EMDR Changed The Way I Remember My Trauma
By Claire Foster
Content Note: discussion of sexual assault and PTSD
The first time I was raped, I was 18 and traveling alone through the southern part of Spain. It was beautiful, with its wild and rugged hills rushing breathlessly into the arms of the Mediterranean. I wore big, black sunglasses, chain-smoking while I walked on the playa. That’s the part of the trip I would prefer to remember.
My rapist’s name and face, the way he followed me into my hotel room, the metal scrape of the bolt, my shock at the sudden proximity and warmth of him, the actions he performed on my unwilling and inexperienced body, the blood, the bruises, and the sick dread I felt when I woke up alone the next morning — those details are mine, too. I could never forget them. My brain wouldn’t let me.
In many ways, my PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) was textbook. I had all the symptoms of someone who has seen too much of the bad end of life. The events of that night sent me into a deep, lasting depression that never seemed to get better. I was always vigilant. I couldn’t sleep without keeping my hand on the hunting knife under my pillow. I hallucinated that I was being attacked, dreamed about the rape, experienced flashbacks. My mood swings were legendary. Negative interactions with men — from a stranger showing too much interest in what I was reading in a bookstore, to the subsequent five rapes I survived — reactivated my PTSD.
According to Heather Mulkerns, LCSW, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon, “PTSD is the brain’s best method of trying to keep you safe. Yet it can wreak havoc on your life, causing an unbearable level of anxiety and reactivity to emotional triggers.”
She saw those things in me while I was her patient, along with a host of other problems. While it is highly treatable, PTSD often leads to other issues — like depression, severe isolation, substance abuse, and suicide attempts — which only exacerbate the main problem. They can become so intertwined with PTSD that the fear is inescapable. Pull one thread, and the whole ball of yarn goes with it. I was entangled, and I needed a way out.
When you have PTSD, the world is a bewildering place. I caromed around, and each impact just reinforced my distrust of the world. At that time, trigger warnings weren’t a thing; if they had been, they would have done me no good. Everything — everything — triggered me. I drank a lot, among other things. I tried anti-anxiety and antidepressant prescriptions. Talk therapy, years of it. Nothing worked. I attempted suicide a few times.
One day, after an AA meeting, a friend mentioned he was trying something unusual to treat his PTSD. “It’s supposed to fix what my dad did to me when I was a kid,” he said. And he told me about EMDR.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a simple series of eye movements that affect the way a traumatized brain retains memory. One therapist described it to me as “moving a traumatic memory from one filing cabinet to another.” EMDR seeks to file protruding memories into different folders, diminishing their intensity. “The key elements of treatment are the restoration of a full range of emotion and a sense of being able to again live in the present moment without PTSD’s ever-present emotional guardedness,” said Mulkerns.
Initial certification in EMDR allows licensed mental health practitioners to identify which aspects of a patient’s PTSD fall into the technique’s parameters for treatment. Basic training consists of 20 hours over two weeks, plus 10 hours of clinical observation during the two-week period. The training is only available to social workers and mental health professionals who have a Master’s degree or higher in mental health and are licensed or certified through a state or national board which authorizes independent practice.
The EMDR Institute’s comprehensive workshop uses the same format that founder Frances Shapiro, PhD, has been using since 1990. Therapists learn how to apply the treatment’s eight phases, how to shut down an incomplete session, and how to work with patients who are difficult or resistant to therapy. Addiction, combat trauma, family and marriage counseling, natural and manmade disasters: the training covers it all. Closure is always the end goal.
“Swift and complete trauma resolution is something EMDR offers that many other therapies do not,” said Stephen Dansiger, Psy.D. MFT, whose therapy practice in Los Angeles, California emphasizes mindfulness meditation, yoga, and other alternative treatments. In a clinical setting, EMDR is often used as a complementary therapy; according to the Institute’s website, it’s “compatible with all contemporary paradigms including, psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, experiential and systemic.” However, it can also stand alone, according to Dansiger: “I look at EMDR therapy as a complete treatment, and there are many other treatments that may say the same. What I believe is that the eight phases of EMDR therapy contain much of what the other treatments include.”
Support groups, yoga, somatic experiencing, Buddhist mindfulness, and exercise all use the same processes as EMDR, Dansiger said. EMDR is used in a clinical setting at the therapist’s discretion, and at the patient’s pace of recovery — it’s about small gains and slow healing. The correlation between brain healing and eye movement is, for some, nebulous. Although it is known in the clinical community, EMDR is considered to be just one tool in the treatment toolbox. In fact, EMDR hasn’t been proven to be better than what’s already out there, especially if the patient and therapist are getting results from cognitive behavioral or other types of therapy. One 1999 study determined that “what is effective in EMDR is not new, and what is new is not effective.”
Shapiro’s research indicates that bilateral stimulation, whether by moving the eyes, tapping on the body, or passing a clicker or token between hands is enough to generate healing. Depending on the therapist, this can be a New Age-y experience or a more clinical one. A preliminary session helped me isolate “memory targets,” or facets of the traumatic memory that triggered me. In the case of my first rape, that would be: the sound of my hotel door closing, a choking sensation, the shape of his body over mine, and the leopard-like pattern of bruises I discovered the next morning on my neck and under my right arm. My therapist asked me to hold the first target in my mind while I tracked her finger with only my eyes: left, right, left, right.
For me, the selling point of EMDR was that the troubling memory isn’t lost or erased; it’s still accessible. My therapist told me that after EMDR I’d be able to take my traumatic memories out only when I wanted to, look at them, and safely put them away. My fear wouldn’t control me anymore. For someone like me, who spent a decade’s worth of days and nights rolling the same horrible images around in my head, wondering if it was my fault, that possibility was like finding a golden ticket in my chocolate bar.
After my first EMDR session, I felt the tension in my throat melt away. I left my therapist’s office stunned, in a thick fog that followed me up the street. I remember ordering a cappuccino and a lemon cookie, which I ate with the reverence of Proust tasting a madeleine. Then I went home and fell asleep.
The next morning, I braced myself for the memory, just as I had every day since I’d woken up alone in that hotel room in Spain — and it didn’t come. I was free to choose when I would remember, and how.
That was the first step in an almost-year-long process for me. Meditation, acupuncture, 12-Step meetings, and intense work with EMDR helped me unpick the knots of my trauma and finally let go of my past. I did not take antidepressants or other medications, and didn’t drink or use mind-altering substances of any kind.
My therapist, knowing my history of alcoholism and addiction, told me that I might experience cravings linked to the memories we were working on — and, yes, I sometimes tasted the lactose-powder drip of the Mexican cocaine I used to snort, or the passing tang of a vodka tonic. But those sensations were ephemeral, nothing compared to the violent flashbacks I was used to. As I lost more and more of the trauma, lessening its impact, the rest of life became easier to handle. I walked around that year feeling like a peach without a skin. Yet at the same time, my fear of vulnerability, of other people, was leaking away. It seemed incredible that, just by moving my eyes back and forth, I could erase the fear that ruled me. But it worked, so I kept doing it, my skepticism a thing of the past. It was hard to argue with the results.
Just as my PTSD was textbook, so was my recovery. Following the guidelines of the EMDR Institute, my therapist led me through the stages of treatment, with plenty of time to acclimate between sessions. If I’d come to the surface too quickly, I might have been too disoriented or maladapted to be mentally healthy; working at my own pace, I shed the past a little bit at a time, and learned how to live in a completely new way.
My success with EMDR was typical, according to the Institute’s website. Of 30 positive controlled outcome studies, some show that 84–95% of single-trauma victims no longer have PTSD after three 90-minute sessions. A Kaiser Permanente study found that 100% of single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple-trauma victims were PTSD-free after six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77% of combat veterans were no longer diagnosed with PTSD after 12 sessions.
I primarily noticed my growth in the little things. One day, a tall, good-looking man smiled at me on the street, and instead of flinching, I smiled back. I was able to sit on the bus between two men I didn’t know, and not feel panic’s rope tighten around my neck. I no longer dreamed about finding my own bloody body in the bathroom; I stopped fantasizing about stepping off the rooftop of the high rise I worked in. One day at a time, the traumatic memories left me, and I stopped feeling like a victim. I had survived. Now I could go about the business of learning how to live again.