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Chipping Away the Darkness: A Look Inside EMDR

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Disclaimer: The following is based on one woman’s healing of C-PTSD through eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This piece is a compilation of two to three sessions, crafted into one. Some identifying characteristics of people or procedures have been altered or withheld to protect confidentiality.

Let’s introduce our cast of characters. First up, Therapist. Therapist is a white man in his mid- to late-50s. He has natural salt and pepper hair that falls just below his ears, which he often pushes back and secures by resting his eyeglasses atop his head. He has a calm, monotone voice until he gets to laughing. His laugh is a loud bellow. It projects the depth of his soul — knowledge of the bottomless despair in the world, paired with gratitude for its eternal beauty. He is well-versed in working with clients who’ve had traumatic experiences and has an impressive record of success with EMDR.

• What is PTSD?

Second up, Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn is a white woman in her early 30s. She has curly, brown hair that extends past her shoulders. She wears no makeup, no perfume, and no jewelry. At five foot two she is petite in size and features. The volume and tone of her voice fluctuate to parallel the emotions she’s experiencing. She has a diagnosis of C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) and on this day, the day that follows, she is working to resolve her thoughts and feelings of worthlessness. Both Therapist and Kaitlyn are alive, fully visible in the present moment. 

Third up, Inner Child. Inner Child is an Ego State and all adults have Ego States. That is, consistent patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that developed in the past and are played out in the present. Recognition of, and work with, Ego States often allows for the development of healthy, inner dialogue so as to foster an empowering, positive life. Inner Child ranges from 5 to 15 years old. She is disheveled in her appearance with knots in her hair and stains on her clothes. She speaks false truths to appease those she’s near. Her voice is quiet with the underpinnings of anger, hurt, and fear brought about by her experiences. 

Fourth up, Inner Critic. Inner Critic is an Ego State. Inner Critic is replica of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of Kaitlyn’s primary caregiver — her mother. Inner Critic is 35 years of age with thick, wiry hair styled in waves. Inner Critic wears makeup, perfume, and jewelry. She is short with curvy features and aptly conceals an excess 20 pounds with her piercing blue eyes and confidence. Her style is edgy. Inner Critic is two-faced, demanding and punitive, and ruthless in her skewed assessments of those she loves. Her voice is assertive and ranges from eerie whispers to dangerous screams. Both Inner Child and Inner Critic are enigmas, audible only in Kaitlyn’s mind. 

Now that we have our characters, let’s set the scene. It’s a comfortable 70 degrees in Therapist’s office. The grey carpeted floor pairs well with the two navy armchairs — set directly across from the other. Behind the armchairs sits a simple wooden desk, uncluttered in appearance. Next to the desk sits a simple wooden bookcase, also uncluttered in appearance. A lamp, laptop, coffee mug, manila folders, paperweight, and psychology and philosophy books are all that is visible. A window on the back wall lets in natural sunlight, offering a view of a nearby park. The room is well lit without the use of the fluorescent lights overhead. It’s quiet with few sounds penetrating the space. So we begin: 

Therapist: “Bring to mind the memory of your mom whispering her reality then screaming your failures as she erratically drove you to school. When you think of the incident, how true do the words ‘I have worth’ feel to you on a scale of 1-10?” 

Kaitlyn: “Three.”

Therapist: “On a scale of 0-10, where zero is no disturbance or neutral and 10 is the highest disturbance you can imagine, how disturbing does this instance feel?”

Kaityln: “Seven.”

Therapist: “Where do you feel it?”

Kaitlyn: “Shortness of breath in my lungs, a tightening of my neck and shoulder muscles, a clinching of my gut, a knot in my throat, a rising heart rate, a nauseous mind.”

Therapist: “OK. Keep that instance in mind as you follow my finger.” Therapist steadily moves his right pointer finger from one side to the next, spanning 18-24 inches, lasting 30-60 seconds.

Kaitlyn: My eyes track right, then left, then back again. My mind reveals the physical, cognitive dissonance within. 

Kaitlyn: Thoughts begin to take form. 

‘People with graduate degrees, impactful careers, and community have worth.’ 

‘I have a graduate degree, impactful career, and community.’ 

‘Therefore, I have worth.’ 

I acknowledge each thought, creating more space for myself as they pass by. Yet, my body remains ridged, stiff. It does not respond to me even as I let go of each thought. It appears to be warning me that something is not aligned.  

Therapist: Stops moving his finger. “What do you notice?”

Kaitlyn: “In my mind, I know I have worth. I can use the facts and figures of my life to build a strong case for it. I can practice therapeutic techniques to convince my mind of it. In my body, I don’t know if I have worth. I don’t know because my body is telling me I am worthless with tense muscles and a tight throat.” 

I pause for a moment, take a slow audible breath, and then continue, “It is a different existence when your conscious mind has healthy thoughts but your body fails to provide healthy feelings to match. It is a different existence when your conscious mind fights for alignment with the body, yet the body pushes back despite your willpower and efforts to change.”

Therapist: His eyes flicker with familiar understanding, as he encourages, “OK. Go with that.” He repeats the process of moving his finger from one side to the next for several seconds. 

Kaitlyn: My eyes track right, then left, then back again. My conscious mind yields to the chaos within. 

Kaitlyn: ‘You’re safe. Let yourself go there for healing is found somewhere between the present outer moment and dark inner place.’ 

Inner Child: ‘Don’t look here! It’s too dark, too deep, and too vast. To allow your senses in here is to see violence, smell drink, hear screams, taste blood, and touch tears. To allow your mind in here is to allow your body to outwardly express all I buried the first 16 years. Don’t undo my hard work of floating our mind and body away. Don’t look. Don’t feel. Not then. Not today.’

Kaitlyn: ‘To look there is to open all of your senses as they were in those moments, before those moments became memories. You’ve opened your eyes for visual flashbacks and verbal explanations, but you’ve not opened your remaining senses, nor have you experienced them. To do so would allow you to purge the residual emotions tied to your memories. To do so, would allow you to chip away at the black tar parts of you are coated in.’ 

Therapist: Stops moving his finger. “What do you notice?”

Kaitlyn: “To look at my past memories, I have to have the courage to release the rage and despair that accompany them. I have to allow my emotions to break the surface and once I do that, I cannot lock them up inside again. I have to believe in my present ability to healthfully cope with them and I have to practice perseverance so that next week I can participate in this process again.”

Therapist: Nods as if in agreement, then responds, “OK. Go with that.” He repeats the process of moving his finger from one side to the next for several seconds. 

Kaitlyn: My eyes track right, then left, then back again. My conscious mind decides it’s time to swim. 

Kaitlyn: I open my past eyes. I see a side profile of my mother. There is spit coming out of her mouth as she over grips the steering wheel then snaps her head my way. The car turns left so sharply that my body flails right. I’ve seen this image so many times since that day. It appears in countless flashbacks and whenever I’m retelling this event to police officers, child protective workers, or therapists. 

I’m on the surface, so I dive deeper. 

I open my past ears. I hear her whisper, “you’re such a” pause, then scream, “bitch!” The word bitch she drawls out slowly in a venomous rage. She locks eyes with me falling silent, pausing. She begins to whisper, “you’re such a” pause, then scream, “bitch!” She repeats the process. I open my past nose. Stale cigarette smoke defines the car. Defines my mother. Defines me. Underneath the smoke is a hint of artificial hibiscus emanating from a cheap air freshener nearby. I open my past mouth. I taste nothing except dryness and hunger. I recognize both as the familiar sensations of my youth — routine dehydration paired with a constant craving for food.   

I’m underwater now, yet I dive deeper. 

I open my past body. My eyes are wet with tears, yet dry from holding the lids open so they don’t fall. My head aches with the unique combination of muscle tightness and sensory overload. My gut wretches with each dramatic turn of the car and each verbal definition she inflicts on my character. My hands grip the carpeted passenger seat in an effort to bring balance to my collapsed body inside the speeding car.  

Therapist: Stops moving his finger. “What do you notice?”

Kaitlyn: At his interjection, I return to the surface. I open to my present body. My eyes are wet with tears and this time, I let them fall. My head aches and my gut wretches as I attempt to straighten my posture and sit up. My hands are in fists beside me, and I must consciously release my fingers and palms. 

“I’m in this moment I am with you, yet my body is in that moment with her. I feel it, right now, while here.”

Therapist: The slightest of smiles begins to creep across his face, and then he dares, “OK. Stay with that.” He repeats the process of moving his finger from one side to the next for several seconds.

Kaitlyn: My eyes track right, then left, then back again. My conscious mind chooses to dive back in. 

Kaitlyn: I bring to mind the five senses that make up this memory. Instantly, emotions erupt from this newly encountered place. First comes rage. My face grows hot and my heart rate increases. My lips purse and my eyes follow suit. My hands shake beside me. I do not think about why I feel rage, I only notice the way rage transforms my body. As soon as I acknowledge this truth, my body transforms again. 

Second comes grief. My face cools and my heart rate decreases. My hands grow clammy and my neck and shoulders slouch. My eyes become narrow and my mouth closes too. My throat tightens around a new knot, as desperate tears release down my face. I do not have time to think about the validity of my grief, I only notice the way grief transforms my body. As soon as I acknowledge this truth, Therapist chimes in. 

Therapist: Stops moving his finger. “What do you notice?”

Kaitlyn: “I feel rage and grief. Their presence is so powerful that not even thoughts accompany them.” Casting my eyes downward, I contemplate my experience just then. 

“Each memory is defined by an ever-changing combination of the five senses. Each combination reveals a different emotion. By closing my mind off to the sensations of my memories, I have protected myself from the expression of emotions. When I was young, I had to keep myself from experiencing emotions. I was reinforced for stuffing them away and severely punished when they snuck out. But now, as an adult, I’m actively seeking them out because the consequences of keeping them in are too large.’” 

Therapist: “What served you as a child may no longer serve you as an adult.”

Kaitlyn: “Exactly!” 

Therapist: “OK. Stay with that.” He repeats the process of moving his finger from one side to the next for several seconds.

Kaitlyn: My eyes track right, then left, then back again. My conscious mind is learning to swim. 

Kaitlyn: Third comes fear. My whole body tenses. My eyes open wide and my mouth does too. I become energized and want to, no need to, move. I tap my feet. My body urns to react — to run from this space, freeze in this moment, fight for adrenal release, or fawn so as to shrink myself. My mind is void of logic as fear powers every part of my being. As the physical sensations pulse with increasing intensity, my fear-fueled brain ceaselessly cycles through thoughts of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. 

Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. 

Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

Therapist: Stops moving his finger. “What do you notice?”

Kaitlyn: Barely able to contain herself, speedily states, “I’m at a nine.” 

Therapist: “What is the experience of…” Kaitlyn interrupts him.

Kaitlyn: “I need a minute.” Then silence. 

She inhales deeply and exhales audibly, willing her logical brain to come back online. She inhales deeply and exhales audibly, noting the thought that just crossed her mind. She inhales deeply and exhales audibly, tuning into the rhythm of her breath. She inhales deeply and exhales audibly. Her mind slows. Her body relaxes. She inhales deeply and exhales audibly. Her mind and body unite.

“I’m now at a six. I’m sorry to cut you off like that. I just know that once I get past eight or nine, the panic sets in and I can no longer see out. I’ve practiced breathing exercises for years, incorporating meditation techniques as a way to kick myself out of it, when I recognize it that is. However, I don’t always know when I’m at an eight or nine.” 

A thoughtful pause follows. “It’s easy to know in EMDR though.” 

One more pause. “I think this happens to me a lot — this thing where my mind and body separate for a short period of time. I don’t hear myself in those moments, you know? I only sense the overpowering urge to react.” 

Therapist: “React how?”

Kaitlyn: “I’m not entirely sure. I don’t kick the dog or anything but I do further encourage the separation of mind and body by outwardly giving way to whatever is best for whomever I’m with or exaggerating and then ruminating on my to-do list.”

Therapist: “When we cave on our needs in order to meet the needs of another, we may be in fawn mode. Similarly, when we dramatize and repeatedly recycle thoughts about the future, we may be in flight mode.”   

Kaitlyn: “That makes sense.” 

Therapist: He offers several seconds of silence, and then, “OK. Stay with that.” He repeats the process of moving his finger from one side to the next for several seconds.

Kaitlyn: My eyes track right, then left, then back again. My mind and body transform again.

Kaitlyn: The fear persists at a manageable intensity. I feel it in my body and in my mind, although my mind is no longer looping through fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. My mind acknowledges the pull to go into survival mode but reminds me of my existence in the presence moment instead. This presence allows me to see the fear as an active memory, rather than a present experience. 

A thought passes, ‘Have I spent the majority of my life in survival mode, concluding that such behaviors are Me?’ Another arises, ‘How much of my life has been dictated by my automatic response to fear rather than a healthy response to situations?’ Without clinging to the thoughts, my body transforms again. Regret. 

My body goes still. The energy that defined my fear vanishes and a million pounds take its place. My neck, shoulders, arms, torso, and legs go heavy. It becomes exhausting to move my eyes left and right. My breath slows as I experience the dark clouds that have moved in. 

The regret spills out of me naturally and unlike the other emotions there is no effort needed to extract it. It’s unlike the rage, grief, and fear I have been witnessing. It does not come from the dark residue in my body. No, the regret comes from my mind — a present day thought leading to a present day emotion. 

Therapist: Stops moving his finger. “What do you notice?”

Kaitlyn: I redirect my attention to Therapist as a manic energy replaces my lethargy. Before I can respond to him, my mind goes into overdrive as it rapidly cycles through the images of abuse and neglect that lead me to develop a hyperactive survival response. It’s not just one flashback I’m experiencing; it’s a flood. I try to hang on and yield to each image, rather than resist them. The flood of traumatic images continues for several seconds. Once the manic energy is released, my mind, as if reflecting on my life without my actively doing so, begins to flip through my present day reactions. A jolt passes through me each time my mind matches a present day reaction with a childhood survival trait. My mind, through images and not thoughts, is teaching me where I come from and why I am who I am. 

“I feel regret. The majority of my life has been dictated by my childhood survival traits. I know this in my mind. I’ve read the literature and applied the theory in practice with my clients. However, I have never felt the connection in my body. Until now.”

“The connection is painful because of the sensations it brings about in my body and the chaos it stirs in my mind. But, I want the pain. I want to hurt. I want to know that I am experiencing this regret in this moment, instead of stuffing it back in. I want to expand my consciousness and life from the present.” 

Therapist: He nods approvingly and then, “OK. Stay with that.” He repeats the process of moving his finger from one side to the next for several seconds.

Kaitlyn: My eyes track right, then left, then back again. My conscious mind labels the unconscious within.  

Kaitlyn: I fight the urge to turn off the experience, to dissociate. But to do so would only add to the black residue inside. 

Inner Critique: ‘You should feel regret. You’ve destroyed one relationship after another by reacting to everyday events by dissociating, becoming verbally aggressive, alienating yourself from others, and more. You are worthless if you can’t even control how you behave in this world.’

Kaitlyn: ‘Oh Inner Critic I hear you, but I’ve started to understand that you are not me — rather I house you. You are the reincarnation of my mother — her speech, her hatred, and her distain.’

Inner Child: ‘Turn off the pain. It hurts in my head, belly, and eyes. Let’s tell the therapist he is wrong. Let’s leave this room to go home. Let’s think of other things until this is done. Let’s give into the inner critic and accept what we’ve become.’ 

Kaitlyn: ‘Oh Inner Child, I hear you too, but I’ve started understand that you are not me — rather I house you. You are not wrong to practice what you were taught Inner Child, as it worked for some time. However, I am now your teacher and I am asking you to learn a new way. Learn to sit in the emotion, grow familiar with it, and then release it. By repeating this process you can feel both the beauty and beast of life. I will hold your hand along the way, whispering to you statements of compassion and care.’

Inner Critic: ‘You think you can change! How adorable. How cute. You’ve spent 30 years dissociating from tough emotions. It’s who you are. Hear me when I say, you have nothing to offer this world so your efforts at change are already failed pursuits.’ 

Kaitlyn: I must feel the pain of the moment but not extend that pain into suffering by ruminating on it. I must let my inner critic chatter on and on without attaching to it. I must let the thoughts and emotions cycle through me, and with each new cycle, return to my breath. 

Inner Child: ‘I am nothing. I can’t manage. I can’t change. How am I supposed to feel and what am I supposed to think if I do not feel and think the way my birth mother does? Who am I?’ 

Kaitlyn: ‘Change means you hear the Inner Critic, acknowledge its thoughts and feelings, and make efforts to grow apart from its projected abuse. You need not worry about how to feel and what to think. You are you. You simply must let the thoughts arise and note them as they pass through. You simply must let the feelings arise and note them as they pass too. I am here to comfort you along the way. No feeling is too big for my love. I am your parent now.’ 

Therapist: Stops moving his finger. “What do you notice?”

Kaitlyn: “I can see both my inner child and my inner critic talking to me in ways that make me want to react to the world with certain behaviors. The critics constant reminds of my lack of worth combined with the child’s fear of acting with self-loyalty and esteem often leaves me paralyzed. Not paralyzed in that I don’t act. I do act in line with the critic and child, and in that way I am paralyzed. I so often can not see that my way of responding to the world stems from their thoughts. And yet, by acknowledging their presence, by acknowledging their thoughts, I am finally able to see that they are not Me. I am not them. They are the past. I am the now. When I can separate them and hear them, I can then choose to act differently from them. This is how I will heal.”

Therapist: He tosses a first in the air, “Exactly! You’re getting it now. By tuning in and listening to them you can reparent yourself and hopefully overtime their voices will shrink and they’ll become an integrated part of you. Well, that seems like a good place to leave off today. Same time next week?”

Kaitlyn: “I see what you’re saying and yes. See you then.”

I rise from my seat and walk turn to walk out the door. As I pass the other rooms down the hall my mind continues to turn with thoughts from the session. My inner child and inner critic think I am worthless, helpless, and defective. They think and feel this. However, they’re not me and thus I am not those things. I am free of feeling and thinking like I am worthless, helpless, or defective. I am free to break the cycle that I never knew played out in me. A smile begins to tug at the corners of my mouth as I recognize that this is my path forward. This is my journey. My pride and my pain.

Epilogue: Before EMDR, I thought myself to have one conscious mind — Kaitlyn. Through EMDR, I discovered myself to have additional minds — Inner Child and Inner Critic. These additional minds were lurking in my subconscious, sabotaging my efforts to align mind and body. But no more! EMDR provided me with a method to acknowledging the presence of these unconscious minds and a means to make them conscious. Thus, I can unite my mind and body more often, not because I have extinguished the Inner Child or Inner Critic, but because I can now work to welcome their presence in me without judgment, and then try to choose which mind to act from. For example, before EMDR, I heard the Inner Child as Kaitlyn and thus acted on the Inner Childs needs in the real world. Through EMDR, I heard the Inner Child as separate from Kaitlyn and thus acknowledge the Inner Child’s needs yet choose not to act on them. This is not a perfect process as I am in the early stages of learning and practicing these things. I am early in my journey, however I am immensely grateful for the process thus far as I can now think and sometimes even feel that,

“Kaitlyn is worthy and whole: she comes with an Inner Child reminding her where she has been; an Inner Critic reminding her of where not to go; and a Warrior Spirit guiding her home.”

Getty image by Alëna Pasko / EyeEm

Originally published: February 23, 2022
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