This is a fantastical story. I probably wouldn’t believe you if our situations were reversed and this were your story. Still, let me tell you a little about what I see every day in my work as a mental health therapist. I work with profoundly traumatized clients. They have survived unbelievably horrible things. Most of them are getting objectively better using EMDR Therapy. I see deep and astonishing healing. I get to see this session after session and day after day. In the past year and a half, I have journeyed with clients through over 1,000 traumatic memory reprocessing sessions and this short article describes what recovery looks like from where I sit.
EMDR is different than talk therapy. It appears to work primarily on parts of the brain that are below language and below rationality. While reprocessing a traumatic memory, there is very little talking. Clients hold or “play” the image and simply notice what comes up on the memory, thought, body sensation, or emotion “channels.” In that silence, clients notice. The strange part of EMDR Therapy is that they also receive a left-right stimulation that can come in the form of horizontal eye movements, vibrating devices in each hand that alternate, or through headphones that beep in alternating ears. Every 20-40 seconds, I stop the stimulation and ask the client: “What are you noticing?” The client tells me. And most of the time, I simply encourage the client to notice whatever is coming up. Over the course of the session, the distress associated with the memory or the cluster of memories starts to fall. By the end of the session, most clients are able to hold or play the image with zero distress. For the clients that did not get to zero distress, we return to that memory next session and it usually falls quickly to zero.
Several other very important things happen simultaneously with the loss of distress associated with the memory. Clients get back instantly much of the self-esteem that the traumatic experience took from them. Clients report a broad range of positive and adaptive thoughts related to themselves and their past experiences. When was the last time someone in a talk therapy session went from believing that she is absolutely worthless to believing fully that she is valuable and important in a single 53 minute session? This happens all the time in EMDR. Once a memory has been reprocessed, it appears to stay reprocessed even days, months, and years later and the other benefits of reprocessing appear to hold as well.
EMDR works well with shock trauma (war, physical violence, rape, torture, etc). It also works astonishingly well with developmental trauma from severely impaired parenting or nurturing. With the right preparation, clients are able to soothe the deep and global loneliness that has wrecked much of their lives and many of their past relationships. Many clients are able to heal enough to be able to give themselves what they always demanded from others. Many clients are able to heal enough to be able to receive from others some of what they always longed for.
I have accompanied enough clients on this journey to have learned some important things about this kind of healing. This strange pathway–centered in the practice of noticing and activated through bilateral stimulation–exists in all of us. It exists in me (as I discovered when I received my own EMDR Therapy). It exists in my healthiest client and in my most severely unwell one. This pathway was discovered by accident. It is buried beneath some of the most culturally sticky emotions: shame and blame. It is buried beneath the false instincts that our cultures install. This work is inherently political, because the same cultures that traumatize us also build obstacles to healing. It is our fortune that we now know how to find it. My job is to guide clients to it and to accompany them through it. As they travel, my clients heal, unburden, and rebuild themselves. In all of this, there is nothing for me to own. I follow. My assistance is navigational and my presence is as a witness to the client’s own healing. All day, I get to sit three feet from people who session after session astonish themselves. Somehow, I also have the fortune to get paid to do this.