Traumatic memories and Night Terrors

My ‘Secrets’ blog is a serialisation of my story. You may want to first go back to read previous weeks’ accounts 🖤

May 2020

Two months into lockdown. We are all fit and well again. We’ve turned the dining room into a makeshift gym. Dad now has a care package in place, which includes three visits per day, following a few weeks in hospital.

My counsellor contacts me to inform me that she is now able to carry out EMDR therapy via Zoom if I’m comfortable to try this. With no signs of the lockdown ending I agree to go ahead. We reset the parameters for the treatment and I begin the therapy the following Wednesday evening.

It is such a strange thing to do, and even more so via Zoom. On our first session, we experiment with different ways for the bilateral stimulation and eventually settle with tapping. She taps and I follow her hands, mirroring the movement with my own hands. I tap on my knees. The movements are quite rapid, large and decisive. It feels odd to begin with.

Before the tapping begins I am asked to focus on what happened to me and how the events make me feel – a negative cognition. I am then asked how I would prefer to feel about it. This is not easy. I feel deeply guilty and ashamed of what I did. It takes quite some time to identify the feeling of powerlessness as the negative cognition. Because that is what he made me feel, totally powerless.  I am picturing that large man rendering me powerless as he hoisted me up onto that shoulder, I had no power whatsoever. It was no good shouting or screaming – there was nobody around. He had complete control.

The aim of the EMDR is to focus upon this feeling of powerlessness and the emotions it then evokes until such time as the trauma loses its power. There also has to be a positive cognition and we decide this should be that I am strong. This is going to take several weeks of hard, concentrated work and is going to be harder and more costly than I could ever imagine as we embark upon the therapy.

With EMDR, the brain continues to process memories and associated emotions far beyond a therapy session. It triggers memories that have been locked away for years. Over the weeks that follow I find myself having flashbacks – fragments of sound, of images fly into my mind unbidden. And with the images develop the most horrendous panic attacks and night terrors. I wake up in a hot sweat and so frightened but without knowing exactly what it is I am frightened of.

I hadn’t realised just how many of the traumatic memories from my past, which were locked away somewhere in my brain, impacted upon my present, until I began the EMDR processing. So many things began to make sense, such as an incident that had taken place a few months earlier in the gym.

I was training as part of a group class. There was a man in the class with whom I just didn’t feel comfortable.  I automatically stayed away from him in these classes. It felt better that way. He was a big man, not too dissimilar in size and stature to how I remember my attacker of so many years ago.

But this day, whilst we were working in the same group, he was closer than usual and began grunting as he strained against the weights. Something totally unexpected mushroomed within my head. All I could hear was the noises he was making; they were blotting out every other sound in the gym, even the music until they sent me into a complete panic.

It was only subsequently, as part of the EMDR processing that I realised why the sounds upset me so mcuh. They were awakening a fifty five year old memory. I had heard them before and they filled me with fear…

During one of my sessions at the beginning of June, my counsellor asked if I ever did any writing, as she believed that if I write, I could let some of my emotions out into words and it might help. Could I? I didn’t think I could possibly write about anything that had happened to me at that time. But I decided to try and one day I just sat down and let whatever come into my head transfer itself onto my iPad. The result was the poem ‘We Survive’ printed at the beginning of this account (copied below).

It was the first of a number of pieces. I began putting the images that flashed into my head into words. And it did help. There was one area of that early trauma I couldn’t write about though, because all I could recall was an emotion, and that emotion was terror…

 

We Survive

 

Some of us have just learned how to survive

It’s in our genes, cemented by events of our childhood and teens

Our life has been shaped by the wills of others

A stranger, so called friends, our fathers, our mothers

We can’t ever say the details out loud

Make it real, make us feel

The emotions again,

the hurt and the shame, the feeling of blame

That we know isn’t ours and doesn’t make sense

We can’t say the words, they would cause offence

To our ears and to any others who hear

Of the life we have spent, living in fear.

 

Some of us have learned just how to survive

We’ve had years of practice of saying ‘I’m fine’

When deep down inside we are treading a line between

Self-loathing for what we know we have done

and anger at those who made us what we’ve become

Filled with self doubt and feeling unworthy

of friendships, relationships

Because still, we feel dirty

From the hands that mauled and did unspeakable things

Robbed innocence, robbed peace and robbed the good dreams

Turned them all into nightmares, terrors and panics

Fragments of things we don’t want to recall

Things we’d rather not remember at all.

 

We survive and we learn how to smile outwardly,

Suppressing our thoughts so we’re not depressing

others, because who really wants to hear, to know

what makes us tick, what makes us sick

to our core?

The memories of the reality

of what was done,

forced upon us

when we were too weak to fight.

The man that took us without our will

Too young to understand, to frightened to tell.

 

And so we hid it all in a box,

Like Pandora, we locked it firmly away

Hoping there would never be a day

when it forced its way out

The experiences oozing, making us inwardly shout

Inwardly scream, at a man we know we can’t ever name

Who’s actions have scarred us, made us never the same

 

When fear overwhelms us and panic sets in

We run, we hide

We push ourselves to our limits and so we survive.

 

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