Monday, October 15, 2012

The Relief of the Soul

            The last time I did EMDR with my friend Anne I visited someone or something that felt like my soul. 
Anne is a therapist and her specialty is internal family systems and so when I do EMDR with her she often tries to help me identify the different parts of myself – the frightened child, the self-hating adolescent, et cetera. It’s like all those parts are who I was at different ages, still living somewhere inside me, and I can find them and feel exactly how they felt when I was those ages, how they still feel, I guess, when I go down the basement steps of myself into my vast airy unconscious.   But the soul I seemed to find and feel and be during my last EMDR session -- to try on the way you put on a set of clothes, although in this case it was like remembering a set of clothes that you wear all the time -- this soul wasn’t related to anything in my life as I remember it.
Of course, like everybody, I’m familiar with the concept of the soul.  We use the word all the time to mean various things:  Soul music is what comes immediately to my mind – to me soul music is music that gets to some deep, longing, soulful part of you.  Then there’s the soul referred to in religious writing, the idea, especially in the Catholic belief system, that we all have an eternal soul that survives after death.  I grappled with that idea a lot when I was going through what I call my boojie phase, after my fiancĂ© killed himself in 1991 and I was trying desperately to figure out where if anywhere he had gone and what there was left of him there.  I hated the fact that the books I was reading about the afterlife usually called dead people “souls” -- I wanted my dead boyfriend to be still himself, not some abstract churchy something that felt more like a concept than a person – even dead, invisible, and in some other world or on some other wavelength he would still be a person, wouldn’t he?  The soul comes up often in many fairly recent New Agey books too.  One book I read described the soul as a walnut-sized spiritual whatever located around your ribcage, an idea that horrified me.  But most books, such as The Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore, talk about it as if it’s, if not exactly an entity, then some deep eternal part of you with certain characteristics and even likes and dislikes.
So, having read and thought about all that, I was interested and kind of excited when I encountered my soul during EMDR recently.   What I felt is hard to describe, except to say that it felt like me in some deeply basic way; it felt like some overarching, rock-bottom version of me that has seen everything, experienced everything; that has been around forever.   I didn’t get much more from it than that, except for one important EMDR-therapy-related point: My soul is carrying what I call in EMDR the I’m-not-safe feeling.
This is a feeling that I’ve been working on with EMDR ever since I’ve been doing EMDR.  Everybody who does EMDR, I’ve been told, has a certain overriding negative thought/feeling that they come back to over and over.  It could be I’m not good enough, or I’ve done something wrong, or I’m not wanted, or, as it is with me, it could be I’m not safe.  I’ve looked at the I’m-not-safe feeling from many different angles during EMDR – I’ve tried to identify and desensitize from all sorts of traumas in my life that made me not feel safe, and I’m sure every single one of those EMDR sessions helped me heal and feel safer.  But the thing I came to when I got to my soul was a sense that I didn’t have to figure out where the feeling came from or how I came by it, didn’t have to pinpoint and re-experience the exact moments in my life when I experienced particular traumas.   All I had to do was find the feeling and feel it. 
Without getting too farfetched or out there, I would like to say that, in some vague way that I felt rather than heard, my soul communicated to me that it had been carrying around the I’m-not-safe feeling, accumulating it over many lives and many centuries.  And that it didn’t matter where it came from anyway because it was just there in the collective unconscious, floating around in the atmosphere, and my soul had picked it up there, absorbed it or whatever.  It was everybody’s suffering.  Everybody’s not feeling safe.  It was people in Africa waiting for the next tribe over to come riding through and rape and kill them and impale their children.   It was Jews arriving in trains at concentration camps and being separated from their loved ones, with some people going to the gas chamber and some people going somewhere else.  It was prisoners of war facing firing squads, women watching their babies fade and sicken and die.    Not feeling safe wasn’t personal to me, because life in this world isn’t safe. 
I find this depressing thought oddly comforting.  I happen to believe that there are other worlds  -- other wavelengths or planes of reality, like the place where my dead fiancĂ© lives – and in those worlds it is safe and it does feel safe.  That we come here from one of those worlds and we go back to that world afterwards, and that we're getting something really good from the time we spend in this not-safe world.  That this world and everything that happens in it is like a big elaborate pageant that has been designed for our learning and pleasure, that tragedy is part of the pleasure, because life, like the Shakespeare plays, would be no fun at all if it was all just comedies.  That we, like actors who don't know we're actors, come here to play our parts in the pageant, and it's all great fun if we can step back and enjoy it.  The only thing is, along the way we pick up many feelings, feelings that we carry around in our souls, like I’m not safe. 
All I had to do to get rid of the I’m-not-safe-feeling, I also knew -- sitting there in my friend’s house on an ordinary weekday doing EMDR -- was just hold on in my EMDR trance and let myself not feel safe; I had to lean into the feeling for as long and as hard as I could.  And so I did.  I sat there and felt the feeling and my soul -- I could feel it -- was relieved by that.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Integrating in EMDR

            A couple of days ago the most amazing thing happened when I was doing in EMDR.  I’ve been doing EMDR for longer than I’d care to say, and most of that time I’ve been working on the fact that I don’t feel safe – I didn’t feel safe around my mother when I was a little girl, and I haven’t felt safe – really safe, in the deepest part of me -- ever since.   I was afraid of everything when I was a little girl; I was one of those kids with thin skin who’s frightened of loud noises, strangers, eating food, and just about everything else, including things other kids love like going on ferris wheels and riding down little hills on sleds.  Add to that the fact that my mother had post-partum depression when I was a baby – she screamed in the night, tried to make me drink Phisohex when I had a cold – and I was terrified of her then and terrified of her later and I’m still terrified of her, in the form of anyone who even vaguely reminds me of her, not looks-wise but behavior-wise – even though she herself has been dead since 1981.  That’s what I’ve been working on all this time in EMDR.
            And I was working on it again the other day with my therapist Alison.  I’d gotten a really bad night’s sleep the night before.  I wasn’t sure how that was going to affect the EMDR experience but it didn’t seem to have any effect, at least not any negative one – it might’ve actually made it easier to get down to the place I needed to go inside myself.  In a strange way EMDR is sort of akin to sleep; sometimes I think dreams are actually nature’s EMDR, nature’s way of helping you desensitize from trauma – that when you’re having bad feelings during dreams and your eyes are moving back and forth in REM, that’s actually helping you in the same way EMDR helps you.  Nowadays therapists perform the bilateral stimulation part of EMDR with a headset and hand things attached to a little gizmo that creates beeps and buzzes first on one side and then the other, but in the early days of EMDR the therapist waved her fingers back and forth in front of your face and you followed them back and forth with your eyes, simulating the rapid eye movements of dreams. 
            Anyway, the other day I descended down into my EMDR trance really easily and started working on the I’m-not-safe feeling, feeling how I didn’t feel safe around my mother, didn’t feel safe crying in front of her, didn’t feel safe being seen by her.  Then, toward the end of the session, I had a totally clear sense of myself as a child – I felt exactly like I felt when I was a kid.  It was like I was myself as a kid.  I could feel my awkwardness, my self-consciousness, how I felt about my body and in my body; I remembered how much I loved my father, how much I was afraid of my mother.  I observed it all with the grown-up observer part of myself and reported it to my therapist.  Then – during another set of buzzes and beeps – I felt like myself as an adult, my best self, or at least one of my better selves.  I had to conjure up that feeling, the way I conjured up the child feeling in the earlier set of buzzes and beeps.
It used to be that I had no adult self that I could find in EMDR.  When I got down to that deep place inside myself I was all child.  It was as if my child self – what they used to call my inner child – was all there really was of me as I experienced reality.  Of course, anyone looking at me would have thought I was an adult and I was going around in the world acting like adult, but inside where I was feeling things, which is where it really counts – I truly believe it – I was a child.  Since then, as a result of all the EMDR I’ve done, I’ve grown an adult self inside myself.  Most of the time, these days, as I go about my life, I feel like an adult and it’s only when something pushes my buttons that I turn into the child inside – this is one of the big gifts of EMDR for me.  Still, there are a lot of times when my buttons are pushed, more times than I would like -- a lot of times when I’m doing normal everyday things and I don’t feel safe, when I feel unpleasantly unsafe.
            So I was sitting there going back and forth – between one set of buzzes and beeps and another – between my child self and my adult self.  And then suddenly, I could feel them integrating into one self.  Suddenly I no longer felt like the child self, separate from the adult self.  I felt like an adult, another larger version of my adult self – I like to think of it as sort of like those Russian nests of dolls, with the little doll inside the slightly bigger doll inside another bigger doll and so forth.   It was like all of a sudden there I was the big doll with all the other dolls inside – I couldn’t even feel them any more but I knew they were there – instead of having all the dolls spread out across the table, with the little doll experiencing things some of the time, the slightly larger doll experiencing them another time and so forth. 
This adult integrated big-doll self felt very solid and very real.  Not scared at all.  And I had a sense of her.  Normally I have no sense of myself at all – I can’t feel myself the way you can’t see yourself, in any objective way at least, in the mirror.  But I could feel this adult, integrated self – I had a sense of her as a real person in the world.  The strangest part was that she – I -- felt like other members of my family, my father’s family: I felt like an Allen in a way I never have before.   
            I described it all to my therapist, and then it was time to quit and go home.  Normally when I leave my therapist’s office I feel shattered, irritable, nervous, or some other bad thing and it takes a while to put myself back together.  But the other day, as I left – went back out into the hot bright day and got in my car and drove home among other cars – I felt great.  I felt solid, real, happy.  Maybe happier than I’ve ever felt before.  I don’t know if this is going to last, I don’t know where this is going to take me.  But even if it was just one experience that leads to other experiences, other pieces of healing in EMDR, it was amazing.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Traveling to the Inner Mountain, Coming Face to Face with the Strangest Part of Myself, Part I

In a book of daily meditations called 365 Tao by Deng Ming-Dao, I read: 

“The scriptures say that the mountains contain the answers.  Generations of seekers have gone into the wilderness and have encountered spirits both benevolent and terrible.  Though the possibility of great discovery is mixed with the threat of misadventure, we must all go into the mountains to seek these answers.  We should understand that these mountains represent the unknown aspects of our minds….  Through walking in the vastness of this land, you can resolve the problems of your psyche and seek the treasures buried in your soul.”

The reading says that following a regular meditation practice is the way to explore the hidden mountains inside yourself and I don’t disagree with that – I meditate a little bit every day and I do find things I didn’t consciously know were there, and maybe if I meditated longer I’d find out even more about what goes on in the hidden depths of myself.  (The reading talks about mountains but I tend to think of what’s inside me as more like an ocean, a vast ever-changing body of airy water or maybe watery air, more than anything as solid as a mountain.)
When I read the reading about going into the metaphorical mountains searching for the unknown aspects of our minds I immediately thought of EMDR.  The daily reading goes on to say that “mere introspection is not deep enough, and psychological counseling will not necessarily bring you face to face with all the parts of yourself.”  And, I would add, at the peril of insulting meditators everywhere including the author of 365 Tao, neither will meditation.  Maybe there are other ways to get there, maybe you can even get there through meditation, but in my experience there’s nothing that will get you to the hidden mountains, the wide deep endlessly mutable ocean, the vast airy place inside yourself, as deeply and as quickly and directly as EMDR.  Nothing else that will bring you face to face with all the parts of yourself. 
I’ve been doing Internal Family Systems therapy in EMDR with a friend, as I said in an earlier blog, and there you really do meet up with your various parts, not literally because they don’t exactly exist in a literal sense, but as close to literally as you can get.  You find the part of you that was afraid of your mother when you were ten, the part of you that felt like an outsider in high school, the part of you that’s trying to get that part of you that’s afraid of your mother or feels like an outsider to shut up and grow up and man up and be normal.  All those parts exist inside you like a shadowy non-physical non-literal family, old versions of yourself, children made of emotion and memories, with thoughts and desires and feelings – sort of -- trapped in some mysterious alembic of time and energy.  And when the magic of EMDR takes you down there, when you get lowered into your own deep ocean in the EMDR submarine, when you go exploring in the airy underwater mountains of yourself, you find that internal family; those parts come forward if you ask them to – and if you talk to them they’ll tell you things about yourself.  Things you couldn’t possibly find out any other way.  
            Mostly who you find inside yourself is children, but the strangest part – the most surprising thing I’ve discovered inside myself, to date – is an old woman.  

Coming Face to Face with the Strangest Part of Myself, Part II

I wanted to explore a particular fear I’ve had for years, a fear that won’t go away no matter how much I try to talk myself out of it.  The fear has to do with disease and getting medical tests:  I can’t make myself get a mammogram, no matter how strongly my doctor and even my friends urge me to and no matter how much I know it could actually save my life.  When I dig down to the bottom of that fear, that stuck-ness, I find an unshakeable conviction that if I go for that test something unspeakable will be discovered; I’ll be marginalized in some way – suddenly not quite human, in other people’s eyes and even my own; my life will be no longer be my own; and I’ll die a horrible death.  Which isn’t all that unreasonable, given the things that having cancer can do to us:  It can ravage and ruin and take away our ordinary lives, transform how we see ourselves and even how others see us, and cause us to have horrible deaths.   But still.  Not getting a mammogram won’t keep me from getting cancer, it might even keep me from dying of cancer.  But I can’t make myself get one.
So I started out my EMDR with that problem.  I wanted to go into the wilderness of myself and see what spirits I’d encounter, I wanted to resolve the problems of my psyche and find the treasures of my soul.  I wanted to find out what part or parts of me were preventing me from being able to get a simple ordinary medical test.
            So I put on the headphones and held onto the hand things and went down in the EMDR submarine to the deep ocean inside myself.   After a while my friend asked if there were any parts of me that would like to come forward, and that’s when I started to sense the presence of an old woman.  Not really strongly, just sort of, but sort of persistently – it, she, whatever, would not go away.  And even though I kept thinking I must’ve been making it all up I decided to go with it, because there was something about it that felt good – it felt good to bring this imaginary old woman out of the dark where she’s been living inside me for God knows how long, bring her up, out, into the light of my everyday consciousness.  (Even though I wasn’t exactly in ordinary consciousness, there in my EMDR trance, there was a part of me, there’s always a part of me when I do EMDR, which is witnessing what I’m finding, witnessing it with my ordinary conscious mind and reporting it to my therapist, or in this case, to my friend.) 
So I asked that old lady who she was and what she wanted.  She told me, not exactly in words, but through what I can only call felt images, that a long time ago, centuries ago, who knows when, she was accused of being a witch.  There was a trial – the feeling of this is being translated in my current life into the fear of having a medical test, where something can be revealed, decided, that can affect your life and death; you can either get a thumbs up or a thumbs down.  At the old lady’s trial it was going to be determined whether she got to live or die, decided by a terrifyingly distant and unfriendly male authority figure – sort of like a doctor, only worse -- the distant echo of which is affecting how I perceive doctors here in this life.  Of course, at the trial it was determined that she was a witch and that she had to die.  Suddenly, her life was wrenched brutally away from her; she lost everything, home, safety, all the lovely homely pleasures of ordinary life – the way I picture what it would be to know you have cancer.  Even worse, she became marginalized, non-humanized, a total pariah in the eyes of everyone around her – which is not the way people look at cancer victims these days but is sort of how they looked at them when I was a kid acquiring my present-day attitudes, and who says this is reality-based anyway.  And then she died a horrible death being burned as a witch.
I don’t know who she is and I can’t even pretend to know how she got inside me.    We don’t even have language to describe how something like that might come to be, except to say, in the superficial, literal-minded, spiritual pop-culture language of today, that she was me in some past life.  She doesn’t feel like me or even like part of me, but somehow I ended up with her fears, I’ve translated them into the circumstances of my everyday life.  She doesn’t feel like me, but strangely – maybe the strangest thing of all -- is that she sort of feels like my mother. 

Face to Face with the Strangest Part of Myself, Part III

To understand everything it means to me that this old woman feels like my mother you have to know something about my relationship with my mother -- more, much more, than I have room to talk about here.  In fact, I wrote an entire memoir about that relationship – it’s called Awake in the Dream House and it’s available on Amazon as a kindle book.  Here it’ll have to be enough just to say that I was terrified of my mother when I was a kid although I didn’t understand exactly why, and when I got older – since I’ve been in therapy with Alison, the therapist who introduced me to EMDR and with whom I still do EMDR once a month – I came to realize that my mother probably had borderline personality disorder, although they didn’t even know about BPD as a diagnosis when I was a kid.  There’s a book called Understanding the Borderline Mother in which the author breaks down borderline mothers into four types based on archetypes from fairy tales, and one of those archetypes, the one that seems to fit my mother, is the Witch.  (I feel like inserting an exclamation point in the text here to indicate how amazing it is to me the way all these things fit together, as if life is some enormous magical metaphorical puzzle and all we need to do is see the pieces and how they fit together is to understand it that way.) 
Anyway, when I was a little girl I was terrified of my mother, and I had recurring dreams about witches, not literal witches with black hats and broomsticks, but abstract invisible witches made of energy, terror, thought.  In the dreams I knew there was a witch hiding somewhere – in the room at the top of the stairs, beside our neighbor’s house, behind a tree -- and eventually she would jump out and frighten me out of my wits and I’d wake up. I couldn’t see my mother at all; I had no sense of her as a real person in the real world.  I barely even remember what she looked like now because when I saw her when I was a kid all I saw was my own fear, all I saw was that witch made of energy, of my own terror and thought.  She died in 1981 when I was in my twenties, before I really got to know her, and I still don’t have much sense of who she was or even what she looked like.  But when I was sitting there in my EMDR trance, conjuring up that old lady who was burned as a witch in some other century, whose thoughts and feelings somehow got inside me – when I conjured her up I felt the energy, the essence, the ways of talking and laughing and being, of my mother.
I have no idea what to make of any of this, but here’s what I guess I sort of think:  I think that somewhere, in some other century, a woman was brought to trial and burned as a witch, as many women in the Middle Ages through the 18th century were:  English, German, French, Swiss, Danish, even some American women, ordinary, maybe just a little bit strange, a little bit too spiritual according to the customs of the day women.   That witch-trying, dehumanizing, burning must’ve created a enormous conflagration of emotional energy in the women who were branded and burned as witches:  raw wretched blubbering terror, deep wracking sadness, unbearable feelings of loss.  Somehow those emotions got woven into my own emotional energy – perhaps because I was one of those women in some past life, perhaps by some other incomprehensible contrivance that has to do with the zeitgeist, the collective unconscious, or who knows what.  For whatever reason, in some dim distant impossible way I’ve been feeling that poor old burned witch’s emotions without knowing it, and those emotions have been coming up when I come in contact with certain circumstances – i.e., getting medical tests that could determine that my life will be, as I see it through my distorted-by-witch-trauma inner eyes, ripped away from me, et cetera.  That all kind of makes sense to me.  The part that makes even less sense is the part about my mother.
My mother was a witch to me when I was a little girl, that much I know.  She acted like the authorities I’m so afraid of now – the angry judges, the terrifying doctors – or at least I perceived her that way and not without reason.  With the encouragement of my father and under the influence of my own fear, I dehumanized her; I didn’t see her as a real person, to the degree that I saw her at all I only saw a witch; I feared her and avoided her, I would have gotten rid of her if I could.   She was the witch and I was the witch burner, I was her victim and she was mine and on and on, in some weird spiritual double helix.
So here’s the other thing I kind of think:  Maybe my mother and I split that witch energy.  She got some of it, and I got some of it.  Maybe there was a particular real-life past-life witch that lived sometime in the previous centuries and it was her witch energy or maybe it was just some general witch energy floating around in the atmosphere.  Maybe my mother is inside me as I was inside of her and we’ve shared or even traded that witch energy, that archetypal witch story, that old witch herself  -- back and forth between us.  Maybe life – who we are, where we come from, how we’re related to each other -- is a lot more complicated than any of us could ever possibly suspect.  Who knows?  All I know is that when I do EMDR some old lady wants to come to the surface and that old lady feels like my mother but she’s not exactly my mother and that old lady’s fears are keeping me from getting a mammogram.  I do believe all that, although I’m well aware that it would be a stretch for many people.  It’s all very interesting to me and also seems kind of crazy, and I cannot believe that I’m writing this and posting it on the internet for anyone to read, potential boyfriends, publishers, academic employers, clients, all those people out in the world that I want to impress.  But here goes nothing.