Thursday, July 18, 2013

EMDR to the Rescue

Tuesday morning at 9 am I was in the classroom standing in front of the students in the Ecovillage Education US course for the first time since learning Sunday afternoon that my marriage was over. In addition to the challenge of admitting in public that I had failed to be the partner my wife wanted and needed, Ma'ikwe is the lead teacher for the course, and I had major ongoing responsibilities as her second-in-command. 

When I woke up Monday morning I had no idea how I was going to pull this off—continuing to actively partner in the training right through the trauma of the breakup of our intimate relationship. Though Ma'ikwe suggested that I take Monday off from being in the classroom (which offer I gratefully accepted), I was still in major distress and wasn't confident I wouldn't break down or otherwise be triggered by being in the same room with her. 

Fortunately, I had an appointment Monday afternoon already set up with the couples counselor that Ma'ikwe and I had been working with, so I took advantage of the timing to get her help. It may have been the best thing I've done in years.

After talking for a few minutes about how I was doing generally—to ascertain how well I was functioning—the counselor suggested we do a session of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to work with the trauma I was going through. So that's what I did for the next 45 minutes.

EMDR was first developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro in 1989 to help process trauma, under the theory that people can sometimes get stuck in their distress when their normal cognitive and neurological coping mechanisms are overwhelmed. While it was too early to tell if I was stuck (we started our session a mere 24 hours after Ma'ikwe delivered the bad news), there was no question that I had undergone major trauma and the process can help move things along before you get stuck just as well as afterwards.

The basic concept is to give the patient brief periods of sensory stimulation, alternating on one side of the body and then the other. While this can be accomplished in a variety of ways, my counselor gave me hand-held buzzers, one for each hand. 

At the outset, the counselor asked me to focus on the clearest moment of trauma (Ma'ikwe saying the words, "I'm done") and to rate my level of distress on a scale of one to ten. I told her it was an eight. (The only reason the number wasn't higher was because Ma'ikwe had been telling me she was close to ending the marriage for weeks and thus I wasn't taken completely by surprise.)

I was given about two minutes of mild, alternating stimulation while I sat in silence. I could keep my eyes open or closed: it didn't matter. After the buzzing was halted, I was asked to take a deep breath and report anything that came up.

It could be a color, a feeling, a story, a sensation—anything. The counselor listened, perhaps asked a question or two and then asked me to be silent again for another round of stimulation whenever I finished reporting on the previous round. The counselor offered no direction or interpretation—I just went wherever I was drawn to go.

I believe the therapeutic concept is that we all know on a subsconscious level where we need to go in processing trauma, and what will be a productive sequence in which to do it. The therapist merely creates a container, keeps things moving with stimulation to alternative hemispheres of the brain and lets the patient find his/her own way through the maze.

As best I can recall, I went through 10-12 rounds of stimulation and reporting. Sometimes I would be in tears; sometimes I would be calm (accepting); sometimes I would remember a tender moment; sometimes I was angry; sometimes I would tell a story about my father; sometimes I would share an insight... In short, I was all over the map. If the therapist asked where the feeling was centered in my body (which she did about half the time) my answers varied widely. There appeared to be no logic or pattern to where my progression took me, and the counselor never suggested where I "should" go; she just accompanied me on the ride.

At the end, she went back the place where we started (Ma'ikwe saying, "I'm done") and asked me to rate my distress on a scale of one to ten. This time my answer was three or four. Wow! Was I really that far along in processing this awful thing??

To be fair, this was the one and only time I've ever done EMDR. I had never spoken to anyone else about it, and I had no frame of reference for understanding what had happened, how my response measured up to that of others (did I do well?), whether the movement I experienced regarding my trauma was temporary or permanent. All I knew was that I was as much less triggered afterwards than I was at the start. I could now imagine being in the same room with Ma'ikwe—this amazing woman whom I deeply love—and it would be OK.

Frankly, if this wasn't done under the supervision of a trusted therapist, I'd have been much more skeptical about that I was doing legitimate work with grief and loss (as opposed to indulging in some trick that allowed me to skip steps to bypass misery). In fact, if I hadn't experienced it directly, I doubt that the Laird I was Monday morning would have found credible the story that I'm realting today. I just wouldn't have believed it.

My intuitive sense is that I may have processed a month or two of hell in 45 minutes. I'm typing this Thursday morning, and my distress level when I recall "I'm done" remains at around three. That is, there has been no backsliding into the pit so far.

To frame this properly, tears are still close to the surface and I am still sad. I still have work to do. But Ma'ikwe and I have met once to start talking about how to unweave our lives and it went fine, we're now in the classroom together again (I taught all day yesterday with Ma'ikwe in the room and didn't get triggered by her presence or her occasional comments—which were cogent and appropriate, as they almost always are), and we've even hugged a couple times. 

I'm not over her, but neither am I feeling like road kill. I can look at the sadness and not be overwhelmed. I can function and am not wallowing in self pity. I'm going to be OK.

There's a student in the EEUS class named Marita who shared with everyone that whenever she puts out an intention, it always come true—though often it arrives in ways she never imagined. When I married Ma'ikwe back in 2007, my intention was that I be with her until I died. As I stood in front of the class Tuesday morning, I looked at Marita and it suddenly occurred to me that I'd just had a Marita experience: though my heart was still beating, over the weekend a part of me had died. I shared that insight with the class, and they seemed to understand.

While the dissolution of my marriage was definitely not the experience I had intended to have, with the help of loving friends, my caring ex-wife, and the miracle of EMDR, I am no longer dying.

1 comment:

Rosemary Wyman said...

In my experience, if we are growing ME is always dying.