Diary of an EMDR Therapist: Session # 1
Here is the backstory! By the time I met "that one guy", I had already racked up a significant amount of trauma points and had worked overtime to distract myself from doing the very shadow work that was keeping me from myself.
If self-sabotage had a face, it may as well have been mine. If alcohol had a best friend, it could have very well been me. If becoming explosively defensive towards people that thought they knew what was best for me was an Olympic sport then I would have definitely won the gold medal, many years in a row.
Don’t get me wrong, during times of deep reflection and introspection, I realized, eventually, I was hurting. Deep down inside the hurt mini version of myself had created several "parts" or "personalities" throughout my development to protect myself from anything or anyone that would even breathe the wrong way towards me.
The reality was, I had been through events that changed me from the inside in a negative way. To make it worse, without blaming or shaming my loved ones, the things I experienced were never recognized, validated, or talked about in my very beautiful Armenian American family. Why? To list just a few reasons: lack of education regarding mental health, stigma towards mental health treatment, and unresolved trauma my parents continue to live with.
In spite of my trauma, I thought I cleaned up pretty nicely (SO I THOUGHT). I was a young passionate therapist, and research enthusiast who was the first in her family to attend college and receive a graduate level degree (who was pregnant during her last year of her MSW program but had to secure her daughter's future- yes, my daughter was in attendance at my graduation)!
Here I was, a single mother experiencing the hardships of raising a child without a partner. Thankfully, I was able to become employed at a well-respected community mental health agency, I provided a roof over our heads, never missed a day with putting food on the table, and I took pride in being the best mother that I could be to a beautiful little girl who seemingly looked up to me, copied me, and told me she loved me every time she looked my way.
Between hustling day in and day out, serving folks in the field who experienced severe mental health challenges, attempting to develop a positive reputation at work, raising an infant/toddler alone, and trying to maintain my sanity, I realized, somethings got to give. I was eager to find genuine happiness and comfort, in spite of my life unfolding in ways I had never planned.
There appeared “that one guy.” The young man was an absolute reflection of me. Charming, smart, sarcastic, flirty, friendly, confident in his way, an entrepreneur, coy, passionate, handsome, slow like honey, heavy with mood and absolutely emotionally unavailable. Yes, emotionally unavailable, exactly how I liked them once upon a time. My unresolved trauma wouldn’t dare attract a man that was emotionally present, honest, truthful, caring, loving and spiritual. In fact, my unresolved trauma preferred chaos and conflict to be the centerpiece of my relationships.
On the other end, “that one guy” reflected things about me I had been running from for years, the shadow side: Insecurities about myself, my fear of love and commitment, my “player” ways, my inability to completely validate and love myself, my self-sabotaging habits, the codependent little girl within, my fear of abandonment and rejection, and the list can go on.
The old me would have continued to ride the wave to see how resilient I would be after the inevitable sadness I’d experience from waking up alone. This time, with “that one guy”, I refused to further damage myself. I like to think he triggered this very spiritual ascension, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that for the first time in my life, I was mindful of my thoughts, feelings, actions and reactions.
For once, I refused to just "ride the wave", and instead, took control of my being and made thoughtful decisions about how to handle the situation. The situation, AKA: ME, MYSELF, AND MY UNRESOLVED TRAUMA!
Coincidentally, and in such divine timing, I was in the midst of my EMDR training through the EMDR Institute. For all who don’t know (because I didn’t know this), during the 3-month, 3-day weekend training, all trainees practice providing and receiving EMDR treatment.
I was in absolute shock when I was asked to reflect on my own trauma and pick a “target” (EMDR term describing distressing memories and current situations that cause emotional pain). I wasn’t ready for this, I never went to therapy, nor did I plan to. But here was my chance to get free therapy, so being the true Capricorn empress, I consider myself to be, I spent my Friday night writing a list of possible targets.
Negative impact the Armenian genocide (1915, slaughtering of 1.2 million people) had on my people, family, and self. ANCESTRAL TRAUMA
Family history of drug addiction and undiagnosed mental health issues on my maternal side. INTERGENERATIONAL TRAUMA
Growing up with a father who was adopted by lord knows who, and a mother who lived through the Iran-Iraq War, came to America as a refugee, and had her own unresolved trauma. FAMILY TRAUMA
Contracting E-coli poisoning from a prestigious hospital a month after my birth. MEDICAL TRAUMA
Experiencing the 1994 Northridge earthquake. DISASTER RELATED TRAUMA
Sexual violence as an adult. SEXUAL TRAUMA
Mother experiencing a psychotic break/grieving the mother I once knew. VICARIOUS/FAMILY TRAUMA
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) though it was on one occasion, it is NEVER OK. DOMESTIC VIOLENCE RELATED TRAUMA
Being a victim of manipulation and toxic mind games. EMOTIONAL ABUSE TRAUMA
Having to respond calmly to my child’s father getting shot while I was 6 months pregnant. VICARIOUS TRAUMA
I can list more series of unfortunate events, but I think you can catch my drift. The target I chose was related to my fear of abandonment and desire for “that one guy” to heal my trauma by never leaving me.
The earliest traumatic memory (which I chose to process first) was when I was 16 years old. My mother lived with my uncle to help raise my newborn cousins and would return home on the weekends, which left me feeling abandoned. This trauma gave birth to the negative way I thought about myself (EMDR term also known as negative cognition or NC).
Due to fears of my mother leaving me for good (which wasn’t the case at all), I convinced myself that “I AM NOT WORTHY OF LOVE” (NC). The second instance of abandonment, or the worst traumatic memory (also included in the EMDR treatment plan to process during the next session) that somehow solidified my negative cognition about myself was when I was 25, pregnant, and left alone to raise my daughter. After that day, any man who stepped outside for a smoke break, got into a petty argument with me, or threatened to leave the relationship during conflict, triggered the deepest insecurities within me.
I thought to myself, “If my own mother and child’s father/partner for 6 years could leave me, so could anyone else.”
Next, my therapist noted that I would need to identify a Positive Cognition to replace the Negative Cognition during phase 4, desensitization. My PC (which is simply the opposite of the NC) was “I AM WORTHY OF LOVE”.
During phase 3, I was also asked to come up with a picture that represented the worst part of my traumatic experience as I thought about it in the present moment.
My therapist checked my SUD level (EMDR scale 0-10, where 0 is no disturbance or neutral and 10 is the highest disturbance an individual experiences when thinking about the image).
She also checked my VoC (EMDR scale 1-7, 1 feeling completely false, 7 feeling completely true (used to identify how true an individual’s beliefs are about the identified PC).
My SUD score was a 7, which means I was highly disturbed when thinking about my baby’s father leaving me and my daughter. My VoC level was 2, which means I hardly believed in the statement, “I AM WORTHY OF LOVE.”
To complete phase 3, my therapist asked me to express the emotions I felt when I thought about the memory and words, “I am not worthy”. I stated, disappointed, sad, angry, etc.
Finally, my therapist completed a body scan (therapist asks client to close their eyes, scan their body, and identify where they may feel the disturbance of the memory in the body). I felt pressure in my chest because my heart was broken into a million pieces, as well as a lot of tension in my neck, shoulders, and back.
During phase 2, the preparation phase, I made it clear that I preferred the use of Bilateral Eye Movements- BLS (Bilateral Eye Stimulation- used in EMDR to activate the brain so that it can begin processing and integrating dysfunctional stored information) for reprocessing.
We completed the “safe calm place" “script to make sure I had a wondrous place to escape to in my mind that had no trauma or drama attached to it in case processing really triggered me. It was also a given that I had enough coping skills to help regulate my emotions in case things got too deep during reprocessing (ALL EMDR THERAPISTS MUST BE SURE THAT CLIENT’S HAVE TOOLS TO REGULATE THEIR EMOTIONS DURING PROCESSING PRIOR TO PROCESSING).
Once everything had checked out, we were ready to jump right into phase 4. As my therapist asks me to hold the memory and my NC in my mind while she moved two fingers in a rapid motion from the left side to the right side of my screen, I felt my eyes tearing up. We stopped the BLS set for a minute, I took a deep breath and I was asked to express “what I got” or “what I noticed.” All I got was some tears in my eyes, no changes in my emotions or body. I asked my therapist to speed up the pace for the BLS movements because I noticed every time, she would provide slow BLS movements, I would almost get to a point where my brain would unlock the memory but wouldn’t get there as quickly as I would have liked. She made the adjustments per my request.
We continued the BLS movements once again. This time when we stopped, I was crying my eyes out like a newborn baby. What was happening was my brain was ACTUALLY processing the trauma I endured.
The more rounds of BLS, the more quickly and easily, I was able to erase the role I thought I played in my traumatic event. For once, I was able to see myself outside of my trauma (literally watching the trauma occur as an outsider would). After I scored a 0 on the SUDS (which means we processed the trauma and any memories related to it), we moved on to phase 5, installation.
In phase 5, we used BLS movements to rewrite the NC to the PC. This means when I think about the image of my trauma, I feel that I am worthy, rather unworthy of love. I held together the original incident, and the words, “I AM WORTHY OF LOVE” while my therapist started BLS movements. By this time, I was relieved and ready to forget I ever internalized things that happened to me, as if any of those situations said anything about me as a person. My VoC was a 7 by the end of phase 5, meaning I wholeheartedly believed and felt that “I AM WORTHY OF LOVE”.
In phase 6, my therapist asked me to close my eyes and complete a body scan, concentrating on the incident, however I experienced it in that moment, and the PC, “I am worthy”. I felt nothing! The tension in my muscles had dissipated and my chest was no longer an issue. I felt free, I felt whole, I felt worthy of love!
As we continued to phase 7, the final phase, also known as closure, my therapist praised me for my good work, ensured that I was okay to leave, and reminded me that I may have new memories, dreams, or situations that disturb me come up. She asked that I take a snapshot with as little details as possible, just enough to remind me so that we could add it to our treatment plan. She also reminded me that negative feelings may come up but are not worth a second glance since IT'S STILL JUST THE OLD STUFF. It gave me comfort to be reminded that all of this has been behind me for years.
During next month's session, my therapist would start the session by completing phase 8, the re-evaluation phase. During phase 8, I’d provide a brief check in, discussing differences in my being since the reprocessing session occurred. My therapist will know that the particular target has been cleared COMPLETELY because my VoC will still be at a 7, my SUDS score will be a 0, and my body scan will be clear.
Expelliarmus! And just like that, I pulled a Harry Potter on my trauma. Thanks to EMDR, I was able to regain my self worth and self-love after just one session. I recall looking in the mirror that night, feeling physically relieved and extremely relaxed, with the happiest kind of tears in my eyes, and the biggest smile.
I’m sure you're wondering what happened to “that one guy” (who was in the end a metaphor for all the men I dated who were simply reflecting back things about me that I desperately needing to heal from)? Let's just say after I realized my worth, my power was no longer in the hands of anyone but me.