Three free Breathing lessons

Content warning: sexual assault, mental health, suicidal ideation and similar.


“What is a pirate’s favourite type of therapy?”

“Oh, God, Ol…”

“EMDArrrrrrrr.”


I said that to my husband a few days after my first session. Until then, using the letters felt very clinical, distant from my usual vocabulary. It felt a little shameful if I’m honest. EMDR was for people who had suffered serious trauma, like veterans or survivors of abuse. So I talked about it hesitantly – the shape of the letters felt weird when I used them.


Until I made the joke, and some (only some) of the weird skin-tightening discomfort felt a bit lesser.



EMDR – or “eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing” – is a form of therapy that helps people process distressing images and memories, in a guided setting with a trained professional. I was sceptical, I must admit, when I was told I had to watch something move from side to side whilst recounting horrible memories. The fact that I had to have a long period of counselling before it even started felt scary, but also, I found myself scoffing at the idea. Really? So the counselling happens before the therapy, and we wonder why the therapy is meant to be so successful?


Yeah, I was cynical.


But at that stage, I was ready to try anything.


I’ve written a lot about having lost my Dad – in fact, looking at this blog which was meant to be a meandering, beautiful tour through books I was planning to read, I realise it has become the occasional space for me just to rant at the void.


What I haven’t said to many people, but am now saying to anyone who reads this, is that since he died, for the past five years, I have had flashbacks and intrusive memories several times a day. I was there when he died, with my family, and so the memories were difficult.


Sometimes they would overwhelm me, and I’d have to hide in the toilet for a while until the intensity faded. Other times – and this is almost impossible to describe – it was as if there was a projection of the scene over the present moment. Sometimes I’d be in work, talking normally, and the memory would pass over me. I felt in those moments like I was on autopilot, looking at and speaking to colleagues, but also feeling the echo of those final moments.


Sometimes in the early days of grief, I would spend hour after hour reliving those moments. There’s about twelve months of my life where I don’t fully remember things. I was just a walking bundle of memories and flashbacks, with the occasional event planning moment.


At this time things got tough, and I started having suicidal thoughts. Even writing this feels somehow wrong, my hands froze as I typed it, and I wondered whether this is “too much”, or “inappropriate” to share. But that’s the sort of thoughts that had my memories and flashbacks rolling around, and around, and around, in my brain, unable to talk to many people about it at all.


So, no. It’s not inappropriate to talk about it. More of us should. And this is my start to that.


Lesson one: always talk, if you want to, and never feel it isn’t appropriate, or good, to share your thoughts and struggles.

 

“Look, I don’t want you to think that just because I’m holding down a job, that I’m coping. I’m not. Working and making a difference is my protective factor, but I am not ok.”


“Oh, Oliver, don’t worry. I don’t think you’re coping.”


It’s that sort of dry, gentle, but brutally honest response from my current counsellor and EMDR practitioner, that made me finally have some hope.


We started the first period of EMDR, and it was hideous.


It is quite a merciless form of therapy or can be. But it is also soft-hearted and kind, in a strange way. I can remember how I felt when my therapist said to imagine those final few moments with Dad. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I felt a rush of anger at myself. I could remember that in that moment I had wanted to do something, to help stop this oncoming tidal wave. This was a nameless, faceless tidal wave called death - and me, my family, and every person in the whole world is powerless against it. I had so many feelings, and I was lost in them.


The therapist chose that moment to ask me how to rate that discomfort on a scale of one to ten.


“TEN!” I half-scoffed, half-barked, half-gasped.


At the time I was raging at the question. What a clinical, distant, awful thing to ask when I was in the centre of this storm.


But I soon came to rely on that clinical (but calm and kind) voice as it guided me through the memories. EMDR helps to guide you through the initial “root memory” of the trauma, and under guided support, you process other thoughts that come to you. They can be strange, random, or utterly predictable. But because you’ve got the support with you, you start to unravel the ridiculous, overwhelming ball of emotion in the traumatic memory, and things start, slowly, to get easier.


They get harder first, though – the first few times after EMDR I just lay on my bed feeling like I’d been punched in the brain repeatedly.


It was a tough old journey, but I wanted to share the session that helped me make peace with that memory. The memory had started to lose its power after several sessions. In our final session for that memory, I was asked how I now felt in terms of discomfort.


“Three? Four?”


I still felt sad – but the rage, the confusion, the guilt, the self-loathing, that had faded.


I was asked what I was thinking.


“That I did my best, and I’d do the same again if I had the chance.”


The moment I shared those words, I felt the biggest weight lift off me.


You don’t get a chance to practice death, or test-run grief.


Lesson two: you’re doing ok, you did ok, and you’re going to do ok.


 

“Harry, I think I realised something today.”

“What’s that?”

“I think I’m a good person.”

“Yeah, I’ve been telling you that for years.”


There’s no easy way to write this, and I’ve never written it so bluntly before.


When I was nine or so, I was sexually assaulted by kids my own age.


I never used that phrase until EMDR.


We moved on from the memory of death to another experience – one that I have (or had) very little solid memory of. I won’t go into details, partly because it doesn’t really need it. But when describing what I felt had happened, I used so many words and caveats and apologies and half-excuses. The person guiding me through it translated for me:

“When you were sexually assaulted, do you mean?”


I had to stay quiet for what felt like years – but was probably a few seconds – because I felt years and years of wanting to talk about it suddenly want to release. I wanted to cry or shout. I just gritted my teeth and I think we carried on.


Why am I writing about this? Well, firstly, look back at lesson one.


I spent years – decades now, I suppose – minimising, excusing, comparing, what had happened to me to other people. It wasn’t sexual assault because x, y, or z hadn’t happened. It wasn’t a, b, or c so I had no right to be bothered by it. I was lucky, I was coping, I was fine.


But it was catching up with me, every year. I suppose after losing Dad and having lost so much energy in fighting with grief, the other stuff just caught up with me.


EMDR, surprisingly, isn't as scary as it sounds. Yes, it can be challenging and tough, revisiting that horrific memory and feelings again and again. Yes, it’s horrible. But, just as with the memory of death, it is starting to lose its power over me.


When we first started exploring this memory, I couldn’t speak. I tried, I was trying to explain the feelings I had, but I could just gesticulate, holding my chest as I tried to find words to describe my thoughts, my feelings. Nothing would work, no words would come out. And anyone who knows me even half-well, knows I’m ok with words really.


But I did get some words out, in those first few sessions, and I was able to say “it wasn’t my fault”, and “I’m still a good person”.


These things are written so much about sexual assault. Survivors often write or talk about fault-finding, shame, a sense that they aren’t good enough anymore. Logically, I knew that was all incorrect. But the impact it has on your sense of self happens years before you know anything about sexual assault, and what it means about you (clue, zero, it’s all them). It was so deep-rooted that it took the counsellor to say “you are a good person, you know”, for me to finally, finally, finally believe that there might be a chance it is true.


I have spent my life, without realising it, desperate to make myself a good person. Throwing myself into people’s problems, working on so many different things all at once, jumping in to take things on myself, all because (totally unthinkingly) I had this dark, pressing weight on my back. It would whisper that I wasn’t a nice person, that I was shameful, that I was damaged or nasty, and (bless Catholicism) that I needed to atone for this all.


And almost none of it consciously noted by me. Instead, it was just this deep, lingering sense of shame and anger.

I cannot describe, I don’t think I will ever be able to properly, how this realisation affected me. Just saying the words to my husband was like I turned the lights on in the basement, and all the stuff that people had shoved in there without telling me was visible for the first time. For the first time, properly, I felt like I had my own value and I could be my own person.


I’m still working on this memory through EMDR – it’s the toughest one yet, and I haven’t found a way of processing everything. And I know it isn’t a miracle, or that I’m “fixed” (who ever is?). But I do feel like I can see things for the first time in my life.

I have started thinking of this like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Bear with me, I’m probably sounding pretentious. Ignore the philosophical context, and instead, just think about the story.


“Human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets…


…they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave.”


It’s meant to be an exploration of the source of epistemological knowledge (yawn). But the words Plato uses have always felt beautiful to me. The whole text is available here, and sometimes (I know, I’m very nerdy) I read it because the language is comforting and relaxing. Some of it, of course, is dated and judgemental, but we can’t expect everything from Plato.


That’s how I’ve been feeling. I feel like I’ve looked out of the cave and seen some parts of who I really am, and I am waiting eagerly to be able to breathe in this new world.


Lesson three: you are good enough, you are worthy of love and compassion, and nobody has the right to tell you otherwise.

 

This is a disjointed mess of a blog. Largely some thoughts just being put out there just in case it helps anyone. If you’re reading it, it means I didn’t delete it after all!


I just hope it helps you, or people you know, who may have experienced similar.


And I’ll leave you with a bit more Plato:


“When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the den, and you will know what the several images are and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth.”

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