I didn’t even know what I had been referred for until I got to my first meeting with my therapist Charles Cullen. All I knew was that I had been assessed as possibly having PTSD (I must admit I found it highly amusing to finally have this diagnosis at the age of 50 when my whole childhood was traumatic and most of my adulthood has been blighted with depression, anxiety, self harm & IBS because of it).
It has to be noted too that after having had a huge variety of ‘therapies’ from being in a Therapeutic Community for two years, having time in a mental health hospital ward, having had Gestalt, CBT, Mindfulness, art therapy and group therapy, seeing psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors and therapists and everything else and seeing anyone else that anyone could think of because they didn’t know what else to do with this person who had been coming back and forth in the system for 33 years, I was, not surprisingly, a huge sceptic!
So, I go in to meet this very kind and unassuming therapist and once again go through my whole life story...well, the bits I usually don’t mind talking about. I had long given up talking about the things that I felt strange, couldn’t get a handle on myself after all these years so didn’t reckon a therapist would either.
Then we talked about the ‘therapy’ that Charles thought may be suitable for me although I don’t have textbook PTSD as my trauma didn’t come from one specific incident or traumatic time but instead was spread and reinforced over time.
For an educated woman who has a Masters Degree, I have to say the ‘concept’ of EMDR was hard to grasp. I have found I am a person who grasps clear and grounded information best and am not good with ‘woolly stuff’, as I would describe it. In fact, EMDR is far from woolly but grasping the idea that by (crudely speaking) ‘looking at a light moving backwards and forwards along a strip light type device’ I was going to be able to ‘unlock the part of my brain where experiences as a child had been ‘left’ as I had been unable to process and understand them at the time’ ...and not just unlock them, no, actually ‘move those experiences to the side of my brain where they could be re-processed and understood now as an adult’ just sounded ridiculous and like some sort of modern therapeutic mumbo jumbo to me!
How wrong I was !!!!
After five or six weeks of careful preparation for the therapy itself, going into many of the experiences that I hadn’t spoken of before as best I could describe them, I went in ready to have my first ‘processing session’. It hit me like a tornado. It would be fair to say that even after the preparation time where I had pretty much grasped the concept of the therapy and knew what to expect, I was still a sceptic. How could this process actually work?
What I went through that first day I will describe here in the only way I can. It will sound unbelievable but I swear that this was my experience of it.....
I had already worked during the preparation time on identifying the ‘Touchstone Memory’ and the associated ‘picture’ I was going to ‘bring up’ in my head and the negative cognition that ‘picture’ represented. My ‘picture’ was my adoptive mothers face. This picture brought up anxiety and physical reaction every time I thought of it with the negative ‘I am worth nothing’. The anxiety level was (from 1-10) registered at the beginning of each ‘processing session’. The anxiety I felt was a level 8-9 when I started the therapy. I was to change that perception to ‘I am worthwhile’ during this therapy and my anxiety level came down to between 0-1!
Then very basically, I sat in front of a strip light and followed a red light moving from left to right and back again, repeatedly for a matter of seconds, with my eyes and when it stopped, I had to say just a word or two about what came up either physically (ie feeling sick, bloated, butterflies), emotionally (ie scared, relieved) , actual physical reaction (ie pain, hiccups, breathlessness) or a thought (ie why did she do that?) etc. The red light movement replicates the ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ that you experience in deep sleep, when your brain processes the usual day’s events and deals with them.
My life rushed before my eyes......have you ever been in a car crash or seen films of your life passing before your eyes?.....well this experience in the processing was absolutely astonishing - so astonishing that I didn’t believe myself even though it was me who had done and felt it!
The first light process began with me seeing that picture of my adoptive mother in my mind and knowing and feeling ‘I am worth nothing’. I can’t remember exactly now what order my reactions came in but this was the range... the light stopped I felt sad first.....more light movement....stopped...I was crying by now and feeling desolate.....light movement.....and moments later extreme anger....light movement.... rage/ physically shaking .....light movement.....pain in my side/can’t breathe/feeling strangled....light movement......can’t talk/silenced/feels like a hand round my throat .... light movement ......crying again but with deep sadness and asking why did you hate me?.....
The range of times in my childhood and the associated feelings and thoughts I went through in just one 45 minute or so processing session was astounding. I didn’t believe it myself.
I had been using Rapid Eye Movement to unlock my stuck memories. I was shocked. I was exhausted. I went to my ‘safe place’.
Importantly, when preparing for the ‘processing’ I had practiced taking myself to this safe place. This safe place had been really hard to find. It took me a good few weeks to find and take myself to somewhere really really safe in my mind, because I don’t think I have ever felt safe. I found it though.....sitting on the grass in Irene’s garden in Panama, on top of a hill with the mountain (volcano) behind me, feeling the red grass beneath my fingers and feet, feeling warm with the sun shining down on me but at the same time feeling a fresh breeze pass me by allowing me to breathe deeply and purely, surrounded by bright rainbow coloured flowers and hummingbirds feeding from them. This is how it really is in Irene’s garden in Panama....why I love the place so deeply....maybe it is the only place I have ever felt safe in my whole life.
Over the next few days after each processing session I was totally and utterly shattered....I slept for days. This whole time my brain was still processing my unlocked thoughts when in REM sleep. I think I had about five more processing sessions after the first, but the first was the most traumatic and memorable now, two months later.
Over the weeks I had headaches, felt sick and bloated, couldn’t eat, slept forever and had a huge range of physical, mental and emotional reactions. One thing though, the dream that I have dreamt the whole of my life, of the Sunday School building of my childhood and all its associated trauma and the nightmares with anxiety of being attacked by my mother have disappeared. I can recall them now if I think about them without fear or upset, but since the first processing session I have not had those nightmares to date.
It has taken a little time since my processing therapy finished to understand the positive effects the therapy had on me. One effect which has taken longer to come through is a clearness of mind. I feel literally like my eyes were dirty and a window cleaner has come along with a window cleaning squidgy and wiped the dirt off my eyes. I can see clearly now...like the clouds have been pushed away and things are clear...clarity. It’s truly the most amazing gift the therapy has given me.
I am still very tired...I have had M.E for over 8 years. I still sleep for hours and hours, but when I am awake, I am truly awake. Some of the ‘brain fog’ associated with M.E has cleared and at times my brain is very clear. I do have to catch these moments though like now, writing this. My anxiety has all but gone, but if I do find myself in a stressful situation I can easily and very naturally go to my safe place. I feel... nothing....about my adoptive mother. Every time I saw a woman who had some kind of physical resemblance to her I would run and hide in a sheer childlike panic, I was so afraid of her...that look...that hardness. Now I am ‘aware’ of that resemblance but I don’t react to that trigger with panic. Instead I know that that person is not my adoptive mother and I can ‘deal’ with it by taking myself in my mind to my safe place (what a joy it is to me to be in Panama so often!).
There are many more issues that have been stuck in that un-processed place in my brain, but I feel that the channel between the un-processed and the processing parts of my brain are open now. Rapid Eye Movement in sleep helps these issues now come to the fore to be processed naturally. It will take a long time, but life is much easier now. I like myself that bit more too. I am worthwhile. I will never ‘label’ myself by someone else’s label again, that’s for sure.
This account of my experience is in places I am sure, not accurate in regard to the specific ways the therapy works ie I have not done the research or training and do not have the knowledge of a therapist actually doing the process. I know there is a lot more involved as far as the therapists work is concerned but I do not know the in’s and out’s of this. What I do know is that this therapy is not for the faint-hearted. It is a traumatic process in itself. For me, it brought up all the issues that I hadn’t spoken about before, that I hadn’t known how to put into words, hadn’t been able to put words to my fears. I had to live a lot of it for it to be able to be processed. To have to bring up each time, the thing that you have most fear of in your life is something you need to be in the right place mentally to be able to do. It also brought up the next pile of issues I still have to deal with...issues that perhaps processing won’t be able to resolve but perhaps I can myself now having more understanding of them now.
‘Getting Past Your Past – take control of your life with self-help techniques from EMDR Therapy’ by Francine Shapiro is an excellent book which explains the whole process in full detail. I hope my experience as written above, has given someone the wish to pick up this book and read more about this amazing therapy and I hope that many more therapists train in this world of EMDR. Please though, make sure the therapist you use is not just qualified on-line but also part of an organisation that is responsible in itself. What I am trying to say is, don’t just pick a therapist out of the phone book......make sure you have checked them out – their credentials, qualifications, quality of work and get recommendations from previous clients as I feel sure that like many things, this could be devastating to a client in the wrong hands. I am very grateful to the Anxiety & Depression Service run in my area by the NHS.