Part III: My First EMDR Session — “Tell me about the car accident. Now, tell me about it again.”
I’d been through the ringer, emotionally, having been triggered to recall details of trauma that had occurred decades before, when I was a kid. Thanks to some excellent counsel, I’d made it to a practitioner who specialized in trauma, who was to recommend a treatment plan that was, on the surface, far beyond the scope of what I thought of as “therapy.”
After a handful of talk therapy sessions, Karen asked me what I thought about EMDR. She stressed that if I didn’t believe EMDR would work, it probably wouldn’t.
“I’m at the end of my rope,” I told her through moistened eyes. I wasn’t enjoying life anymore. My world was quickly closing in on me.
So I gave Karen the green light on EMDR, and she and I got at it. I sat down on the couch in her office, and she handed me a box of tissues. Past sessions with her had suggested I might need them.
“Tell me about the car accident,” Karen said, “with as much detail as you can remember.”
I dug deep, pushing past memories I’d long repressed. I could see the back of my parents’ heads as they had argued that August afternoon, and heard my father’s vodka-slurred rants.
I heard my mother’s screams again, this time to my little sister and me — “Put your head down!” — as she reached back, grabbed my head, and forced my face into my lap as my father swerved the car to the right to avoid an oncoming 18 wheel truck. My father had driven our car across the rural road’s double yellow line and into its path.
I heard the grinding, the crunch of metal after our car hurdled over a ravine and tumbled down a grassy embankment, rolling over multiple times on its way down, its windshield and top being sheered from its body.
Hours later, after I regained consciousness, I saw my mother lying in a grassy field, her head poking out of the top of her blood-soaked blouse, the side of her head slashed open and raw in the summer heat. I thought Mom was dead. I believed that for almost a day after my own scalp had been sewn up and I was sent to my grandmother’s house. That’s where another well-meaning adult, my father’s sister I think, asked me if I wanted to come live with her if my mother died.
That day, as my mother remained in a coma at the hospital, I convinced my brother to take me to the site of the accident. What remained of our Lincoln Marquis stood barely three feet tall, and my family’s blood blanketed a large part of that Mississippi field. It looked like what I’d imagined a war zone looked like. The scene was certainly no sight for a nine-year-old boy.
Sitting in Karen’s office, recalling that day, I realized that with the exception of a few brief, passing references between me and my mother over the years, I had rarely spoken of the car accident before walking into Karen’s office, and certainly never in great detail. I’d been happy with the thick, beautiful head of nappy hair I’d inherited, as it deftly hid the scar atop my scalp and kept me from having to explain it to anyone. Over the years, everything from jheri curls to dreadlocks covered the scar, and only an occasional comment from a new barber reminded me of what had been one of my closest scrapes with death.
By the time I was finished telling Karen the story, I’d gone through over half of a box of tissues. The Superman t-shirt I wore was damp with sweat or my fallen tears — I wasn’t sure which.
After I cleaned myself up and pulled myself together, Karen moved on to the next step of our EMDR session.
For the life of me, I can’t remember whether Karen held up a pencil or her index finger, but she asked me to follow along with it as she waved it in roughly foot-long strokes, back and forth in front of my face. It took me a minute to stop turning my head as I followed the movement, and only shift my eyes from left to right. She spoke about something as she guided my eyes back and forth. Again, for the life of me, I can’t remember what she said.
I remember her saying she was going to “bring me out” of the session, as she slowed her pacing hand to a stop. Then, Karen presented me with a task that was more daunting than the one that had initiated our time together that morning.
“Tell me the same story again,” she said.
Reliving that experience, again, was not high on my list!
“I’d really rather not,” I said, only half-jokingly.
“You have to,” Karen said. “I’ll be able to tell if there’s a difference in the way you tell the story. But try to tell it to me exactly the same way, with all of the detail.”
I took a couple of deep breaths — I needed them — and dove in. I recalled my mother’s craving for a hamburger that had prompted the afternoon car trip in Mississippi. The argument between my parents. The truck. My mother’s desperate screams. The car’s tumble over the cliff. The field in which we all laid, waiting for an ambulance. Staring at my mother’s open wound in the hot southern sun.
But that time, I told the entire story without shedding a single tear. Midway through that second retelling, I realized that the experience felt different than it had felt before. I posited that it had been because I’d just told the story minutes before.
After I was done with the story, Karen asked a pointed question to which I’ll never forget my answer:
“How did that feel the second time,” she asked, through the very slightest of smiles.
“To be honest,” I said, surprising even myself, “it felt like I was telling you about an old movie I’ve seen or a book I’ve read, a long time ago.” Midway through my story, I’d almost started referring to Michael P Coleman in the third person.
Coming out of that first of several EMDR sessions, and having been delivered of the emotional charge of past trauma, remains one of the oddest experiences I’ve ever had. But it was the beginning of my healing.
By Michael P Coleman, Content Director, Brother Be Well