Processing Trauma with EMDR: Week Three

Content Note: trauma, EMDR, child abuse, sexual assault

For more info on EMDR, talk with your therapist or visit this page.

We decided to incorporate Eye Movcement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) into my therapy. Time has been the major constraint, so I’m documenting on my blog as a record for myself.

I have now participated in four EMDR sessions over three weeks. Each session has included two to three turns with the paddles. I see my therapist on Wednesdays and Fridays. We have decided now to do the EMDR sessions on Wednesdays so I can process them on Friday in a talk therapy session, but we leave flexibility in our schedule.

Our first sessions focused on an anxiety symptom – I feel panic when someone knocks on the front door, especially when they are unexpected. We did some work on this and determined that it is anxiety related, not tied to some repressed memory about a stranger at the door. I’m just nervous about people coming into the house.  We did a series exploring how I responded to the knock on the door and then allowing my mind to wander through the idea of “what happens next” followed by me freezing the scene and walking into, like breaking the fourth wall in reverse. I looked at the being that had knocked and entered the house. It was empowering to do that.

So we began to explore the source of that nervousness and anxiety that was not tied to a discernible event through talk therapy. We are still doing that work. The next phase of EMDR in this regard will be a ‘preventative’ series to help me develop plans and walk through the steps in my mind of potential future scenarios of that unexpected knock.

I proposed another aspect to explore – I have a tendency to dissociate during the day, often when I take a shower and I’m uncomfortable with the idea that I’m losing time. Again, I don’t think this is tied to a traumatic event, but is a side effect of using dissociation throughout my life to cope with the traumas I did experience.

Pursuing these strands of my illness is preparing me to tackle the actual traumatic events down the road.

Dissociation can be a scary word, often tied to what we commonly know as dissociative identity disorder. But it is also a term that describes a symptom of shutting off our sensory processing brain functions to reduce the overload of stimuli – the better analogy is that experience of getting into the car to drive somewhere and arriving, but not really remembering what happened during the drive itself. Your brain is doing the driving tasks but you aren’t retaining the sensory experiences – the music, the scenery, the smells and sounds, etc. 

In response to the trauma itself, and in coping with the dread that persisted long afterward, these patients had learned to shut down the brain areas that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. Yet in everyday life, those same brain areas are responsible for registering the entire range of emotions and sensations that form the foundation of our self-awareness, our sense of who we are. What we witnessed here was a tragic adaptation: In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.

So while there are probably some memories I have repressed, it is also true that there are entire swathes of my existence that I cannot remember because they didn’t imprint into my brain. I know that I had the experiences, but I can’t *feel* them.

Another example involves driving. I have driven up and down the East Coast by myself – to college in DC, to visit friends in New Jersey and North Carolina. I drove back and forth from Pittsburgh to Louisiana over the course of three years at least ten times. And I drove back and forth from Pittsburgh to Western Kentucky dozens of times over another three-year period.

Mind you this was the early 1990s. I had a car with a cassette player. It was a stick shift that required a bit more attention to driving than a standard. I had no phone, rarely a companion, and very little money. I would easily slip into fantasies and daydreams, but never got into a dangerous situation. Well, one time in Mississippi at 2 AM, I hit a deer. That sucked. But not pertinent to this thread.

I have a few memories from those dozens of trips, scores of trips. I remember not being afraid, even when I struggled to find a motel room. I remember usually eating at MacDonald’s because it was affordable. I don’t remember the sights or the signs or the conversations I had with myself. I don’t remember the weather except for the one time a blinding rain made me pull over for a few hours. I was outgoing then so I know I spoke with people at rest stops and restaurants and motels, but I don’t remember them not even a little bit. I stopped every 2-3 hours for safety reasons and I know I was vigilant about it so I wasn’t in a long-haul lull.  It wasn’t a relaxing or scary experience. It was just time that I cannot recall with my senses, just with my mind.

I thought it was just time dulling the memories, but now I realize I do remember things – I just don’t feel those sensory memories attached to the cognitive thinkin’ part of my memories.

It is sort of ridiculous that I jumped into my car and drove 1200 miles, sometimes on a whim just because my graduate studies allowed me to do so. But I did and I believe I used dissociation to deal with the boredom, the reasonable apprehension, and any threats I did experience.

So I’m well-practiced at shutting off sensory inputs and focusing on the intellectually known facts. And I’ve learned through therapy that I cannot go back and re-remember those sensory experiences because they left no trace on my body. I can imagine and extrapolate and deduce, but I’ll never remember the details I might of the drive we just took to Mercer County or Greene County this past month when I was actively and purposefully paying attention to the sights, sounds, smells, etc.

It is one reason I take so many photos, to prompt me to reinforce the imprints.

Anyway, I still dissociate to cope with overwhelming situations. So now we are using EMDR to go through mundane scenarios like taking a shower or working on my laptop and my trying to remember the sensory experiences, to teach myself to feel things. Again.

It is important to know that these are learned maladaptive coping mechanisms that grew out of traumatic experiences. I wasn’t born this way. I survived this way and now I need to learn to stop being so focused on hypervigilance that I let the world pass me by.

It is a bit painstakingly slow. So far the progress we’ve made on dissociation is my buying more scentsy shower gels and listening to a podcast while I”m showering so I can use my ears a bit. And while that helps, it also feels ridiculous to be so detailed around something I’ve been doing for 45 years? Do I really need a podcast to take a shower without dissociating?

Yes. And so I’ll do it because I want to be able to build on several EMDR wins and get to the hard stuff. So ridiculous or not, I’ll do it.

I’m anxious about it, but I’ll do it.