The tale of two voices: my experience with EDMR therapy
“Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing? You know that is an anagram for DREAM, right?”
“I’d never really thought of that before, but you’re right!”
“You know this is the very building I worked in as an insurance agent almost 15 years ago. Just a couple floors above your office.”
“Oh really, that’s interesting!”
“So, tell me how is EMDR any different than regular old talk therapy?”
“Well, good question. Talk therapy allows people to tell their story as an event that happened in the past rather than something they are experiencing in the present. Without stories, memories become frozen and without memory you cannot imagine how things can be different.
The technique of EMDR was actually discovered by accident. The discoverer, Dr. Francine Shapiro, noticed while she was reliving certain disturbing thoughts, the rapid movement of her eyes back-and-forth reduced the intensity of her experience of the memory. Fascinated by this insight, she began using eye movement to treat her patients including those suffering from PTSD.
If your body experiences some sort of traumatic event such as the events of war, abuse, home invasion or loss of a loved one, it typically processes these events during your dream states. When the body enters REM sleep, your brain begins processing the events of the day, impressing certain memories, while shedding ‘less important’ ones. While we do not know completely how EMDR works, it has been shown to have up to a 80–90% success rate with PTSD in as little as 3 sessions.
When your body is not in possession of its full resources, say you were experiencing high levels of exhaustion during the war, or, as a child, you didn’t have the ability to logically make sense of traumatic events you’d experienced, the body’s normal processing capacities can become stymied. Without the ability to finish processing, these events continue to be experienced as if they were still happening in the present. Thus, each time a trigger event occurs, like glass breaking for a victim of home invasion, the fight/flight portion of their limbic system (where the memory was stored) is activated and they feel just as they did when the burglar broke through the sliding door.”
“So, how does it work?”
“Well, first I would need to spend some time getting to know you. An EMDR therapist isn’t quite like your traditional view of a psychologist; sitting on the leather chair, stroking their beard saying, ‘Interesting’. We believe the body has all the tools necessary to heal itself. To do that, we must understand the nature of your trauma and the dynamics of events surrounding it. For that to happen, I need to get to know you.”
Ending up in therapy was not something I’d planned, but life had one more domino to drop, one last capital “F” fear that challenged another core layer of who I thought I was.
For the next three sessions, I answered every question she had: family, life, work, negative thoughts I’d harbored about myself, the whole nine. We mapped out my family relationship dynamics from grandparents on down, even drawing pictures at times of how I saw ‘self’.
When we were finally ready for the EMDR portion of the therapy, I didn’t know if I was quite ready. In my teens, my mother had experienced rapid personality change and our family had been turned upside down. I was afraid of the implications of what felt like ‘tinkering’ with my psyche. What if I ended up changing? Better the devil you know, right?
But, I had never fully dealt with the root causes of my depression which started my ‘Adventure in Dreaming’ fifteen years ago. So, perhaps dealing with this present issue might not only promote healing, but also provide insight into why the passion had left me in the first place. After some reassuring (and reading multiple books and peer-reviewed journals), I gave her the green light.
“I want you to hold these two paddles in your hand. Place your feet flat on the ground and take a deep breath and relax.”
She handed me what looked like two, flattened, wired mouses for your computer only in miniature. Wires lead from the paddles to a black tripod at whose top perched a horizontal bar with red LED light which looked like the hood of K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider.
She proceeded to tell me to watch the light as it bounced back and forth on the bar, the paddles in my hand alternating their buzzing in concert with the movement. The light, she said, gave my conscious mind a task to perform and engaged my eye movement. As my eyes darted back and forth she spoke to the history of events which had led to my depression many years ago.
Back and forth my eyes went. I kept wondering when things would ‘happen’.
After about 45 seconds, she spoke,
“Tell me your thoughts.”
“Well,” I said “my first thoughts were ‘This shit isn’t going to work on you! This is just like that time that magician tried to hypnotize a bunch of kids on stage and you got sent back down because you didn’t fall into a trance. You’re just not the susceptible type’.’”
She laughed, “I thought you might say that. You’ve got a highly developed defense mechanism which you use to stay in control when the world feels like it’s slipping away. You intellectualize things as a way of keeping the underlying pain at bay. You research, you figure things out and, as a result, you end up knowing more about subjects than most. It’s a really handy for you, because no one really questions it like they may drinking or acting out. I want you to go ahead and try again. This time instead of thinking about what’s happening, I want to you focus on where your body feels discomfort when we are discussing the events.”
The light went back on…back and forth…buzz…buzz…back and forth.
The voice inside my head kept saying, “You know this isn’t going to work. You know what kind of suggestible person you have to be for this stuff to have any effect? Come on, this isn’t you! Why are you even here?”
But, then something happened.
Another voice appeared.
“Matthew, you know why you are here. You are here because you need help. You are here to set an example to your family that it’s ok to ask for help. To show them that being a man doesn’t mean sucking it up and soldiering on through. You are here so you can heal.”
If you’ve ever held your hand over one eye and stared at an object in the distance, then switched eyes and watched the object move in your field of vision, you’ll understand what I am about to tell you. Just as our brain takes binocular vision and merges them into a single image, for the first time in my life I realized I’d been living with two separate voices inside my head and believing they were one and the same.
The one voice was acerbic, critical and uncaring, fed by and responding to fear. The other was soft, nurturing and helpful. I’d read of these two entities, embodied in characters like Sméagol/Gollum in Tolkien, but never before experienced them in such a visceral fashion.
There’s an old expression magicians use when talking of their secrets, “Once seen, never unseen.” The same was true with these two voices. Now that I could finally tell the two apart, I began to notice what brought each online. The critical voice was a sentry always on high alert. Whenever I fed my brain things like the news, it would appear and remind me of all the bad things that could happen. At first, the intuitive voice took effort to hear. I’d have to quiet myself through turning off everything, changing my breathing and just being still.
Over the subsequent months of EMDR therapy we worked at unpacking how I’d spent years doing whatever I could grasping to regain control during a time when life had thrown me for a loop. It was strange to let go and consciously observe my mind-body processing and healing itself. During a waking REM state, your brain begins naturally connecting dots, thinking thoughts and processing lessons completely unaided by your conscious mind or will.
I couldn’t help but wonder as I observed the mind thinking its thoughts and drawing conclusions: Where are these thoughts coming from? Are they originating from within me or without? Who or what was doing the healing? If I am not the thinker of thoughts, then who is and where do they come from? And if my body had the ability to do all this healing on it’s own and all it took was me letting go over control and asking for help, what does that tell me about life?
I’d never conceived of myself as a control freak. After all, I was an entrepreneur, every day was new, things were constantly changing and I loved the excitement. My wife drove the point home for me in a poignant moment when she said, “Oh, you love change all right, as long as you’re the one driving it!”
If free will is a pendulum that swings between opposites of grasping and letting go, I had begun my journey at a stand still. To get things swinging on their own, I’d pushed the pendulum using my will as far as it would go in one direction. But, there came a time where the invisible forces told me I’d traveled far enough in that direction and began to pull me in the direction of letting go. As it had on a micro scale in my brain, dots began to connect in my larger life that I’d never been able to connect with will alone.
I’m getting used to the pendulum swinging freely for the first time in my life. There are moments when I need to use my will to spearhead a project, there are other times when I need to let go of control and watch the hidden forces of life do their thing. Even the critical voice serves a role. I keep him around to keep an eye on things, but realize that he thinks every bump in the night is a panther, so I have to tell him things are going to be ok. As for the nurturing voice, I find her on walks, long drives when I’m taking deep, slow breaths. And, for the first time in my life, when I’m needing guidance I can actually hear her.
“You are entitled to know that two entities occupy your body. One of these entities is motivated by and responds to the impulse of fear. The other is motivated by and responds to the impulse of faith. Will you be guided by faith or will you allow fear to overtake you?” ― Napoleon Hill, Outwitting the Devil: The Secret to Freedom and Success