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EMDR and Xena, Warrior Princess.

Heather’s #MadCovidDiaries 25.04.2021, CW: trauma, suicidal & self harm thoughts.

I haven’t written a Madcovid diary for a little while now because I have been focusing on my weekly EMDR therapy sessions. I suppose I felt as though writing about therapy might jinx my chances of it working out. I’ve also been conscious that many of people in our Madcovid movement aren’t getting face to face therapy access, let alone trauma informed NHS therapy, and that made me feel guilty. Now I have finished my sessions so I thought that now might be a good time to write about EMDR.

I should probably tell you what EDMR is, right? Eye Movement and Desensitisation Re-Processing Therapy – what a mouthful. It’s referred to as EMDR and is becoming more popular as a therapy option for people who have been through trauma or who are having difficulties with phobias, panic, interrupted grief and sleep problems. I had read about EMDR in ‘The Body Keeps Score’ by Bessel Von Kolk. I thought ‘that sounds great, bummer, I could never afford to pay privately for that.’ It wasn’t until I found myself nearing the top of the waiting list for NHS psychological therapy, when a clinical psychologist rang me and explained that she could offer me EMDR, that I decided to go for it.

EMDR was developed in the 1989 by Frances Shapiro. It’s a one-to-one form of talk therapy. EMDR has similarities with other talk therapies you might have encountered:

  • EMDR involves identifying the difficulties in your current life and in the past so you can work on those difficulties. In my case, I drew out a timeline of the trauma and chaos in my life and then used that to figure out what memories seemed to be most powerful and which traumas echoed each other.
  • EMDR sessions have a set structure that each session tends to follow, with a set of steps that both you and your therapist would agree to work on. I pick the thing I want to work on the following week. At the start of that session we check in to see if that still feels ok to do.
  • EMDR can bring up painful emotions and memories and is emotional work, so you will feel the toll during the week. I have left sessions feeling tired and had some nightmares in between, although it hasn’t been as distressing as other kinds of therapy I’ve had.
  • EMDR treatment works processing the emotions you feel, the beliefs that you have formed to make sense of difficult events and the way this emotions and beliefs influence your behaviour. This has been similar to behavioural therapy I have done, but it hasn’t involved me trying to test or think my way into different beliefs, processing the difficulty emotionally has led to me feeling and thinking differently about them.
  • EMDR involves forming a trustworthy, safe alliance with a therapist who will feel their feelings and regulate them alongside you. This has been really helpful for me because I struggle with feeling judged or rejected by therapists and I need to know that I won’t be punished for being emotional. It’s also validating to see a therapist look sad when I am talking about a very sad thing!
  • EMDR can be done face to face with a therapist but has also been successfully adapted for use online. I initially did my EMDR online via secure NHS Accurx video conference calls but switched to mask-on, socially distanced face to face work in January.

One difference between EMDR and other therapy is that it uses your eye movements and bi lateral movement to process difficulties. Just as people need to cycle through Rapid Eye Movement phases in sleep – the dreaming states where the mind sorts out the events of the day – EMDR involves similar movement. This can be by following a pointer with your eyes, or it can be with tapping with your hands on your shoulders or on your legs, in my case, I tapped on my knees while I recalled difficult memories.

The theory behind EMDR is that this movement (combined with other aspects of the therapy) drains the emotion from a memory or situation. The most exciting part about this for me was that I wouldn’t have to talk in detail about my various traumas. I could talk my therapist through a summary of the event, identifying the feelings and beliefs that came from being traumatised. I could quietly feel the feelings whilst tapping them to resolution until they no longer felt intense in my body. In some cases, I have been able to spend a session processing a painful, scary incident from childhood and have time to calm myself to the point where I had resolved the bulk of traumatic memory within that hour. My therapist told me that it can take a few sessions to work through a memory and there is nothing wrong with that.

For weeks where the processing needed more than one session, my therapist brought an EMDR tool; an imaginary container we could put the memory in, shut the lid tight and leave it in her office so I could return to it next week. This meant that I never felt we had unpacked a huge mess of past trauma only for me to go home in a state of stirred up, unacknowledged distress. My therapist kindly booked our room for 15 minutes longer than we needed so I had time to decompress after the session and didn’t have to go from the end of the session straight into a taxi. I didn’t feel plagued by suicidal or self harm thoughts all week between sessions.

Of course, given how structured EMDR is, it’s not a therapy that gives you a lot of time to talk through the events of the week; my therapist and I did a five minute ‘how am I doing’ chat and then we got stuck into the memory. I will say that many of my abuse memories didn’t come back until I was in my thirties and there have been things I have worked on in EMDR – brushing my teeth feels icky and horrible and I don’t know why – that I could tap through without having to delve into whether or not I remember why. I could imagine brushing my teeth today and the mysterious icky feeling that comes with that and just do EMDR on that. I always thought that it must be important to ‘remember’ so it was helpful to me to know that I didn’t need a clear memory or incident that ‘explains’ it. That was one of the most validating bits of EMDR for me, we weren’t on a detective hunt to prove something awful happened linked to toothbrushes, my therapist accepted that my difficulties with that were significant to me and we cracked on with sorting that out.

One of the most beneficial aspects for me is that my sessions have involved my imagination. I blogged before about imagining having a wise comforter alongside me in sessions so if I got stuck in shame and doubt, we could imagine asking that wise comforter what they’d say. My imaginary wise comforter was David Attenborough. I now have a team of four imaginary friends I can call on while I process memories, Mary Seacole to hug me and make me feel safe, Xena Warrior Princess to kick the butts of any scary adults in my memories, David to counsel me and an Ent from Lord of the Rings to use magical powers to rescue me from a situation I feel trapped in. One week, I had a night terror that I was trapped in a car with an adult who abused me, then Xena warrior princess showed up in my dream and pulled me out of the car and onto her horse and we rode away! I have never been able to change a night terror before, normally I’d lie there in a paralysed ,lucid, panic so that was BIG progress. As weird as the imaginary team sounds, they have been a useful kind of back up when I choose to process a memory that I’d have otherwise felt stuck inside and panicked that I’d be unable to escape. Now I don’t live in fear that I’ll have a flashback, I know what to do if and when one comes.

I’m really glad that I took a chance on EMDR therapy. I was reluctant to try therapy online and I felt angry and sad that I wouldn’t have the no-mask, relaxed, exdplorative kind of therapy I had waited 2 years to get. The changes in lockdown rules/snow/school holidays etc have meant that both my therapist and I have had to work hard to keep our sessions consistent. There have been times when I was tempted to jack it in and protect myself from being hurt. EMDR has been worth committing to, I’ve been able to do everyday things that were impossible for me a year ago and some of the worst-case scenarios that haunted me no longer wake me up at 3am. I’ll always be someone who dissociates and who has been marked by trauma but EMDR has helped me move out of the past and into my future.

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