My therapist at Annie’s House, K, had an office with an L-shaped desk that he sometimes sat behind with two fairly comfortable blue chairs facing him. Off to the right side was a white couch with four throw pillows, two white and two bright turquoise. Next to the couch there was a blue chenille blanket and a portable side table that K used for some of his sessions. His office was in the front corner of the house, and if I sat in either of the blue chairs I could look out the window behind K and catch a glimpse of the mountains through some evergreen and birch trees. During family therapy sessions I would sit in the far chair by the wall with K next to me, on the right, as we sat in front of his laptop. During small group processing I would sit on the couch, with one pillow between myself and whoever else chose to sit there and another pillow in my lap. Most of the time, though, I chose to sit in the chair nearest to the door. That was the EMDR chair.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. In EMDR a person processes traumatic images or events while experiencing bilateral stimulation. The bilateral stimulation can be through sight or touch. A light bar or hand can be used so that the person visually tracks back and forth movements, electronic tappers can be used to create an alternating vibrational pulse between hands, and it repeats until turned off. Some therapists sit close to their clients and physically alternate taps on their hands or knees.
K didn’t use a light bar or tappers, so I chose to allow him to tap on the tops of my hands rather than keep my eyes open. I wasn’t sure I could visually track in real-time and see what was playing in my head without feeling disoriented. He would move out from behind his desk and face me, place the side table between us, and I would place my hands on the table as though I was waiting for someone to play the stabscotch game with me.
Before ever sitting in that chair with my hands on the table, we had a conversation about what the experience had been like for me in the past. I told him that the first time I attempted EMDR my therapist and I concluded that I was not ready to continue. There were three major obstacles that made my first trial unsuccessful for processing.
- I was flooded with images that flashed so quickly that I couldn’t figure them out. At the time I couldn’t possibly have identified how I was feeling, but when I look back on it I must have been confused, anxious, and terrified. I had fewer grounding and self-regulation skills than I thought.
- Time stood still. I could not make parts of that specific trauma move; not forward or backward. Reality and memory blended, and I (my sense of self and the ways I perceive – sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch) got lost somewhere in the fog. That fog typically means that one minute IT is actually happening, and the next minute I am somewhat aware of myself and feel nauseous, dizzy, and weak.
- After my EMDR session, I was so dysregulated that I could not maintain my own safety. I was seeking ways to numb the emotions and impulses I was experiencing, feel something other than a separate kind of numbness with my physical world, and punish myself with any pain I could inflict on myself.
In EMDR, you create or hold an image that gives you a sense of calm or safety. It is called your safe place, and you go there when you become overwhelmed. My safe place in 2018 (ish?) was part of the Appalachian Trail. I could smell the damp soil and a nearby skunk, hear birds chirping and flying overhead as sticks snapped, see miles around me at the top of a mountain in a clearing, feel the heavy air and dampness from the misty rain, and taste the cold water from the stream. That was a great image and memory of calm and quiet, but it was too serene. It wasn’t powerful enough to pull my mind away from danger, and I couldn’t ground myself enough to step into the woods on that trail.
I loved the serenity of the Appalachian Trail, but I needed to have a new safe place that wasn’t contaminated with the confusing and painful self-hatred I had toward myself for “failing” to ground the first time. My first session with K tapping on my hands was an hour-long tour through my new safe place. I lived there for an hour, but it felt like minutes. With each set of taps I would notice more details, and I could manipulate everything I wanted to in my safe place. I moved things around, brought people in to visit, asked others to leave, wandered aimlessly, had conversations, and experienced happiness.
Each time I closed my eyes and felt the tapping begin again, I was submerged in the waters of the place my mind captured so vividly.
When I walked in, it felt humid; too warm without the discontinuous but cool and refreshing breeze that displaced a few loose strands of my hair. Despite the heat, everything I touched felt cooler on my skin. The ground was firm in varying degrees but even, and I could feel the difference in textures of the terrain beneath my feet. There was both a vibration and a stillness in the ground, and if I stood long enough in any one place, I could experience both.
Chaotic, almost maniacal sounds danced together the way sheet music comes alive for a composer standing in front of an orchestra. The subtle sound of humming electricity and fluorescent light bulbs buzzing created an almost unnoticeable pianissimo quality while talking, yelling, clanging metal, whirring of machines, and music coming from the large speakers broke free from the subtle constraints of the melody with their own syncopated rhythm and rise and fall in volume. The solo – the music I heard loudest in that space – was the undeniable sound of laughter among friends.
As I looked around, I could see several rooms. Each of the rooms had their own distinct and unique theme, but they contained the same materials: wood, steel, iron, rubber, plastic, aluminum, glass, and foam; wires ran along the walls and ceiling for the lights, cameras, and speakers; mirrors or windows lined many of the walls; and bright lights and fans were operating with ease throughout. The first room I noticed had somewhere between twenty and twent-five different machines, each with different buttons, knobs, lights, or pulleys. Another room contained black or white iron and steel structures, and many of them were too big or heavy to relocate easily. An additional room had a red brick wall, ample floor space, taller and more permanent structures, and more colorful heavy duty equipment than the rest of the rooms. It was dusty in one area but not dirty, and I enjoyed standing in the doorway watching the busyness of the people who were there. Finally, my favorite room – the one I experienced the most joy in, was a random conglomeration of similar sights to those in the other rooms but also different items not found throughout the rest of this safe space. The walls were bright white as in many of the other rooms, but the floors were blue rather than the black found everywhere else. The objects in the room contained more color than in the other rooms. I could look around and spot every color of the rainbow. The people in that room, if I chose to allow them in, were also colorful in a sense. They were energetic and in almost constant motion, their body language and facial expressions manifested everything from seriousness to light-heartedness and everything in between, and they smiled in the most sincere and friendly way.
A strange mix of pleasant and unpleasant scents permeated the air. The most pungent odor was the inescapable rancid smell of sweat that hung in the air indefinitely. A more subtle undertone of rubber and grease wafted through the air, clearing periodically as the gentle breeze from open doors floated through. That same breeze provided a pleasant diversion of steak on a grill that could not even be matched by the nutty aroma of already brewed coffee. The combination of steak and coffee caused my mouth to water and produced a salty flavor that I was incapable of neutralizing.
This new safe place was more difficult to leave than it was to visit, but when the tapping stopped for good, I knew I had found a place where I could go to ground myself. For the next week I practiced going there twice a day to prepare myself for my future EMDR sessions and the intense distress I feared they would cause. My safe place has been a refuge quite a few times since that first visit, and I am grateful to be able to go there.