My EMDR/PTSD Experience

I hope one day soon to restart my podcast. I would like to prioritize interviews, and begin with several interviews with the main counsellors who have helped me on my recent journey. I would like to talk to Bob, the counsellor from Alongside who helped me so sinficantly with my Post Traumatic Stress syndrome from my kidnapping in Africa through the technique called EMDR.

A few weeks ago, as I was driving home, I was thinking of this and running through a dialogue with Bob in my mind. However, I found that I did not really want to think of the specifics of the accident. I could talk about it in the actual interview, I thought, but I don’t want to right now.

This decision alone was huge. Before, making such a decision would have been pointless: the memories of my trauma were everywhere, and they popped up all of the time. Literally — all. of. the. time. But this time I just casually said, No, I don’t think I wan to open up that box.

I still wanted to continue with my mental interview, and so I created a metaphor. The interview went like this:

Myself: I just wanted to thank you so much for the difference that you made in my life through EMDR.”

Bob: Oh, you’re welcome!

Myself: I would like to talk more with you about how it works. But first, I thought it would be nice for listeners to hear from me just what a difference it made.

Bob: That would be great!

Myself: Well, as you know, something bad happened in Africa. My life was in danger, and for several hours I was a captive with no escape and was forced to do things (sign papers, etc) and go places (into dark rooms) that I did not want to.

Bob: Yes, this sense of intense danger and powerlessness is the precursor to PTSD. Your mind was overwhelmed, and stored the memories in a very jumbled way in your mind. Your mind also wanted to “fix” the trauma after it happened, by making sense of it, and making sure that it would not happen again. Most PTSD survivors find that they struggle with unwanted thoughts, nightmares, thoughts intruding into their regular lives, obsessing about the trauma, and very intense guilt.

Myself: Yes, that about sums it up. When they did a brain scan at your retreat centre, they found that a part of my brain was lit up almost all of the time. I often had headaches in that region. Part of me was still trying to escape from that small room in Africa.

Bob: OK, so what did that feel like? What did EMDR do for you?

Myself: Well, it was a bit like this. Imagine that there had been a very tragic death. Someone important to you had died. Not just died, but been dismembered. And now, their body parts were scattered everywhere.

Bob: OK…

Myself: So now, when I go to brush my teeth, I see a dismembered arm there next to my toothbrush. And my heart suddenly races, and I take a few deep breaths. Everyone around me is still talking and I’m trying to get the kids ready for bed. But inside, I am now trying to think how to put this person back together again.

Bob: Wow…

Myself: And then I go down to talk to my wife, but on the way I trip over a dismembered foot. No idea why it is there. These things don’t make sense. But rather than talk to her, I walk over to the kitchen. There is a dismembered leg on the table. I sit and spend about ten minutes thinking about the accident, and trying to put these two limbs back together. I feel like I’m getting somewhere, and put then in the corner for safe keeping. My wife asks me, “What were you thinking about?” and I say, “Nothing. How was your day?” I try hard to come back to reality, and feel normal.

Bob: And so these dismembered body parts you are talking about — these are images from your accident?

Myself: Yes. I don’t want to talk about the accident. It doesn’t feel nice, even now. And so I am making a metaphor. But in many ways it was like that. Like I kept tripping over dismembered body parts all over. They had the same effect on me as a rotting hand would have on a normal person: except that I was the only one who could see them. Sometimes it took a lot of effort to not be frustrated at the kids, or to pay attention to my wife as she talked about “boring normal life.” My trauma seemed very important to me, in a way, even though I just wanted to stop thinking about it.

Bob: And did you try to stop thinking about it?

Myself: All the time! Of course I did! I would shove the body parts anywhere that I could: under the mattress, in the garbage, buried in the garden, or thrown off a cliff. Somehow, they would always come creeping back in.

Bob: Spooky!

Myself: Yes, it was spooky. And the worst of it was the messages.

Bob: Messages?

Myself: Yes. They all had messages. Sometimes they would speak them, sometimes they were written in big black letters, and attached like an old-fashioned price tag to a finger or an eyeball or a femur.

Bob: What did the messages say?

Myself: Mostly, variations of, “It was your fault.” That was the worst message. Also things like, “What were you doing there?” “Your kids could have been orphans!” “You were in over your head!” “If you had’ve done xyz, you would have died! You were this close to a horrible death, and you didn’t even know it!” “You’re such an idiot.” “You’re such a fool!” “You always mess up.” “You’re never enough.”

Bob: Wow. Those are some pretty negative messages. How did it affect the rest of your life?

Myself: I knew, on some level, that the messages weren’t true. But it was very hard to go on with life sometimes. I felt like these messages were the truth, and I was just trying to delude myself that I was OK, and a good person. I felt like that accident tested me, and found me wanting. Really, I was a terrible person inside. I was a coward, I was weak, I was a bumbling fool that almost got himself killed. That is how I felt.

Bob: OK, so aside from trying to stop thinking about it, what else did you do?

Myself: Something that really didn’t help was the “testimony culture” of Christianity. I really felt like since this accident happened while being a missionary, I should weave that into a testimony somehow. And so in addition to the times when it popped up unannounced, I was trying to stick hands and arms and limbs together with bible verses, to make some sort of a sermon or testimony.

Bob: Gross

Myself: Yeah: that really cost me a lot of night’s sleep. It was really unhelpful to try to do that.

Bob: Did you end up talking about it to others?

Myself: I did. I used it as a sermon illustration once, in fairly great detail. It really wiped me out. It brought up a lot of emotion while I was speaking, which definitely communicated loudly to the audience, and made for a memorable sermon. But it was extremely taxing for myself. I remember leaving with a very strong headache. Then I had to teach for four hours: it was not a wise move.

Bob: Did you talk to counsellors as well?

Myself: The day after the accident, I talked to a director with my mission about it.

Bob: How did that go?

Myself: He meant well, but he listened to my side, then told me all of the things that I did wrong. Later he sent out an email to everybody else, earning them not do do what I did.

Bob: Did he mention you?

Myself: No, but everybody already knew about it. It was a tight community. It’s worth noting that I had not received specific training on handling traffic accidents in that country: they are handled completely different than in the west. Also, our office was in the territory of a very powerful gang. Almost nobody knew this before my accident. Those were some details shared in the email. I was glad others now knew, but the timing of it also made it feel (to me) like I should have known these things, and that I was out of line.

Bob: What was that like?

Myself: Not good. This time is really a blur to me. It felt like my brain liquified and was trying to find itself again. The story of “it was your fault” and “you’re such a bumbling fool!” Made sense to me. So my brain kinda ran with it. I started feeling a lot of guilt.

Bob: What did that feel like, in your body?

Myself: My wife tells me “you were not alright.” I’m not exactly sure what that meant. I was there, but not there. There were things that I had to do, and I did them, including facing my accuser and going to the police station again. Somehow I found the strength to be totally normal when I wanted to, but I was not seeking and things like casual conversation were totally impossible. My right eye began twitching and that stayed with me for three years. It still comes back.

Bob: What helps, when your eye twitches?

Myself: Oddly enough — eating bananas. Something I read online. I think it’s a potassium deficiency? But my eye never twitched before the accident.

Bob: Did you have any more helpful interactions?

Myself: I did several sessions. A few days after the accident, I talked with a therapist who listened to the details, and calmly said, “It sounds like you did your best. This accident really was not your fault, but you made good decisions for yourself and your family.” That really helped a lot. I think that my stress level went from about a nine to a four out of ten.

Bob: That is a big reduction!

Myself: Yes, but then it stayed there.

Bob: Did you try other types of counselling?

Myself: I tried some Christian visualization counselling called Caring for the Heart. I visualized Jesus there with me, and forgave everyone.

Bob: Did that help?

Myself: I’m not sure. It felt good while I was doing it. But I think that my stress still stayed at about a four. Strangely enough, although I forgave everybody and forgave myself and God and the whole works…I still struggled with feelings of both guilt and blame. The accident involved a motorbike, for example. I had a hard time not feeling feelings of rage towards reckless motorbikers after that. I think I felt less rage towards motorbikes after the counselling. But I still felt just as much internalized shame towards myself.

Bob: So how did EMDR help?

Myself: Well, as you know, you asked me what message summarized all of the other messages. I said something like, “I was a fat, ugly, white, incompetent fool. I got in over my head, and almost got myself killed.”

Bob: Yes, I remember.

Myself: Then, you asked me what message I would like to believe. This one took me longer to think of. But somewhere inside of me, I knew that those messages weren’t true. I know that a lot of people have analyzed the accident, and told me that I did very well, considering the impossible circumstances. I forget exactly what I wrote down. But it was something contrary to the “ugly and fat” message.

Bob: OK, and then what happened?

Myself: Well, you gave me those vibrating things in my hands. First the right, then the left would vibrate. When they did, a light would flash on top. This would get my eyes moving back and forth. I felt like as I moved my eyes like this, I went into a calmer and more meditative state of mind. We worked together to imagine a “happy and secure” place, which was for me running down a trail in a light rain. I guess so that I could mentally return there after the session. Then you asked me to think of the event for a few minutes, then pause and talk about it. I was not very good at it at first. I just ran around collecting all of the body parts, and reading the tags, and then everything that I had written onto the bottom of the tags. Like, “It was my fault…but it wasn’t really my fault, because of xyz, but also, this connects to that and there’s this bible verse and, and…”

Bob: I think I probably told you not to think rationally about the accident.

Myself: Yes, you told me just to hold the images in my mind. Just to let them pass by, like images going past the windows of a train.

Bob: How was that?

Myself: Hard! I had spent so much time dealing just with the jumbled “body parts,” I hadn’t really thought about the accident. I tried to bring up memories. The images were very strange. It was like there were two-dimensional slides of things from that time. They didn’t seem life-like, and didn’t always fit what I thought I remembered about the event.

Bob: Where did that take you?

Myself: Well, as we would do the vibrations, I slowly worked my way in my mind through the stages of the accident. It was all very familiar: and yet I noticed things that I hadn’t seen before.

Bob: What did that feel like, in your body?

Myself: It was taxing, and tiring. I went back to our dorm exhausted after that session. However, it was not traumatic.

Bob: How do you mean?

Myself: It is traumatic to find a toe in your coffee. It is not traumatic to attend a funeral. It was really sad, it really bothered me. All of me felt the pain of it. But it didn’t disturb me in the same way. It wasn’t “wrong,” if you know what I mean? It just felt like…you know, for the first time, it felt like I was feeling the right things at the right times for the right events.

Bob: (wisely) hm….

Myself: I think that the first thing that I said after we were done our first session was, “Well, that happened.” That was actually a very profound thing to say. It happened. I am honouring it. I am admitting that it happened. And it happened. It happened in the past. We are honouring the pain of it through grief. It was terrible, what happened. But now, it is in the past. It happened.

Bob: That makes sense. When we have a traumatic event, it overwhelms the brain’s systems. And the memory is not stored into long term storage correctly. It is scattered around the brain, and the brain tries to process it. This processing usually happens in the front part of your brain, responsible for rational thought, and things like guilt and shame. We do not exactly know why EMDR works. We only know that when we move our eyes rapidly back and forth (or stimulate the body bilaterally, for example through vibrating one hand, then the other) it turns all of our brains on. This enables our whole brains to process the event, and to gradually put it into its place.

Myself: That is really how I felt. I went back to our dorm that night, and quickly journaled out everything that we had discussed. (See my journal entry, here) It made me sad, but again — did not traumatize me. I did not feel “activated,” like I needed to solve a problem, or like my heart was racing. I did not feel guilty — just sad. When my wife read it, she commented that I had noticed many details I had not noticed before. Later, when I read this version of the accident and compared it to what I had written before (I have written the accident out a few times) what stood out to me was the calmness of it. In previous versions, I am so angry at some of the people that hurt me, and sometimes very defensive of my own actions, or ashamed. I did not ever feel like I could share the records with anyone. It came across as vindictive and spiteful. But this account was just…neutral. “Here lies the record of what happened.”

Bob: How did that look inside of you?

Myself: It was like there was an undertaker who came from deep inside. He was a quiet man: sad, but regal. He was very clean and professional, dressed in a suit. As we worked, he quietly moved around my mind, collecting body parts, and placing them in a casket. As he did, “Amazing Grace,” “It is Well,” and “When Peace Like a River,” rang out on the church organ, and purple and dim orange light filtered through the stain glass windows. When I left, I felt peaceful, sombre, and more whole.

Bob: Sometimes, when we do EMDR, there is something like a “deep wisdom” that comes up from deep inside and speaks to our issues. Did you have an experience like this?

Myself: Oh yes! For sure I did!

Bob: Would you like to share that?

Myself: Well, the ordering of things is a bit hard to reconstruct. As you recall, we had several sessions, and we kept getting distracted by all my other issues and things that I had always wanted to talk to a counsellor about. We talked about masturbation, Pink Floyd, and how to discipline children in an emotionally healthy way.

Bob: I remember!

Myself: …but once we got back to the actual event, I remember at some point, a strong message began to surface. A continual theme, as I reviewed the accident with fresh eyes was that actually, I did pretty damn good in how I handled things. I was there because I cared. I put myself in a very difficult country, in a difficult and dangerous situation. Not because I was a fool or selfish, but because I cared deeply — even for people I had never met. When the accident happened, I made a split-second decision to save my family, at the risk of my own safety. This decision cost me, and was what ultimately placed me in harm’s way: but it was a brave decision. I may have saved my wife’s life: and I may have aced my own children from significant childhood trauma. I had not been trained on how to handle traffic accidents in this country: I was doing the best that I could with the knowledge that I had. I saw how time and again, one tactic did not work, I shifted to another tactic. I eventually found the tactic (passivity and contrition) that worked to get me out of that dangerous situation.

Bob: How would you summarize that?

Myself: I remember the message, I am competent. That came very powerfully from inside. All of a sudden, the body part that I was holding now had the message attached to it, “You are competent.” The message was written in the same dark, permanent marker. I did not write it, but I knew that it was true. I handed it to the mortician as he soberly placed it in the coffin. The coffin was now becoming full of little white tags, all with the message, “you are competent,” “you are competent,” “you are competent.” I feel like crying. It was very true, that message! I still did not like looking into the coffin, obviously.

Bob: Obviously.

Myself: There was another message. Looking at it again, I began to see (becoming emotional) just how often God came to save me. I did not even realize it, but even when I thought I was completely alone, I was surrounded by deliverers.

Bob: Go on…

Myself: I found out later that even my main captor was secretly a Christian, who was pretending to be angry, to work for my release. God had gotten hundreds of people praying for me. Several people found their way into the room with me. I found out later that even the army was ready to pull me out if I needed it!

Bob: Wow!

Myself: God…(gentle sob)…God was there. Not just in a spiritual sense, like I was told to visualize by the Christian counsellor. But God was rescuing me. It is so true, I cannot deny it. I began to see many of the body parts had this message written on them as well. I feel like this message was written in red, so deep and so clear: “God is always coming to rescue you.” Over and over I saw this message (tears). As we kept talking, the coffin slowly filled with body parts. From my vantage point, I could not see the body parts anymore: but all of the tags stood up. They were black and red: “You are competent, and your God is always coming to save you!”

Bob: I think I remember that we ran out of time towards the end.

Myself: Yes, you said something when we were about half an hour overtime. Thank you for being generous with your time!

Bob: What did it feel like to be asked to wrap up quickly?

Myself: Well, there were kind of endless details after the accident that were also hard. Conversations with the mission (in themselves, traumatic). I had to go back to the police station. I had to face the person who had been in the accident, and had caused my kidnapping. There were lots of triggers that I did not have time to process with the same care.

Bob: Did these things stay “out of the coffin” after the fact?

Myself: Strangely, no. When you hinted that we were running out of time, I distinctly remember myself being pulled up from the scene. I saw all of it — in quite vivid detail, actually, I can still visualize it — from the air. I could see all the buildings, the street, the accident from above. All of this is in the past, I thought. I guess it went in the coffin too. I am not sure.

Bob: What did it feel like leaving the session.

Myself: Honestly, it was a bit weird. I feel like I could have handled 3-4 more sessions on the accident. I hate it when counselling sessions run out of time! But that is the reality of life.

Bob: Yes…

Myself: I do remember as we were wrapping up, I suddenly and very calmly said, “I almost died.” I think that was the first time that I really got it.

Bob: Yes, I remember you saying that.

Myself: I left, and I said it again, several times: “I almost died.” When I got back, I told my wife I was going for a run. I put music on and just cleared my mind and jogged through the woods.

Bob: Jogging is also bilateral stimulation. It can also stimulate the EMDR effect, especially if you are jogging through the woods, as your eyes will naturally be drawn back and forth.

Myself: I don’t remember the jog much. But I think that is when the mortician gathered up the last of the toes and swept up the fingernails and put it all in the coffin. I looked in for one last look, but he had already wrapped it up like an Egyptian mummy. The memory was all white and clean and together. In big black letters he had written very darkly and and in block letters on the wrapping, “You are competent,” and below that, in very full, curvy and vivacious letters it said, “…and my God is always coming to save me!” It made me happy and sad to see it. It makes me want to cry when I think about it, but in a good way. By the time that I got home, the mortician had closed the casket. The casket was an old Egyptian sarcophagus. It was made in the shape of the dead body, but all in gold and beautiful. On the chest was a small plate that read, “One day in Africa, there was an accident. The negotiations went sideways, and I was kidnapped for an afternoon, and had symptoms of post traumatic stress for four years, until they were resolved through EMDR.” Anyone who wants to can see the sarcophagus. It really is beautiful. It is kind of an elegant lie, in the way that all very true things are. Anytime that I want to, I can open the lid. Inside, I can read the message, “I am competent, and my God is always coming to save me.” This message is not for others, they would not understand. But I know that it is true. It is very true. It was written in strong marker: I did not write it, and cannot erase it.

Bob: That is really beautiful

Myself: On his way out the door (I’m speaking metaphorically)

Bob: Yes, I gathered that…

Myself: On his way out the door, the mortician handed me a card. It was from one of the body parts. It read the same message, in the same writing, “You are competent, and my God is always coming to save me.” I didn’t know where to put it, so I attached it to my left index finger. It flutters about from time to time, and sometimes when I get scared, it catches my attention. Then, the mortician went out the door, and I think he climbed down a deep well to go to sleep. He is happy down there and will come back anytime that he is needed.

Bob: It has now been six months since your EMDR session. How has your experience been since?

Myself: Well, now that I think about it, the weeks right after the session were a bit messy still. I think the mortician and I were still working to find all of the “body parts” from all the parts of the brain. After the funeral, we had to keep opening up the casket to put in one more piece.

Bob: Few things in the mind are completely cut-and-dried.

Myself: Yes, but the EMDR really gave me a great tool. Once I learned what it felt like, I could give myself a hug, bow my head, and tap my shoulders alternately. I could drop pretty quickly into an EMDR state, and invite my brain to fix itself.

Bob: Really? What was this like?

Myself: Well, for example, maybe I was bothered about something, but didn’t know what. Maybe I only knew that I felt irritable, or my stress level seemed high.

Bob: So what did you do?

Myself: I learned to find a quiet place — usually in the shower, actually — and to do this self-EMDR practice on myself. I would ask myself questions. “Why are you stressed,” or “What fo you want to say to me, body?” I learned to talk to myself as though there were a small boy living inside. This boy was not very articulate, but had very strong emotions.

Bob: Yes, that is a common way of describing our unconscious and emotional minds.

Myself: I learned that when I felt “off,” I could often ask my inner child what the problem was. If I listened, he would tell me.

Bob: What did that feel like?

Myself: It would usually be one or two words, but accompanied with a lot of emotions. It was always something that surprised me, but instantly made sense. Something that I had not been paying attention to, but should have. Like, “I am scared,” and I had a mental picture of a person or situation that my rational mind thought was normal, but parts of me felt uneasy. Or else “I am lonely,” and I realized that I have been working very hard, and not taking adequate time for self care.

Bob: That sounds like a really powerful tool.

Myself: Yes, it has been! EMDR not only helped me to resolve this very significant trauma, but also helped me to see myself as a whole person, composed of body, soul, and mind. It helped me to get in touch with the deep wisdom of my mind, and it enabled “all of me” to begin speaking and communicating once again. Really, it has boosted me onto a journey of becoming a whole, and integrated person.

Bob: That is really wonderful! I am so glad that I was able to be part of this experience.

Myself: When it came to EMDR, you were just the facilitator. My own brain did all of the work.

Bob: I know. This is how it usually is.

Myself: …but when it came to other topics, your wisdom was incredible!

Bob: Oh, thank you!

Myself: Now that we’ve talked bout Pink Floyd, there is a song from Queen that I really would like to discuss sometime.

Bob: I hope that we can make it happen!

Myself: Sometime soon, I hope!

Bob: OK, well, glad that I could help. God bless!

****

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a clinically proven therapy technique for resolving post traumatic stress and other traumas. It is non-obtrusive, and simply involves moving one’s eyes back and forth while thinking about the trauma. I have also found that it can be helpful in “mindfulness,” or in the journey of becoming more aware of one’s own emotions, or the feelings that one is feeling in their body.

Christians should not feel afraid of EMDR. Unlike talk therapy, there is very very little “talking” in an EMDR session: the person simply relives the event. It feels very normal, like having a conversation. No matter what your theology, it does not seem like EMDR should be objectionable: you won’t get demons, and you won’t get led astray. This is just your mind healing itself.

People who have been through a deeply painful trauma (such as I was) may rightly feel that “they just don’t want to go there.” I totally get that. There is a wisdom in each person that will not allow them to face a mental trauma that they are not able to endure. I will not tell anyone to ignore that voice. EMDR is hard work, and it is emotionally draining. It is just wise to be in a place where you can handle it. However, considering the enormous relief of having trauma “put to rest,” one may consider that it is worth the short-term pain for long-term gain. I would say, from experience, that EMDR does not feel like reliving your trauma. It feels more like attending a funeral about your trauma. To put it another way: your anxiety, fight-or-flight, adrenaline responses are not triggered (at least, they weren’t for me). Rather, what I experienced was profound sadness, and feelings of loss. Afterwards, I felt sad for a while, and also felt like, “wow, I did a lot of hard work!” I wanted to sleep, and do “sad things,” like drinking coffee and staring out a window into the rain would have been perfect. It was a sad time, but “grief means something is moving into the past.” Grief is not all bad. I understand that some people may not want to do EMDR because they do not want to face their trauma. That is your own decision to make; I hope my thoughts here can help you make that decision.

People who have been traumatized over a long-term relationship, or a childhood of moderate to extreme domestic abuse or dysfunction can also find relief through EMDR. As I found towards the end of my session, it seems that the mind is able to “summarize” things: as I flew at around 300 ft above, I could see most of the city in which I was kidnapped. My mind told itself, all of that is in the past. And really, it was. And so it seems hopeful that EMDR could help a person realize that all of that is in the past, as it relates to a difficult person or relationship in their past.

For a more detailed look at the event in question, and for a record of what I wrote after the EMDR session, you can read my post, “I Almost Died in Africa.