Searching for helpful EMDR information after bereavement and trauma can prove to be frustrating. There is plenty of signposting to therapists and complex research articles but very little on the lived experience. I wanted to share my experience to help others understand the approach and assess whether it might be right for them.
So, what is all the fuss about EMDR therapy? Or, to use its full name (that I can never seem to recall accurately), Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing.
EMDR is described in the Daily Mail as “the bizarre therapy that promises to TAP away your trauma…loved by Prince Harry”. But, despite this crass judgement, EMDR is emerging as a highly effective therapy and is becoming increasingly available on the NHS.
How I got to EMDR
I first heard about EMDR when reading the incredible book My Sister Milly by Gemma Dowler. Gemma described how she and her mum had benefitted hugely from EMDR in the wake of Milly’s abduction and death when other therapies had failed. It was a few years later that I was to embark on my own EMDR journey following the death of my 17-year-old son Samuel by suicide.
Samuel suffered with mental health issues during his teenage years which often saw him go into crisis. There were frequent volatile incidents, including A&E visits which were harrowing for all concerned. These memories became etched in my mind, but the relentless nature of Samuel’s condition meant there was no time to process the trauma.
I sought counselling following Samuel’s death and found myself able to freely recall the various incidents but discussing them had no impact, they just hung there, haunting and teasing me. I felt like I was the ultimate storyteller with my grim tales of horror.
I also began to imagine Samuel’s death and a video would play in my mind. It was the last thing I saw at night and the first thing I awoke to in the morning. I knew I needed to address this and my lack of sleep was impacting my life incredibly.
I discovered EMDR was available through my local mental health trust and, after an assessment process that confirmed my PTSD symptoms, I had a 3-month wait before starting treatment.
My experience of EMDR
The first two sessions were history taking, rapport building and developing a safe space should the traumatic images prove highly disturbing. The sessions were over Zoom so I just needed a quiet corner at home each week.
During the next four sessions I focussed on separate traumatic incidents – a distressing A&E episode, the last time I saw Samuel alive, how the news of his death was broken to me by the police and, finally, my vision of his death.
I was taught the tapping technique, preferring to use my thighs rather than arms crossed, but in reality we barely used this. Mainly, I followed the therapist’s finger with my eyes as she moved it side to side. It’s a bit like watching a game of tennis from the side-lines.
I have described to others how the recalled memories start like a dramatic Line of Duty scene, with the volume turned up loud. Slowly they start to slow down, become still frames, the volume reduces and backgrounds blur as the memories are processed.
The patience of the therapist and my trust in the approach allowed me to process each memory. There was a gradual reframing which I can only describe as extraordinary. Memories that triggered nausea, anxiety and fear were dialled down. I can now recall them as a calm visual which brings no adverse physical sensations.
EMDR can also be used for imagined situations, as in the case of my son’s traumatic death. Again, through the same structured approach, I was able to process my vision of the events. This was the toughest and longest session, but the therapist persevered gently and I’m so thankful that she did.
The final processed memory evolved into what I can only describe as a spiritual scene. I was in no way expecting this and I am certainly not in this spiritual space ordinarily either. After the session ended I broke down, knowing Samuel was safe and where he needed to be.
How to know if EMDR is right for you
My EMDR experience was unique to me. I understand that it doesn’t work for everyone. However, I would recommend that if talking therapies aren’t working for you, or if you are left with memories or traumatic images that don’t shift, then do seek EMDR out.
EMDR therapy has got me to a place where I can start to move forward. It might do the same for you.