"There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind." — C.S. Lewis
It has been several years since I've been inspired to write a blog. I started this blog when I was fighting cancer in a way to encourage others who struggle, to fight. Although I'm in remission, there are other battles I'm still fighting.
Anxiety is a disease I have been fighting my entire life. A disease that has gotten worse over the years. A disease that has debilitated and tortured me.
The curious thing about anxiety is that it has a lingering quality, so that my battles from my past life reoccur in my present life, over and over again. While that is a life that I'm no longer living, it’s still living in me and will be for the rest of my life. The past is a life that I cannot change, but I'm learning how to change how it controls me. This past consists of abandonment, abuse, and disease (you can read about this in previous blog entries). I once believed that there was no need fighting what this past has done to me, that I should just ignore it and live my life. The problem was that ignoring it didn’t make me immune to the anxiety that came from it. Even if I thought I was past my past, I would encounter moments that triggered this past in a way that caused anxiety and even panic attacks. These moments, while apparently harmless to others, would function as triggers that would give new scenarios all the power of the old feelings of abandonment and abuse.
Triggers. This is a word or term rather that I've recently rediscovered, and understanding what is behind this word helps explain how my past has been trying to take the joy and love out of my wonderful life today.
David Richo speaks on it brilliantly in his book How to be an Adult. "What we leave incomplete we are doomed to repeat. The untreated traumas of childhood become the frustrating dramas of adulthood. Our fantasy of the ‘perfect partner,’ or our disappointments in a relationship we do not change or leave, or the dramas that keep arising in our relationships reveal our unique unmet primal wounds and needs."
These unmet primal wounds and needs are the active ingredients of triggers. An innocent unrelated scenario can feel so familiar to a past trauma, carrying the same bitter taste of danger, anxiety, and pain.
Richo goes on to say, "The healthy adult can tell the difference between a present conflict with a partner, and a re-stimulation of past unfinished distress. The strong feelings tip him off to the presence of archaic stimuli. He acknowledges openly that the feelings are familiar from the past. He takes responsibility for the severity of this reaction, and does not implicate this present person in the tying up of an historical loose end."
So now the question is, how do you become that "healthy adult" when you have been plagued with so much trauma? How do you disassociate those triggers? I've been going to therapy off and on for 15+ years. Therapy has been a HUGE healing indicator for me. It's probably what has kept me sane throughout the years. As well as my faith in the good Lord. And while I was strengthened by therapy, by the Lord, by so much love in my life, the triggers were still there. They continued to cause me to spiral down an unhealthy, confusing path of intertwined past and reality. The panic attacks made me feel helpless and caused me to put up major roadblocks with people I love and care about. The confusing loneliness and weakness of this path was my reality earlier this year. So what changed? I started E.M.D.R. therapy.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a type of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) therapy used to treat patients since the 1980s. I will try to explain the science behind it as briefly as I can, but I would encourage you to read up on this as much as possible. I've pulled a lot of my resources from a seminar presented by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. called "Contemporary Issues on the Psychobiological Effects of Trauma: Attachment, Addiction, and Treatments."
|"The Scream" by Edvard Munch|
To understand EMDR you must first understand the effects of PTSD. I remember the first time I saw the painting "The Scream" by Edvard Munch. I was very young. I was taken back by it because I physically felt the agony exuding out of the painting. I just recently realized why I related to this painting so much. This painting depicts Munch's childhood life of pain and abandonment. For me, pain and abandonment also colors some of my childhood life. When your story is just beginning and you have a traumatic experience, this becomes a main current in your life. The idea of trauma happening is so central to the story of your life, it seems like trauma happens to you over and over again -- which brings up the issue of the repetition compulsion. Once people are traumatized their whole way of being in the world changes.
Bessel van der Kolk said, "I am basically irritated with the definition of PTSD and the way many of my colleagues think that ‘intrusion, arousal and avoidance’ captures the essence of what happens to traumatized people. I think they're missing the boat because, as I've said, for most people, their trauma becomes a way of life. Our challenge as clinicians and researchers is how to help people to move from continuously selecting misery to being able to see new things, to position themselves in new ways, and to get a life for themselves.
I have become increasingly discouraged over the past few years, and skeptical that simply talking to someone about your trauma can change your life from being unhappy to being someone who can grasp the life force, or that taking pills can change your brain from causing you to select misery - to being a person who grasps life for what it has to offer. I've become very much more action oriented in developing and organizing programs for our children and adults that will help them understand what trauma has done to them, as well as how to have experiences that actually show them that they can do things differently, and they can feel differently than they did during their early life. "
Munch’s depiction of agony and misery in his paintings makes me think that he never got past his childhood trauma. I see this false reality in so many people’s lives today. We depict that pain on different levels and in different ways getting ourselves into the same miserable situation over and over again. Freud said that "the compulsion to repeat the trauma is a function of repression itself. If a person doesn't remember, he is likely to act it out. He reproduces it not as memory, but as an action. He repeats it without knowing that he is repeating his trauma, and in the end he understands that this is his way of living." This is PTSD.
Our everyday, "normal" activities are memories stored in the brain as a pre-existing schema. Traumatic events which create extreme arousal are stored as distinct, episodic details. These traumatic memories are stored in the limbic system which is part of the brain that interprets the emotional valence of incoming information, especially fear or threat. When people who suffer from PTSD are "triggered," their past memories come to life as their current reality instead of memories of their past.
I am going to be completely vulnerable here, in hopes that it will help to explain this theory from a very personal and real perspective. When I was a little girl, a man that used to be in our family, would be drunk and lie down in bed with me. I would wake up to him touching me inappropriately. Years later, I dated a guy with whom I would sometimes stay the night with. I would be sleeping and sometimes wake up with him on top of me. This was traumatic for me and was repeated so frequently that it become my reality and the "norm" for me. I lived with it for a while, resulting in many, many panic attacks, which eventually put me on my death bed in a hospital for a week. Several years later, I met my God-given husband who knows my story, who is gentle and patient and whom I trust 100%. My husband is a night owl, always has been, and would stay up way later than me. When we first got married this became a problem as I would wake up to him just lying beside me and rubbing me in a sweet intimate way, the way loving husbands do. This triggered my past traumatic memories and would cause me to panic. I wasn't seeing it as the reality it was, but as my past life of abuse. We have been together for 10 years now and I have continued to struggle with anxiety during intimacy, until I started EMDR.
EMDR is not solely a process of talking about or talking through your issues. It is an eight-step protocol referred to as "adaptive information processing." The goal of this AIP model is to process disturbing past memories to an adapting resolution, thus empowering recipients to learn from them - and move on. This is accomplished through bi-lateral movements, either eye movements, taps or tones.
EMDR therapists do very little talking while actually processing traumatic memories, but the protocol begins with an extensive verbal and written intake during which a complete history is obtained. Therapists make sure their clients are stable and have a reliable support system, as well as all the resources needed to complete the eight step protocol including trauma processing.
Once the first steps are accomplished they prompt their clients to think of their disturbing memories one at a time, while doing alternate hemisphere movements. These movements can be done in three ways; through bilateral eye movements, bilateral tapping or listening to alternating tones. For the eye movements therapists lead clients with hand movements back and forth from right to left, or by watching a light bar go back and forth. The taps are done manually as therapists tap the hands or knees of their clients, or the clients hold electronic pulser that buzz alternately from right to left. The tones may be utilized by wearing head phones and listening to a CD that plays in one ear and then the other. These bilateral movements help process disturbing past memories while at the same time desensitizing them.
Dr. van der Kolk sums up the normal biology of the brain:
"The brain is a bilateral organism; we have a left brain and a right brain, just like we have a left ear and right ear, a left leg and a right leg. We are symmetrical people, but the brain is not entirely symmetrical. The left brain and the right brain are quite different; we basically have two brains. But because we have this huge area in between called the corpus callosum with billions of fibers connecting the two - under ordinary conditions the left brain knows what the right brain is doing, and the left hand knows what the right hand is doing - so the division doesn't matter all that much."
Research has shown that trauma breaks down the bridge between the right and left hemispheres of the brain which is formed by the corpus callosum and thus causes less transfer of information from one side of the brain to the other. Trauma is stored on the right side of the brain and when triggered the left side of the brain where time and logic are stored "goes offline".
EMDR helps restore that bridge, so that when triggered, we are able to process past distrubing memories with both our left and right brain, therefore seeing it in a more logical an time-bound way, instead of setting us back into the emotional state of the trauma itself. EMDR therapists use one of three ways to do this, depending on which one is most comfortable for the client. However, all three stimulate the brain to reprocess disturbing past memories as the patient mentally recalls them. (An attempt is made to keep the client in the present time by stopping the bilateral movements frequently to check in with clients and ask what thoughts are coming up now.)
I’m not a scientist or a doctor and can’t explain exactly how it works. However, as a victim of PTSD who has done this treatment and experienced miraculous results, I can share that it does indeed work.
Here’s a specific example. Abandonment is a specific trauma that I experienced as a little girl. So for years, when I would have a relationship drift away, as relationships often do to all of us, I would feel abandoned, and rejected, and it would cause me to shut down and even doubt all my relationships. I did a few EMDR sessions, taking me back to the first time I felt abandonment. As I focused on those memories, I would watch a light move from left to right, right to left. More memories came up where I would think to myself, “Well dang, no wonder I struggle with this so much…” I would leave thinking, “That didn’t help,” and I would feel even more sorry for myself, feeling doomed to always have these traumatic memories. Then the magic happens. I'm back to reality living my everyday life and I'm not triggered by an unkind comment or action from a loved one, or anyone. I shake it off and move on. This is the miracle in it all. I look back and am shocked by my reaction. I feel empowered and healed. Past trauma is no longer controlling my life; I am in more control of my memories and able to enjoy my current life free of trauma.
I started EMDR in January of this year, and I just had my last session in June. I have not had a panic attack since January and I have weaned off the anxiety medicine that I have been on for 15 years, with very very little side effects. I’ve had numerous triggers since then, that normally would put me in a panic state, but instead, I'm able to see reality and not be affected by triggers. EMDR has changed my life!
A special thanks to my therapist, Bea Scarlata, for your guidance and care for me these last several months. Her expertise and generous sharing of research on this topic helped my development and eventually inspired me to write this blog entry, which I hope will inspire others to pursue effective healing through EMDR.