This morning I had my first EMDR session (explanation here if you’ve no idea what it is). I had an intake meeting with the therapist a few weeks ago, but today was our first attempt at doing any actual work. He had set me some preparation stuff to do at home beforehand which I had managed with varying degrees of success. The main task was to practise a ‘safe space’ exercise, spending ten minutes every day calling up the visualisation to get it firmly entrenched before we start the therapy.
I say I had varying success because I did get myself to do it on maybe 12 out of 20 days. But I didn’t always manage to focus on what I was supposed to be imagining. I’m a very busy-brained person and calming my mind even for only ten minutes is incredibly challenging.
Then there were the days I succeeded in sitting down to practice, but couldn’t keep negative stuff out of the image. One day I was imagining this beautiful, calm scene and then snakes suddenly invaded from every side of the image. The more I struggled to shut them out the more they swarmed in. So I had to give up. A few nights ago I couldn’t even get to the lake, all I could think about was suicide. Again, the more I fought the thoughts the more they took hold.
Everyone recommends this kind of mindful practice. There’s a reason why. It works. When I got it right, those ten minutes quieted my mind for the rest of the evening. I felt more peaceful and I slept better. For the first time in many months, I felt like my sleeping meds might not be entirely unnecessary.
In the session this morning we worked on strengthening the visualisation. For context, below is a photo of Moraine Lake, the memory of visiting there is what I’ve been using as my safe place. My wife and I went canoeing on the lake a few years ago and I can remember clearly the vivid turquoise of the water and how serene it felt to be paddling across it with the Rocky mountains surrounding us.
Despite it all being centred on relaxation, the session this morning was exhausting. It appears that forcing yourself to be calm demands a ton of concentration! And the EMDR part added in made for some major multi-tasking.
My therapist asked me to imagine the scene, think about the sensations in my body, and follow his moving finger with my eyes – all at once. I found myself getting frustrated because I just couldn’t do all of those things simultaneously. It was hard work focusing on the beautiful scenery, how I felt in my body and watching him (without moving my head). I ended up just thinking ‘finger…finger…finger’ as his hand passed across my vision, then getting anxious because I wan’t thinking what I was supposed to be.
Driving home, I felt miserable because this was the ‘easy’ session. We were only practising the safe space exercise in preparation for doing the tough stuff and even that proved really hard. The idea is that now we’ve shored that up, I’ll be able to call on it when my anxiety levels are raised working through the traumatic memories. Although it felt like I didn’t achieve much today, by repeatedly doing the same thing my anxiety was reduced from a 5/10 to around a 2/10 by the end. So perhaps it worked better than I felt it did at the time.
Now I just need to try and maintain some of that calm. As soon as I left the clinic today, I started to feel really scared of what we’ll be doing next week. On Monday we start going into my most traumatic memories, something I have almost entirely avoided doing since they happened 20 years ago. It is almost impossible not to feel terrified when I think about that.
Main photo: n4i, Creative Commons.