Understanding trauma through storytelling

photo by gayle mavor. Art by Suzanne Fulbrook.

I went to a panel at the Growing Room Festival on Saturday called “No Way out but Through: Writing about Trauma.” The panelists were: Evelyn Lau, Christine Lowther and Sonnet L’Abbe with Elee Kraljii Gardener as the moderator. 

I was invited to be one of the active listeners. I’m not sure who suggested me. Someone, I suppose, who knows that I’ve taken quite a few counselling and related courses (eight to be exact) as pre-requisites to a Masters in the past few years. Poet Jonina Kirtan was the other active listener.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, nobody needed to talk to us.

Let me rephrase that. Some women may have benefited from sharing their feelings. There were no outward signs (except coughing) to indicate that. The thing about coughing is maybe you have a cold or maybe your emotion is being manifested through coughing.  Who’s to say.

How strangely serendipitous it should be that I would find myself being invited to that event because what some of the panelists had to say set off a bit of a light bulb moment for me in understanding that some of what I’m writing about is, of course, trauma-related. And if I re-examine some of the things I’ve been writing about from that perspective, it’s much clearer to me how to focus the stories and perhaps my entire manuscript with that in the background as the “golden thread” of explanation.

Evelyn Lau spoke to how she needed to be completely in her own space, in silence, in order to have the psychological space to work through her stuff.  She spoke about forming her commitment to writing long before a commitment to people.  “When talking hasn’t worked, writing is all that’s left.” And she also reminded us that trauma can also translate, eventually, into strength.” That, I believe, for me, has absolutely been true.

As a writer, a storyteller, you have to decide who you serve. Do you serve the writing or do you serve the people around you? Christine Lowther recalled hearing that (from Evelyn Lau) and as a result, (and she’s not alone in this experience based on what I’ve heard from other writers), she’s had relatives not speak to her for periods of time because of some of the things she’s written.

I think it was Elee Kraljii who said “the closer you are to a trauma, the more catharsis feels like the impetus for the writing. Years later, however, if you are still writing about it, it can feel psychologically damaging.”  Interesting insight to mull over.

Christine Lowther has been writing/re-writing about one specific image left over from a childhood experience, approaching that trauma and having new memories surface to add new layers and different ways into the story.  

She recalled having some student say to her 20 years ago, “Well, I hope you’re not going to be writing about this 20 years from now!” And she still is.  And maybe that’s what every writer is doing. Writing about the things that were the impetus for writing in the first place, in only slightly revised ways, but with layer upon layer of new insights impacting the words on the page.

Sonnet has this incredible project where she’s using Shakespeare’s sonnets to write around and interject her own writing over top of them, layering her experience as a woman of a Guyanese, South Asian and African mixed descent over some of the most seminal works in British colonialism.  I hope I understood that correctly.

I don’t know when trauma became a commonly referred to word but it didn’t exist when I was growing up. Or if it did, the depth of understanding related to it is greater now. At least that’s how it seems to me.  After a lot of therapy, some education and my own insights, I can’t help but see how that term – trauma – gets loaded with so much misinformation and misunderstanding.

Our stories, after all, are just our stories. They don’t come with labels alerting us to the clinical box they might fit inside. We can so easily forget to recognize how the scenes we’ve been a part of in life can be defined clinically in ways that we can so easily overlook. Sometimes that acknowledgement, not just in life, but on the page, can not only lead us to be kinder to ourselves, but to a more cohesive narrative.

EMDR in therapy, in class and into the world

Sometimes life and learning come together in such perfect ways.

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a form of psychotherapy developed by a psychologist named Francine Shapiro who lives in California. This integrative psychotherapy had a bit of a flukey beginning (just like many discoveries and innovations).

Shapiro was walking across a field one day back in 1987. A few things were bothering her and she noticed as she walked and thought about what was bothering her that her eyes moved very quickly up and down. Now you might think, that’s a really weird thing to notice. Who would notice that? The answer is a woman who had been intensely focused on the mind-body connection for about 10 years, via workshops and other learning, as a result of doing all she could to recover from a bout of cancer.

Shapiro noticed that after these rapid eye movements, her mildly distressing thoughts were lessened. She tried it again, on purpose, asking friends to call up a disturbing memory, then purposely guiding their eyes back and forth, having them follow a marker for 30 seconds per set. She got consistent results. She continued to do that for about 70 people asking them to hone in on a specific disturbing memory, to notice their feelings in their body, the negative thoughts about self associated with the memory, and how those changed and lessened as she did the rather hocus pocus looking thing that meant their brains were being stimulated bilaterally.  The disturbance lessened. The original negative thought became more positive and they were left feeling more in control, not controlled, by the original negative experience.

She began to hypothesize that EMDR somehow replicated the body’s natural healing process, the one that seems to allow us to process events every night in our dreams when we experience the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) portion of our sleep cycle. The brain is able to process the things that we need, that are helpful, and let go of the rest, unless it can’t. If the disturbance is so out of line from anything else we’ve ever experienced in our lives then sometimes, not in everyone but in many people, the brain can’t process that information and it becomes problematic. We have no where to integrate that traumatic memory into our nervous system and sometimes that trauma leads to PTSD.

We react way out of proportion to things and may be triggered by sounds, smells, colours, a facial expression, or images when those tap into the original event which (in the case of childhood trauma) we may have repressed.

Shapiro enrolled in a doctoral program in Psychology and published findings from her thesis in the Journal of Traumatic Studies in 1989. It was met with great controversy. How could something so strange be such a quick fix for Big T Trauma? The journal must have been duped. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had only been defined in 1980. There were no good therapies, not really, for helping those suffering from traumatic and intrusive memories.

EMDR was met with skepticism, which is good, that’s how it should be. And then not so good – with controversy – and finally, after years of anecdotal testimonies and 20 peer-reviewed scientific studies, it is now recognized as an effective treatment for those suffering from trauma. EMDR has been approved by the American Psychiatric Association and the U.S. Department of Defence and Veteran Affairs and it’s acknowledged as effective treatment for people who have been through a traumatic experience and others who have suffered traumas as children or are experiencing other problems – depression, anxiety, that they haven’t been able to overcome.

This week I’m giving a talk on EMDR in one of my classes and I’m really excited about it because I believe wholeheartedly in EMDR. My experience with it, and I’ve had it many times as part of talk therapy, is that it has taken me on a journey into myself every single time unearthing images that bubble to the surface like metaphors, causing emotion to rise faster than I’ve ever experienced it as a release, provides insights to mull over and leave me feeling not only astonished at what came up, but, by the end of the session, more in control of the original stressor instead of controlled by the emotional reaction to it. There’s an alignment between body and mind and a genuine belief in the positive thought and a neutralizing of the feeling in the body.

Best of all, it always ends on a positive note. I don’t know how. Nobody knows how exactly. The studies are ongoing.

Given the realities of the 21st century where traumatic events are so widespread with ever increasing levels of anxiety and depression, I think the implications of using EMDR are so exciting and timely with the potential to be an incredible aid to humanitarian response in war zones, after natural disasters, and in lesser traumas that prevent people from living their lives to their greatest potentials.

Let’s be clear, it’s not a miracle cure but it does offer a faster positive response and resolution to long held struggles than previously available and that has been proven scientifically for anyone who can’t be open enough to get past the process, and remains stuck on the initial controversy.

Shapiro’s latest book is called Getting Past Your Past published 2012 and if you’d like to know more about EMDR and begin learning some really easy stress reduction techniques, I’d suggest reading it.

Visit EMDR.com or EMDRIA.org and EMDRhap.org for more information.

PS: I was reminded the other day. The best way to evaluate a therapy before someone wants to supposedly help you is to discover for yourself (based on evidence-based research) whether it has reliability and validity in helping others. And then, is it one that you are willing to participate in?

The best thing you could do for yourself before seeing any type of mental health provider is to find out what paradigm(s) they believe in and what therapy they are using on you and why they believe it’s the one to use.  Of course, often, we are not in the position to do that when we need to reach out and seek help because we are desperate. Caveat Emptor. Just sayin. And trust your gut.

An excellent book that I’ve read recently that has a chapter on EMDR in it,  that seems, based on my personal experience to be accurate, is called: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.

Another excellent book related to complex trauma that I’ve recently read is called: Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving.