EMDR

I hated the therapy appointment. The first strike against it was simply logistics: it was too late in the afternoon for me. After a long day of working, I felt overtired before even leaving for it. The next big strike I was prepared for, after going to the center before for my intake, yet that doesn’t make it easier to handle: I hate waiting there beforehand. It’s drafty, filled with a strong cigarette smells, and the waiting room is crowded with frankly creepy looking people who find it perfectly reasonable to stare in a leering way at me. When I was finally called in by my new therapist, I was shaking from the blasting air conditioner and my nerves.

I thought we would start slow with some basic general questions about the issues plaguing me, but because she had my intake information from the evaluator, she jumped right in with EMDR trauma work. There was a high-pitched whirring noise, which felt like a dull fingernail being dragged across the outer surface of my cerebral cortex. I told her I needed that noise to stop or I’d have to leave. To her credit, she turned off the offending fan but then just put on a different one that made a lower thumping noise as its rotors spun with an uneven cadence. It was nearly all I could mentally focus on.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), is a trauma technique that is reported to help clients digest and work through repressed or conscious traumas by changing the way the brain physiologically processes information. It is purported to help clients get “unstuck” from trauma patterns and get away from feeling like they are constantly re-living the experience from the pervasive memories. Theoretically, this sounds like an unparalleled effective tool but as I mentioned, I’m hesitant to dive in too deep too quickly for fear of disturbing my precarious equilibrium.

I’m not a strong enough self-advocate though and before I knew it, I had these wildly vibrating buzzers in each hand, which hummed in an alternating sequence, and was to be visualizing and describing disturbing memories: the sights, sounds, smells, emotions, and other sensory details. These thoughts were to be punctuated by “returns to a happy and safe image”, which was another scene, entirely positive, that I was to conjure up in equal detail. The vibrating “tappers” altered their pulse patterns between the happy and painful visualizations. If I’m not mistaken, the EMDR protocol is designed such that your brain has to direct its attention from one side to the other based on the alternating sensory input. Traditional EMDR uses some means of having the patient move their eyes from one side of their visual field across to the other, thus spanning the length of their visual field from side to side. My understanding is that this “crossing over” the midline of the brain is supposed to help traverse repressed traumatic experiences so that the “lump” or tumor that they form in the brain can get bulldozed. As I’ve created this analogy myself, I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate from a neuropsychological perspective, but I think it captures the gist. Because I’m not comfortable with eye contact and have visual tracking problems with autism, my therapist employed hand buzzers to vibrate in one hand and then the other, to mimic this similar sensory attention alternation.

I’ve never been good at visualizing anything in my “mind’s eye.” I remember back to sports psychologists and mental training in high school cross country where we were to try and visualize success and imagine ourselves running. I never see anything. My brain is full of mental pictures, but I seem to lack control over any tiny bit of what I see. I can’t get rid of what’s there and I can’t call upon certain images. What’s there is what’s there. I’ve long described my mental imagery as a wall of televisions, much like when you electronics stores used to display a huge wall of their latest screens, each playing a different channel. At any given time, I have between 6 and 36 screens, active with various “shows.” Some display events from the day, others have geometric patterns or fractals, some show “white noise”, though it’s usually primary colors that I remember inhabiting a space in my brain back from around age 3, when I used to look for them in my closed eyes before bed and lovingly called them “they color-y balls.” Since then, they’ve almost acted like a friend, a consistent participant in my brain. Other screens are filled with old memories, mathematical patterns or sequences, random items or scenes, or jibberish from the day, like scenes from driving or unconsciously stored visual information. It’s never a dull or still background; my brain is always humming.

All this is to say that trying to consciously control the images in my head, whether guided by a therapist, a meditation app, or just my own interests and desires is always a futile pursuit. I am plagued with attack scenes unprompted as I am gifted with happy memories or useful pages I have read for reference. Therefore, when the therapist asked me to call upon the happy and “safe” memory we had set as the reset zone, I was unable to conjure up any positive feelings or memories. I was stuck in the disturbing adjectives painting the basics of the attack scene. Although I was unable to fully visualize that horrendous scene as well, the panicked and traumatized feelings and emotions that characterized that trauma flooded by body and mind. During the “safe reset”, I became nauseous and blanketed in sharp goosebumps. My heart rate was elevated and I felt dizzy and weak. I told her I needed to go and blurted out a host of excuses as I slipped out of the room.

As I tried to settle into a relaxed state of mind and zone out to some upbeat Great British Bake Off, my mind was plagued with fearful thoughts and upsetting memories. I felt hot and sick and I could still feel the buzzing of the tappers in my hand, ghosts of the EMDR reminding me of the unsettling experience. Despite extra Benadryl, it took hours to calm down and endless episodes of fancy breads and cakes to wear me out enough to bring sleep. My night was restless with interspersed nightmares of knives and bleeding and silent screams for help.

Where do I go from here? Should I attempt this again? Should I never return? I’m not sure yet. I’m still too stunned to evaluate how to proceed. Today is all about self-care and restoring balance. Tomorrow, or another day, I’ll consider an action plan.

 

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