Guest Blog: EMDR - A Path Toward Peace
We all have had this happen. An encounter with some “random” person who changes us or we change them in deeply profound ways.
Several years ago, I was invited by a somewhat new friend to meet a fellow adoptee she knew for a lunch together. I did not know the friend well, but we had talked about our lives enough for her to believe this was something she was called to do. She had a feeling, a hunch, an urge whatever gut-stirring definition works. She said her friend and I had a lot in common, meaning adoption, and should meet each other.
Jenny (name changed to protect anonymity), is a smart, well educated and engaging woman a bit younger than myself. We immediately hit it off, having one of the most forthcoming first meetings I can remember. She explained briefly about her adoption along with difficulties she experienced growing up in her adopted family-mother, sister and especially her father. Jenny was pleased to share that she had a wonderful relationship with her biological father, who she searched for and found. I spoke about my search experience in an appropriate exchange of intimacy as well as some of my own struggles with my adopted family.
While I have spoken to many about my adoption journey, I am always surprised by the overwhelming burden of the overall adoption story, facts and emotions, everything really. After years of intense personal work to unbind myself from this difficult narrative, the power of it still feels fresh with each new person I meet connected to an adoption story. I am always humbled by the unique challenges each person experiences within the adoption triad. Every story has elements of bravery, sadness and complexity. Some have beautiful moments of grace, forgiveness and healing. Most that I have heard first hand or read written accounts about are a mixed bag. All of them are messy.
What I experienced when I met Jenny was an immediate feeling of an emotional doppelgänger from my past. The internal anger and rage carried unconsciously (which Jenny believed was undetectable) rolled off of her in waves that nearly knocked me out. I saw in her what I had walked around with for years; squelched feelings in the form of denial, projection and reactiveness. I was unconscious to most of it at the time, without any way to understand why I was this way or how to remedy my obvious discomfort.
Like me she had a story she could calmly relate, but it was eating her alive from the inside out.
I could completely understand.
My adoption story has some unfortunate pieces like most starting with a conflicted adoptive mother who never wanted children though afraid her spouse would leave her if she did not. Madge (another name change for anonymity) also suffered from other issues that are most likely none of my business but left me wounded in ways that needed repair. As anyone reading this knows, the devil is in the details with hurt and healing, so I will move on to what helped me to become as peaceful and free as I am today.
I believe regret and resentments are the manifestation of fantasy and offer little help in living well today. Ruminating on the past is an attempt to change what can never be altered. I read once to “look at your past, but don’t stare at it.” Yet how exactly can we do that?
Building back the parts of my raw soul, torn and degraded in the process of growing up three times unwanted (birthmother, adopted mother and secondary rejection as an adult during search), has taken some time. Thankfully I was gifted a stout heart, a forgiving nature and a willingness to reach for help. Without such gifts I may have folded into myself giving into the anxiety and depression I lived with throughout much of my life.
So how did I get past those regrets, resentments and my anger? It was the gift of several painful crises that pushed me to seek help. Thank you for asking.
I was fortunate to find a skilled professional who could guide me during my first adult abandonment. My first husband left me emotionally by infidelity I suspected, then literally by a divorce he sought. That crisis was painful enough for me to reach for help and answers so that I might never feel so exposed again. My therapist practiced vanilla psychotherapy, based around deep listening as a way for me to puzzle out insights about my past. He helped me look at my childhood with eyes wide open, in as real a fashion as I was capable. Denial of my repeated rejections was slowly stripped away. In the end, I could see clearly that both my birthmother and adopted mother had abandoned me. I accepted the facts once revealed then grieved this knowledge in painful, expensive one hour sessions.
Reconstructing my past built a narrative that was The Story of My Life as best as I could put together at the time. I experienced just enough relief to find another spouse and begin a family of my own. I returned occasionally to the talk therapist when issues arose for an emotional “tune-up” session. This plan kept me together enough to continue to function as a survivor of my past.
The search for my biological family gifted me my second emotional crisis. I sought trauma therapy which involved EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). I obtained a solid recommendation from my previous therapist of a highly skilled practitioner. This is really important so I will do my best to explain.
From the above website:
“Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories (Shapiro, 1989a, 1989b). Shapiro’s (2001) Adaptive Information Processing model posits that EMDR therapy facilitates the accessing and processing of traumatic memories and other adverse life experience to bring these to an adaptive resolution. After successful treatment with EMDR therapy, affective distress is relieved, negative beliefs are reformulated, and physiological arousal is reduced. During EMDR therapy the client attends to emotionally disturbing material in brief sequential doses while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus.”
Hope you understood all that, which would be exceptional, by the way. If not what this means simply is a client/patient gets to revisit emotional or physical traumas that are hot, angry and reactive from the past, with the help of a highly skilled professional. After doing EMDR with your highly skilled professional you will no longer be reactive, angry and a hot mess when your childhood wounds are triggered.
Any adoptees out there who can relate? Any uncomfortable moments that you would like to never happen again with your loved ones? Incidents of rage or irrational behaviors completely out of context or intensity to the situation? Have you ever exploded or splattered on a random human that crossed your path? EMDR can help with this. It is a path for healing really old damage that flairs up unconsciously. EMDR is a miraculous adventure, but not an easy one.
Here’s what you need to know:
Find an EMDR HSP-Highly Skilled Professional.
I think you get that now, I hope. Finding someone very skilled is absolutely essential. Here’s why. EMDR is a very powerful tool for healing. It has been well documented as an effective therapy to ameliorate many issues. It has gained notoriety as a successful treatment for PTSD in war veterans, a population baffling professionals for years. It has been been successful in treating many types of anxiety from mild to severe. As a result, many therapists have taken up the training and are learning to use EMDR in their practices.
My first psychotherapist to learn how to use EMDR in his practice. He tried EMDR with me when I came to him very upset after the shit show that was my search. The search process was long (I am writing a book, it was that exciting). Once I found her, I experienced secondary rejection by my biological mother, which was messy and hurtful for us both. In addition, my adoptive mother completely rejected me when I told her about searching for biological family members. That double-dose of adoption abandonment fun resulted in a return trip to my old therapist whom I had not seen in years. He tried his newly-acquired EMDR skills on me and quickly recognized his inadequacy to help me. He referred me to a trauma specialist known for his successful use of EMDR.
What to expect with EMDR
When I met Jenny I immediately thought she might benefit from EMDR. In the past, I too had been highly reactive and angry when triggered. I had come a long way understanding why I was the way I was after reconstructing my childhood during talk therapy. But there was more healing needed to live a consistently peaceful life despite my story. I was a proud well-defended survivor, but not thriving yet. That person from my past was very similar to the Jenny my friend introduced to me. I had knowledge, some self awareness, but was not healed.
My new therapist was a HSP with loads of EMDR experience. He recommended lots of written information about EMDR which I slogged through so I would feel in control of “what would happen” during the process. I was skilled at using intellectual knowledge to feel powerful and in control like an addict uses substances to numb fear and pain. Looking back, it would have been better to read only a little about EMDR from a source like the above link though that was not an option available at the time. Reading published research and theoretical documents was overkill looking back now. What I do think is important is to know what options within the EMDR buffet are available so you can choose the best EMDR method for yourself.
EMDR started with only one option; a vertical lighted track about 3 feet long. Inside the small black track was a long series of tiny red bulbs lighting up in sequence appearing to “race” back and forth like illuminated red ants chasing each other from one end to the other. Thankfully, since that time of the original red dot track, new formats have been developed including more light color choices like blue and green.
The racing lights track is placed across from the client/patient. The lights begin moving back and forth while the client is asked to focus on the motion of the dots, right to left, back and forth repeatedly while the therapist asks questions. This right-left-right-left focus stimulates both hemispheres of the brain which theoretically has a calming effect.
For me, watching the red dots zoom back and forth was not a good choice. I became dizzy and disoriented resulting in a somewhat frightening experience. That was when my therapist determined I needed a referral to a more skilled EMDR professional.
There are also several options for EMDR other than the light tracks. I am aware of options that include auditory sounds used with headphones moving from right ear to left ear repeatedly, tapping protocols for legs or arms as well as the palm discs used during my EMDR sessions. There may be others as well.
My HSP used the very cool wired discs option. The set-up included two smooth plastic river stone shaped discs held in each hand. The individual “stones” each had a wire running from the side that connected to a device held by my HSP who sat across a coffee table from me. The “stones” made a soft buzzing vibration that was very comforting. Each session my HSP would calibrate the buzzing in two ways, by the intensity of the buzzing and the rate at which the buzzing would move from my right-hand “stone” to my left-hand “stone”. He held a small box connected to the wires and dialed in the settings checking with me about how I felt about the calibrations before starting. We would take a minute or so to get the right amount of vibration in my palms and the pace of the back and forth sensation before starting.
After that bit of techno-adjusting, he would ask me to talk about whatever came up. This sounded silly to me at first, but soon I found that talking was not what this therapy was about. Talking therapy, which I had gained some relief from earlier, has been proven to be effective in reducing the intensity of disturbing memories for many years. We all have had the experience of telling a trusted friend something upsetting then feeling better. That is the basis of traditional psychotherapy. Pay someone to listen to your worst fears, feelings or actions, and feel lighter and better. It works if you can access the memories and they are not overwhelming.
EMDR is different. It digs deeper somehow and engages disturbing memories or events that are not within our conscious awareness. There is a load of material written about this if you care to delve into the science, theories and/or cutting edge research. I have and it is very interesting but not particularly helpful here in a short article. So let’s just move past the details, and make a leap that EMDR is good stuff and help you survive the process.
So here is my experience of the process. I sit down on a comfy sofa in the HSP’s office. The room is warm and well lit. My HSP sits across from me looking kind and helpful. My discs are buzzing softly in my palms giving me a strange sense of calm and security. HSP politely asks me to talk about whatever is “coming up for me”. My eyes are usually closed when I begin. I am holding these nice comforting discs in my hands that are rhythmically buzzing softly from one hand to the other. I feel nervous but somehow relaxed as well. Images start arising from my mind and I describe them. They are often foggy, muted or unclear which I say out loud in detail. Uncomfortable feelings accompany the images. HSP responds kindly asking for more specifics or to elaborate.
During each session, my trust builds and I am better able to see images and feel emotions with more clarity. Most are events of my very early life. My mother screaming at my father to “send me back", being coached to tell the doctor “I fell” among many others. (I asked HSP after one of my sessions why the images were always of my youngest years. He said, the memories he believed were unprocessed traumas, either Big T traumas or little t traumas. He speculated that the talking therapy I did before I met him processed everything from about age 4 on). EMDR in my case was bringing up content from my preverbal years before I had language to describe what was happening to me. Fair enough.
So back to the unprocessed trauma that was coming up. Sometimes the images became disturbing and emotionally hot too quickly. My HSP was able to detect that, and would help me develop techniques to detach from the images bringing down the intensity so I could view them from a “safe distance". An unskilled therapist might miss this and allow for a recovered memory to re-traumatize. This was what would happen to veterans sometimes during talk therapy. The memories and loaded emotions were too much too fast. My HSP was incredibly gentle working to build my tolerance of images and giving me tools to try out helping me to buffer myself from re-traumatization. It was not always not pretty or smooth, but the times that felt too much, were exercises in resiliency I needed to tolerate the discomfort and become stronger. After practice I was able to process very disturbing material and still agree to return for another session. Yay, me.
It might be best for me to insert an analogy for understanding why it is important to take on this intense healing of emotional hurts unearthed during EMDR. My best metaphor for me is a medical one. Most everyone has had an injury or known someone who suffered an injury that did not heal well. I was attacked by a dog when I was 5 years old and bitten severely in the face. My family doctor stitched me up, but unfortunately the damaged areas of my flesh soon became infected. The doctor had to remove the stitches, open the wounds and clean out the infection. After that was done, I was stitched up again given medicine then sent home to heal. Sounds like fun right? Of course not. It was horrible and extremely painful but also necessary.
What is interesting, is the painful attack by that dog never came up in EMDR though it was clearly traumatic at the time. The reason it did not was explained to me by my HSP. That tragic injury was handled openly, talked about with candor. Proper attention was taken at the time of the incident. The excruciating lacerations were dealt with honestly between me, the doctor and my parents. The only residue was minor physical scars that have had little effect on my life. The trauma was processed in a fairly healthy way so that I never even developed a fear of dogs. There was an attack, wounds, intervention followed by unfortunate infection but addressed immediately and with appropriate care. The only residual trauma was an emotional trauma later realizing how often I was left unsupervised. That was processed with talk therapy.
So now let’s apply this medical analogy to emotional trauma. An unfortunate event occurs. Maybe it is painful, shameful, illegal, humiliating, disturbing or horrific. No one wants to talk about it for a variety of reasons. Little or no open honest discussion happens around the event to process the trauma. No clearing out of any wounds or attentiveness to unhealed pain is acknowledged if it arises later. Trauma is shoved down out of sight now festering below the conscious level. That’s what my emotional wounds felt like. And when someone tapped into those unresolved issues, boom. I was not able to deal with the sudden pain which meant reactive hot behaviors burst out of me that clearly I did not like.
So let’s think about the ultimate goal of EMDR. It is a proven process to open up, then clean out some unhealthy emotional places that never healed properly. With the help of an HSP, those infected places inside now have a chance to heal properly and never cause trouble again. Sounds pretty good right?
Here is the part where I get honest about how hard EMDR was for me.
I grew up in a family where there was little kindness, no warmth. Harsh consequences were exacted, emotional and physical, for upsetting those in charge. Mostly parents were in charge but sometimes an older sibling or an angry inappropriate teenage neighbor boy was in charge. EMDR helped me bring those painful moments to the surface, see them with clarity, accept the horror, fear, damage and loss of innocence of those moments. Once I was able to accept the reality that bad things happen when naive, curious, unsupervised children are left alone without proper protection, or are left in the care of mentally unstable parents, I was able to grieve those horrific trapped moments.
Grieving those emotionally damaged losses was the hardest part to endure ultimately during EMDR. The gentle buzzing of the stones made the experience tolerable somehow. I am generally buoyant waking up happy to each new day. Like many people though, I don’t like experiencing emotions that hurt. I also learned early that tears were not okay. “Quit your crying or I will give you something to cry about”, was a common slogan used in my dysfunctional family. And it turns out researchers have found crying actually makes us feel physically weak, while anger does the opposite producing a feeling of strength. It was not safe to be weak as a small girl with two brothers living in a neighborhood full of boys, many whom were violent and older. So I never learned to express, endure or master the grieving process, one of the most beautiful healing tools we have as humans.
Processing Grief with EMDR
To recap, I had very little experience with crying and was terrified to appear weak. I could not let go, surrendering to the deep pain of grief. It just seemed too much. But I learn to do it. During sessions when a horrible memory was being processed the visceral experience was awful. The only way I have been able to describe how it felt is this. Imagine a mangy cat horking up a large fur ball. Pacing around a room arching its full body length, to its seeming breaking point, dry heaving over and over as if it will choke to death until finally it manages to toss out its load of crap. Not fun, at all. I was that cat horking up huge emotional fur balls. Each time I felt as if I had something big hard and nasty caught somewhere between my heart, lungs and stomach causing me so much pain I needed to use every muscle in my body to throw the disgusting object from my body. It was awful and messy requiring a multitude of tissues and a blanket. I was completely drained afterwards.
Every week I did this “emotional hurling” for longer than I thought I could endure. I craved rest after each session. I thought it would never end. Some days were harder, some were only difficult but each was a release of a healing kind. HSP kept telling me it would end eventually and I would know exactly when I was finished. He was right. It did end. I still remember the day I went in to his familiar office, sat on the comfy sofa, wrapped the blanket around my legs squaring the Kleenex box within easy reach followed by calibrating the discs, closing my eyes and then…..nothing. Not one single thing came up. I had cleaned out the deepest emotional wounds so they could finally close up healing fully. And there I sat still breathing. It was great. He said I was welcome to come back if anything else came up. It never has. That was almost a decade ago.
I suggested to Jenny to try EMDR with my HSP. She did, brave girl. I told her to call me whenever she needed support. HSP told her to call me too whenever she felt like quitting or thought she would never get to the end. We had many conversations during her EMDR time. She horked up her fur balls until she horked up her last. She has gone on to help others, paying it forward. It is a rare day that either of us become triggered by our unfortunate past. If we are cued, we reach out asking for what we need. It is simple to find solid ground now.
I believe the only explanation for great suffering in my life is that I might be able to ease the suffering for someone else forced to walk a similar path. EMDR removed a huge roadblock to living a full and beautiful life for me. I pay it forward whenever I can.
My journey of peace and healing has not ended. To be alive is to choose to grow or wither. I have no fantasies about never needing to grow further in this lifetime, or of avoiding pain or loss. It is what we do as humans while Life continues to come at us every day. Primarily through the work I did with my HSP and EMDR, I am in a place now where I can tolerate the deepest heart wrenching emotions and come out tired but more solid each time. I could not have gotten here without his help and the help of many others.
Thankfully, I now am part of a larger community of people seeking wellness together learning to move from denial and survival seeking to thrive. I am proud to report I am now thriving. I am living a life beyond my wildest dreams one day at a time.
May you find the courage to seek the best life that is out there for you. I promise there are people waiting to support you if you are willing to do the work.
Take care. Serious gentle care of yourself.
One Last Note
My HSP and I talked some about whether the memories I recovered during EMDR were “true”. He said that was unclear though it was well documented that “confronting perpetrators” rarely had positive outcomes. I felt disappointed by this at first. He went on to say that the memories he had helped others recover were so specifically unique in details and nuance that he rarely had any trouble believing them to be true at some level. My take away was to honor my memories as true to me then to let them go. I can still bring up dark images of my past, but I am strong enough to not allow them to give me trouble anymore. That is a choice I have come to practice. That is miracle enough for me, that I have the strength to choose. I choose peace and serenity today.
Kim Barrick is an award winning artist, writer, seeker who splits her time between Nashville, Tennessee and a her native Colorado. She is a sought after teacher, mentor and a life enthusiast, cheerleading solutions for those faced with adversity. She is an advocate for the environment, artists and all those struggling with addiction, mental illness and other life challenges. For more information about Kim:
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