Cheryl Eckl

A Beautiful Grief

Wake Up, Shake It Off, Let the Grieving Begin

How self-induced EMDR resolved childhood trauma and released adult grief.

Posted Sep 03, 2011

worried child

Not Safe to Be Me

When I was three years old, I had a tonsillectomy. In the early 1950s, children were routinely "put under" with ether. It was a terrifying event. I can still vividly recall the abject fear I felt as the mask was put over my nose and mouth and the cold, disgusting ether was sprayed on. I was absolutely certain that I was being killed. I held my breath for as long as I could and then blacked out.

Like so many victims of this trauma-inducing procedure, I appeared to be "fine" when I woke up. Surprised to find myself very much alive, I eagerly ate the long-promised cherry jello and chocolate ice cream that doctors used to lure children into the operating room. But life was never the same.

My immature mind concluded that it wasn't safe to be me. "Surely," I reasoned, "I must have done something terribly wrong to have been subjected to such treatment."

Photos of me after that event show a little girl with head cocked questioningly to one side, smiling just a little too hard, doing her best to be pleasing, forever thereafter hyper-vigilant and distrusting of authority figures who might hold over her the power of life and death.

Fast forward to 2010. I am now a widow of nearly two years, having lost my husband, Stephen, to colon cancer in 2008. I am riding my stationary bike, reading Peter A. Levine's book, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (North Atlantic Books, 1997), as part of my grad school homework.

1950s ether

Administering Ether in 1950s

I'm reading a description from one of Levine's patients of his own ether trauma at age four. Instantly, I'm back in that operating room, holding my breath, desperate to get away, trapped, fearful, and then frozen in terror, which feels like death until you can shake it off. But I didn't shake it off. The energy got stuck in me as trauma in a pattern perfectly described in Levine's book.

And then a strange thing happened. As I was riding and reading, I started to sweat, and shake, and cry—and suddenly I was yelling at the doctor I saw in my mind's eye. "Stop it! Leave me alone! You can't do this to a child! I hate you, you heartless bastard!"

Fighting Back

I was alone in my basement, safe from prying eyes or ears, so I just kept shouting, seeing myself fighting off my attacker and his faceless assistants. Still pedaling like crazy, I felt a sense of victory as I visualized them backing off and releasing me. But I felt tremendous residual amounts of pent-up energy in my body—especially in my limbs.

Instinctively, I started looking up as far as my eyes would go to the right. Then diagonally down to the left. Then up left and down right. Then straight side-to-side, and straight up and down. Then around one direction and back the other—randomly repeating all of these directions over and over, in whatever way felt right.

blue eyes

EMDR Eyes

I think I was simulating EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)—a powerful technique used with particular effectiveness on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I had experienced EMDR in psychological therapy and in chiropractic treatments designed to desensitize my brain after overexposure to workplace chemicals. So, I knew how it felt and that it worked.

After about 15-20 minutes, I finally stopped riding and got off my bicycle. My knees were wobbly. I was starving, and I needed to lie down. But something significant had happened. There was a lightness about my body and a sense of power in my spirit that was new. My little three-year-old inner gazelle (see last week's blog) had just become a tiger. She had fought back—and won! I was ecstatic.

wrist acupuncture

Wrist Acupuncture

About a week later, I was lying on my acupuncturist's therapy table with needles all over my body as part of a standard treatment. He was out of the room and I was alone, resting as usual during the process. Suddenly, I felt a surge of energy that made me want to leap off the table and run down the hall—definitely not recommended when you have needles in your arms and legs.

So, once again, I started my simulated EMDR and kept at it until I felt the energy dissipate. But it didn't just go away; it transformed. I felt another layer of fear melt away as I slipped into a deep, peaceful, powerful relaxation that lasted long after the end of my acupuncture treatment.

There are varying theories as to how and why EMDR works, so here is my interpretation of what happened to me: Just as I had experienced walking or other bilateral exercise as refreshing to my brain after rigorous analytical thinking, I could feel my "EMDR" triggering the cross-the-midline response that encouraged interaction between the left and right hemispheres in the brain.

EMDR brain

Activing the Brain with EMDR

My experience is that this back and forth action in the brain—performed while holding an image of a distressing event—can bypass the thinking brain, stimulating the deep, reptilian survival responses.

I was back in the event, but this time not trapped. I was fighting back, getting away, no longer a helpless victim. The frozen trauma energy released and I gained the power to overcome the aggressors. I was free.

I have also seen this same kind of release accomplished by skillful facilitation of a psychodrama. The traumatized person is asked to follow the feeling of locked-up energy back to the scene of the problematical event. Staying with what's called the "felt sense" of the situation, they re-experience the event but in the safe company of the facilitator who makes sure that the person doesn't get re-traumatized.

psychodrama

Powerful Psychodrama

Instead, the attacker is confronted, the attack aborted. The victim is empowered to yell, fight back, get away—whatever is necessary. In often astonishingly quick order, the stressful memory is transformed. The attacker vanquished; the victim liberated. Talk therapy may follow to further explain and resolve implications of the trauma, but the energy that was stuck has been released. The helpless, inner gazelle is now a powerful tiger—fast, strong, and free.

What this energy release has meant for me personally is a subsequent ability to go deeper into my grief than I had previously been able to do. Even though I had been prepared for Stephen's death, the moment of his passing had nevertheless been a shock that reactivated old, unresolved feelings of isolation, abandonment, and powerlessness. I could tell that the grief process wanted to take me into those dark places for healing, but the fear of being re-traumatized kept pulling me back from such painful exploration.

woman extending arms

Feeling Free

So, I also came away from my EMDR trauma healing with a stronger sense of self and an enhanced ability to handle difficult circumstances and feelings. A full year later, I remain better able to observe my own responses to stressful situations, rather than getting sucked into a feeling of hopelessness or terror. I do not fear my grief, but welcome it as a gentle teacher. I am braver and wiser these days. Hear me roar!

Note to the Reader: I do not recommend people trying this at home, but I am very interested to read comments from readers who are EMDR or Brainspotting therapists or from those who may have had similar experiences. Please also enjoy my interview in the Sept/Oct issue of Psychology Today in the special "The Author Speaks"  feature. (See link in the right-hand column of this page.)

Copyright 2011 © Cheryl Eckl Communications, Inc.

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