One year ago today. To the day. A turning point. The day that I processed a memory. A memory of the thing that had, until that point held me back.
The reminder of the process is below.
Are year on and I am, in so many ways, so much better. There are still days when I am overwhelmed, when the swimming pool of tears threatens to lap over the edge and break the smooth surface of the everyday. There are sometimes still two steps forward and one step back.
And of course the truth is that, having reached 50 last August with, at last, a sense of feeling somehow settled and beyond an instinctive fear that the world was going to fall apart, just six months in, the world has fallen apart.
Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
But the world will heal. As I have healed. I hope.
A year to the day since I was also in the room with someone who appears to share the hope and sometimes also the hopelessness. And does not shy away from saying it.
Let’s keep saying it. Because a day of hope after a day is hope becomes a year of hope.
So, I wrote my book.
After she had read it, a psychologist friend suggested to me that I should maybe consider trying EMDR. This stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
As my friend is someone very wise and trustworthy, I took her suggestion on board and set about finding a therapist.
Last summer I made contact with one who offered EMDR. Living where I do, I had to look quite far afield and accepted that I would need to travel a four–hour round trip for appointments.
In our first appointment, we arranged that we would do some sessions face to face but others could be done online, which came as a great relief to me in the face of my severe carbon footprint anxiety.
At our first meeting last August we talked, explored and I left my book for her to read.
As I was leaving I noticed a book on her chair called “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van der Kolk.
She asked if I’d like to borrow it.
I said I wouldn’t as I had lots of other reading on the go.
Over the next few months we met, a few times in person and a few times over an online platform. There was a lot of talking about my behaviours, my inability to relax and my obsessions, my physical compulsions. During this time I went through some exceptionally challenging times at work and I did a lot of talking about that and other distractions.
My therapist started to pick up on the fact that I would talk a lot and tactfully reflected that back to me, whilst also starting to pick up on some key themes:
My sense of blind panic at times of stress and the physical manifestation of this in my body, including holding my breath;
My constant distracting activity whether working, exercising, talking or overthinking;
My sense of worthlessness;
We talked about the fact that psychological coping mechanisms and behaviours may serve a purpose and be useful to us, when we need to cope with things that otherwise threaten to overpower us.
But we also acknowledged that coping mechanisms which are no longer needed and are actually harming us or stopping us from living a full life need to be examined and maybe challenged and stopped.
We talked about the fact that at the centre of each of us are core values and that we need to connect with those if we are to feel fulfilled.
We talked about neuroscience, the brain and the ways in which it manages our bodies, thoughts and feelings.
We talked about my past.
We talked about needing to explore my sense of worthlessness and shame.
Around Christmas I came across an old video of my final performance and assessment piece from my Dramatherapy Diploma back in 1999. I couldn’t play it, as we no longer have a VCR and so I sent it off to be digitised. On watching it back, I realised that I came close, back then, to overcoming my inner demons and making peace with my history….but that something stopped me from completing the narrative and finding the “happy ever after.” I reflected again on the words of my therapist back then who had said, at the end of individual therapy, that I’d done a great job but that I could not be helped any further unless I was “honest about what had hurt me” and allowed myself to “shed an ocean of tears”. He knew. But he wasn’t able or willing to take me to that place. Or maybe I was not ready and he knew it. I will never know.
And in January, I downloaded “The Body Keeps the Score” and read it.
I felt an absolute resonance with my experience. I can’t quite put that feeling of resonance into words.
These are a couple of the parts that took my breath away:
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”
“As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”
And I realised that I needed to stop just talking.
I realised that I have been talking for ever but that the words have stopped me from really acknowledging what happened to me and has held me ransom.
In my book I wrote this:
“A memory. Aged 7. A stranger but one who had been entrusted. A violation. A child’s trust betrayed. In a matter of days, everything altered. A secret held and never to be told. The beginning and the end”
But the fact is that I had not really allowed myself to process this vague memory. I had not ever spoken about it or described it in any detail. And I had not addressed the feelings and emotions that it had generated in me. I had not allowed myself to fully know what I knew.
“The Body Keeps the Score” explores therapies, processes and activities that can be helpful to those who have experienced trauma including drama (no wonder, maybe, that I have always been at my happiest when involved in plays and that I trained as a dramatherapist), yoga (which I have practised since the age of 19) and mindfulness (which I have tried, or maybe played at, with varying degrees of success). But none of these have ever quite managed to make me feel at peace or fully at one with my Self.
And then I read the section of the book about EMDR and Van Der Kolk’s numerous descriptions of people for whom EMDR enabled the missing part of the jigsaw to be found.
And so, I decided that it was time to give it a go.
I won’t go into detail here about the process. You can find numerous YouTube videos and articles online.
In brief, it involved spending several sessions talking about memories from my past and identifying the ones that seemedto be causing me issues. It involved building up resources that would help keep me safe while processing traumatic memories including physical positions and mental images that would enable me to connect with solidity, fierceness and nurture. It involved creating a mental image of a place where I would hold my traumatic memories while I was waiting for them to be processed; slips of paper with the memories written on in a small wooden house in the top of my wardrobe.
And then came the re-processing session.
Having words that I had never spoken to anyone spoken back to me describing what had happened and allowing myself to hear and feel the shame.
Shame and disgust and self-hatred pulsing through my body, my limbs.
Sobbing and sobbing and sobbing and hearing my voice sound as it did when I was a little girl, scared and shocked.
Buckets of tears and snot.
Uncontrollable feelings that were held in a safe space while my therapist worked with eye movements and then used physical, rhythmic tapping.
Other connections made with other memories and people that came as a surprise but then made sense.
Barely being able to breathe and realising that I have been holding my breath and holding my body in tension for years.
An overwhelming sense of not wanting to hold on, of wanting to collapse and be completely free of all the tension and running and blind panic.
So much physical pain in my arms, back and legs.
And all the way through, the re-assuring voice of my therapist telling me that I was doing incredibly well, holding the space for me, keeping me safe and repeating, over and over “this is the work”.
And then overwhelming anger and hatred towards the person who did that to a little girl who was nothing but trusting and innocent.
And then calm.
Afterwards, a sense of it being done. Of the pieces of paper in the small wooden house being blank now.
Of needing to go to a place of nurture where I take genuine care of myself and don’t just throw myself into more coping and surviving and protecting myself from something that I no longer need protection from. Of moving if I want to but more importantly of staying and stopping if I choose.
I found myself feeling sad at the end of the session and saying repeatedly that I regretted not having done this sooner; “this is what I needed. This is what was missing….” We discussed the fact that recovery often involves feelings of sadness and regret at years lost, at experiences half-lived and at energies mis-directed.
On reflection, I know that the experiences I have lived, the relationships I have formed and the contributions I have made have been meaningful and on most occasions positive and immensely valuable.
A jigsaw with a piece missing is still a jigsaw and can be colourful and beautiful and a thing of wonder. But is not complete and often it is the absent piece that will draw the eye, cause irritation and make us keep searching for that elusive piece.
I also talked at the end of the session about my fear about not having anything left at the centre, now that the layers and layers of protection have been removed and the motivation behind some of my behaviours has been challenged. What is left? How do I make decisions?
And we acknowledged that what I do have is my values and that part of what comes next may be around finding ways of ensuring that I can stay true to those.
On Sunday night I went and heard Matt Haig speak in Edinburgh. It was all that I had hoped it to be and one part of his talk in particular helped me to see that every part of my life will have had different things to offer; the person I am today is not the version of me that I was yesterday, nor the one I will be tomorrow. Staying alive is about giving the future versions of our self the chance to live and thrive and learn from the versions that have gone before.
My jigsaw is complete. If you meet me today, I am a different version of the person I was before because that irritation, that repressed anger, that constant holding of my breath and that need to fight are gone. Those tears have been cried.
My body kept a score. But now the score is settled.