Profound Trauma and EMDR

I have been writing about EMDR and the process of therapy for a few reasons.  I often tell people that therapy is good.  Go to therapy! But then I’m met with this common response: “Why?” That’s legit.  Why indeed.  Providing documentation of the actual process, I reasoned, might help people understand why one chooses the therapeutic process over white knuckling it through daily life, stoic and independent.

EMDR is a modality of treatment allowing for the adaptive processing of trauma vs. the maladaptive processing of trauma or repeated compartmentalization of traumatic memories when they arise.  We can process our trauma to be sure, but the important thing to note here is whether or not we have adaptively processed it or maladaptively processed it.  Doing sound cognitive work with a therapist to address core beliefs followed up by learning what healthy boundaries look like in various normal life situations and relationships as well as internalizing what true validation looks and feels like lay a foundation for the work of EMDR.  I have suggested mindfulness as a way to practice developing and rooting new and healthy core beliefs because it puts us in the driver’s seat of our own cognitions rather than in the “washing machine” of every movement, distortion, and whim of the brain and its chemistry.  You cannot control the content that your brain puts out.  Learning how to respond (or not respond) is entirely up to us.  When something like PTSD is at work, however, reacting to the brain’s propaganda and cognitive distortions is habitual and feels necessary.  Unlearning this in order to heal and find peace in our own bodies and selves is vital for recovery and eventual flourishing.

Doesn’t that sound nice on paper?

I’ll be truthful with you here.  The process is grueling.  I have grown to despise EMDR, but it works.  My brain is fully committed.  I leave a session feeling hollowed out only to feel unsettled and ill-at-ease soon thereafter.  Something is coming forward.  Something I compartmentalized and didn’t want to deal with.  Something I really don’t care to look at now.  And then, lo, it’s in the forefront shouting, “Hey! Look at me! Deal with me next!”  Must I? Yes.  It’s time.  Thank you, brain.

The phenomenon that I experience now is one of memories without context or content first.  Then the content and context follows.  Initially, I will not understand what is happening to me.  I will suddenly feel strong emotions usually at an inconvenient time and place.  The emotions and thoughts associated with the memory will play out, and my present self will observe the event with great confusion.  I will often feel panicked over what is happening.  It will almost feel like a panic attack or flashback as the unfolding of the emotional and cognitive memory peaks, and then it will diminish.  This has happened a few times, and this usually happens around extremely bad events in my past where there has been torture of some kind.  The emotions and cognitions around the event emerge first before the event itself will come forward.  I suspect that this is my brain’s way of being helpful–a slow introduction.  It in no way feels helpful because I don’t have a clue as to what is happening when it does.  Sometimes I think I’m having a hypoglycemic event.  I feel like I am the last one to the party every time this happens.

For example, I experienced this last week, and I was caught up in the emotional onslaught very quickly.  I eventually retired to my room to attempt to regulate and “get to the bottom” of whatever was overtaking me.  I was truly panicking–out of the blue.  And there was something else, too.  I was suddenly afraid for my life.  I felt trapped and utterly despairing.  The phrase, “No one is coming for you,” was repeating itself in my mind.  I pushed against the entire thing for about twenty minutes until another thought emerged.  What if I just leaned into it? What if something beneficial was happening? That felt abhorrent to me, but fighting this experience was producing suffering.  So, I tried speaking aloud and saying the one thing that frightened me the most about the entire experience: “No one is coming for you.”  Suddenly, it was all there.

My father.  His wife.  One of their long interrogation sessions inspired by his Special Forces training.  Theirs was a folie à deux relationship.  She told him what to do, and he did it.  She watched and smiled while he remained steely.  Most of the time.  She was outwardly sadistic.  He was internally so.  Not this time.  He blatantly told me that he was going to kill me via torture using implements that I’d seen around his house.  I was very young.  They were both into psychological torture.  This, more than anything, terrified me.  And he punctuated his threats with, “No one is coming for you.”  What I find so interesting about this is that this very same phrase was used when I was trafficked.  That’s why I fought so hard to escape.  Fear of torture.  Not death.  Torture.

I rarely share details of my past experiences because I find that the sharing itself contributes to a culture of morbid curiosity or even narcissism which is so pervasive on the Internet.  Keeping my own experiences generalized allows you, the reader, to tie in your own life experiences as you read which is my goal.  So, why would I share this? Torture isn’t exactly the most common of life experiences.  I share this particular example because 1) this is my most recent experience with EMDR 2) because I want to elucidate the power of EMDR to aid in healing from trauma–even profound trauma.

Why does something like this matter really? Well, you can’t have an emotional bomb like this in your psyche.  You have to diffuse it.  You must adaptively process this.  This is, by all accounts, a horrible thing, and no person will do as well as they could in life if they don’t heal after it.  There is something else though that matters perhaps more.  Whenever I find myself in a perceived no-win situation, I panic in an extreme way and begin to feel despair which often paralyzes me.  Eventually, I will fight to win, but I can’t problem solve well.  I am usually overcome with dread and fear of death.  This past torture situation is why.  This is most likely the root of it.  Many of our present self-sabotaging behaviors and character flaws are rooted in past experiences.  No amount of will power will change them particularly if its your past self sabotaging your present.  By the way, that’s another reason to go to therapy.

Our brains are designed to do the problem solving for us.  Whenever we find ourselves in a situation that produces strong feelings in us, our brains attempt to solve the problem.  One way in which our brains do this for us is by looking back over past experiences in order to see how any previous experiences were similar and how they were solved.  For those of us with extreme backgrounds, some of our past experiences were deplorable.  When our brains go searching for past experiences evocative of the present, we may find ourselves caught up in a renewed traumatic experience.  This very reason is why EMDR is vital for living in the present and developing a more meaningful life.  Once a trauma is adaptively processed, should the brain draw on a past memory that was traumatic, it won’t pack the traumatic punch.  Perhaps it will even be off the table in terms of past experiences that the brain will draw on for present and future problem solving, and we will be less presently influenced by it.

What I must note now is this: You cannot do profound trauma work alone.  When I fully assembled this past experience–the emotional, cognitive, and visual memory–I was distraught and devastated.  I was in the middle of it and re-living it.  I felt in the present what my 7 year-old self felt in the past.  I was under the covers in my bed weeping, and I honestly didn’t know what was true in that moment.  Was anyone coming for me? Was that true? Had anyone ever come for me in my life? I was plummeting into the emotional-dysregulation-cognitive-distortion-pit-of-despair.  Fast.  I could see my father’s face so clearly.  And his wife’s.  Her sadistic grin.  His cold eyes.  It was all too real.

Then my phone rang.  It was him.  My boyfriend.  Gotta get myself together.  Clear the throat, but he knew as soon as I answered.  I spilled it all, but I didn’t want to.  This? This is too dark.  I felt too vulnerable.  To be honest, I am sick of myself.  I am sick of my process, and I am very afraid that everyone around me is sick of it, too.  Who wants to stick around for torture and suffering of this magnitude? I don’t! I want to be done, but he said everything opposite to how I felt.

And this is what you need.  People who will believe in you and your healing process when you have grown tired of yourself.  When you are afraid.  When you don’t like it.  When you fear that everyone will leave.

When you’re afraid that no one will come for you.

You must keep going.  At all costs.  This work is the most important work you will ever do.  So, I will say what I always say, keep going.

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4 thoughts on “Profound Trauma and EMDR

  1. This is a synchronistic read for me as I am currently searching for an EMDR therapist for myself. Your personal explanation of how it’s affecting you so far is helpful for me, as the reader.
    I am sick of myself as well. But for me, I wouldn’t have started down a path of healing and striving for change unless I got to that point of repeated doneness with myself. Thank you again.. Your sharing hits deep chords.

    • I’m glad it was helpful. I’ve written a few posts on EMDR. I’ve been in therapy, this time, for two years. I started when I was considering divorcing my husband and stayed when I realized that I needed to do so. The abuse within the relationship is and was being addressed with EMDR, but, as predicted, other things that have gone unaddressed unknowingly, now want their turn. It’s worth it. So worth it. But, damn…I hope you find a good therapist. You’ll not regret the effort. 🙂

  2. Flashbacks like this are really horrible and I’m glad it passed relatively quickly for you. I’d be interested to know whether the mindfulness training you’ve been doing any help during this sequence of events.

    • I should not that this wasn’t a flashback in a classic sense. Yes, it was a vivid and disturbing memory from my past resulting from trauma. But, it was my brain bringing it forth so that it could be adaptively processed in EMDR, and I was warned that this would happen. In my life, flashbacks have always been triggered and rather pointless. Sort of like, “Here we go again.” I’ve put myself in the position of inviting disturbing memories from my past so that they could be processed and moved into the “adaptively processed” folder rather than compartmentalized. And, because I come from a background characterized by profound and longterm trauma, there ain’t nothin’ good that will come forward. Frankly, it’s all shitty.

      Anyway, the strategy that I use when I experience things like this (and I did more than I ever expected during the year after my separation) is 1) do not attempt to fix how I feel 2) be curious about why I feel this way and what is happening 3) approach the pain rather than try to escape it 4) ride the wave of emotional intensity until it ebbs. It might feel like dying in some way, but it always passes. And this is all a mindfulness-based approach. 1) I am not my feelings. This emotional intensity is not me. 2) I do not have to solve or fix my feelings. 3) Developing curiosity around what may be causing the intensity helps keep the observing part of my brain from becoming overwhelmed by the intensity which is often profound 4) Sitting with the intensity and leaning into it rather than running from it or attempting to escape it with target behaviors or any sort of escape mechanism keeps the event purposeful for me AND shortens it.

      Deep crying is actually a healing event. The brain actually does some rewiring when we participate in deep crying. So, if an event of emotional intensity comes forward that induces that, then I do it.

      And then I observe what my emotional, traumatized self says. Those are often the thoughts and fears of the self that was traumatized–at that younger age. And, I write it down and bring it to therapy. And that is often where the EMDR starts. With those statements.

      So, yes, how I practice mindfulness is incorporated in how I manage flashbacks and deal with emotional intensity brought on by the trauma work. There are, however, different sorts (or denominations maybe) of mindfulness. There is Zen mindfulness. There is the mindfulness that is taught in DBT which is highly effective for things just like this. There is the mindfulness developed in the coloring books. It’s all different, but it’s all mindfulness.

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