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The Despair of Yesterday: A Lesson Learned through EMDR

This morning in my early meditation, I checked in with my baby self. She and I have become one lately and just today, I learned why I’ve kept separate from her all these many years. If I accepted the reality of this almost-dead baby into my life–the one that almost died from a condition called pyloric stenosis, a stomach blockage, at 26 days old–I’d have to face and accept the despair that I felt shortly after birth. Who wants to remember grief and pain so deep it could kill?

To deny its existence though is surely to ask for its repeat–the essence of what is called reenactment. To deny the despair and depression assures their return. It seals their ultimate power over me. Which is why I’ve chosen to work on this issue in my EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. Here’s is how it works.

I sit on the couch opposite my therapist. She moves her chair closer and grabs her wand with the red ball at its tip. I sink into the feelings of my body, of that baby lying in the recovery room in 1952 covered in thick black, rubber hoses (no nice clear, light plastic tubing of today) after my surgery to repair the blockage in my stomach. My therapist waves the wand back and forth at eye level. I watch the red ball. Back and forth my eyes go.

I am alone with my situation–having been operated on without anesthesia and having no pain control. I am alone in the room, for back then, germ theory dictated that the infant must be isolated after surgery. The nurse is in the room next door; a window allows her to see me. My arms and legs are tied down. I can’t escape and so, I try to escape by dying.

You say, how can I remember? I can’t remember with declarative or verbal memory. But as I key in to my abdomen and my body–the shallow, terrified breathing–I know the despair I felt. The feelings are still there locked into my gut, my chest, my arms and legs. Some call it somatic memory. The tension in my baby body is enormous. HELP! But there is no relief. I have no words. I am alone. I cannot move. I am trapped and in pain. I want to die.

It’s liberating to admit this. Lying on the couch, I whimper. My body remembers my experience. I watch the red ball wave back and forth, and with this movement, my emotions and inner experience move as well.  I feel frustration. No matter what I do with my eyes, no help comes. I imagine the nurse arrives briefly to feed me. She pumps nourishment into a stomach tube. Then, she is gone. Perhaps her eyes above her mask relate her concern for me and I feel seen. Crying brings some relief.

Here’s the key though. In this EMDR session, I am able to touch base (not re-experience, a key distinction) with that early despair, and as odd as this sounds, it is life-giving. For I am learning that this feeling is old despair. The helplessness, pain, frustration, rage, entrapment–all these are old. And any new despair–a feeling I might feel from time to time as an adult–is present despair.

The problem I’ve had is that sometimes as a child or teen or adult, whenever I’d felt helplessness or entrapment or disappointment or failure, my body automatically and unconsciously hooked back into the despair of the past. My body seized me, in a sense, and gripped me in depression.

In the EMDR session, we wand the feeling of relief–my current despair or hopelessness is not irremediable. It is fixable and temporary. It is something that will change and can be changed by me. The old despair is not connected and therefore, can no longer drag me down into the depths of depression. A feeling of hopelessness will change. As my eyes move back and forth, I am repeating these types of phrases: It’s temporary. It will pass. I have agency. I can change it. A feeling of wellbeing floods in.

What I now need to do in my life is not allow myself to go back into that unconscious space in which I hold my body rigidly as if I am a depressed infant who was really trapped and unable to free herself. I must remind myself that the past is past and has no present hold over me. My body knows this now.

Through EMDR, I now feel that I am free from what has seemed a power that could dominate me. A power that could overcome me and to which I’d succumb–as if a dark, heavy cloak could be thrown over me without my permission. I feel confident that now, I’ll be able to separate real-time sadness from old-time despair. The despair of yesterday, which was uncontrollable and overwhelming, is just that–yesterday. It need not influence my feelings of today.