I was first introduced to EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) about a year ago by a new therapist. It took me about 3 months of talk therapy before I felt ready to try EMDR.
At first, some think the therapy sounds similar to hypnosis. It isn’t. It uses lateral eye movement to get the two sides of your brain working at once. You can go back to a memory, replay it, and desensitize yourself from it. ** It is NOT changing the memory ** It’s only reprocessing, similar to exposure therapy. When you replay it a few times you can spend more time on bringing closure to your feelings, and hopefully be able to let go of the trauma.
Christmas for me always brings on tremendous stress and frequent breakdowns. I take on too much, force happiness and get upset when things fail to meet my expectations. Most years I max out our calendar and our budget. We are exhausted and cranky, and end up taking it out on eachother.. And by WE i mean the whole family- kids included. Reprocessing Christmas took many, many sessions. I started months ago in hopes of having a better holiday season.
My issues with Christmas are widespread, and have gone on for many years. For the purpose of this post I’ll zero in on one specific thing we processed- the one thing I believe saved my Christmas most.
All year the one thing I worry about most is spending Christmas Eve with my husband’s family. Seven years ago when I met my husband I was extremely overweight, unemployed, and a young unwed mother. My self confidence was at a zero. My husband on the other hand was a god in my eyes. He is so smart, so caring, so responsible and absolutely the greatest man I’d ever met. Before I was even introduced to any part of his family I felt like a disappointment. I imagined they’d spent Michael’s entire life witnessing how amazing he was and picturing a perfect wife as a match for him. I wholeheartedly believed I would be a let down.
This manifested in so many negative ways for me. First, I felt my physical appearance was a huge turn off, so I’d go over the top trying to make myself look better. I’d cake on the makeup and eyelashes, pull my shapewear so tight I couldn’t breathe and spend hours on my hair. I’d often make us late by trying on a thousand outfits that I hated until I eventually broke down to tears. This was always followed by refusal to go with him, a giant fight, and finally him dragging me out of the house against my will. I always felt so ugly, so low, so inadequate.
When I got to the party, I’d be ashamed of myself. Most of the time I felt out of place and over done from all of my over the top preparations. I’d feel dirty and messy from crying in the car and making a mess of my makeup. I couldn’t maintain eye contact or a conversation. I was so awkward I could barely muster a full sentence. My inability to speak made me feel even worse about myself because I was worried I’d come off stupid, or maybe snobby.
The worst of all was what my therapist calls “dissociative body movement.” Basically, I had extreme vertigo. I was so anxious that hallways appeared warped. I had a hard time with depth perception. Stairs were terrifying and I was overly cautious about my footing. I wasn’t able to eat or drink because I could not control my hands properly. If I reached for a cracker my hand would end up way off to the right, not anywhere close to food. If someone handed me a drink I’d practically slap the cup with my inability to judge how far the cup was from me, and immediately panic that I would spill or drop the entire thing. For years I did not, could not eat or drink with his family.
I would spend the entire night so consumed with my own anxieties that their conversations would turn to white noise, and my own thoughts took the forefront. This meant if someone did speak to me, I had no idea what they’d said. There’s no way to recover from that, except with deathly awkwardness. I’d cling tight to my husband and hope for the best.
How did EMDR change any of this for me?
The first step is identifying the negative cognition. For me it was simply “I am not good enough, I’m not worthy of love.” The goal would be “I am worthy of their love, my true self IS good enough.”
We first started with my low self confidence about my appearance. 25 years of being obese gave me plenty of ammunition to deal with. I had to go back and reprocess bullying, like when my “friends” shoved pillows up their shirts and pretended to be me. Before processing it made me feel that the people close to me did not accept me, for at the time I believed they were close friends. I had to go back to the wedding where I broke a chair in front of a table full of my co-workers. That was feelings of embarrassment and shame in front of people I cared about. I went back to holidays as a child where family members would comment about the amount of food on my plate, days where I felt the floor shaking when I walked, and the times the stairs would loudly creak under my massive body.
One of the strongest sensations that came up during reprocessing was my hyper body awareness, specifically how large I always felt in comparison to the room. I took up too much space, I told myself it was wasted space. I would feel vast distance between my shoulders, like my back was a giant billboard blocking everyone’s view from across the room. I would feel my neck and chin tingle, like when I was thinking about my double chin as someone tried to have a conversation with me.
The emotions that came up were shame, embarrassment and guilt. We replayed these memories over and over. It sucked. It sucked at first, when I cried again. When my face was hot and red, just like the first time they’d happened. My forehead would sweat and I’d be out of breath EXACTLY like the original memory.. But then we’d replay it, and it was slightly less awful. We’d talk about it, and replay it again. It was even less awful. Replay. Talk. Replay. Talk.
In the end, the past started to seem extremely distant and insignificant. It was almost like a movie I’d seen long ago. I could remember the general theme but the specifics didn’t punch me in the gut anymore.
At their worst, these memories weighed on me so heavily that I once described it as walking through water in cement shoes. They slowed me down and kept me in the past when I really wanted to be in the present. After I found closure, the weight was lifted. I could hold my head a little higher and felt it easier to move forward.
We reintroduced my new feelings into talk therapy, where we set goals for the coming holiday season. I took on less, scheduled less, and tried to go with the flow. I had specific goals for Christmas Eve.
- No eyelashes, light makeup.
- No more than 20 minutes on my hair.
- Clothing I was comfortable in.
- Flat shoes.
- Initiate a conversation.
- Eat one thing discreetly. If I’m able to control my hand, eat one thing during a conversation when someone else can see me.
Even weeks leading up to the party, I talked about these goals with my husband, sister and therapist. I had so much support, and being able to verbalize my goals reinforced how important they were to me.
I’m proud to say I pulled it off.
Christmas Eve morning I got up and showered. I put on a sweater, comfortable leggings and flat boots. I blew out my hair in less than 10 minutes, and ran a curling iron just for texture. About 13 minutes in total. I put on mascara only. We went to our morning obligations, and when we got home I fought the urge to shower again or change my clothes. I even took a nap without stressing out about how it affected my appearance. 12 hours and several stops later, we got to his family’s party. Right off the bat I felt better. The stairs were strait instead of something out of a Tim Burton movie. I had two things left on my checklist- speak and eat.
I jumped the gun a bit on the speaking when I awkwardly blurted out a compliment on a cousin’s sweater but I somehow managed to recover. That one compliment ended up breaking the dam, and I was able to speak freely all night with his entire family. I felt happy, and like I was part of the family instead of an outsider. When the living room died down a bit I reached for a cracker and ended up grazing the one next to it. “Fuck. Get it together, Catherine.” I took both and gave one to Anna. I moved from a chair to the couch, and realized my vertigo had come back. “Noooo, you were doing so well! What happened?” What happened. The thought of food over the cracker triggered my fat awareness. I was off kilter again. What would my therapist tell me to do? I put my feet firmly on the floor, side by side. I squared my body off and tried to ground myself.
At that moment my nephew tried on his Aunt’s high heeled boots and walked around. He was silly, and funny. It made me smile. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Anna reaching for the chips, I blocked her drooly hand and got one for her.
Wait, I picked up a chip? I picked up the chip I was ACTUALLY reaching for? Whoa.
I had done it, I had touched food and not fallen apart. I got brave. I actually made a plate for the first time ever.. Mostly grapes and crackers in case I dropped it. Later in the night I gave myself a pep talk and headed over to the dessert table. I tried a new cookie (Hermits, OMG, hermits. My new addiction.) At first bite I was in love. I consciously did not take a second bite. I walked over to my mother in law and held out the cookie. “What are these? They’re amazing!” She looked up and started telling me about hermit cookies. As she spoke I was internally cheering myself on, and took a second bite as the conversation continued.
There was a firework show in my chest. I did it! I did it! I DID IT!!!!!
I had such an amazing time that I was sad when the night drew to an end. I heard myself tell people (too many times) that I was excited to see them the following day, and that I was looking forward to spending the entire holiday with them instead of rushing out early.
At the end of the night it did not feel like I had spent the night with my husband’s family. I had spent the night with MY family. It was the first Christmas in seven years where I did not cry or have a break down. It was the first one ever that I was happy and confident. (Christmas day I was even brave enough to ask to hold his cousin’s baby. Let that sink in for a second. The night before I couldn’t reach for a cracker, the next day I asked to hold an infant.)
EMDR saved my holiday. It bettered my relationship with my family, and even kicked off this morning on a positive note. I feel great, and I’m looking forward to telling my therapist all about it at our session on Friday.
It took many years for me to discover EMDR. I wasted so much time on talk therapy that I felt counseling was ineffective. I changed therapist time and time again without finding the right fit. I can not say this enough- you do not have to suffer. If you feel therapy is ineffective, you have not found the right therapy. There are infinite options out there- even more than just EMDR. Keep going, keep trying. KEEP GETTING HELP. You are worthy of receiving care. You are worthy of memorable holidays. You are worthy of being part of a family. You are worthy of love.
With healthy hearts,
Kate and the Kids.