My Experience of EMDR & Treating Trauma
This is Steph’s story.
I had this very evening and left my final EMDR therapy session (Eye-Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing). Contrary to how I felt in the room during that session, I’m now feeling pretty damn good. A few months ago, I’d never heard of EMDR, either. When I read a book which has become one of the most important and influential to me, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, I not only correlated my confusing emotions, actions and past behaviour with the exact descriptions of ‘typical’ trauma written in it, but also read that certain types of trauma had proven to be ‘healed’ through EMDR therapy.
Six sessions later, I am light. Purged of a decade-heavy weight which a random man shackled to my guts, bowels and heartbeat when he followed me home, I can say that the sticky infection of guilt, shame and self-blame that has been stuck to my bones ever since the morning after, has finally been purged. For the first time since I officially hit adulthood, I can say that I have let something shapeless, but every day terrifying, go. This is a personal piece on that purging, and head’s up – it’s about rape. Knowing people who live with the same trauma – and loving many of them like family – I hope I can help them find a bit of peace by sharing.
Rapists gunna rape
Ten years ago, a selfish, entitled man around seven years my senior, changed my life. He built me a little cage of steel walls and wrapped my heart in bars. I developed IBS and when I fall for someone hard, I’m so frightened at being vulnerable that I throw up.
I heard the morning after from another student that the guy was married and had a kid.
I don’t know if he’s aware he’s a rapist; I don’t particularly care. Contrary to what people often say about rape survivors, it isn’t my fault if he rapes again: it’s his. I don’t know how I was supposed to report it to the police when it took me over a year to realise that it was more than just a really, really bad one night stand. We’re taught so many contradictory things as women that whatever choice a man makes can feel like your fault. It felt like my fault for eight years, until I started psychotherapy. It still does feel like my fault, deep down (society’s lessons also stick to bones), but I’m able to consciously tell myself it’s not – and can now face that anger in the direction it ought to be faced.
After EMDR, I’ve managed to let a lot of that anger and fear go. It hasn’t completely gone and I don’t think it ever will – we’re animals, after all, and we learn what’s dangerous from what hurts us. But I do feel, now, that I have taken some control of my life back. Freedoms I didn’t realise I’d lost have been returned to me through EMDR in ways that psychotherapy couldn’t quite manage.
The log in the river
I was told once by someone that they thought I’d “gotten over” been raped, so it’s evidently important to describe how trauma works. Traumatic memory lives in the brain differently to usual memories. Usual memories slot neatly into our life-narratives; they have a place, time and context, and stand out only if they were particularly emotive – like one or two stand out photos in a chronologically-ordered album. Traumatic memories are stored differently: they’re lessons our brains learn to help protect us from future threats. Traumatic experiences become trauma when our fight-or-flight senses try to protect us from a frightening or dangerous event, and fail, i.e.: when we want to flee, but are trapped: when a soldier sees a friend die and can’t save them; when a building collapses around you, and you’re stuck; when you see a giant wave coming towards your school, and your students drown; when a person holds you down, and you cannot get out from beneath them.
Because the fight-or-flight survival instinct has failed, it jams. Nothing can be trusted in the same way; anything can be a threat. A traumatized person is constantly on-watch for danger: ‘hyper-vigilant.’ The animal, instinctive part of the brain is where trauma lives, and consciousness can’t dig deep enough to touch it. You can’t talk yourself out of triggers because they’re logically irrational – logic doesn’t reach that far. A person who lives with trauma can only achieve so much control over their symptoms (anxiety, insomnia, irritableness and high-tension to name just a few), and best gets by with merely managing them (breathing through a panic attack caused by a look from a commuter, but being unable to stop the panic attack from happening). Ongoing vigilance that never rests is exhausting, and it takes its toll on the body, mind and being of its convict.
Traumatic memory is a log stuck in the river of our life-narrative.
The life-narrative can no longer flow like it did before.
Kicking the log
EMDR kicks the log. Unlike traditional psychotherapy or counselling, which work ‘top-down’ (the rational mind approaching the instinctive mind), EMDR works the other way around. By tapping into the instinctive mind whilst the person is conscious and pulling out its damaged, ragged contents, this therapy attacks trauma at its source. With time – and after a lot of unpleasant reliving – the traumatic memory becomes a ‘usual’ memory. The mind has been released from its ever-present vigilance to threat, and the stream can flow again.
So what is EMDR? It stands for Eye-Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (and no, it isn’t hypnosis). The conscious individual recalls their traumatic experience whilst watching a finger waved from the right eye to the left (or in my case, is tapped on the left and right knees repetitively). The trauma encased within and all of its emotional trappings come to the forefront, released into the present moment. In the midst of reliving their trauma, the individual is asked their level of distress. As the process is repeated over hours and sessions, they are asked again and again; the level of distress decreases.
Although the results are incredible, why EMDR is so effective on treating trauma isn’t yet known. Psychologists believe it has something to do with connecting the right and left sides of the brain simultaneously. All I can tell you is that for me, it has done wonders.
It isn’t cheap to take up; like most privately practised therapy types, it quickly becomes an expensive undertaking. However, after only six sessions (though with a history of psychotherapy), I have healed significantly enough to feel like a warm-blooded animal again, who isn’t afraid of their own body – or those of others.
EMDR in action
From here-on, I am going to describe my experience of EMDR in detail in case anyone wants to see this treatment up close. This will include details of rape and mental health issues, so if you would rather not read on, then please don’t.
Armed with the rational approaches to rape survival and mental health I built up from psychotherapy, I feel prepared to wretch my innards out in a room with a trained stranger. Treating Bessel Vam Der Kolk’s book like my bible, I have taken it at every word, and found a number of therapists in London who specialise in EMDR. I’ve read that the therapy doesn’t work as well for people who have endured repeated traumatic abuse during childhood, but is suited more to the one- or few-time traumas which pepper adult lives. Being lucky enough to fall into the second category, I attend with massive expectations. We talk and establish why I’m there, and what my story is.
I’m surprised that it works so well. I close my eyes and she taps my knees. Tap tap. My chest tightens as I picture him lying squashed next to me in my single bed in university halls. He hadn’t left after he raped me like I’d hoped, but seemed to be playing the role of a one-night-stand lover who was eager to stay. I hadn’t moved a limb since he stopped. Somehow, he is awake after all, and his hand, lazy in tiredness, touches my clitoris and vagina. I push it away, but it bats my hand away like a fly, and I have no power left at all. I’m not a person. I freeze again.
Tap tap. And soon, within that therapy room and my chest, something bubbles up. My whole body locks and trembles. Without warning, tears begin streaming from my eyes. My breath grows sharp and off-tempo. She stops tapping, and tells me to take a big breath. I do, and open my eyes. She asks ‘what came up?’ which will be the catchphrase of our work together; but I saw nothing; I only felt.
We go again. Tap tap. The tears come immediately this time, breath instantly ragged. His hand is still there, touching me against my will, and somehow there’s something bigger within me and it rises without my control. I feel my mouth open and my teeth clench. I’m hissing, baring them like an animal warning that fucker to back the fuck off. It’s a detesting fury, and it is the most powerful thing I have ever felt. My body is so small, and my rage so big; it doesn’t fit so has to come out. My flesh is sodden and burdened with it, and my skeleton can barely support it. My spine curls, and I’ve soon curled in completely on myself, gnashing and crying into my own chest. I hear it and feel it all as if I’m someone else, spectating on my own trauma. It astounds me.
‘What came up?’
Nothing to see.
We go again. Tap tap. Teeth bared and saliva dripping onto the sofa, something far more fragile blossoms. Coating everything and collapsing the animal defences is sorrow. I can hear cries coming from me that I’ve never heard coming from another human being in my life. My breath and my being buoy over waves of pain, and in my gut-crushing sadness, I wonder that such a thing was done to me. My burden, of all these years, was escaping like an animal from a forgotten, rotting zoo.
I was kicking that fucking log.
Stop. Big breath. ‘What came up?’
I’m beating him up. I’m beating him down. Naked, puny and standing over the bed, 18-year-old me, hair knotted with cheap spray and stained with make-up, is beating his naked body. My hands thrash at him in the therapy room, stabbing the air all by themselves. My actions are beyond my control. I hear myself seethe out ‘No!’ as I pummel his face. I’m naked, but I’m not vulnerable; I’m full of power. I choose what happens to me. He backs up against the wall, his arms are raised to protect himself but I have no mercy.
‘What came up?’
‘Let me tell you!’
We take five minutes to calm down before I go home. My body is limp and ragged like a rag doll, and I’m covered in spit and snot. Walking out of her apartment and up five small steps takes an incredible strength and I’m a bit nervous I’m going to pass out on the tube home.
The emotions return after a bit of goading, and I dread them. This time, they are less strong, but still worth fearing. I clutch two tissues in one fist, waiting – dreading – the full-blown feeling I had experienced last time.
‘What came up?’
Again, it takes time to return. Again, it is less, everything is less: still present, but not terrifying. Still painful, but not destructive.
I see the dressed-me from that night (sporting a cardboard dress made for a friend’s birthday fancy-dress party… it really isn’t what you wear). She leaves the Student Union with her equally-mashed friends. But this time, she asks what he’s doing, when he follows; she tells him to get lost.
At her bedroom door, she overcomes the fear of what he’ll do if she refuses and slams the door in his face, locking it tight. Triumphant, she turns, and there the other her is: naked on the bed, comatose into stillness. Dressed-me, strong-me, goes to naked-me, broken-me, and holds her as she cries.
I have to apologise to that naked girl. She’s been left to struggle alone for years, taking the brunt of blame for something that wasn’t her fault. She wasn’t even there when he raped her; she was somewhere else: a rag-doll positioned all around that bed, but safe in her head, removed from reality.
The fear of a strange man raping her in her room stole her voice; how could she say ‘no’, when refusal might bring something worse than rape? I tell her I’m sorry, and I take her hand. I hope she can forgive me.
‘Has she forgiven you? Have you forgiven her?’
I see us standing there, holding hands. Stuck in ten-years-ago, growth stunted, hair still long. They couldn’t become anyone else; they couldn’t move on. They’ve been left there to go it alone, without even me to help them. I couldn’t reconcile them to my afterwards-identity; to the steely, throwy-uppy woman full of fear I became.
I try to absorb them. They give me a hard time. I could understand why.
‘What came up?’
Guilt, but different guilt. Fair guilt. Guilt for afterwards, not during. And a lot of snot.
There’s really nowhere to hide from yourself, if you do this. I’d known all that pain and denial was there. It was just time to face it.
She taps my knees, and although I feel sad, there is no surge of emotion left to spit out.
I have managed to exhume most of the damage. I have managed to blame him.
We agree that I have reached a point of closure.
‘How distressed are you now, from one to ten, when you think about your rape?’
The word ‘rape’ doesn’t even make me wince. ‘One or two,’ I reply. ‘Though I feel sad that it was done to me, so it might be sadness.’
I recall his hand and fingers touching me perfectly well, and my body doesn’t shake. ‘One,’ I reply.
We acknowledge that although the cause has been dealt with, the various problems it has caused since might still take work. I understand that the job is not (if ever) complete, but my body is my own again.
Two years later
It’s been over two years since I underwent EMDR, and I can honestly say I’ve never felt so free. Without the fear every teenager lives with, and without the fear that a rape survivor lives with, I have at last obtained a libido of my own. Recently splitting from a long term partner, I am at age 30 finally understanding the joys of meeting attractive men, going on dates, flirting, having sex that’s enjoyable and not clouded in ‘what if…?’
I can sit on the London Underground now, and not be infuriated to rage that a man is eyeing me up in an offensive manner.
I haven’t had a panic attack in bed for over two years, either.
A week after completing my therapy I met a friend, who hadn’t known what I was undertaking; she watched me coming, and said as soon as I reached her: “what’s happened? You look different. You’re walking different.”
The ever-present tension of being alert has left my body. I’m less tired, less worried, less in-a-rush. For my first time in my adult life, I feel like me.
As I’ve said, EMDR is expensive and it won’t work for everyone. But if you think it’ll work for you, I suggest finding an EMDR therapist (there aren’t many!) and getting in touch. Tell them your story and see what they recommend.
What have you got to lose? The black cloud.
What have you to gain? Your liberty.
Go for it, mate.