Originally posted on Medium.com April 27, 2022*
In August of 2021, I began EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy to deal with childhood trauma. With 15 years of talk therapy under my belt, I’d just finished a month of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy at a mental health facility. I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD due to prolonged trauma: emotional, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse from my narcissistic father.
Seven Months In
In the cozy office with the tan swivel chairs and auburn fluffy rug, my EMDR therapist moves her hand left and right. I follow with my eyes, breathing deeply. I’m focusing on a specific scene, a memory of a traumatic event from my teens. The eye movement crosses the left and right brain hemispheres to help connect neural pathways that didn’t develop due to trauma.
So, what does that do? Well, according to my therapist, brains are built with mechanisms to keep them from melting down. My brain coped with the constant abuse by splitting into disconnected parts. It’s called Trauma Splitting and it basically means that 5-year-old, 7-year-old, and 9-year-old Jamie are frozen in time, holding the fear connected to the traumatic events. Even though I’m an adult, my nervous system still reacts to those individual parts, sending me physical and emotional flashbacks, such as intense fear even when I’m perfectly safe.
Connecting the right and left brain allows the adult part to meet the child parts and guide them through to heal. Then, the memory becomes ONLY a memory, not a nervous system reaction. Pretty cool, huh?
When I first began EMDR, my body was a series of tense knots tightening and releasing (I’m told trauma is stored in the muscles). The only way I could focus and be still was by lying on my back on the floor. After several months, I’ve now graduated to sitting in a chair, which I imagine my therapist appreciates (or at least her back does).
We’re working through Accelerated Resolution Therapy. It’s taken months of weekly sessions to get here. My body built a lifetime of protection, so we first had to train it to let its guard down enough to be able to access the trauma. We’ve done tapping and light stream. I even deep breathe and ask my body what it needs (and it answers! That blew my mind). Some resistance remains but has subsided enough to finally dig into the core of the trauma.
Over several sessions, we’ve been working through one particular event. Some (earth-shattering) memories surfaced recently, but I’ve always remembered the details of this event. It was a defining moment. I realized my father wasn’t a parent and that I was truly on my own to protect myself.
It started as most things did. My father heard that a friend’s daughter was doing something that he thought people would be impressed by, so he decided that I was going to do it too. He went about his “Jamie’s going to be a soccer referee” campaign by convincing my mother that I would make a lot of money. “Yes, the classes are far away, but Jamie can carpool.” By the time I found out about the classes, my father had already paid for them, a trick he knew would cause my mother to say “We’ve spent the money, you’re going.” Which she did.
I was 16. Twice a week for 9 weeks (on school nights) I drove 45 minutes one way through heavy snowstorms for a 3-hour class. I distinctly recall skidding on black ice and crashing into a snowbank thinking “I don’t even want to be a referee, and now I’m going to die!”
I had no intention of using my certification, but my dad worked with my Mom again with the money angle. “We paid for the classes, you’ll referee games to make the money back.” I reffed a little kids’ game and I was terrible. The coaches yelled. I had no idea what I was doing. When it was finally over I vowed to never referee again.
Fast forward to a stormy Saturday. I was home alone when the phone rang. It was my father.
“I need you to get down here and ref this game.”
The ref canceled the game because it was pouring, thunder and lightning. I pointed out the danger and my dad went on a tirade, threatening me to “get my ass down there now, or else.” After several no’s and phone hang-ups, I finally relented. The dreaded parent/child power imbalance rears its head.
The field was puddles of mud, and lightning in the distance. Why weren’t parents pulling their kids off the field? My father strutted around, the hero who’d saved the game. Many of the players went to school with me. I wasn’t qualified to ref this age group (or really any age group). My glasses were fogged, and I was shorter than most of the players, I stumbled along as best I could as my father glared at me from the sidelines.
Then it happened. I made a call that the other coach didn’t like. He ran onto the field and pushed me hard into the mud, knocking the wind out of me. He towered over me, shoving his bushy mustache in my face and spitting as he screamed. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my dad run onto the field. “Oh, thank God!” I thought. “He’s coming to help me.”
No. He screamed at me then screamed at the coach, not about pushing me, but about his coaching style. Then the girls on the field started in on me. I’d had enough.
“F$&K all of you! I’m going home!!” I screamed, storming off. I was later grounded for “using language” and received the silent treatment from my father for several days, his favorite punishment. He’d prepare my Mom with all of the reasons he was angry at me so she could communicate them to me, then he’d pretend that I didn’t exist (a common narcissist tactic). When I complained about being grounded and tried to explain what happened my Mom said “Well, you really can’t use that kind of language.” Completely missed the point, which was typical. Throughout my childhood I’d reported some pretty severe abuse to her, she’d even witnessed a lot of it, but she took no action. I felt trapped and powerless, and it wasn’t over.
On Monday at school, I ran into a group of girls from the game who started in on me again. Rage rose up from deep inside and I roared at them “I WAS FORCED TO REF! I DIDN’T WANT TO! NOW SHUT YOUR MOUTHS AND GET OUT OF MY WAY! Rarely did anyone see this side of me. I must have had demon eyes because they looked terrified and scattered. I stormed down the hallway and out the door, skipping the rest of the school day. “Fine,” I thought. “I’m already in trouble for no reason, I may as well do something I’m not supposed to do.”
I know this is just a memory, but my nervous system doesn’t. It reacts now as if the danger is in front of me today, quick pulse, cold sweat, terror. The deep feeling of powerlessness. I tense up. Processing the Trauma:
Follow My Hand
“Rate the trauma intensity from 1–10.”
10. Definitely 10.
“What do you feel?”
Panic. Anguish. Disappointment. Betrayal. Terror. Powerlessness.
“Focus on those feelings and follow my hand.” Back and forth for 30–40 seconds.
Following is hard. It makes me drowsy. My mind often wanders away from what I am concentrating on, but I’ve been trained to deal with this. I remember to thank the thoughts that come in, send them on their way, and return to the activity. Often the other thoughts are what my therapist calls “Firefighters” who are trying to protect me from the trauma.
“Now choose a scene from the story, repeat it in your head, and follow my hand.”
I replay the events on the field. Being attacked, unable to breathe, forced to be there, surrounded by angry people, and with no one helping me. The speed of the back and forth motion intensifies and I feel like I will nod off to sleep, but I don’t. I follow her hand and continue to repeat the scene.
This is part of processing the pain, unfreezing it. Like the “Liquid Plumber” of therapy, it unclogs my brain pipes so that thoughts and emotions can flow through the system and actually exit.
We delve into the details of the scene and continue the eye movement. My therapist asks me if anything sticks out from the scene. Yes. I focus on that part during the eye movement. We continue until nothing sticks out, nothing left to process.
Rewriting the Scene
“Now you are going to rewrite this scene. Direct it any way you want to.”
Huh? Rewrite? But facts! This is an actual event! Lies are dangerous!
Just thinking of rewriting history makes me tense. I’ve always been a stickler for facts. Knowing the truth was the only way to combat my father’s lies. Because he constantly put me in danger, I had to be keenly aware of my surroundings, a.k.a. Hypervigilance. I remember tiny details like exact words spoken, the tone and pitch of a voice, and whether someone used their left hand or right. I can picture it in my mind and push “play” in my head.
When I was 5, on the bus home from school, I heard Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” for the first time and instantly memorized it. I wanted my Mom to get me the album, so I went home and sang it to her word for word as she stared, shocked. It’s still my favorite song.
The thing is, in my profession, I create stories all the time, but retelling this story without the facts seems impossible. How do I even start?
“What can you change in the story?” asks my therapist. “How about your father? He could be anything. He doesn’t have to be human.”
I close my eyes. Suddenly I’m like Ray in Ghostbusters, only instead of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, my mind lands on a Twinkie. A human-sized Twinkie (a la “Twinkie the Kid” from the 70’s commercials). A smiling, happy, bright yellow Twinkie who wants to protect me.
Why a Twinkie? I’ve only eaten like 5 Twinkies in my entire life (this Philadelphia gal prefers Tastykakes).
I think it’s a combination of 2 different “safe space” exercises we’d done:
- LIGHTSTREAM: I picture a color moving from my head to my toes, washing away the tenseness. Bright yellow is my warm, safe color.
- Picture someone I trust with me in a space where I feel safe. My Grandma is at her house. (She’s the one who gave us Twinkies).
It’s nice to know that my subconscious is making use of that information.
Now that I have an image, I realize that I just need to imagine the opposite of everything that happened.
The Twinkie calls me to check in, tells me he loves me, and is glad I’m not in the rain. It’s too dangerous to be out. I go to the field anyway and he’s so glad to see me but still worried for my safety. I assure him I can handle it.
As I enter the field, the girls are so grateful that I’m there. “Thank you for coming to ref our game. It was so nice of you to rush over here to help us play.”
But with the coach, I’m stuck. I can’t seem to reset the attack.
“What do you need?” asks my therapist.
“1, 2, and through and through The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead and with its head, He went galumphing back.” — Lewis Carroll.
Slay the Jabberwock!
The coach lunges at me and I stick the sword right through him. Everyone cheers. The Twinkie runs out over to see if I’m ok.
“Now repeat the new scene and follow my hand.” I follow with my eyes, as the Twinkie protects me. I feel warmer, lighter. We process each detail as we’d done with the real story.
Flipping the girls’ attitudes was especially impactful. That was a deep pain. My therapist points out how important peers are to a teenager, especially when there’s no support at home. When they’re kind, I don’t have to let out the rage monster that I’m so ashamed of. The same monster I saw rage from my father on a daily basis, whether it was because the remote didn’t work or because I didn’t greet him in a timely manner. He’d accuse me of being the problem, the one who was out of control (and get my Mom on board). When the girls are grateful I feel a kinship, as if someone understands.
My therapist checks back in.
“From 1–10, what’s the intensity now?”
5… Progress down from 10
“What do you feel now?”
Anger, rage (no longer powerless and terrified)
“Good. You should feel angry. Any rational adult would feel angry at that situation.”
Well, that’s surprising. I‘m so used to suppressing my emotions, especially anger because it’s attached to shame. Usually, I get angry and it automatically gets covered over, then later it comes out as a big reaction to something benign.
Later that day, that’s exactly what happened.
The Big Flush
I’d worked for 3 days prepping information requested for a project. The email response, however, was critical and demanding. It was obvious they hadn’t read the information I’d provided. Normally this wouldn’t be as big an issue but the disrespect, and unfairness, bubbled up. RAGE!
I went for an angry walk, I yelled about it, I rewrote it in my mind “what it should have said was THANK YOU and then questions. Demands are unnecessary.” I basically threw a gigantic, frustrated tantrum. And then…
It was gone. The anger had flushed through and actually exit-ed. That had NEVER happened before. EVER. Usually, it‘s a rage/shame/anger tornado stuck on repeat pinging around me like a pinball, but today I felt it exit!
In the following session, I was fully invested in the alternate story. We revisited parts that stood out, did the eye movement and invited helpers to paint and wallpaper over any parts that were still problematic. The coach needed attention. I used my sword to fling him into the sky and POOF! He disappeared. Then my Grandma and a friend helped me paint and wallpaper over where he’d been. All in my imagination.
We invited all of my parts (ages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…all the way to 43!) to throw any trauma they want into a mental bonfire. At first, it was slow, age 4 had a lot, and ages 7, 8, and 11 did too. After that, it went super fast, as I continued the eye movement.
“Get rid of the pile, any way you want, make sure there is no trace.”
I shot down demons guarding the pile, then blew everything up. I used a giant vacuum (like the one in Spaceballs) to gather all of the dust, then shot it into space, never to be seen again.
At the End
So, seven months into EMDR and I’m seeing results. I’m hopeful that all of this internal turmoil will eventually be flushed out. On the fluffy carpet, in the tan chair, I’m hopeful, even knowing there are more disturbing traumas to come.
There’s a bright yellow light at the end of the tunnel! Twinkies for everyone!
Creative storyteller working through Complex PTSD one post at a time