By Freddie Cocker
It was the middle of 2020 and I had just finished my second round of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to get a grip on my anxiety, specifically around rumination and overthinking.
I knew that I still hadn’t addressed the deep-rooted traumas from my childhood I needed to heal in order to move forward with my life. However, I also knew that CBT wasn’t going to be the correct tool to do this.
I was talking about my mental health privately with a supportive work colleague at the time who had also experienced mental health difficulties in their life.
I disclosed that I was looking to address childhood sexual abuse that I had written about previously and to better manage the PTSD I had a diagnosis of the previous year.
They listened to my story and recommended I try something called Eye Movement Desensitisation Therapy (EMDR).
They said it was very intense, quite niche but if I was open to it, it could be life-changing for me.
I contacted my previous therapist and asked if she could recommend a therapist who practised EMDR.
She gave me the contact details of someone who might be able to help and I got in touch to see if they had any availability.
I should add here for context that this therapist tragically took her own life in 2021. I have written about this period of grief already so I won’t go into further details about this in this article.
The first session I did with them I was asked to think of 10 negative memories and 10 positive memories to bring to the first session.
We went through them and I was asked to select the best one from the list of positive memories and use it to create my own ‘safe space’. Others might call it their ‘happy place’.
Now, you might think of the film Happy Gilmore or culture wars being waged against controversial speakers at university events when you hear the word ‘safe space’.
What this word meant in practice is that before the start of every session, I would put both my hands over my chest in a butterfly-esque position, close my eyes, think of this happy place and tap my chest in a rhythm.
Once I had done this for a significant period of time, I would feel at ease and ready to tackle whichever trauma we were going to focus on for that session. I would do this again at the end of every session to close the session and make sure I was emotionally stable.
The next step came when it was time to focus on a particular traumatic memory to resolve. I wanted to do EMDR therapy in order to tackle the childhood sexual abuse, but my therapist wanted me to go back and resolve the rest of my suitcase of trauma first.
This included: bullying in both primary and secondary school, self-harm, suicide attempts, psychosis, substance abuse, cyber-bullying incidents and family issues.
In a session, I would pick one of these to focus on. They would then ask me: ‘What is the negative cognition associated with this memory?’ and how strong the feeling is towards that cognition. For example, if the trauma was a suicide attempt, the cognition could be: ‘I’m hated’, ‘no one loves me’ or ‘I deserve to die’.
Once we had confirmed the negative cognition, I would have to sit still and move my eyes from left to right with the image of this memory kept firmly in my mind.
If you want a handy visualisation, think of the minute hand of a grandfather clock or a magnetic ball cradle you might buy to use as a paperweight.
The metronomic and hypnotic method of moving your eyes in this way increases the intensity of the memory but very slowly, begins to heal your mind and the association with the memory.
I did this anywhere between 30-60 seconds before taking a pause, telling my therapist the images that it conjured up and how my body was feeling; what sensations did I feel? Were my arms tingly? What was happening in my legs, feet, chest?
After repeating this eye movement, I would know if we had resolved it when the strength of feeling associated with the negative cognition was zero and a positive cognition had emerged in its place.
Sometimes this process would take one session, for other memories which were on the severe end of the scale, it could take two or even three sessions to resolve.
The most remarkable part of the therapy is that whilst doing the EMDR, previous versions of myself began to emerge inside my mind and speak to me. These came in the form of an 8-year-old version of myself, a teenage version so 13/14 years old and an 18-year-old version.
I have had many conversations with all three of these boys. I have cried with them, laughed with them; I have held them and consoled them.
I have gone back into traumatic memories inside my mind as the current version of myself now and comforted them. On the other hand, vice-versa, they have spoken to me, and we have resolved the trauma associated with these memories together.
I have sat in a room inside my mind with all three versions of my younger self and spoke together about what we need to do get better and move forward with our lives. When I type these words out, it can sound like I was on hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or magic mushrooms, but it genuinely does feel like a similar experience one might have if you took these substances.
I learned through doing this therapy that the 8-year-old version of myself was the one I needed to do the most work with and it was his voice who came out much louder than the others.
It was him who created this ‘protector’ role I subconsciously projected out once the bullying stopped. I needed to shield myself so I would never become a victim again and in order to do that, I needed mental protection to stop people taking advantage of me.
He gave me that protection, but he was also the one holding me back. In order to move on with my life, I had to let him know I was ready. I had to tell him it was safe to let me go but that he’d always be in my corner watching on in case I needed to rely on him again.
Now I have finished two separate rounds of EMDR therapy from two separate therapists, the effect it has had on my life is mind-blowing.
Spending 7 years in and out of therapy has its own costs but the biggest cost was realising I was living in a trauma state for 20 years. This varied in severity once I started addressing the trauma, but it is only now, aged 27 that I can comfortably say I am no longer consumed at worst or at best tied down by trauma.
I still live with diagnosed PTSD and anxiety and whilst these might never truly go away, the suitcase of trauma I was living with for so long now feels like a small travel bag.
It is certainly present in my life, but it definitely does not define it and EMDR was a big part of that transition.
If you are ready for it and open to it, it could be the best decision you ever make.
Freddie Cocker is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Vent.
This article originally appeared on Soph Talks.