Part two: PTSD and EMDR
I will forever be grateful to my friend Dr. Chuck Middlestead for coming to my rescue only a few days after we lost Abigail. He quickly realized that I needed a psychiatrist for possible PTSD and miracle of all miracles, I had an appointment within a few days (anyone in the healthcare profession knows that it usually takes weeks, usually months to get a pscyh appt). The intake counselor had lost an infant herself after years of infertility and her niece had lost an infant around the same time we lost Abigail. She took one look at the broken and battered shell of me and said, “You need to see Beth. She can help you with EMDR.” Despite being in the medical profession, I had never heard of EMDR. It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Response. It’s a relatively new technique, described by Francine Shapiro in the early 90’s. She observed that that the intensity of memories could be eased by accessing those memories while alternately stimulating both sides of the brain. They initially used movements of the eyes to stimulate the right and left sides of the brain, but later they developed these neat little devices you hold in your hands that alternate vibration and the intensity and length of the vibration in order to stimulate the brain.
Sounds a little crazy, but it makes sense. It’s kind of like this: While making a normal memory, the memory centers of the brain activate and neatly package the memory in the right spots in the brain. It’s orderly and neat. Your brain knows just where to go to find that memory when you want to remember. However, in the middle of severely traumatic events, the brain cannot process things and store them to memory in a neat and orderly way. It’s functioning in a very basic mode. It’s trying to take everything in and just store it somewhere—anywhere– while it is set up in survival mode. Instead of memories being neat and orderly and file properly, it’s more like a bomb went off and memories are like shrapnel, scattered all over the brain. It’s messy. An extremely anxiety provoking memory can be tied to something harmless. For example, hearing the beeping of the washing machine triggered my auditory memories of the PICU medical equipment. Seeing the ugly plastic mugs at the nursing home triggered my memories of being in the hospital for so long. Innocuous things or events or sound trigger a memory and stumble into a land mine of traumatic memories. EMDR requires you to access these memories and then refile them in a more organized manner. By alternately stimulating each side of the brain, it helps ease some of the intensity of the emotion attached to the memory. It calms you enough to process the memories and reorganize them. The memories are still all there, but instead of stumbling into them, you can access them at the appropriate time and place. As with all psychotherapy techniques, it is a little more complicated than my simplified explanation above.
If you are experiencing PTSD symptoms, or you find yourself melting down over the beeping of your washing machine or at the sight of a coffee cup, I highly urge you to learn about EMDR and search for a qualified therapist in your area. It does take time and dedication and the courage to face your most difficult memories, but I can honestly say that without these months of therapy, I do not know where I would be right now.