“The human brain had a vast memory storage. It made us curious and very creative. Those were the characteristics that gave us an advantage—curiosity, creativity, and memory. And that brain did something very special. It invented an idea called ‘the future.'”—David Suzuki
I can remember talking to my previous therapists, trying to tell them of my terror: I would always attract and be attracted to men like my ex-narcissist. I knew deep in my gut that there was something about me that was a broken, screaming beacon alerting men to my susceptiblitity to manipulation.
Both therapists assured me I was wrong: “You’re a smart woman.” “You’re not twenty anymore. Don’t blame yourself for decisions you made when you’re brain was still developing.” “You wouldn’t let a man like that be a part of your children’s lives. You won’t do it again.” I suppose there is logic in that, but the gut feeling never left me. I was sure there was something in me that played a part in my victimization.
I couldn’t heal with that feeling inside me. It wasn’t until I found a therapist who specialized in trauma that my feelings were validated. I learned that dysfunctional adult relationships can have a root in childhood trauma. I certainly had experienced trauma in my 13 years as the partner of a narcissist. But my childhood? I thought I’d had a rather uneventful growing up despite the divorce of my parents when I was an infant. I really couldn’t think back to any events that smacked of trauma.
To process my more recent trauma, I had to identify the discordant feelings, the feelings that disagreed with what I logically understood about the events. Those feelings were a crippling sense of guilt, responsibility, and shame. I should have done more to stop his bad behavior. I should have been braver and stronger and stood up to him sooner. I had placed the responsibility for his behavior and, therefore, my victimization, squarely upon my own shoulders.
Armed with that knowledge, my therapist helped me sift through my past. What we found were many small pieces of emotional neglect:
- Getting a bed for my birthday, but never being allowed to sleep on it. My little brother slept in it from the day it was given to me until he moved out.
- Not eating for a week and no one noticing.
- Asking my parents to get therapy for me because I knew I shouldn’t skip a week’s worth of meals.
- A lack of momories of support from my parents.
So many little, small things.
EMDR helps your brain process trauma by disconnecting the memory of trauma from the erroneous negative emotion that’s gotten stuck to it. Finding the right memory to work on is like having a box full of locks and a handful of keys. When you finally find the lock and key combination that works, all the other locks open too.
For me, that memeory formed when I was 13. My parents got a call in the middle of the night. My horse was seriously injured and in need of emergency surgery. My stepdad rushed me to the barn and from there to the large animal hospital two hours away. We watched from a viewing room high above the operating table as my horse was cut open and dead pieces of intestines, like thick black sausages, were piled on his stomach. Once the surgeon knew the extent of the damage he called up to our room. The prognosis was terrible. We could stop the surgery now and euthanize my horse or we could continue on knowing the odds of survival were slim to none.
At 13, that decision was mine and I made it. I killed my horse. They stopped the surgery and he never woke up. I saw him one last time, cold and dead. I remember the surgical bags on his hooves as his legs hung unnaturally in the air. For two decades I lived in that moment, knowing I killed my horse, my best friend.
EMDR helped me see myself as a child in my own memory, a 13 year old child whose parents had hung decisions to weighty around my neck. The memory remains a sad one, but the guilt and shame are gone.
As I reprocessed my traumatic experiences from this new perspective, I felt absolved from the guilt I’d attached to those events. I understood that I’d done what I could and that’s all anyone could do. I knew the shame was his, not my own.
I was free.