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.

The Event

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 

Photo by Javi Hoffens on Unsplash

“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.

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