… Leave the Past Behind You?
We have all heard some version of this before – “Scrape your shoe and move on.” “Let bygones be bygones.” “Let it go already!” “Stop dwelling on what you can’t change.” – and on and on it goes. This is so much easier said than done. Often we end up berating ourselves for not being able to ‘just move on.’ We tell ourselves: “I F*cked up AGAIN!”or “I’ll never learn.” or “I’m broken/damaged goods/_____.”
It’s not just our own thoughts turning against us in these moments of ‘shoulding all over our self.’ I have plenty of voices rattling around in my head who are ready to attack whenever I make a mistake.
One of the main characters in my memoir I’ve named simply ‘The Voice.’ She’s my inner critic, ready to point out how I could have done better. I’ve never met a person who doesn’t have their own version of The Voice. For me, she is a manifestation of all the negative messages I received from my mother while growing up. The Voice in my head is not my mother, but a twisted version of her I’ve created over the years. I use her to punish myself for not being, well… anything less than perfect.
One of the Voice’s favorite ways to attack me is by telling me I’m making a BIG DEAL over nothing. The irony of her message, however, is how often her ridicule of my reactions are followed by a dramatic martyrdom – “You think you had it bad? Did you ever think about what it was like for me?” Well, yes, in fact, I have spent lots of emotional energy feeling terrible about how difficult I’ve made things for everyone else and how selfish I am for dredging up the past yet again. The problem is, I literally can’t help myself, or at least I couldn’t until I started EMDR.
What Do You Mean You Can’t Help Yourself?
When something reminds me of a past traumatic experience, I can be triggered to mentally ‘relive’ those moments. Sometimes the trigger is as simple as a sideways glance, an overpowering cologne, or the sound of someone’s footsteps down a hallway. Then, instead of being present, I am suddenly catapulted back to the time it happened. My conscious self may be aware of my current surroundings, but my body is responding to the triggered memory. My heart will start to race, I’ll begin sweating, I’ll feel suddenly anxious, or I will just want to hide – in other words, I’m making a BIG DEAL out of nothing. Through EMDR, this is happening less often. When it does, I am more in control of my reaction, and can either contain the memory until later, or utilize my safe-space to reduce my stress response to ‘normal’ levels.
Sometimes, a more positive memory can slide in over a less pleasant one as well. For example, last week I was with my sister and our significant others walking to meet some friends. As we walked, it began to rain, at first just a few drops, but in minutes, we were caught in a downpour. As I walked past a building with an overflowing gutter, the sound of water pouring onto the mud beneath it triggered a memory. Suddenly, my sister and I were 3 and 7 years old, dancing in a rainstorm in our underwear while one of our parents sprayed us with the hose. We had Cool Whip containers over our heads, trying to catch enough water to douse each other with even more water. A good memory overtaking a rather soggy experience.
What the Hell is EMDR Anyway?
Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing or #EMDR is possibly the weirdest therapy technique I’ve ever encountered. For years I would make fun of the process, not understanding how the hocus-pocus waving of fingers in front of someone’s face was supposed to help them ‘get over’ their traumatic past. Yet, this technique, discovered in 1987 and since refined by Francine Shapiro and many other experts (www.EMDRIA.org) has helped countless people ‘get over’ their traumatic past in order to move on towards happier, trauma-informed lives.
I realize I haven’t actually said anything about what EMDR is here. In fact, much of what is out there touts EMDR as being a miracle cure without going into any specifics. You can find some good information about it on the EMDR International Association website. Although even this ‘official’ site doesn’t describe it in a way people can easily understand. In future posts and in my memoir, I’ll go into intimate details about what actually happens during one of my EMDR sessions. For now, I’ll tell you it has helped me understand how The Voice in my head was often the first line of defense against the nightmarish beasts from my past. While they clawed at the closet I had them locked in, she would keep me distracted until I was strong enough to face them down. For this, among many other things, I am thankful.
Sometimes Moving Forward Requires Looking Back
This week I attended the 9th Annual NonFiction Writers Conference. There I had the opportunity to pitch my memoir to several agents, editors, and industry leaders and receive some valuable critiques. My first critique by the owner of The Writer’s Ally pulled a ‘hook’ out of the 90-second babbling mess I made of my pitch:
“It was really rough, but one thing you said in there really struck me. It was something like ‘Sometimes you have to look back in order to move forward.’ That’s really something there, I think you should start there.”
Even though it goes against our culture of self-sufficiency and social-media-driven ‘everything is great’ image, the path to success isn’t straightforward. So, if you’ve found yourself at a dead-end in your relationships, your career, your life, maybe take a look in the rearview mirror of life, back up, and then move forward in a better direction. Again, this is easier said than done. Please contact me or another mental health professional if you would like help with this. ATraumaInformedLife.com