Some time ago, I hit what they quaintly call “another bottom” in sobriety. There are other cutesy slogans to describe this phenomenon, but to me it looked liked lying in bed all day, not eating and playing an endless solo cycle of the choking game. Outwardly it seemed like yet another relationship had failed and I had, yet again, lost my shit. What I didn’t understand was that sometimes an event in the present can act as a tripwire to past trauma. I didn’t even know I had trauma. I just thought I had stories.
When I start hearing about a therapy modality over and over again, I take it as a sign that it’s time for me to go. As I lay in my emotional hell day after day, silently thrilled that I was losing all this weight, messages would come in. On Facebook, or from random people I ran into when I managed to drag myself out of the house. “You need EMDR,” they would say or “Have you tried EMDR?”
“I’ve tried everything,” I would reply, smugly, as smug as you can be when you know you’re dying. I always thought EMDR was for people with PTSD, or who had been molested, or both. My childhood wasn’t that bad, was it? I never got diddled by a root vegetable while chained to a radiator; what did I have to complain about?
EMDR is a kind of therapy that shifts traumatic events through the brain where they have become “stuck.” Practitioners work clients through memories while having them focus on visual, auditory or tactile stimuli to harness the neurobiology of the brain. For the visual part, clients shift their eyes side to side as they follow a column of flashing lights or a pointer while reliving the memory (that’s the tough part) until the memory doesn’t hold as much emotional charge. For the auditory part, you listen to music that is designed to link both hemispheres of the brain. It’s the other Panic at the Disco.
Although I am a masochist, there were certain events in my life I avoided thinking about before EMDR. I had already mined them for comic relief in my memoir, so why re-visit? Finally I got desperate enough to call a therapist friend who got me into her center the very next day. There I began a six-week course back to myself, nine hours a week. This was all I could manage between work and kids, but I also knew I had to do something drastic or I wouldn’t be around for work and kids at all.
The work was based on the teachings of a wild German therapist called Christine Schenk. Apparently my Energy Body was nestling in with my ex, even holding some of his grief for a recent traumatic event of his. No wonder I had become a ghost in my own life, I was having a long distance relationship with both him and his trauma, and wasn’t even aware I was doing it. The therapist began the painful process of returning me to my own body, where I belonged, even though I was about as interested in being there as a cat in a swimming pool.
Then the real work began. Why had I left my body? I had plenty of proof for how much I dissociated, including a string of car accidents that had started a few years earlier. But why? What was so awful about being me that I felt so moved to vacate the premises?
We started with a technique called BSP or brainspotting, a little known cousin of EMDR that also involves eye movement, in conjunction with music. BSP can be a way to ramp up into EMDR, when a person comes into treatment less than stable (this includes starving and shaking). By integrating Somatic Therapies, ensuring that I stayed in my body and paid attention to what was happening in it, I came to see some root causes of the psychic pain I had been carrying my whole life.
I was 40 years old. I had six plus years of sobriety and had tried almost every other therapeutic modality out there—CBT, talk therapy, psychoanalysis, psychopharmacology and an 18-month program in Mentalization among them. While I had talked about traumatic events in my life ad nauseam, I never managed to get in there and shift them out.
I didn’t look forward to my EMDR days, as relief was not immediate and I am a girl who likes immediate everything, relief included. A huge turning point was when the therapist said to me, “You were abused. You have trauma. If you didn’t have trauma, you wouldn’t have had these problems your whole life.” Exhale. You mean I wasn’t just fucked up? There was a reason? I mean beyond being an asshole.
Apparently this last relationship had mirrored the experiences of my earlier trauma, and while it seemed like my grief and pain were about this particular dude, he was but a symptom reminding me of earlier agony. When you’re a child and chaotic things are happening you can’t understand, you don’t question whether or not it might be your fault, you just assume it is. Children internalize everything, even as adults when we can intellectually review and reframe events, something in the body remembers.
If done with the Somatic awareness element, EMDR dislodges those feelings like no other. Tears leaked out of me like candy from a piñata, but it wasn’t delicious. Those were some raw days where I had to treat myself as I had been taught to in early sobriety—like a baby. I began the process of re-parenting myself. It was something I had talked about for years, only shifting the trauma gave me a clean slate to start.
Since I am also raising children, I try as much as I can to break that cycle with them, not always successfully. It is extremely difficult to keep hard boundaries with children, who will rightfully try to work you in every way possible to get what they want. I have no idea if I am doing a good job (hopefully good enough) but I know enough about repairing mistakes with them that, with any luck, they won’t have to walk around thinking this stuff is their fault. They are free to take me to therapy a few years from now and emphatically tell me what I did wrong. I will own all of it.
EMDR profoundly shifted some rather awful memories and turned them into just another montage in the movie of my life instead of psychic land mines I didn’t even know I had spent my whole life avoiding. I would almost thank that dumb guy for pushing me to seek treatment, except I now understand he was just doing his thing, in response to his own trauma. It had nothing to do with me and whether I was “good enough to love.”
Incidentally, my EMDR treatment coincided with my re-birth as a stand-up comedian, something I did from the age of 17 to 29, until I decided I was too sensitive. Once I got pregnant with the first progeny, dealing with unfeeling audiences began to feel traumatic. Someday soon, you might see me at a club or on TV, talking about this gnarly mental health stuff so few us want to share publicly because of the huge stigma attached. While I am still aware when I dissociate (it’s an old coping skill which doesn’t disappear that quickly), I also know I can only show up the way life needs me to if I am present. For all of it.