“Here’s the thing,” my therapist begins, after a particularly anxiety-filled session discussing my focus on outcomes and relationships, “You’re aware. You’re so aware. You know that how you are feeling is not rational, but there’s something missing …”
“Yeah,” I sigh, defeated.
“You just need a click.”
“Yeah,” I repeat, looking down at my hands as they grip the plush pillow.
Over the past two years, I’ve worked long. I’ve worked hard. I’ve transformed from a girl who was so unsure of her footing in regards to adult decisions, to adult relationships, to my entire being, to a woman who is keenly aware of what makes me who I am and why. I’ve navigated the tumultuous (and often times ridiculous) dating minefield in Las Vegas. I’ve navigated the same minefield of friendships. I’ve navigated my own minefield.
And, I’ve arrived.
Except the anxiety. The being overcome with doubt. With fear.
It’s been bred in me since my childhood (note: not from the way I was raised, my parents are sensational and loving and empowering, it’s from life), this idea of not being enough. Not loving enough. Not being worthy. I know it. I can talk about it openly. But, as much as knowledge is power, this knowledge and acceptance doesn’t make those deep-seeded beliefs disappear. No amount of meditation, mantras, affirmations, crystals, manifesting, make those things go away.
“I think you’re the perfect candidate for EMDR,” she announces. “I think it’s the click you need.”
I sit upright on the couch as she continues. EM what?
“EMDR works for people who have suffered emotional traumas in the past. It uses an eye direction technique to essentially reprocess events in your past which have somehow hidden out in your brain and stuck around and impacted you far beyond how they should,” she explains. “You are cognizant of everything … now you just need to reprogram some key instances in your past so they don’t impact you the way they currently are.”
I feel a warm light wash over me.
Reprogram my past? It sounds like an episode of the Vampire Diaries where a heartbroken Elena tries to remove her love and change her memories after Damian gets stuck in some weird other world (I used to love that show). Will EMDR change me? Is it some witch-y thing that shakes up my core and makes the pain from past experiences go away?
Yes. And no.
What is EMDR?
EMDR is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Whattttttt?
Simply put, EMDR is:
“A psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences.”
The EMDR Institute goes on to explain:
“Repeated studies show that by using EMDR therapy people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal. EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma. When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes. The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes.”
The therapy uses bilateral stimulation or eye movements during a part of the session to examine an event in the past and then works to transform them on an emotional level. It delivers the power of change to the patient, and rather than continue to cling to the negative events of the past, they are reprocessed to become empowering.
How EMDR Helped Me Heal
The first time I walk into my therapist’s office, I’m excited. After years of working on myself and untangling my past to understand my present, this is my last step. My first session is an intake, where I explain the traumatic experiences from my past (including my numerous sexual assaults which have left their nasty scars in my heart and mind) and then am given a quick intro to EMDR.
My therapist places two little pulsars in my hand, connected to a box which controls the pulses. She guides me through a quick meditation, asking me to recall a time when I felt truly peaceful. As I close my eyes and recall the memory (Mexico, this year, sitting on the beach and feeling the warmth from the October sun hit my face and radiate over my body), the pulsars buzz back and forth alternating between my left and right hand.
I feel the warmth. I feel the peace I felt on the beach. Deeper than I’ve ever felt it before.
The next week, we dive in and tackle those monsters of my past that still linger as gray clouds threatening to dump rain on me and impacting my psyche.
The first memory I have is also one of my first memories. It’s one which I’ve talked about for years but never realized how big a role it has played in my self-love (or lack thereof).
First, I walk through the old memory.
“I want you to feel it, really feel it,” she instructs as I close my eyes and the pulses begin.
The emotional pain starts in my sinuses, stinging them as my chest constricts and my stomach tenses. I don’t struggle for more than a brief moment and then let the tears flow. I don’t know where all of the pain comes from, but it is there and flowing. And flowing. And flowing.
She has me relive it for a bit, as I replay in my head the memory over and over, letting those feelings rise, rise, rise to the surface.
We stop and discuss the situation. How my body reacted to it. What I felt emotionally.
Then, we dive back in. This time, we focus on letting my mind protect myself and envisioning either someone I love and trust insert themselves into my memory, or inserting myself as an adult into it.
I once again dive in, but this time, I alter it. I let the person I love help. From there, my brain takes over. It builds a loving shield, bursting with affirmations I practice today into my childhood memory. Those kind words, kind beliefs, plant their roots into my old story.
The tears cease. Then, she asks me to recall the event to her and focus on my body.
“How do you feel?” She asks.
I scan down, starting at my head, recalling the memory as I go.
“Weird,” I report back.
The tension, the tightness, the stinging … they’re gone.
My therapist hands me a log sheet to note any issues I may have post-processing and between appointments.
I don’t even pull it out of my purse.
A few days later, EMDR is put to the test.
An instance where I normally would be hyper-focused and anxious is rendered silent.
“There’s a difference in you,” my friend reports after hearing my experience. “It’s working.”
Where there should be anxiety and fear — at least according to 30 years of experience — there is a blessed silence in my brain.
I should be feeling something. I should be feeling … anything. But that negativity is nowhere to be found. There’s an odd numbness/peace which takes the space of the pain.
I think to myself:
“This is what life must feel like to normal people without the emotional scars I carry.”
And, I no longer carry them.
We go through another three sessions of reprocessing. Each session is painful, digging up and reopening gaping wounds which had long since scarred over in the ugliest of ways (you know, what scars look like without vitamin E). Then, they re-heal seamlessly.
I try to conjure up the old pain. The old Diana. But, she doesn’t exist anymore.
“It’s like there is this gaping hole where pain used to be, and it’s just not there any longer,” I explain to a friend over drinks one night. “It is a weird feeling, to know how I used to feel. To be able to recount how my thought process was, but that turmoil that was raging inside … it’s simply vanished.”
The EMDR Test
I’m not content with knowing that the old feelings are gone without putting my new self to a test. So, my last session with my therapist, we work to reprocess a trauma that doesn’t deal with emotions, but a deep-seeded fear.
When I was in sixth grade, my ears were pierced. But, I was irresponsible and didn’t take care of them so they became grossly infected. The night before my birthday my mom went to clean the earrings.
“I can’t find the backings,” she had said, telling me I would be reporting to the doctor as soon as possible.
The next morning, after being chased around the doctor’s office for a hot minute (I blocked this part out, my mom reminded me), I stood clenching my hands tightly as the doctors ripped the skin on my ears apart, the backings having been swallowed up as the infection attempted to heal.
For 25 years, I couldn’t so much as look at another person’s ear piercings, let alone fathom putting an earring through any lobe. The sight of holes made me sick to my stomach. It made my knees tingle. It made my heart race in the most uncomfortable of ways.
Then, at the start of 2016, I decided to re-pierce my ears. With a friend holding my hand, the needle pierced my lobe.
I will be good this time. I will take care of them.
I twirled the earrings like I was supposed to. I washed them. But, when it came time to replace the studs with other earrings, I couldn’t do it.
My brain would literally not allow my arms to lift to my ears or my hands to pull off the backings.
After seven months of not being able to change them, my mom finally switched the earrings out in her kitchen. I stood there, sweating, anxiety-attack looming as she replaced the studs.
“D, you really need to learn how to do this,” she said as I questioned how the holes looked.
“I know, I know,” I responded.
But, I still couldn’t do it. I’d always put it off. Promising myself next week. Next month. When she was in town.
So, I decided to introduce the traumatic memory into my EMDR session.
First, I relive the experience at the doctors. Then, I am instructed to talk to myself now and explain that my ears are fine. That the backings are there, not covered by skin. That changing my earrings will be pain-free. That nothing bad will happen. I tell myself that I was young when that happened, but it won’t happen again.
We go through the memory and reprocessing for about 15 minutes.
I walk out, head held high.
Let’s put this EMDR to the test.
I get in my car and think about changing them. And I don’t get sick. My heart gets a little flutter-y, but it’s the anticipation … not the fear.
“Come over and we will do it together,” my friend messages me later that night. “I’ve got lots of holes in my ears. I think you practice on me and then do it yourself.”
So, I go.
We sit at the table, earrings laid out on a paper towel. Rubbing alcohol next to it, along with cotton swabs. It looks like a makeshift doctors office, with all of the instruments laid out and sterile on the dining/operating table.
“OK, you ready?” She asks. Her hand goes to her ear and removes the earring. I watch as she pulls it out.
It doesn’t make me sick.
I pick up an earring.
“Put it in,” she instructs.
I close my eyes, swallow and then grab the tiny post, cautiously putting it through the hole in her ear.
I did it.
A smile erupts on my face.
“I didn’t puke! I didn’t get scared! I did it!”
“You did!” She echoes my excitement.
I continue practicing on my human guinea pig, placing earring after earring in her ear, hooks, posts, whatever.
“Now it’s time for you,” she says.
“I don’t even know how to take off a backing,” I sigh.
So, she does it for me, pulling the earring out.
I grab another earring and hold on to it tight. My palm doesn’t get sweaty. I stand up.
“I’m going to do it,” I announce, walking to her mirror.
I look at the hole in my ear. It’s so tiny. Then, I put the earring in.
I turn to her, slowly, my heart bursting with happy.
“I fucking did it! I didn’t freak out. I didn’t get sick. I didn’t even feel like getting sick. I. Fucking. Did. It.”
I continue on for another 20 minutes, putting a variety of earrings in my ears and taking them out. I do it until my ears are scarlet and sore.
Then, I look in the mirror at the silver jewelry dangling from my ears. And, I cry. I let go of 20 years of fear. Twenty years of anxiety.
“I don’t know how this works, but it works,” I tell her and continue sobbing. “This … I can’t … my life … it worked.”
I can’t explain how it felt to be able to do something which used to paralyze me. To be able to have that fear removed from my life. It’s … astonishing. Unfathomable. But, more than anything, it gives me peace.
So, Does EMDR Work?
Yes. So much yes.
The earrings were the easy-to-see-success test, but I’ve also noticed how the EMDR works in the other areas I needed it to make a change. It’s a surreal feeling to know how I used to be, to know the way my brain worked, and to no longer have that thought process take place. To no longer have those feelings pulse through me. To feel empowered. To feel good about myself when I didn’t think (in certain regards) it was possible. Those fears and doubts and negative stories which were so ingrained in my body, my mind, my heart, have vanished and been replaced by a positive story.
Should I try EMDR?
EMDR isn’t right for everyone.
And, trust me when I say this — it isn’t a quick fix in the way you may think. You have to dig and truly get in touch with shit in order for it to work. It’s not a substitute for getting your shit together, or the tough work you need to do be able to address the situations which have led to the need for EMDR.
The reason I was a prime candidate was because I had been working on myself long and hard. I had implemented daily practices of self-love and care. I had worked with an amazing therapist for a long time to get me to the point where this was the final step.
But … those steps to get to EMDR, and the EMDR itself are so very worth it.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment.