“So, this says ‘not really’ in response to, ‘Have you experienced any traumatic events,’” said my new therapist, looking over my intake paperwork. “What does ‘not really’ mean?”
I laughed uneasily. “Well, that’s part of why I’m here—something happened to me that still bothers me—I’m just not sure if it qualifies as traumatic.”
I stammered out the whole story. At 17, in college as an underage freshman, I’d placed too much confidence in a group of mentor figures whose control over me had gradually grown until I needed their permission to make almost any major decisions. At 18, I’d fallen in love. At 19, the mentor figure du jour had vetoed the man in question, and I’d turned him down, feeling like I was tearing my soul apart. Two weeks later, my lost love was dating his future wife, and my already gearing-up anxiety was growing into full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even after I’d realized I was in a cult and should call my dad, even after the bridge had been burned to the mentors who were manipulating me, as a 20-year-old I was checking door locks over and over and struggling to study through a cacophony of obsessive thoughts.
Now I was 23, and the story felt like ancient history—except that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The one real dating relationship that I’d experienced since then didn’t take up half the mental real estate of that strange, thorny episode. Why was I still thinking about it? And why couldn’t I shake the obsessive thoughts and just calm down?
As much as I didn’t think I qualified for the label of “trauma,” I also felt like something had gone deeply wrong. Though I acted normal from the outside, I was susceptible to tiny triggers that would send me into an obsessive spiral. I’d been known to stop driving across town to turn around and make sure a burner wasn’t left on or a straightener plugged in. Dating and romance set off a cascade of alarms that refused to go silent. My Relationship OCD had threatened my one relationship in my twenties until we (more or less) mutually realized that both my boyfriend’s and my anxiety was too much for us to handle, even together.
“We might try EMDR therapy,” said my therapist matter-of-factly. I listened as she explained something about traumatic experiences living in your short-term memory, being unable to move into your long-term memory. Basically, EMDR—eye movement desensitization and reprocessing—is a way of moving your thoughts and memories to their proper place in your brain. As the EMDR Institute explains:
When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes. The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR therapy training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes.
It all sounded pretty strange to me, but it also rang true to my experience in some way. That was what it felt like—a festering wound. An experience that I knew, rationally, shouldn’t have a huge effect on me in the present was haunting my everyday life. I’d tried to talk things through for years, but something just wasn’t resolving. I believed that mind and body were importantly connected, so it wasn’t too terribly far-fetched that something you do with your body would change your mind. Plus, with the way my life was looking at the moment, I figured I didn’t have much to lose.
Over the next few sessions, my therapist took a blended approach, employing regular talk therapy as well as preparing me for EMDR sessions. An important part of EMDR is that it is a controlled experience. Though I didn’t at the time know how the sessions would develop, my therapist led me through the process, and I didn’t really need to think about it.
Then one day I came into her office on the verge of a panic attack. I was in a stressful early-stage dating situation and suddenly felt like I was crumbling under my fears. What would be normal questions for any dating person—What if he isn’t interested in me? What if he never texts me back?—had become extreme stress responses for me. I’d tried helplessly all day to calm down. My therapist noted my distress and suggested that we try EMDR.
First, she had me rate my distress. Then she moved two fingers back and forth in front of my eyes, for brief sessions of maybe about 30 seconds at a time. When she stopped, she would ask me to rate my distress, we would pick another focus, and then she would start again.
By the end of the session, I felt inexplicably calmer. I wasn’t completely calmed down, but I hadn’t thought anything could deescalate the panic I was experiencing. At the same time, I felt unsure. I felt like I hadn’t quite “done the EMDR right”—my therapist had encouraged me to make sure I was following with my eyes and not getting stuck in my head. I certainly didn’t feel like my underlying trauma, which I didn’t even really remember talking about in this session, had melted away.
I had one or two other EMDR sessions, and we still occasionally dip into it if we find a core childhood experience to process, but mostly my therapist and I stuck to talk therapy from then on. It was a week or so after that session, though, that something happened to make me an EMDR believer.
I was driving late at night, listening to music, watching the cars in front of me. I was playing the same song over and over. Suddenly, peacefully, my mind wandered over to the scene of my traumatic memories—my college campus. It was strange, because I was still driving in a perfectly safe manner, but at the same time it felt like I was having a vivid dream. Later I would reflect that this is the principle of EMDR—you are both experiencing the traumatic memory and staying rooted in the present moment. I’m not a therapist, but I figure this is important because it teaches your mind that the traumatic memory can’t hurt you anymore.
As the music and the driving went on, my mind moved through the campus, visiting the places where my trauma had occurred. It rewalked the walks; visited the house where I used to meet with my mentors; stood at the site of many difficult conversations. Slowly, in my mind’s eye, it was like the whole scene was submerged under water. The distress that had haunted me when I used to revisit these scenes was gone.
When I brought the experience up with my therapist later, I asked if it was related to the EMDR sessions, and she smiled knowingly. “Oh yes.” I hadn’t realized the effects immediately, but the best that I can figure is that my mind had learned how to bring my memories back to their proper place, and it did so when the time was right.
I wish I could say that after that moment, every one of my OCD symptoms was gone and my anxiety evaporated. It wasn’t and it didn’t—but things were different. Since that day, peace has felt just a little easier to reach. I’m not as easily triggered. My dating life has gradually become more relaxed and free. I still struggle with panicky feelings sometimes, but I surprised myself this spring by moving through actively traumatic events with a strength I couldn’t have imagined this time last year. I don’t remember the last time I compulsively checked a doorknob. And now, when I think back on or even tell the story of that difficult time, it feels farther away from me. It doesn’t hurt the way it used to; it feels like the kind of memory it is supposed to be, in the past. Of course I’ve done a lot of other work to get here, but I wonder sometimes whether without EMDR, I might have stayed stuck for much longer.
If you, like me, don’t know if you’ve experienced a traumatic event or not—or if you know you have—take a look at EMDR therapy. Talk therapy is great, but it can’t always resolve the things that have deeply wounded us. Going out on a limb and doing something different opened me up to long-term healing, and I’m so thankful that it did.