The cupboard door was opened. All of the contents, stuffed in the cupboard haphazardly and the door forced shut, tumbled on top of me.
I felt suffocated, paralysed.
But I emerged.
I survived EMDR therapy.
I survived EMDR therapy when at one point I thought it was making my symptoms worse, and that it was the worst thing I could have done.
Having endured, stuck with it, perservered, I can now understand why people who have been through it say it is the best thing they have ever done.
EMDR is eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At the beginning of the process I wrote about how EMDR feels.
In a nutshell, PTSD causes brain damage. The amydala (the part of your brain that deals with emergencies) is permanently switched on. The connection with the hippocampus (dealing with memory) is affected, which can lead you to think that the traumatic memories are happening now – that is why panic attacks can happen when a sufferer is presented with a trigger. EMDR seeks to reprocess the traumatic memories – it’s kind of like reprogramming a computer.
How Does EMDR Feel?
There is no sugar-coating EMDR therapy.
It involves voluntarily visiting some of your darkest, most troubling traumatic memories.
Why would you do that? You may ask. It’s a good question. The process of EMDR may seem to defy common sense, but the trouble with PTSD is that the traumatic memories are there to torture and torment you all the time. It can be very difficult to control them, therefore making life challenging. Those memories will always be there, they cannot be erased or removed. The idea of EMDR is to find a way of looking differently at the memories.
What Happens During Therapy?
As described in this post, before starting processing your therapist will work with you to devise a timeline of your life. They will also help you find a ‘safe place’ to retreat to in your mind if the processing becomes overwhelming.
At the beginning of each session I’d chat with my therapist about how the previous week had been. She would ask me if I had any particular questions, and whether there was anything in particular I wanted to ensure was covered during the session. We would agree on a memory to begin to process. I would describe it I was grateful to not have to describe things in detail to the therapist. Some things are difficult to describe in mere words, plus there are other senses like sounds and touch. Instead, I would describe a memory like “Feeling helpless and vulnerable in intensive care after Hugo was born.”
Before each processing began my therapist would ask me to decide on an “I am…” statement, a belief I held about myself in relation to the particular memory at that time and rank it out of 10 as a way of tracking how strongly I held that belief. I would also decide on an “I am…” statement for how I would like to think about myself in relation to that memory, again with a numeric score.
The ‘after’ “I am…” statement is usually a word that is the direct opposite to the ‘before’ statement, but not always. An example of that is when processing the day that Hugo died. My before statement was “I am a failure,” because of my conviction that I failed my son. It is unreasonable in the circumstances to have expected myself to think that I am the direct opposite of a failure that day – a success – but instead I agreed that thought that I did everything possible for Hugo.
And this provided a turning point.
Previously I was able to describe what happened that day, I felt disconnected from it. I felt like it wasn’t really me there, and sometimes that it didn’t really happen at all.
I could not fully engage with it because it was too awful, too terrifying, too too sad. I thought I would fall in to the vortex and never emerge.
Processing this memory was always going to be challenging. The worst day of my life, with decisions and actions no parent should have to take. I steeled myself to revisit the memories in my head.
My heart pounded hard and fast, my breathing intensified. My limbs wouldn’t keep still.
I had tears pouring down my cheeks.
But there was a huge shift that surprised me: amongst the sorrow and helplessness, I had a sense of peace and reassurance. That feeling came from memories of precious time with Hugo keeping popping in to my head: of the cuddles that we had. His skin against mine, me singing to him, and the way he reacted to it.
I felt overwhelmed by love. Of me for Hugo, and of Hugo for me.
There were even a couple of occasions during the processing that I smiled.
Thinking about those memories now they are still traumatic, they are still scary, and they are still difficult to revisit.
But crucially, the processing helped shift the perspective my brain held about the memories of that day.
I am not a failure, I did not fail my son. I did the best I could for him in the circumstances.
I loved Hugo with every ounce of my being. I still love him. His daddy and I did everything in our power to help him. Hugo knew he was loved, too.
The processing helped me see beyond the trauma, the memories that my brain was stuck on like a broken record.
What Happens After A Session?
Revisiting traumatic memories brought to the fore some very strong emotions.
The brain is an incredible organ with an amazing capacity to heal, but it can only do so much at one time. Therapy is exhausting, so I was forced to be kind to myself.
I had to get lots of rest. There were times when it felt like I couldn’t perform basic daily functions – that is because your brain’s processing power is dealing with processing the traumatic memories, leaving you with little energy for dealing with other things.
Think of the computer update analogy: it’s impossible to do any work on your computer while it’s going through the process, so you just have to sit and wait for it to do whatever it needs to do.
Self-care is crucial. My therapist recommended that I prepare a ‘survival box’ containing things to keep me going when I felt at my lowest ebb. Mine contained colouring books and pencils, a sample bottle of perfume, a tactile mini-pillow (scent and touch can help with keeping you in the present – clearly these things need to be chosen with care depending on the nature of the trauma and related triggers). Outside of the box, literally, was music – I saved loads of my favourite tunes, songs I knew the words to and I that I could sing along to – and going to the gym. Throwing sandbells, and boxing, were particularly satisfying and helped me deal with anger emotions.
There were times when I wondered if it was worth it, considering how dreadful it made me feel. But just like having an operation for a physical disorder, for example a hip replacement – it’s painful, and rehabilitation is likely to be painful and frustrating but it is worth it in the end.
Why Was EMDR Worth It?
For me, EMDR helped me move past the traumatic memories, in particular the feelings of fear, helplessness and vulnerability. Those traumatic memories will never disappear – that is not the goal of EMDR therapy. But I would not want them to disappear, because that would mean erasing precious memories of my son.
I wanted to feel able to move forward. Living with the trauma, avoiding potential triggers, dealing with flashbacks is exhausting and no way to really, truly live.
Through perservering with EMDR I feel liberated from the weight of those traumatic memories. I feel able to move forward, and live my life knowing I did the best I could for my son.
Before therapy, I felt very uncomfortable enjoying myself, or truly relishing life. Hugo’s legacy was always tinged with the dark thought that I couldn’t feel proud of it because if I hadn’t been such a useless mother Hugo would still be here. I felt like I had to punish myself.
Freeing myself from the negative beliefs that I held about myself feels so much lighter.
Underneath the weight of the traumatic memories is revealed a woman with incredible depths of strength of character.
It’s crucial recovery does not mean a return to ‘the old me’, or things ‘getting back to normal’. Nor is there a ‘getting over it’.
The goal is recovery, not cure.
EMDR therapy is about finding a way to live with the traumatic memories. It is about examining what I have learned about myself throughout those traumatic experiences, and what I have gained because of them.
The notion of having ‘gained’ anything from nearly dying and from Hugo’s death would have one time have felt repugnant. What on Earth could I gain from so great a loss?
But I have grown, developed, uncovered reserves of strength and courage. Gained confidence. Gained a new perspective on life. And those things are to be celebrated.
I would much rather have Hugo with me, and for those qualities to have remained undiscovered. But I don’t, and I have. I need to continue to live – not just to exist, but to live, to thrive, to blossom – as a tribute to my son. Without guilt.
Knowing that I have survived the worst things that life could possibly throw at me is incredibly liberating.
And EMDR has helped me to achieve that.
It really is the best thing I have ever done. Besides having Hugo, of course.
I also posted a video on my Facebook page to complement this post – you can watch it below:
I’m honoured to have been shortlisted in the Best Campaigner category of the 2016 Mumsnet Blogging Awards. Please would you take a second to vote for me, and help me reach the final? Voting is open until October 7.