top of page
  • Writer's pictureImagine a Bird

Showstopper: A Journey Through Poetry, Imagination and EMDR

Updated: Apr 8




For National Poetry Month (April) and Mental Health Awareness Month (May)

 

Recently, my brother’s wife asked me to move in with them. My brother has progressive Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in its final stages, and they would both like for me to be there. They live over a thousand miles away, out of state and up north, and the move would utterly upend my life. I’d leave behind two good jobs, a spacious but affordable apartment, dear friends, an expansive poetry community, and – singleton integrity.

 

I responded, “Yes, of course.”

 

The story behind my yes is something else, and what it doesn’t include is just as telling as what it does. Feeling compelled to support my family doesn’t involve succumbing to dominant personalities nor adopting a mommy role with fellow adults. There is no giddy impulsivity, and the triggers are quiet. All of this and more drove lots of past decisions, oftentimes big ones.

 

Instead, I’m going because I love them and because it’s the right thing to do.

 

Yet, the confidence in my yes took a long time to arrive. It grew out of poetry, therapy, and countless trial-and-error experiences. EMDR was the most recent and, as it turned out, the most impactful tool in my journey to heal from a shitty childhood and to feel closer to becoming the solid human being I’ve always wanted to be.

 

If you have never heard of EMDR, it’s a structured kind of therapy for relieving or entirely exterminating symptoms of trauma and PTSD. Apparently, even Sandra Bullock and Prince Harry have praised it up and down.

 

My own story comes from a long way off, across decades. It braids imagination, writing, voice, and silence into a tight harness for recovery.

 

 

The interchange: poetry & therapy

 

Writing and reading have been constant companions from childhood through adulthood, since I could hold a pen or a book in my chonky little hands.

 

I have been “in therapy” off and on for decades and while each counselor seemed a nice fit for me at the time, the sessions were mainly unstructured. Very talky. I rarely, if ever, let go and cried in the presence of a counselor. And I never shared my poetry and writing with them.

 

In 2007, one therapist announced that she had just learned about EMDR. May she try it out on me? (I do think those were her exact words.) I was preparing to move out of state, so I declined. Besides, I was skeptical, and I wasn’t sold on her explanation of EMDR. Something about past trauma, processing, and tapping on my legs. No, thank you?

 

In 2013, I was teased with the prospect of poetry meeting therapy. A therapist had expressed enthusiasm about my writing practice and she asked me to share my poems, as my comfort allowed. I had moved yet again after that session, but when I had finished hand-printing a chapbook of my writings (Clot: moving on when you can’t get up), I mailed it off to her. She kindly responded through a card, giving me encouragement and praise.

 

Shortly thereafter, I joined a slam poetry community and started to mimic the intense style in my own writing. I remember one evening in my kitchen when I was practicing aloud the first piece I’d ever written about my abusive dad. I was shaking violently. Crying. This was the start of a long journey of privately processing memories (without a counselor) and performing them for humans with whom I felt safe: fellow poets.

 

Years later, during the pandemic, EMDR therapy popped into my head again. I had been reading the Internet’s overflowing info on complex PTSD, attachment styles, past personas, assertiveness training, and anything else I could find. The research had changed since I last dove into mental health articles. There was now talk of neural pathways, brain imaging, the nervous system, hormones, psychological triggers, and links between unresolved childhood trauma and physical health. Science, in other words. Come to mama! I ordered hard copy books and printed out study materials.

 

During the summer of 2020, I did see a new counselor through Zoom but the virtual mode felt flat. Also, I recognized I was burned out on therapy while also feeling that I’d made little progress over the years. My self-esteem was still significantly low. I was staying in friendships that didn’t feel right, with folks disinterested in working through their own tired patterns that leaked into our dynamic. Romantic relationships pained me or, at best, derailed me.


Then, there were the triggers.

 

 

They were embarrassing.”

 

He triggers me. We trigger each other. Trigger warning! I’d heard or seen the phrases for years, with only a vague understanding of what they meant.

 

At some point during the pandemic, I finally got it. I knew what a trigger was. My body felt it. When I was triggered by a romantic partner, for example, an ice-cold, electric sensation flooded my chest and stomach. My heartbeat throbbed erratically. And then I would respond in a manner that did not “match” the current situation: I would cling to my partner in a panic after a squabble, or I’d blow up with fury, or sob and run away. Like a child. A threatened child in survival mode.

 

Decade after decade, relationship after relationship, I was tired of triggers. They were embarrassing. I longed for clarity and peace in healthy relationships. If I expressed fear, anger, or sadness, I wanted to do so as my adult self from my bona fide adult life.

 

So, when the dust settled a bit from Covid and counselors returned to in-person sessions, I decided to give therapy another try. Structured therapy this time. No more talking into oblivion.

 

 

Client. Author.

 

I found someone locally who completed professional EMDR training and, because they (my therapist identifies as a non-gendered human) are a firm believer in teaching from experience, they also went through EMDR counseling for their own past trauma.

 

I felt comfortable with this new therapist. They met me where I was, immediately seeing that I wasn’t a naïve client with inner walls set against healing and change. I was ready to dive into the hard shit and they knew that.

 

It also seemed about time to speak aloud my poems in some sessions. There was this budding awareness that I’d been trying to therapize myself, by myself, with poetry. But the trauma was still inside me, fully and fiercely, and I dug it up with each solitary writing session and with each public performance. Dug it up and amplified it. I needed help.

 

When the train began rolling, little could stop it. In 2023, as I reprocessed old wounds and shared my poetry in therapy, I knew it was also time to assemble my writings into an actual book. It was a dance last year, an interchange. Therapy, book, therapy, book. Through to the last draft, I was writing new lines and deleting unwanted ones. Back from the printer’s in the summer, Quiver was imperfect, truly a trembling collection in want of corrections. Still, I was damned proud. The whole of me, both unhealed and healing, was contained within.

 

 

What is EMDR therapy?

 

It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and it’s a structured type of therapy (counseling).

 

In addition to the EMDR International Association’s definition, there are lots of articles and anecdotes to be found online.

 

In my own experience, EMDR taught me how to tune into both body and mind, how to cope with emotional flashbacks, and how to genuinely value my own existence. I learned how to reprocess the predator-like childhood memories into far less threatening stories. During EMDR sessions, I closed my eyes and used memory and imagination to silently recall past events while I held buzzy things in my hands.

 

That’s EMDR in a nutshell, but it wasn’t easy. In truth, the process was hard as hell sometimes.

 

 

Sleeping like the dead


I slept so soundly after my first EMDR session, I didn’t hear a man trying to break into my apartment. Before he could get my door opened, my neighbor caught him and yelled at him to get off our property. This also slipped past my awareness, though they were both just below my bedroom window.

 

I remember awakening that night to my cat circling around my head and then curling up on my chest beneath my chin, more than likely to alert me to the danger outside. My hand smoothed his silky fur and I dropped back into sleep.

 

The next morning, I turned my phone back on per the usual routine and saw my neighbor’s missed calls. When we talked, he gave me the update: the guy was out of his mind and told my neighbor that he needed to hide right away, that someone was after him. “Well, you can’t hide here,” my neighbor boomed, chasing him away. Shortly thereafter, he broke a glass entry door in a house across the street and set off the family’s alarm. Police were called and no one was hurt.

 

The only aftermath on my end involved a loose doorknob from his persistent jiggling. I tightened the screws and all was well.

 

As for EMDR, it was suggested to me to schedule in plenty of down time and extra sleep after the initial sessions. But to sleep that hard? Incredible, yet understandable. Old trauma had been trapped in my mind for so long, it must have been a relief to my body when the healing journey finally began. Yet, life kept up its antics around me.


So, on EMDR days, I ensured my phone was within reach at bedtime. I also alerted my neighbors to continue keeping a watchful eye on our apartment complex.

 

 

The early sessions

For professional and scientific info on EMDR, please do refer to legit resources. This is merely a personal account from a client's unpolished memory.

 

Initially, the weekly EMDR sessions involved a dishing out of a banquet full of mental health tools. That’s the best way I can think of to describe those conversations, and my homework. There was homework. I again read research articles and workbooks, only I had guidance and feedback this time. We tackled everything I’d hoped we would: self-esteem and core beliefs, undesirable patterns in friendships and relationships, personality and communication types, and coping strategies for triggers and for tough situations and humanity, overall.

 

I wrote up the wazoo, journaling and responding to workbook prompts. My therapist smiled as they read my responses, which were over and beyond in length and style what was probably required. I felt safe and inspired. Prose flowed as I worked through the writing activities.

 

Then, EMDR’s specific methods took shape. In preparation for the memory reprocessing sessions, I designed my Container and Safe Place. Imagination was really able to shine during this step. Here are my own definitions of each:

 

The Container is an image in our mind that will hold, as securely as possible, a memory or memories we are still working on in EMDR sessions. At the end of a session, these buggers need to mentally be put away because we are not yet desensitized to them. One client that I heard about imagined placing her painful memory in a locked steel box, which was stored in a secured room atop a long, winding staircase. That kind of Container.

 

The Safe (Calm) Place is a location special to you that may be quietly imagined to soothe your mind at the end of each session. For example, a treasured trail in the mountains or a favorite beach. Your Safe Place may also be envisioned during or after any stressful or triggering moment out in the world. It’s one of the strategies in my mental health toolbox.

 

At home, I drew up sketches, in my mind’s eye, of my Container and Safe Place and I wrote descriptions with almost excruciating detail. For the first time in therapy, I was having a little fun.

 

But the hardest, trickiest and most uncomfortable preparations were upcoming.

 

 

Targets and the mystical zero

 

Targets are the crux of EMDR. These are the old wounds you bring up one by one with your therapist.

 

I don’t know how other counselors lead this part of the process, but mine took all the notes and kept them organized for me as I described the most painful memories. It took quite some time across multiple sessions. I established about 10 or so Targets to work through. At the top of my list were my strongest memories of my dad’s physical abuse, with specifics of my mom’s alcoholism and narcissism a close second.

 

The next challenge lain in the inventory of my body as I remembered those painful situations.

 

I was asked to describe how strongly (on a numbered scale) I felt each memory as I brought it to mind, and where in my body each sensation arose. For instance, when I imagined my dad’s abuse and public shaming, my stomach and chest felt full and tight with maximum intensity. Other memories brought about more moderate feelings of discomfort in my head, neck, and shoulders.

 

The goal of EMDR was to reprocess the ancient pain to such an extent, my physical reactions to the memories would be at a zero. That would mean I was effectively desensitized to them. “ZERO? No physical reaction at all?” I asked when my therapist told me our aim. “Well, that would be nice.” I may have rolled my eyes. Clearly, I didn’t think it was possible – rather, I did not believe I was capable of healing at such a deep neurological level.

 

Anyway, up to that point, I generally sucked at paying attention to sensations in my body. Unless the pain was highly dramatic and obvious, the ability to “tune in” to myself had never been a strength of mine. I tended to power through to the point of sickness, exhaustion or acute burn-out, only later realizing that my body was sending signals all along. So, this part of EMDR prep was weird for me. It took focus and effort to detect more subtle reactions to the memories. With practice, I finally understood what was churning around inside me when I brought back the past in my mind.

 

 

- / +

 

The final piece of preparing for EMDR was assigning a negative and positive statement to each memory. After exercising my emotional/physical awareness skills, moving back to language had me confused and overwhelmed, but I slowly got the hang of it.

 

With continued support from the therapist, I found the words to blatantly sum up my dad’s abuse in the form of a negative belief I’d been carrying around for a lifetime: “I am not worthy of love.” My therapist then asked me to attach a possible positive belief to this memory, presumably after I felt stronger and more desensitized. “I am safe and deserving of love” was my response.

 

After establishing all 10 Targets and analyzing my initial responses, I was ready to reprocess them and actually change my brain by storing them differently. This was the part I was nervous about, mainly because I didn’t know what it entailed and how I would react.

 

 

Shit hitting the fan

 

I was right to feel worried.

 

The beginning stages of EMDR were not pretty. The simultaneous work on my first poetry book was also more challenging than I thought it would be. There were times I grew physically ill. My autoimmune disease flared up repeatedly and I was left feeling tired and isolated. It was a lot.

 

So, some sessions, we took a rest from EMDR. I asked for advice on situations currently poking at me in my day-to-day life. And I shared poems.

 

At first, I was nervous speaking aloud my precious verses to a counselor. I had compartmentalized poetry and therapy for so long, it felt awkward to consolidate them. It ended up being perfectly timed, though. The poems mirrored my EMDR journey and vice versa. My therapist listened to me read, and new ideas arose as we talked about a poem. I would scurry home to continue working on my book.

 

All of this was true. What a kaleidoscope. Exhaustion, inspiration. Expression, silence. Change never promised to be pain-free. Poetry lives to jostle and awaken.

 

I couldn't give up.

 

 

EMDR: upstaging old stories

 

The buzzy things are called EMDR tappers, buzzers, or pulsers. The buzzing alternates from one hand to the other and can be adjusted in speed and strength. It’s my understanding that a therapist may also hold a moving object in front of your eyes – hence the ‘Eye Movement’ part of the EMDR acronym. Or you may listen to left ear/right ear alternating audio tones.

 

The whole point of the buzzers was to keep my body in the current time while my mind dove into the past. The sensations and rhythm of the buzzing also helped to calm my nervous system as I conjured up painful memories.

 

As it turned out, EMDR was quiet and solitary. I picked a Target, closed my eyes, held the buzzers in my hands, and revisited the memory for a couple of minutes. Then, I opened my eyes. The therapist asked me where I felt discomfort or pain, and how intensely. Now eyes closed again, hold buzzers, return to the past, open eyes, check in with body. Over and over, this rehabilitative dance for my brain.

 

Initially, I was unsure and to be frank, I felt quite silly. What the bloody hell was I supposed to do with these memories? Then, after several cycles I realized my brain began to relax and play. I let it.

 

Not only did I recall scenes of shame, abuse, and fear, but I also embarked on rewriting the script. As I gained mental momentum, my imagination lit up. Each cycle brought richer details and more specific dialogue to the story in my head. Lynda Barry, a favorite cartoonist of mine, once asked “What is the difference between memory and imagination?” and I was certainly existing inside that rhetorical question during those EMDR moments.

 

One day, while working through a Target about my dad, tears rolled down my cheeks. I cried in front of a therapist, imagine that! I cried, grasping those seemingly ridiculous buzzers and then, over time, I smiled and laughed. Not from epiphanies through spoken words, but through silence and mental imagery.

 

I kept it up, session after session, Target after Target.

 

 

Using the Container and Safe Place


If a Target still needed work toward the end of a session, I secured the memory in my mental Container and calmed myself by imagining my Safe Place before leaving the room.

 

Throughout the week, if I caught myself thinking through the memory, I again shut it away in my Container until the next session. A more intense memory needed discipline, and I practiced repeatedly shutting it away until my brain gave up and moved on to the next charging thought.

 

 

The lecture, the hug, the rhythm

 

Deep into the seventh or eighth cycle of a Dad Target, I transformed him into an actual flawed person. This was epic. Across my lifetime, he was a terrific brute when I remembered the abuse. As I reprocessed and reimagined a particular afternoon in 1980, it wasn’t merely he who changed, it was also me. I grew confident his behavior was wrong, as opposed to feeling that I was a bad kid and weak. I was furious. I told him all of this. I lectured him to the moon and back, in fact, and my little body stood short but firm, hands on hips. I demanded he look me in the eye. I said he really fucked things up out of whatever demons he never faced in himself.

 

At some point in my imaginings across therapy sessions, the energy in that particular scene slowed and calmed down. I wrapped my arms around my dad and gave him a tight hug, right there in the garage where moments before he had dragged me across the oily cement floor. “I love you” I said 20 or 30 times in a row, my assured voice reverberating through my head like music, like the thrums of a drum as the buzzers pulsed in my hands.

 

By the time I arrived at this new version of the memory, the only remaining emotion was that of sorrow. “What a fucking tragic story. I feel so sad,” I said aloud after opening my eyes. "Sadness makes perfect sense," my therapist replied. "How does your body feel?” I took a deep breath and checked in. There was no tightness, no pain anywhere. My heart was beating calmly and gently. I was at a zero.

 

Those “I love you’s” weren’t for my dad, of course. They were for me.

 

 

Healing comingling

 

As I continued working through individual EMDR targets, they slowly spoke to each other. That is, as I reprogrammed more and more targets, the remaining targets seemed to vicariously heal, too. After just one cycle of EMDR, my body would be calm and I would observe a past situation clearly, without pain or fear.

 

This was also around the time when I could feel growth and coherence settling into my bones. Outside the sessions, I detected more quickly when I was triggered by a situation or a person, and I counseled myself and my inner child immediately. I encouraged myself to think through things from a variety of perspectives and possibilities.

 

On the flip side, anger had always been a curious beast to me, something I tended to ignore only to later release through blow-ups and shitty judgement. I was beginning to detect this emotion as soon as it rumbled, giving it a nod but also channeling it in ways healthier for me and for others.

 

Little by little, my energy and physical health returned.

 


It’s OK to climb out of the inner work boat and sit around in your PJs at home


It’s a slow-moving teeter totter, the sway between parenting an inner child while also allowing the most playful and creative aspects of her to arise and release. I never had my own children, but I imagine the back-and-forth movements are similar.

 

But it takes work and sometimes I need a break to go blah. The US culture, especially, continues sending its befuddling toxic messages in the forms of pop mental health clips and “self-care” techniques mixed up with no boundaries, phone addiction, and little rest. It’s sticky bullshit. And as thankful as I am for last year’s EMDR journey, I don’t want to keep Working On Myself to the point of feverish effort and then collapse.

 

So, there are days when I say “No” to learning and self-monitoring, and even to poetry, writing and creativity. Instead, I’ll watch mindless junk on YouTube or I will pitch a tent in the wilderness or I'll tittle-tattle and laugh like an adolescent with a trusted friend… or, as I did last week, I will stay in my pajamas on a day off, baking cookies and eating them, hot out of the oven, atop ice cream.

 

It’s a strange action/inertia trip, striking some sort of balance between trying and not trying.



Strapping on my oxygen mask first

 

“Yes, of course,” I’d said to my brother and sister-in-law, while concurrently scribbling out a list of mental health strategies. Because I will embrace a caregiving role in that household and it’s imperative that I shield and nourish my own mind and body while I’m supporting others. I realize it will take time to untangle it all and find my groove.

 

The first action I took, though, after making the decision to move was to Google “poetry community” in my brother’s small city of only 67,000 people. Lo and behold, just last year they voted for their very first Poet Laureate! After reaching out to this writer, she kindly responded to me. We will meet up with one another after I arrive in May.

 

Naturally, my books, journals, pens, and my laptop will stay close at hand throughout the move and thereafter, when I settle in at my brother’s. (As an aside, my one-eyed little panther, Talay, has no idea what is in store for him; my family has two dogs.)

 

Packing up the apartment, my anxious inner kid mingles with my adult self, who is already grieving – and rightly so – the loss of an independent singleton life. They both require TLC. But I’m heading into the fray of my family with more clarity, strength, and strategies than I’ve ever had before.

 

Whenever the younger version of me quivers with worry or fear, I’ll reassure her that I will protect her, that I’ve got her back. And I will genuinely mean it.

 

 

 

Happy National Poetry Month and then, a beautiful Mental Health Awareness Month to all!

Comments


bottom of page