Waking in the wee hours

Written January 26, 2018

I’m awake. It’s four-thirty. Again.

I lie there and do my worry thing for a while until I start to feel really panicky and realize I might as well get up. At least once I’m out of bed the panic usually quiets down. Often I can’t even remember what my mind was talking about..

This morning I can remember it was something to do with the EMDR I’m going to start in 2 weeks. It’s funny how the mind can be both calmly prepared for something and in “get me the fuck out of here” mode at the same time.

I saw my therapist yesterday and we both agreed it’s time to start EMDR so the session suddenly became a pre-planning session. Those can be a little frightening. It involves creating a timeline of the trauma to be targeted and then grouping the traumatic events into themes. Fun times. The word trauma comes from Ancient Greek and literally means wound. I spent an hour and a half examining the wounds I have because of my childhood sexual abuse. There were quite a few wounds to examine and they spanned from when I was 4 to 41 years old.

I’ve done EMDR before and it was very effective in untangling the abuse I experienced as a teenager and young adult. Imagine you were in a car accident. It was a small accident and no one was hurt but you notice you feel nervous about driving again. And when you do drive, any unexpected move by another driver makes you panic a little bit and worry you’ll get hit again. That’s trauma being triggered, or prompted. In EMDR you would ‘watch’ that initial car accident with your mind as though it were happening on a small movie screen in your therapist’s office. You would watch each moment unfold and as soon as you start to feel anything slightly intense, you stop and do a check in with your therapist. You have to describe what was happening, what you were just thinking, and what sensations you’re experiencing in the moment. You do some deep breathing, your therapist talks you through a relaxation exercise until you’re calm again. Then you back up and go through the last few scenes again until an intense feeling shows up. You do the check in and the breathing and then head back into the memory. Over and over and over again until you’ve made your way through the entire memory.

It’s an incredibly tedious way to approach trauma but very effective because the calmness you create during the relaxation begins to be paired with the moments of trauma that cause you to panic or shut down. Our brains store traumas in different ways but one of those is simply to put similar experiences, or experiences which elicited similar feelings, in the same neural web. So when you begin an EMDR protocol you’re working with both the memory you chose as well as any memory related to it. It doesn’t take long before what was once a trigger becomes something you simply notice and think:

Something like that used to make me feel really scared or sad. Now I just notice it and feel nothing or a sense of calm.

The goal is stay within a tolerable level of feeling the entire time you’re processing. The moment you notice feeling anything uncomfortable, you give your therapist a signal and they bring you back into the moment and the room and you begin the relaxation exercise. Eventually, you’ve worked through the entire memory, or in cases like mine a slew of memories, and managed to stay in a calm place throughout the process.

It’s like going back in time to the some of your most brutal moments but not as yourself then, or even as you are now, but as someone outside of your life looking in.

Trauma’s a strange beast because it can make us feel either hyper or hypo aroused. Being in either of those states can make us feel anxious, intensely angry or shut down. The world doesn’t feel safe because anything that remotely resembles the trauma, or even reminds us of it, sends us into an intense and uncomfortable state of feeling. If it’s not resolved, we begin to spend more time in intense feeling states than in states that are more comfortable or tolerable. Our nervous system changes in response to feeling so much so often and we might begin to experience anxiety or depression as everyday feelings states. We start having panic attacks or dissociating in response to the possibility of being triggered.

EMDR work removes the triggers so when we’re living our lives we no longer have to feel afraid that something will trigger us and we’ll be transported back in time to a place where we’re confronted with painful events from our past. We become free of that past. The past shaped us and still belongs to us but it no longer controls us and our body’s responses. Brilliant really. I don’t know why I need to wake up at 4:30am to think about it.