I watched a TikTok today about EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing). It reminded me of when I was in the mental hospital in 2012 for 10 days after my suicide attempt. My stay included one group session of EMDR.
It wasn’t memorable at the time, so I decided to try it again today. No idea if I did it right, but here’s what I tried: I got calm and centered, then began the tapping on my temples. After a while, I began thinking about a traumatic experience in my childhood:
I was about 15 and had just walked in my home’s back door. My terrified stepfather was sitting in a chair in the middle of our small kitchen while my furious, crying mother walked in circles around him, gesturing with her loaded pistol, an old .38 Special.
He was a mild man but always drunk. Mom was so co-dependent and as dramatic as the day is long.
So when I walked in and froze in my tracks, Mom turned to me, gesturing around with the pistol, and growled, “What do you think, Effie? Should I kill him?”
She cocked the pistol and pointed it at him. Her arm was wobbly.
I was numb to the years of drama and just said in a monotone “I really don’t give a shit” as I pushed past them. My stepfather squawked out my name, but I never looked back. I walked to my room, locked the flimsy luan door, and snuggled up in my bed with the covers over my head. I listened for a while for a gunshot, but all I heard was intermittent yelling. I drifted off to sleep.
When I woke up, everyone was still breathing. Just another day in my damned life.
That’s always been one of the etched-in-granite stressful memories of my teen years. It felt iconic because of the fear mixed with hopelessness. Honestly, I remember it now with more stress than I felt at the moment.
But today, I remembered a few more details. Our kitchen was small, so I walked between them to get to my room. In front of the pistol. I just didn’t care at that point.
I also remembered that it was a conscious decision to not get emotionally or physically involved in the fight.
And for the first time ever, today I wondered why I didn’t run out to a neighboring house and call 911 (this was pre-cellphone days).
Normally when I recall this scene, it’s with anger, disgust and heartburn. But today, I felt compassion for my teen self, recognizing how overwhelmed and depressed and angry I was.
So maybe EMDR had a small but positive impact on me today. I don’t know if I did it right, but it’s food for thought.
Previously, it was just a box I had to check off to get out of a mental hospital.
What EMDR was like for me
At the mental hospital in 2012, I tried to stay calm and suppress how trapped and mildly panicky I felt in the facility because I was locked in until I was more stable. Weirdly, I also felt secure and insulated from the world and all my life’s pain points for the moment. I also knew that the doctors can keep you longer than you want to be in there, even though I was voluntarily admitted, so that added to the trapped feeling.
I learned quickly that they get a little huffy and look at you more critically if you suggest feeling stable enough to leave. (Or at least that’s what it was like for me.)
Toward the end of my original 5- to 7-day stay, my therapist suggested that I stay on for a few days to go through their new EMDR program. I was impatient to get home, but I asked what it was, listened, and asked a few questions. My conclusion: Meh. So I asked if it was required. The therapist paused writing in my file, narrowed his eyes at me, and asked if I felt like I didn’t need to stay any longer. I gulped and said that I’d like to go home but I was willing to try EMDR if he really thought it would be useful to me. His face smoothed out, and he went back to writing.
The EMDR sessions were only held on weekends, meaning I had to hang around for another 2-3 days. They herded MANY of us patients (with varying diagnoses) into a large room packed wall-to-wall with chairs. After getting a brief explanation of the process, we paired off, and the people in each pair took turns.
Our process involved the first person continuously tapping softly on the other’s knees (two taps on one knee, then two on the other knee) while the second person mentally relived a trauma, paying attention to senses and feelings. (We did the tapping instead of the eye movements.) I think we then spoke briefly about our perceptions. Then we swapped roles so each of us could have the experience. Trained counselors milled about throughout the room, touching base with each pair.
Subjectively, I would estimate the whole process (including orientation and Q&A) took maybe an hour, at most.
For my EMDR session, I recalled the “Showdown at the OK Corral’s Kitchen” as my traumatic memory.
My results back in 2012: I felt a little emotional, but there was nothing soul-stirring or enlightening for me. There was maybe a spike of anxiety for me, but not much else. I suspect that’s because (1) I felt pressure to “perform” well in the session so I wouldn’t have to remain at the hospital, (2) it was a roomful of people and it was hard to relax, (3) I knew we were being observed, (4) the pros checking on us spent only 2-3 minutes with each person to help us process what the experience was like for us, and (5) I suspected they might be just milking the most of my excellent health insurance by adding the additional 2-3 days to my stay.
Will you share your experience?
Have you tried EMDR? What memory did you focus on? Did you do tapping or eye movements? Was it in a group session or a one-on-one with your therapist? What were the circumstances? What was the outcome for you? Did you do it more than once? I’d love to hear.