It’s a strange thing to be a busy EMDR therapist and to end your Monday by receiving your own EMDR therapy. You know the drill. You know what’s coming. You know it so well that you can be critical of the other therapist’s technique… even though she is doing just fine and you’re trying to just go with things. I notice that I’m talking too much during check-ins. I can’t help it. I want to be seen and to do that, I need to make sure I can be heard.
My targeted memories last Monday focused on early childhood bullying. My stepdad clearly had his own trauma and childhood attachment issues that were not improved by his years in Vietnam. His coping mechanisms were anger and drinking. He had strong opinions about childrearing and ways to teach a very young boy how to be a man. Kindergarten was worse. I had a bully that whole year, Reginald, who was remarkably talented at his work. I could not get away from him. My teacher told me that she could not protect me from him and that I should punch him in the nose as hard as I could. She promised me that I would not get in trouble. I stared at his nose for months. I could never bring myself to punch him. His abuse ended near the end of the school year when he disappeared under the table and injected me with a dirty syringe that he found on the floor of the school bus. Reginald later told the principal that the syringe had something purple in it. This was in 1976 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was before AIDS. I now have a bizarre liver disease, which may or may not be related to this injection. It’s has been understatement to say that I have needle/injection phobia.
During EMDR reprocessing, I’m holding “tappers” that vibrate left and right quickly. I’m also holding in my focus a series of connecting memories and I am simply noticing my body’s response to holding those memories. At various points I feel a pressure in my stomach that moves up into my chest. The ending part of the reprocessing session targeted this memory and went something like this:
Therapist: What are you getting now?
Tom: I don’t remember anything between the injection and all of us being in the principal’s office. My mother was there… we lived right across the street from the school. The guidance counselor was there. The principal was there. Reginald was there. I remember all of them, one after the other going around the circle, saying that “Thomas is fine.” “Yes, Thomas is fine.” No one is speaking to me. I’m seeing this from the perspective of the corner of the ceiling. Clearly I was dissociated.
Therapist: Ok… go with that >>>> [45 seconds later, we take a big breath]. What are you getting now?
Tom: I feel invisible. I think that’s how I felt through almost all of my childhood. I had never thought of it that way, but that’s it.
Therapist: Go with that >>>> [45 seconds later, we take a big breath]. What are you getting?
Tom: The pressure above my stomach is going away and I’m feeling the weight of myself in the chair. I think I’m starting to feel more real.
[Processing continues until my body contains no distress.]
When doing EMDR, it is not unusual for related memories, sensations, or other parts from the past to come into awareness. In my case, what came to me perfectly clear was the very deep and long-standing sense of my own invisibility. I could feel it in every cell as a deep body memory. This thing had a name and EMDR helped me name it, scrutinize it, and quickly reprocess it into something that did not feel horrible. As we were wrapping up, my therapist commented on this and noted its clear relevance to future targets that we have identified. She sensed what I had just come to learn about myself. Invisibility is an effective coping mechanism when being noticed is dangerous. But now, it’s okay to be noticed. [And I’m much better with needles. I had dental work several days after this session and I hardly broke a sweat… this was the first time I wasn’t on the edge of panic.]
I have no use for magic, because magic requires either trickery or credulity. After trying repeatedly to heal myself by thinking or expressing my traumatic experiences using using the right words, EMDR feels like a deep cleansing grounded in the ability of the mind to quickly heal and reconcile itself once the central obstacles are removed. Many of those obstacles are cultural and gender-saturated. Reprocessing occurs throughout all the channels: thoughts, memory, emotions, body sensations, and body memory.
EMDR has a way of getting below the critical self, the cultural self, and the narrative self. It allows you to access the broken, sad, scared, and invisible parts quickly and safely… and give them what they need so that they can reconnect with what is good… what has always been good.