the survivors of
I hope you
get therapy too.
Loveland, a small town in the foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. A boy with short black hair wearing a t-shirt and corduroy jeans lays face down on the concrete sidewalk holding his stomach and crying. A geeky book loving fourth grader wounded by the hands of two other boys that he wanted to be his best friends. Mike had blonde hair and Dave had black hair. The wounded boy had done nothing to anger them, he couldn’t imagine why Dave held his arms from behind while Mike punched him in the gut until there was no breath left in his lungs. The first time this happened the little boy thot he was going to die, the pain in his soft belly was excruciating. If this terrible thing did not happen as a punishment, it must be that the little boy just deserved it and was not worthy of having friends or being loved. Born to be hated and beaten.
This is my earliest memory of the trauma that would continue to be inflicted on me by male students thru 12 years of public education and which determined a significant part of my social behavior up to the present day. The effect on my life has been staggering, every act requiring confidence has been a battle to overcome the verbal and physical beatings that kept me in the hole. Every social interaction felt dangerous, there was the potential for me to be bullied or ridiculed. Much safer to stay at home and read a book, and if home was not available, there was always the unoccupied balcony, back yard, park, waterfront, hilltop, forest. Any space that contained only me was safe. Alone was safe. I spent a lot of my life alone.
To reclaim my power, my worthiness of existing, I knew I needed help. As an adult I had long been in denial about having risen above the abuse. I shrugged, my childhood sucked, what can ya do about it? I’m grown up now and nobody really bullies me anymore. But I felt the abuse was still there inside me, controlling my actions like a puppet master. Many years of coping with the pain had left me shielded, withdrawn, numb, and unable to connect with friends and lovers on deeper levels. No, the public was not allowed inside. I lived without the ability to trust anyone. I spent much of my young life hiding in my bedroom. As an adult actually living in one-room shacks in cities and in the woods, reading at the library, avoiding social events, requiring alcohol to attend parties, failing to follow up on cultivating potential friendships. I always felt very uncomfortable and tried to avoid groups of males, the bullies always worked in groups, targeting a lone person. Once a person was targeted, no one wanted to be their friend. Who wanted to be on the wrong side of the bullies?
The social effect was exponential, I lived my childhood in fear and loneliness. Those lessons carried into adulthood. I found solace reading books, in stories I could travel to other worlds and become other people who were confident and empowered. People who could defeat bullies. My survival skills to deal with bullies is one of the reasons I became an artist and writer.
As a mature adult I stepped back and examined my patterns of behavior. Why was my temper so short? Why did I get so upset when I felt that people were judging or criticizing me? Like instantly blood pounding in my ears head throbbing REALLY upset? Unreasonably angry. Why did I instantly become enraged if someone touched my body in certain ways? Why didn’t I have close friends? Why was I like this and how could I change it?
Thinking about changing this part of myself seemed almost impossible. My behavior had been established in grade school, how could that ever be changed?
I talked to my mom about this, she went thru EMDR Therapy for her traumatic experiences in youth, and I thot, well, if mom was brave enuf, maybe I could too. I had many talks with my partner about the trauma, as the person I was around most she was frequently a source of triggers for me, and wanting to have a more functional relationship with her was another reason to seek therapy. It’s not much fun to live with someone who has trauma that hasn’t been treated. Talking about raising children was also a big motivation that got me into therapy, I did not want to pass this trauma on to our children.
EMDR Therapy took me four months, from March thru June once a week I went and faced my history of trauma and changed the way it affected my life. A week after I was done with EMDR Therapy I applied for and got a new job working with vulnerable adults, helping them to live their lives as joyfully as possible with support from people like me. I was instantly much happier doing this compassionate work. My initial goal with EMDR Therapy was to not be angry and crabby all the time, I hadn’t realized what doors would open in my body and life when the burden of that trauma was lifted.
What Is EMDR Therapy?
Doctor Francine Shapiro was walking in the park one day in 1987 thinking about her traumatic experiences, as she happened to rapidly move her eyes while thinking of this trauma she felt release from the painful memories. Being a psychologist she was intrigued and spent years studying this and developing a method to teach this as a therapeutic practice.
Using various forms of right/left body stimulation, an EMDR Therapist guides the person thru several steps which are controlled by the person in therapy as they visualize and move thru feelings and memories while being stimulated on the left and right sides of the body. There are numerous stimulation methods: movement of two fingers in front of the eyes, headphones with a tone from left to right ears, and two round buzzers held in the left and right hand. The many different ways to stimulate the brain must be very helpful for people with differently configured and differently abled bodies.
The steps followed in the EMDR process are the following: history & treatment plan, installation of safe place, assessment: identification of negative cognition and positive cognition, desensitization to negative cognition, installation of positive cognition, body scan, closure, re-evaluation. The negative cognition is the bad way you think about yourself and the trauma, the positive cognition is the new way you will think of yourself when remembering the trauma.
What I liked about EMDR was that the therapist was not pushing an agenda, which had been my past experience with therapy. EMDR Therapy was all about me sitting with my feelings and memories and letting it come out, without having to verbally articulate much at all. It reminded of zen meditation, but with a guide sitting with you to help.
EMDR Therapy for Trauma
Mental health professionals say that 90% of people with mental health issues have experienced trauma. I always felt that the trauma I experienced in high school at the hands and words of bullies was significant in my development and outlook on life. As an adult I came to feel like I was over it, old enuf to be free of fear from childhood bullies. I had grown up to be a big strong adult, that’s what I looked like on the outside, so why would I need to concern myself with abuse suffered so long ago?
I was not so strong as I thot I was. It was not until in the middle of EMDR Therapy that I realized exactly how much the survival mechanisms I learned to use in dealing with bullies thru 10 years of public education was still affecting my behavior as a full grown adult. Not just affecting me occasionally but affecting me every day, continuously, all the time. Fear encircled me. I had the signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD memories are disconnected from emotional memories and conscious cognitive memories. Traumatic memories can be kept separate from the main memory system, like when a computer isolates a virus to keep the whole system from crashing. The un-integrated memories emerge when triggering events access these traumatic memories, and the results are less than functional for the person experiencing this. Traumatic memories have triggers which can instantly activate them: certain words, a tone of voice, encountering a certain type of person of a certain age or gender, noises, touch, smells, sights, situations, temperature. It could be anything.
EMDR Therapy can solve the problem of traumatic memories in a longer lasting way, allowing you to deal with trauma from your past without being re-traumatized. If you don’t want to talk about your trauma you can just hold the memories in your mind while you work thru the process with a therapist. This is not laying on a couch reliving the shit from your past at an even slower pace than it happened for years on end, no!
Scientific research continues but at present there is no consensus about the neurological reasons why EMDR Therapy works. EMDR Therapy seems to be doing something similar as the Rapid Eye Movement state of dreaming, changing the meaning and connections of memories. In REM sleep, the eyes move back and forth, just as in EMDR Therapy. This therapy puts a conscious spin on memory processing, you get to decide how you want to remember these traumatic memories. The unconscious or dreaming mind needs help to deal with these powerful memories, which have been stored in a box by the mind, not integrated with the person’s larger memory system. EMDR Therapy unlocks the memories in this trauma box and allows them to be dealt with in a way that is emotionally functional in the present moment.
Session One: Assessment & Therapy Plan.
This was an orientation and check to see if EMDR Therapy would be a good fit for me, a chance to meet my therapist, and talk about my goals for therapy. I felt good going home that night. I shared with my therapist a basic description of my trauma. I didn’t feel emotional in the office but that night I cried and was lucky to have my partner there to assure me that I was doing a good thing. Support. I survived may years of abuse but recognize that I am a fortunate person, I know I will be happier once I reach the other side of this therapy. For now I just lay down on the bed and cry and let the cat climb on top of me.
Session Two: History.
This thing would happen when I had any conflict with someone, however small. My head became instantly hot and I start thinking about the fastest way out of the building. The conflict could be so minor that the other person might not even think of it as a conflict. Emotionally I’m back in grade school or middle school, faced with a perceived threat, physical or verbal, and a fight / flight / freeze response happens. It clenches my throat and I cant speak. My body tenses, head swells with hot blood. I want to fight back and destroy what’s doing this to me but I know it’s not real, not now, I’m not in grade school or junior high anymore, I’m a full grown adult with muscles and a body type that looks like you wouldn’t want to fuck with me. That body type is what I started working towards back in 9th grade when I took weight lifting. I didn’t want to be a victim anymore. If I could look scary people would leave me alone.
Now I experience conflict with someone and it all comes back, 35 years after the trauma it still controls my reactions. I know it’s not right but I cant express it in words, my mind is shut down, disassociated, I am paralyzed, frozen, but then I snap loose and I run. Freeze turns to flight. I walk away, out the door, walk into the rain with no coat, tear off my apron and run out of the restaurant kitchen, standing in the garden where things are just starting to think about growing after the snow has melted and sunk into the soil of a Minnesota April and after I breathe for awhile and think about who’s fault it is and how angry I am and what I am going to do with my anger I decide to sort it out later and settle down and go back in and do my job because if I don’t then the bullies have won and I am the worthless person they always used to tell me I was, alone in the hard school hallway, surrounded by steel lockers on concrete walls and hard linoleum tiles on the ground.
A bully is rarely alone. I remember three of them, sitting by a window on the ramp to the gym on the north side of Diamond High School in Anchorage Alaska. That boy Jonathon was sitting there with his crew, he would one day jump me from behind as I got off the school bus to go to my friend’s house and beat me until my blood and tears stained the soil of that city. No one stopped him. My friends watched from the side. Afraid.
Why did Jonathon hate me so much? All I ever wanted was to be left alone. I never did anything to him.
One day as an adult a bucket fell on my head in the kitchen where I worked, surprised me on the back of my head, and I felt such instant rage. I clawed for the back door and ran out of the kitchen screaming: FUCK! It came out of nowhere, just like when Jonathon jumped me from behind as I walked away from the bus, hit me in the back of the head and sent my glasses flying. Blinded. Vulnerable. Jonathon punched me in the face until I spurted blood. Many other bullies would punch me in the face. If I get touched anywhere on my head without consent or warning it triggers the same response. I want to fight or flee. Once I lost my glasses in a lake while out drinking and swimming with friends and it triggered the most horrible outburst, as I tried to ride bikes home with them I couldn’t see and they left me behind, eventually one of them came back to find me between cars on the side of the street, sobbing. It was the perfect storm, hit on the head, no glasses, abandonment. At the time I was dealing with suppressed sexual abuse from my previous partner. I had been sexually abused and I had not yet come to understand that fact. It all boiled over that night and I was fighting people and jumping out of my bedroom window while it was closed, hitting myself in the head with a brick, crying in the bushes. What a mess.
I hurt people I loved because in the past I had been hurt. And those people who hurt me, they hurt me because they had been hurt. Am I right, Jonathan? What trauma did you suffer and then pass on to me? Beatings from your father? I don’t know anything about you, don’t know your last name or what became of you, but you must have had some fucked up abuse stored up inside to spew it out on me and whoever else you beat when you were a teenager. Your parents, your uncles, your grandpa, your priest, who fucked you up? Who put that trauma on you. I’d like to go back in time and disintegrate them. I don’t want their legacy in my body and in the bodies of my friends who suffered while I was out of control in reliving the trauma. I don’t want this inheritance of hateful patriarchal nastiness dominating my responses to conflict. I think about the ones who abused the bully who abused me, but who abused them, and put the trauma in them, and how far back does it go? It does no good to blame anyone. We can only decide here and now to end the cycle.
Post traumatic stress disorder. Triggers. Disassociation. Flight response. My partner is used to it by now, she knows what it means when we have an argument and I go for a walk. I hope she understands. How can a person you love know what it feels like when you’re so scared you cant even use your voice to tell them? When the fire dies down I find the words and explain as best I can.
Walking up the hill after my session at the therapist’s office the sun is shining, this is a good thing. Dealing with the trauma I experienced during ten years of public schooling, abuse at the hands of teenage bullies. For so long I just shrugged and said life sucks and drank another beer, ran away, or screamed in rage that was disproportionate to the actual present interpersonal conflict which triggered it. Yeah I felt good walking up that hill today after my second appointment. I got home and felt like crying, like I might just puke right then. Mental health day, hold my calls, I’m going for a long walk with Henry the famous therapy dog. My partner is a trauma therapist and our dog Henry accompanies her to work sometimes, jumping into the lap of children just as they start to cry and comforting them.
Sliding down the slopes of the creek on the melting snows of spring, Henry and I explored the final days of winter, birch trees and the Superior Hiking Trail, a hollowed out log with wood bits on the ground, a new squirrel home. Back at home I felt my shirt heavy with the toxic sweat of the day and I shed this and look out the bedroom window at the lake and the sunset red and pink across the sky, the magic blue in the middle, and a fresh shirt later my partner comes home and we hold each other on the bed in the growing darkness and tears come. She supports me and I feel okay. This therapy is not going to be easy, like being abused for ten years was not easy. I’m on the road, putting one foot in front of the other. Moving out of that unhappy place where I have no control over my anxiety and anger. This is going to work. This is going to change everything.
Session Three: History.
I came home and dumped a bunch of feelings on the keyboard but when I hit save the program locked up and shut down, I lost everything. I just laughed and walked away because what I had just written was about trying to calm down and remember what I was supposed to do after each therapy session. What I was supposed to do is go for a walk with my dog friend Henry to calm down.
So I went for a walk with Henry. There is nothing like a happy dog walking outside after being inside all day to make you feel better. Walk the dog. Walk the dog. Walk the dog. Three sessions into this therapy and every time tears well in my eyes recounting the stories of my teenage suffering at the hands of cruel bullies and indifferent adults. I realize now it’s not the actual events that were so brutal to have experienced, when you tell the facts it seems like its not so bad, just a little bloody nose, bruised face, maybe fractured nose, damaged psyche, verbal torment. What made the trauma exponentially worse is that everyone around me failed to support me in any way during the years I was bullied and that I have carried that burden to the present day. The teachers shrugged. My parents said fight back. My friends and strangers stood by and watched as I was beaten into the ground. After I added up all these lessons, what I learned was that I was worthless, not worthy of being rescued, not worth helping, not worthy of being a friend. Like a beaten animal I crawled away and hid behind the portable class rooms out back of the high school and there in solitude I would eat my lunch, every day. The hallways and cafeteria were lined with bullies. Even in the middle of an Alaska winter I ate outside crouched in the snow, watching the birds and squirrels, as far away from humanity as i could get.
What brings the pain powerfully to my consciousness now as I tell the stories to my therapist is knowing that all those lessons are still with me, that I have spent many years holding the lesson that I was worthless because that’s what everything was telling me back then. What brings tears to my eyes now is not thinking about the pain I suffered back then but the pain I experience as an adult, realizing that I am triggered almost every day of my life, and daily re-live that feeling of worthlessness. Being triggered by a perception of shame and having to leave group events early to be alone. Flight, my favorite survival tactic. Any criticism at all would send me packing, sometimes causing the end of friendships. Any rude act by a stranger. Any group of 2 or more men. Any car that accelerates nearby or moves towards me in a crosswalk. Anyone that stands behind me and surprises me. All the defensive conversations with people I love. Anytime someone throws something that hits my head or touches my face without warning. Anytime someone criticizes my work or anyone who acts like they’re better than me.
I learn from my therapist how all these things bring my rage from a constant level 2 all the way up to a 9 on a scale of 1-10, ten being the most upset. These things take me into the the Fight, Flight, or Freeze primal nervous system response. That’s why I walk out of a therapy session now and I feel trembly and watery eyed and like I’m going to explode or melt with emotion, thinking about how so much of my life has been lived and directed by my inability to deal with this shit that was put into my head as a young person. If I cross a street and a car rolls up on me I ball up my fist and scream FUCK YOU! In my mind I am fighting for survival, fighting to be worthy of existing in the god damned fucking crosswalk you asshole! and the person in the car often looks at me like, oh shit, sorry, I didn’t see you there.
I cry thinking about all the other kids even right now on the brightly colored school bus who are suffering this same shit in the beginning stages, hiding behind the tall green vinyl seats and hoping nobody sees them. Being told in many ways by bullies, their teachers, their school, their friends, their parents, the government, their church, that they are worthless. How long will it take them to find help? Will they find help? Some of them will run away, do drugs, hurt themselves, commit suicide, join counter-cultures, become school shooters. Some of these survivors will ask the right person for help. Some will find books and escape into other realities of the mind and become writers alone in a room where they are with the only person they can trust.
Yeah, looking forward to session four. We’ve got this. Sometimes a bully just has to show us the way. Without the dark, how can we know what light is?
Session Four: Installation of Safe Place.
My therapist and I start by doing something I’ve been looking forward to and feeling like I could really use: installing my safe place. When triggered I can use this tool to calm my angry reaction and move thru an event that has brought up the trauma of my past. My therapist sits facing me on my right, the chairs arranged like two ships passing, as I think about the word that I will use to activate the safe place I repeat that word and imagine the safe place while she activates the left/right hand buzzers. I say “Woods” and picture the tall white pines and large old oak trees and the red pine needles and leaves on the ground and rocks and birds and two young squirrels wrestling rolling on the ground and a fox calmly walking and Henry my dog son is there too, happy and smiling, the sky beyond the trees is blue and the sun is shining. Three times we went thru this process of imaging the word Woods and imagining the place that word would conjure, hands buzzing. Then we tested the word, my therapist had me talk about a situation that raised my anxiety and anger level and then I spoke the word Woods, repeatedly, to conjure the safe place. It seemed to work very well, I went from feeling a 5 on a scale of anger to a 3, and then to a 2.
After the safe place was installed we got to working on memories again, the feeling of being Unworthy, repeating this word and thinking of the incident 37 years ago I closed my eyes while the buzzers moved left and right. The first time I saw only their faces, Mike with his bowl cut yellow hair and callous jocular demeanor. David with his more easy going and easily manipulated attachment to Mike. We tried again, all that came to my conscious mind was their faces. She explained to me that there was probably a block preventing me from re-living any more information. The trauma was buried, boxed away, bottled and corked. We tried a third time and then I told her I saw my young self doubled over on a concrete sidewalk, holding my stomach almost in a fetal position, in pain, alone. We explored how that felt. I remembered walking home alone, in pain, afraid, abandoned. I knew Mike was an asshole but I thot David was my friend. Betrayed. We explored this again. Young Robert laying wounded on the concrete sidewalk. I thot about going home, would I get help at home? There was no validation or support at home. Home seemed to say I was Worthless. We again went into the left/right movement but now with the concept of me as an adult going back and telling young me that I was Worthy. The first time, young me listened. Young Robert had made it home to our little brick house there on Redwood Drive, and there I was sitting slumped over on my bed. Hearing words of encouragement from older me, my young back straightened and my face turned up. The second time we did this I told the young me that he was worthy and was a good person, repeatedly, and then he got off the bed and smiled and went to go play and have fun. I felt a strange feeling like I had actually communicated with my younger self, like I had sent a message to myself back in time. Like it really happened.
My therapist asked me how that made me feel. The tears would not stay in my eyes anymore and when I caught my breath from crying and could speak again I told her that I wished someone had actually told me those things back then.
Walking out of the office I felt very light, dizzy, free. I imagined someone being rude to me on the street and I would just laugh. The source of my instant rage was this shit we were dealing with, and I was more in control of it every day. The power over my life that those bullies took away so long ago, the power to recognize my emotions and embrace them and let them go. The power of knowing I was a good person.
EMDR Therapy Is Working
As the grip of trauma was released thru the process of EMDR Therapy I felt air and light moving into the closed off places inside my mind that had been directing my behavior for many years. It was difficult to cry my eyes out for an hour every week. Showing up was not easy. So many things to do that were much more fun. I kept going because it felt like I really was re-programming my mind to function in a different way. I liked the new way.
Session Five. Identify Negative & Positive Cognition.
I’m at home now after the session. Triggered. Three teenage boys shouting and laughing. For someone who had not been bullied and beaten by boys in school this scene might bring a smile, for me it brought tense muscles and anger. I cast my eyes to the ground, don’t make eye contact, become invisible. hide. there’s too many to fight. one is too many. I don’t know how to fight. I head to the back yard behind the big trees, behind the garden shed where no one can see me. I set up my chair and table to write in peace, but i stare at the screen for five minutes. I can hear the boys shouting at each other. Just boys, I think, but traumatic memory brings emotions that are not rational. I realize as I sit there hiding behind this shack it is exactly what I did in high school when I left the lunch room at school and ate my food out behind the portable classrooms that had been set up to accommodate more students. Even in the winter I sat out there with no one, only a bird or squirrel.
Flash forward thirty years. There I sat in my backyard, a chickadee landed in a bush and chirped at me. Squirrels jiggled the phone lines on the power poles in the alley behind me. The only creatures I felt safe around, small things that couldn’t hurt me.
Now in the middle of EMDR Therapy I recognize how often in my life I have been triggered.
Before therapy I would not have noticed why I was angry, perhaps just scowl and complain about annoying people, from the outside looking like an unreasonable anger. I have been triggered daily for about 30 years. Sometimes more than once a day, sometimes in a small way, sometimes in a big meltdown way. Now I understand how much this abuse which I survived has controlled my actions and my relationships with people since then. It is mind blowing and it is sad. If I had gotten therapy soon after the abuse my life would have been completely different. How much happier I would have been instead of being constantly triggered into this fight/flight/freeze survival mode. How many friendships have I walked away from to feel safe?
Sitting here in my backyard I am fortunate to already be surrounded by trees, so I laugh at the irony as I use my safe space word installed by the EMDR Therapy, “Woods.” to take my mind to a place where I am safe. It kinda works. I’m too distracted. I say it again with my eyes closed. It does work. I am conscious of what is causing my anger and anxiety. I return to the house, put my hands on the keyboard and write. It’s okay.
Session Six. Desensitization to Negative Cognition.
Traveling back to the grade school trauma I visualize young Robert, wounded by bullies and walking home. Older me talks to that young self and I tell him this is not about who he is. This is about these boys who have problems of their own which they do not know how to express in a healthy way so they express them in a violent way. I tell my young self that he is worthy of having friends, that he is worthy of being loved. I tell my younger self that he is a good person. Young Robert stops crying and his breathing calms and becomes steady and he unfolds from a protective crouch, his mouth even turns up a little, because the words that older Rob speaks to him must be the truth, they are from his older self. Remember that you are worthy, I tell my younger self. I open my eyes to the present and I am in the office of the therapist, holding the emdr buzzers in each hand, and I tell her about my encounter, and tears come running down.
Session Seven. Positive Cognition Interweave.
I am holding left and right hand buzzers and I feel floaty now talking backwards in time to the original grade school bullying incident with Mike and Dave. Mike tells David to hold my arms, Mike punches me in the stomach until I collapse. Now we will change what this feeling is in my mind with positive cognition interweave. As the left and right hand buzzers go left right left right, it feels like everything has become fluid and I can see farther back into the past than before, like the memories have been unlocked by this process, no longer concealed from my consciousness. I envision telling these boys that what they are doing is wrong, that they should not be doing this to me. I envision Mike attacking me and we fight to the ground, David pulls Mike off me and I regain my feet, I stand and hold my ground.
I am worthy of having friends I am worthy of being me.
They turn and leave. I turn and leave. Another kid from school approaches me: Mike is also mean to me, the boy says, and we talk and walk and by the time we arrive at my house we are laughing and I see my mom and I wave smiling and she is smiling. My new friend empathizes with me and I know I am not alone, I feel worthy of having friends and being me. We play for hours around my house, and as the right and left hand buzzers buzz, I imagine playing baseball with my new friend and other kids. I get involved in bmx bike racing with my friend like I always wanted. My friend has glasses too and we nerd out on science and nature and I am not afraid anymore, a dark cloud has lifted and a light has come in.
This part never happened. This is what should have happened. This is my ideal for how I should have been supported thru this trauma. I should have been empowered, told I was worthy, and had a friend.
Now my older self knows that I am worthy of having friends and worthy of being loved. I am a good person, I deserve to be loved. I walk away from the office feeling unafraid and happy, tears come to my eyes, not from remembering all the abuse and sadness, I cry because I feel free.
Engaging to End Sources of Trauma
Having dealt with my traumatic memories I became open to helping others. With confidence and fearlessness, feeling worthy I become engaged helping vulnerable people. When I dealt with shit and became stable in mind I also became stable in other ways. I realized what I had to give. There are many ways to help people, you only need to consider what you are able to give and find someone who needs that.
National elections have exposed many vulnerable people to a hidden hatred, bullys were given moral license to go out and commit acts of violence against women, People of Color, non-christians, disabled people, veterans, people needing health care, and LGBTQ people. Joining my voice and actions with those of other pissed off people has felt very empowering and I believe it is helpful that vulnerable people to at least know they are not alone in the struggle to survive.
We live in a universe full of unknowns, there will likely always be trauma as part of being alive. Sources of trauma we can work to lessen are easily within our reach every day. Our partners, our children, our family. We can get therapy or whatever method works to stop passing on the generational violence.
Institutionalized sources of trauma will be more difficult to change. Dealing with my trauma gave me a conception of a bigger picture, that the foundations of our nation are made of trauma. How can a nation seek therapy?
After finishing EMDR Therapy I traveled to Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to the encampment of the Water Protectors where thousands of people had gathered. Many like me had come to support the indigenous tribes in their struggle for sovereignty and protection of the water. In the Oceti Sakowin Camp over on the Red Warrior side I participated in a Non-Violent Action Training. A trauma therapist addressed the participants, inviting us to visit the “Emotional Trauma Therapy Tipi” (Just look for the sign) to deal with the violence being inflicted by militarized police forces on non-violent people who had come to pray. This therapist made a lot of sense: first go to the medic tents to be treated for the physical wounds caused by rubber bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades, pepper spray, and hypothermia from cold weaponized water, then go to the therapist to deal with the emotional trauma and do it right away. Treat the invisible wounds. Trauma that is not dealt with will soak into the soul and become indistinguishable from the self, or bottled up ready to burst forth later and cause physical self harm, or harm to friends, family, and loved ones.
The pain of stored trauma can be temporarily drowned out with random street drugs and alcohol until the use of those becomes even more painful than the original trauma. I self medicated for years with alcohol and weed and the trauma was always back the next morning, but the money in my wallet was forever gone.
Prescription drugs can be used to treat PTSD, but when you stop taking them, the trauma is still there. I would try EMDR Therapy first, but if that doesn’t work, drugs could be an option. I know a lot of people who take drugs to be functional and happy. No shame. If it works, it works.
Trauma can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but this not an automatic or unavoidable consequence, trauma can be dealt with, but you must seek out and ask for help.
Trans-Generational Trauma is suffering that a parent experienced and is passed on to the child. Many indigenous people experience Trans-Generational Trauma and also experience Continuous Trauma as the children go thru the same trauma their parents and grandparents experienced. The children have the traumatic stories of what their grandparents and parents survived, and now they have their own stories of survival.
Scientists say trauma can be passed on with chemical markers attached to genes in your children. Indigenous traditions have known this for a long time, and science is now catching up to this knowledge in a study called Epigenetics, “above the gene”. In addition to passing on genetic trauma memory, genetic resilience to trauma can also be passed in the form of a chemical marker attached to a gene. My feeling on this, if the genes can be changed by trauma, they can be changed again by love.
At this point in my EMDR Therapy I can now recognize when I am triggered and deal with that in the moment and not have my day ruined and bum everyone out around me. All the time I keep putting the pieces together of this fucked up childhood/ teenage survival programming that has basically been running my life. I always thot that therapy would suck worse than the trauma, and so for many years I shrugged it off and powered thru the shit. I do feel a little foolish for not seeking help sooner, but when you’re in the middle of the shit, sometimes you convince yourself that it doesn’t smell so bad cause you have no idea how to get out of it. It happened at exactly the perfect time to make my life head in the direction of happy awareness. I am aware of existing and being surrounded by many terrible things, there is no perfect, but I choose to be happy in this awareness and work to make things better. I now feel Worthy of this.
Trigger Test. Working the cash register with a long que of customers out the front door, I feel shamed by the things co-workers are saying to me, one after the other, I feel anger. Why are they answering questions the customers have directed at me, as tho I didn’t know the answers? I feel shamed in front of these strangers, some are even giggling! I feel hot and tired, now furious! I am thinking of how to word a confrontation with my co-workers. Feeling nothing but hate for this job now, I contemplate taking off the apron, throwing it down, walk the fuck out of this place. Then the light inside appears, I realize I was triggered. I breathe, I focus on my breathing and getting thru the transactions with the customers. By the end of the line several minutes have passed and I comprehend that this worker may not have been trying to hurt me or shame me but may have been trying to be helpful, if in an aggressive way, that may be the way they are, just their personality. Outgoing, overly helpful, not a bully. Being triggered and feeling ashamed and angry was my own business that I was able to recognize and embrace because of the EMDR Therapy. It feels like being able to deal with my emotions as they arise, instead of my emotions dealing with me and leading me down dark paths towards pain and solitude. I can’t control my emotions, the emotions still arise and I am still triggered daily, but now instead of brooding and hating for hours or even the rest of the day I can feel confident that I am worthy of being loved and an attack or perceived attack is meaningless because I am loved and one little attack can’t damage me. This is a misunderstanding because they don’t know me and don’t know I am a good person who is worthy.
Now I can even decide in happy rationality that it is time for me to put in notice at my job and move on to a job I want to be doing, not running away from co-workers and situations that trigger me, but knowing that I can now deal with them having gone thru the EMDR Therapy.
I can work with people who trigger me and on the surface, they might not even notice. Strange how being triggered now seems to last the same amount of time as when I used to smoke cigarettes and had cravings to smoke that lasted for three minutes, you can time it. After three minutes, no more craving for a cigarette. If you make it thru the craving, you can remain a non smoker, happier, healthier, and fatter wallet. Same for being triggered, if you can make it thru these short minutes and focus on your breathing, understanding that you have been triggered, knowing that it is a defense mechanism, and repeat your mantra to rise above the shame. You survive, you win, and the trauma does not rule your life anymore.
I know I will be challenged in the coming years by situations that will trigger me, and I will deal with it, and sometimes I will fail to deal with it, and from those incidents I will learn how to deal better with the next. It’s exciting and I feel a surge of power, good personal power, that I can occupy the space around me that is mine as a human, and move out in the world and interact with other people and do good things. There is no more hiding. It is time to reach out and hold the day, it is time to wrap my arms around the night, without fear, loving and being loved.
Session Eight: I arrive at the finish line of therapy.
I talked about feeling more confident, feeling worthy, feeling much better than when starting. My therapist asked if I felt there were any blocks, things preventing me from achieving this goal of feeling worthy. My therapist asked if I thot I needed more reprocessing, and i said that it felt like doing more at this point, going back in time and dealing with memories, would be doing something we had already done. I decided we were done and that we would check back in a month from then. My therapist instructed me about how to reinforce my positive cognition, and to hold something like a rock in each hand and squeeze left and right while thinking of the positive cognition: I am worthy.
I walked away feeling I had the ability to deal. If not, I could always go back and get help from her. I have the safe place too, tho I haven’t needed to use it in awhile. Now if something happens that is triggering I recognize it instantly and acknowledge what is happening and I am okay.
I stepped out of that final session happy and present, walking down the city sidewalk feeling not afraid but confident that I was worthy of being there. To stand on a street unafraid. Amazing. That night I felt emotional, but I was done crying.
How To Find An EMDR Therapist
The EMDR Institute offers many resources, articles about theory, frequently asked questions, professional statements, and a tool for finding an EMDR Therapist near you: www.emdr.com Another online source to find an EMDR Therapist is: www.PsychologyToday.com.
Some people promote self administered EMDR Therapy. I do not have any experience with this and having found a therapist who was able to skillfully guide me thru this process the idea of trying to do this alone seems like trying to make a complicated repair on a car using a video and tools from the junk drawer at home. The trauma I was dealing with had been there with me for decades, I needed the Wise Other as a guide to be able to see the truth which was hidden behind my emotional defense mechanisms.
My EMDR Therapy was covered by my low income MN Care insurance. Even if I had to pay out of pocket, the rapidity of the therapy and the success I had would have made it a deal. I would recommend first trying to reach out and find this Other person to guide you thru the EMDR Therapy. The actual existence of this other person who expressed interest, knowledge, and care was motivational in the therapy, knowing I was not alone with this trauma. Here was this other person willing to help me find the light inside. I wouldn’t recommend messing around with something so important as your mind/body happiness. Go find a certified mind mechanic, a feelings doctor, and remember, the process is always in your control.
Feeling worthy has done more than enable me to function in social situations and to have a better functioning relationship with my partner. Feeling worthy has opened me to achieve things in my life that I did not feel I was worthy of before. I have spent years hiding behind the building, just like little Robert did back in school. I can take on a job that is challenging and requires compassion and skills, I am worthy of a job that makes me happy and where everyone supports each other. I am worthy of this life.
I also have made breakthroughs in my work as an artist, I don’t need the approval of anyone to create things, and I don’t need to constantly be creating something to feel worthy. Now that I know I am worthy, I know others are worthy too. I feel confident and reach out to help them and become friends, where before I feared everyone a little, expecting at some point they could bully or abuse me in some way.
I spent a lot of my life in solitude, with the only person I thot I could trust, but now I feel that actually there are many people who could be trusted, and the blocks in my mind and body have been reprogrammed with EMDR Therapy. I have confronted the trauma within and now I am a different person. I like this person. I feel significant. I feel like I matter to people around me.
After completing EMDR Therapy I got a job working with Developmentally Disabled people. Sometimes the behaviors of the people I work with are unreasonable and can be verbally and physically abusive, just like the bullies I experienced in school. I could not successfully do this caring work if I had not gone thru the process of EMDR Therapy. I can deal with these behaviors now, I can deal with physical or verbal aggression and not experience the automatic fight/flight/freeze response, the speeding heartbeat, surging throbbing warmth in my head, locked vocal chords, the ringing in my ears, and the trembling of muscles. This doesn’t happen anymore. I still feel triggered by aggressive behavior, but instead of the feeling lasting all day, it lasts for minutes or seconds and then I am calm again. Feels like I have my mind, body, and life back. Thinking about it, one reason why I took this job was to challenge myself and cross boundaries that I never could before. To emerge from the shadows and be more fully alive.
I still get mad. My partner still triggers me. I still don’t like to encounter groups of men or teenage boys. Sometimes I act toward other people like the bullies acted towards me, and that is very disturbing. I still have shit to deal with and I haven’t figured everything out. EMDR Therapy isn’t a miracle cure, tho right in the middle of it when you feel that locked door bust open and the light pour in, it kinda feels like magic. I’ve still got work to do personally and in my community if I want to live in a world where trauma is given the recognition, treatment, and prevention it should have.
Trauma is best dealt with immediately, from the very moment it occurs. It’s never too late to treat trauma, but the sooner the better. Get up and go!
Robert Wildwood is a long time author at Microcosm Publishing with the following comic titles in print: Alive With Vigor!, Unsinkable, Shut Up & Love the Rain, Awesome Future!, & Standing Unafriad: Healing Trauma With EMDR Therapy
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, And Body In The Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.
Reclaiming Youth At Risk by Martin Brokenleg, Larry K Brendtro, & Steve Van Bockern
The Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy by David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PH.D.
EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma by Francine Shapiro, PH.D. & Margot Silk Forrest
Trauma May Be Woven Into DNA of Native Americans (Indian Country Media Network)
The Eight Phases of EMDR Therapy According To Francine Shapiro (wikipedia.org)
Francine Shapiro / EMDR Therapy (wikipedia.org)