Updated: a day ago
If you have followed me this year then you will have heard me talk about EMDR - which stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. It’s a bit of a trendy buzzword at the moment, with even Prince Harry banging on about it, but basically it was developed to treat traumatic memories and PTSD. Before we start I’m not fully done with EMDR - at a broad guess I would say I am approaching halfway (edit: nope) but I feel ready to talk about this mysterious process as I do seem to be getting somewhere with it.
I read about EMDR while reading the book “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk and wanted to try it as I felt like it would help with some of my problems. I approached my therapist about trying it and she put me in touch with a specialist practitioner and I started it in March this year. For transparency I chose to pursue both privately, as having gone through the NHS before I felt like the help they offer, while great, has extreme limitations. I also didn’t want to take their services away from those that might really need it. I am not suicidal and haven’t been since 2013, and while my therapy is important for me and my own wellbeing, it is not an urgent case.
More than anything else, therapy takes time, and with the current budget cuts affecting the NHS - not to mention Covid - I don’t feel like the NHS can offer that. More often than not your problems won’t be solved in 12 weekly sessions, but at the moment that is all they can offer and the waiting lists are catastrophic. While regular therapy is expensive (it costs me about £50 a week) it is extremely worthwhile, and managing to keep my weekly therapy sessions through the pandemic honestly saved me from turning into an anxious, panicked mess.
However, I had to say goodbye to my regular therapist to embark on EMDR as you can’t do both at the same time. Informally I was told “your brain would explode” and I can see how that might be the case as they are both very different. EMDR is a lot more subliminal and intense than talk therapy and can take a physical toll. They often use a train analogy to describe the EMDR process in that you have to “ride the train through the tunnel to get to the other side” but in practise it feels more like a rollercoaster. I have felt physically sick and like I am about to have a heart attack while doing it.
EMDR is a subliminal process in that the changes you are making are to your limbic system, so you won’t often notice the changes to start with, but they will contribute to a growing sense of calmness about your life and your surroundings. As a hyper vigilant person for as long as I can remember, this calmness is quite an alien feeling for me, and took a bit of getting used to. If you have been the victim of traumatic experiences, then your primal reptile brain (the brain responsible for the Four F’s: Food, Fight, Flight and Fucking) is on hyper alert at all times. With EMDR you are basically training your “fight or flight” response to react more proportionately to external stimuli and it has very high levels of success.
I actually embarked on EMDR to get rid of recurrent dreams that I was having about a past casual relationship that gave me PTSD, but when I went into initial processing my therapist deemed my Emetophobia (fear of vomit) a bigger concern and we are currently treating that. However, as with everything memory-related, what we are finding is that most things are linked, so while we mostly cover my sick phobia we are slowly realising that other traumas have played their part in the soup. In a surprising turn, the recurrent dreams I sought EMDR out for in the first place have lessened despite not even covering those memories during what they call “the process”.
The process makes you imagine and sit inside your traumatic memories - seeing and feeling everything that you saw and felt - while reminding yourself, in the present, that you are safe and okay. At the same time you use bilateral stimulation (eye movements or tapping on each shoulder) to replicate the biological mechanisms involved with REM sleep - effectively moving the traumatic memory from one side of your brain to the other - from your short term memory (where it has gotten stuck) into your long term memory. They start with your “first, worst, and most recent” memories associated with the PTSD and work from there as oftentimes the true bad memories are hiding out of view. The best way to describe the process is like attacking an overgrown garden - your first aim is to clear the most obvious weeds and clear a space, but you soon find it is the bramble roots underneath the garden that are the most powerful and difficult to get out. Unless you tackle that big root and dig it all out it will continue sprouting up... although sometimes you can get a lot of it out with a key memory, and in-between sessions your brain will clear up some of the smaller weeds on its own.
My first memory we tackled was going to see The Sooty Show at the theatre with my grandmother when I was 3 or 4 years old. At the intermission she sent me on my own to get ice cream and when I returned she had vomited everywhere. It had taken a long time to get to the theatre (we had walked from Hatfield to St Albans) so I remember feeling very trapped and frightened. At the time my grandma was my “safe space” so to have her be incapacitated and be left alone in a public place was very scary and upsetting and had long term repercussions for me. Via processing we have managed to make that memory less traumatic. The only way I can describe the visualisation process for me is it is like taking a dark memory and opening the windows so that it is full of air and light, as more often than not the bad memories are dark, dingy, and claustrophobic because your memory will have avoided them and deemed them too “unsafe”.
This idea of safety comes up a lot in my emetophobic thoughts and recently we made a breakthrough after I watched Three Girls on Netflix and saw a lot of myself in the girls portrayed. Growing up working class in a broken family I never felt very safe. My dad was angry and abusive and my mum weak, submissive and distant. They separated when I was 8-years-old and I was raised mostly by my mum and various different childminders until I started secondary school, when I essentially became a latch key kid and spent a lot of time home alone. Many times events happened where I was left unprotected and bad things happened. Watching the show I realised how vulnerable I had been and while I was never targeted by any grooming gangs, I was molested on a National Express coach (that my parents had put me on alone and underaged at 12 or 13) and came dangerously close to being abducted. Later, when I moved to London to live with my dad I was assaulted by a group of boys in the summer holidays before starting my new school. Paired with the abuse I was receiving at home at the time from my dad, I honestly don’t know how I survived.
My therapist thinks my emetophobia was created out of fear to build a safety net, a way of controlling myself and my surroundings so that I could feel safe. In the beginning it helped me a lot - it stopped me from becoming an alcoholic or a drug addict - and I was grateful for it. But as I get older, I am starting to realise that this control and self-moderation isn’t saving me, it’s limiting my life and making me worse by limiting my ability to enjoy myself or even receive medical help as I refuse to take certain medications because I am afraid of the side effects. If I let my emetophobia go unchecked my self-imposed cage of restrictions gets smaller and smaller until I can barely leave the house.
It sounds silly, but it really is like living with an abusive boyfriend in my brain, who just really doesn't want to relinquish control or let me get better. Every week my abusive-boyfriend-reptile-brain tells me not to go to my EMDR sessions and every week I have to fight it. Every week I have that feeling akin to waiting in the queue for a rollercoaster, where I want to run away but it is too late to turn back. Every week I have to face the fact that the memories we process could make me physically sick and my reptile brain hates it. I can’t tell you how much bravery it takes to do each session. When we start it’s like getting into a carriage into the unknown as I don’t know where each session will take us. The memories themselves can be extremely terrifying, but it is never the ones that I expect would be terrifying or upsetting that are the worst or most powerful. One of my most upsetting memories so far was watching my dad eat mussels in a restaurant when I was six. Nothing happened that I can remember, but I knew that he was allergic, and the conversation we had - which I also cannot remember - has put me off seafood (and by extension restaurants, and in some extreme cases eating) for life.
My fear of restaurants is legendary among my friends in that I can go to a Michelin star restaurant and refuse to eat or eat very little because I am literally terrified by whatever is on the plate (a history in hospitality will also do this to a girl). We laugh about it, but I would love to be able to enjoy a meal like everyone else can and not worry that it will make me sick. In fact, the reason I finally sought help is that my fear of eating was veering dangerously close to anorexia, and because I remain unable to take my ADHD medication (because of a fear of the side effects), which is in turn stopping me from learning to drive. That’s not to mention the crippling effect my emetophobia has on my abilities as a mother and wife. I currently cannot look after my daughter or husband when they are sick and it fills me with a lot of shame.
More than anything I want to get better, and erase or lessen all these negative thoughts and memories that are holding me back in life. If my past experiences have taught me anything it’s that I am very strong - stronger than most of the people around me - and I owe it to myself to turn that strength inward and dig up this rotted bramble root once and for all, so that I can finally go out and enjoy life. I’ve jokingly told my therapist that my aim with EMDR is to be able to go to Tomorrowland Festival with my husband and listen to Eric Prydz off my face on E’s or mushrooms, and maybe I will get there maybe I won’t... it’s actually a pretty strong motivator, but my desire to be a good mother and be able to look after my child when she is sick is the strongest motivator of all.
If you have traumatic memories or PTSD and are considering EMDR then I will always recommend it, but you have to be ready and you have to want to do it. If you are like me and have a very vocal reptile brain then they are not going to like it one bit and you have to be prepared for that and be strong enough to fight it.
But as I am learning, life is too short to live it controlled by fear.