When a person suffers trauma, it can stop them having a normal life even if for years they appear to be functioning normally.
Even decades on from a traumatic event, the victim can suffer with depression and anxiety, disorientation and withdrawal, as they struggle to find a place for their painful memories.
This was Carolyn Robinson’s experience. A sex abuse survivor who suffered silently at the hands of a relative during childhood, Carolyn has been to dark places many of us couldn’t possibly imagine.
But despite growing up to have a seemingly normal adult life: a husband, a house, kids and a job; the trauma remained.
After years of being plagued by depression, anxiety and eating disorders, eight therapists and dozens of different medications, Carolyn was at a loss as to what she should do. She was two suicide attempts down, and time was running out.
At the age 40, Carolyn had a mental breakdown.
It was at this point in 2000 that she was finally recommended Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) – a technique usually practiced on people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The therapy aims to reprocess traumatic memories that are “stored in the brain in a maladaptive way,” according to Irene Begg, Chairperson of EMDR New Zealand.
As Irene explains, once these memories have been actively reprocessed with the help of the therapist, they will be stored in a way the person can deal with and one that no longer gives them a trauma response.
“The premise of EMDR is based on working with how memories are stored in the brain. This is a mechanical therapy that mimics the rapid eye movement that people have when they are dreaming,” explains Irene.
“Trauma memories are often overwhelming for the person and are ‘frozen in time,’” so the therapy aims to release them to place they can no longer do harm.
It involves the therapist and patient actively reprocessing trauma memories one by one – often by taking them ‘inside’ their map of memories in the brain.
For Carolyn, she was asked to take a trusted person with her on her journey to reprocess her memories (she chose Miss Marple, because she’d always loved her stories).
The therapist then took Carolyn to a place of 'co-consciousness,' where she was both present in the room but also inside a memory, and sought to release her from her ongoing trauma.
And for Carolyn, EMDR had incredible results:
“It gave me a life I'd only dreamt of before…I have confidence now, I believe in myself and I no longer judge and hate myself and have dropped the heaviest of burdens to carry, that of guilt.
“This therapy should be available to everyone, and I feel passionate about this because I know what it feels like to have been in the darkest of places; the deepest depths of despair.
“I know that without EMDR I wouldn’t be here, and I think everyone who has been through a traumatic experience – be that abuse, rape, domestic violence, deserves to be given the chance for a new life too.”
EMDR is a relatively new technique in New Zealand, having only been introduced here 20 years ago. But Irene says it has really gathered momentum in the last decade:
“I would like to see more awareness of EMDR and its effectiveness made known to the general population or at least people working in Mental Health,” says Irene.
“If someone wants to undergo the therapy they need to speak to ACC staff or their GP about making a referral, or seek out an EMDR Therapist in the city. Alternatively they can visit the EMDRNZ website for more info."
Carolyn now has a book our about her experience with EMDR, which is available online.