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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.

5 Responses to The Despair of Yesterday: A Lesson Learned through EMDR

  1. Hi, Wendy! I read this awhile ago and have felt remiss about not responding then. Your eloquent description of how EMDR therapy can help you come to terms with infant trauma is a strong testimonial for that approach. It took me quite a long time practicing primal therapy to learn the value of re-experiencing infant trauma in manageable doses. My own experience dealing with circumcision trauma is similar in many ways with yours in that there was tremendous and long-lasting pain and a feeling of abandonment and betrayal felt by circumcised infants. Yes, we all “forget” the experience on a conscious level, but the impact is never forgotten by our unconscious amygdala memory, and forever after the specter of this memory can throw us into unexpected depression or panic when any current experience reminds us of how we felt way back then.

    Your work on this is admirable and needs to be more widely known. I’m sorry there haven’t been more comments, but thank you for posting here.

    p.s. It turns out I was misinformed about possibly presenting at the California APPPAH meeting this May. In fact, I was asked to present at a Birthkeeper meeting in Berkeley at the same time. My friend Ryan McAllister and I have decided not to present there for various reasons but may do so next year in Washington, D.C. (Just FYI)

    • Hi Robert, Thanks so much for responding to my post. I just found your comment. Turns out my blog is messed up and not reporting to me when I get a comment. I’m disappointed you won’t be coming to the west coast, where I’d hoped to meet you. Thanks so much for appreciating my post about EMDR. It continues to help me. Your comment about our “unconscious amygdala memory” always remembering resonated with me. FYI, I’m working really hard right now with an editor to finish and publish my memoir about infant surgery, so my blog has taken a back seat, but yes, it would be great if it were more widely known. Thanks for being a loyal supporter!

  2. Thank you Wendy for another sensitively informative post about the help EMDR is giving you. You explain so well how your trauma, including triggers and reliving, is being dealt with in ways which allow you to manage your pain better. Robert has commented here in ways I heartily support: with him and many other readers I continue to be grateful to you for the careful and detailed way you are passing on the instruction and release you have found. Your years of coming to understand and grapple with the stubborn and destructive demons which afflicted you as a result of your infant surgery have not been fruitless!
    We are each unique, and like Robert I have found and charted my own path towards healing. Wendy, Robert and I are among the few who have not only come to recognize that we were afflicted by our pre-verbal / somatic / body memory of trauma, and we have not only sought and found a good degree of recovery, but we have also written about our healing. Readers tell us that this is a tremendous benefit to them and I’m sure countless others! We’ll keep up the good work in as many ways as we can.

    • Thank you, Fred! I just found your comment, for somehow WordPress stopped informing my email that a comment came in. So glad to be one of the Three Musketeers, if you will. You and Robert certainly motivate me to continue to get the word out. Yes, we keep up with our message about the persistence and reality of pre-verbal, somatic body memory. We keep up with our message about ways to cope and better understand ourselves and others. Let’s stay visible so that others who need the light will find it.

  3. Hi Wendy,This is great,I find hope in your words here.I think Peter Levine would regard this as a completion in some way,but more important what you think,of course.

    I’ve been despairing about my own emdr journey as my traumatic stuff is more of a complex trauma nature,rather than specific events and the emdr success rates point to the latter.But,I am learning to accept that although a longer treatment plan,I can trust that my body wants to heal and learning to develop my mind/emotions to strengthen my sense of agency.

    I so appreciate you journalling and sharing your process Wendy,I look forward to seeing your reflections.Onward! :))

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