Bilateral Stimulation While Black: How EMDR Transformed the Way I Processed My Childhood Trauma

I have tiny eyes.

I’ve been playfully teased about them in a myriad of ways since I was a kid — from my big sister swearing I was dropped off by an Asian family (Whew, chillay, the problematic jokes of youth. And note, her nickname was “Chyna Doll” soooo ... ) to people constantly asking me to open my eyes when they were in fact as open as they could get—and these perma-squinting eyeballs are a perpetual part of my funny life.

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Little did I know they’d be a part of my unraveling in the most beautiful, painful, haunting way. At 12-years-old, following my dad’s death (fuck cancer forever), a middle-aged friend of my grandmother’s sexually assaulted me. It would take years (until college) for me to speak the shame aloud, and several more years to begin working on processing it all with a professional.

Enter, EMDR—Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

The EMDR Institute is a handy resource for clinicians and laypeople alike, describing EMDR for the latter as “psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences.”

As someone who has experienced this type of therapy, I have to admit, I am geeked every time I hear of another black woman who is either intimately familiar with it or is interested in the concept. As we continually work through tackling stigma within our community, I’m down to not only promote the hell out of therapy but also celebrate alternative methods within the therapeutic sphere.

So I decided to hit up one of the most instrumental people in my life, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Kathleen R. Brennan. That’s right, I brought my former therapist along for the ride. I vividly remember the moment Brennan introduced the concept of EMDR to me as I sat across from her on that unforgettable blue couch. At that point, I was thrust into a gloaming hole of depression and anxiety, so I was open to trying anything—even four letters I’d never heard combined in such a manner until that evening.

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“When EMDR was first introduced in the late 1980s, there wasn’t the research available to support that it was a valid and reliable therapy,” Brennan told me. “Decades and much research later, EMDR has become widely accepted in the mental health community. For example, the World Health Organization recognizes EMDR as an effective therapy for treating PTSD for Veterans.”

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Brennan continues: “Highly disturbing or traumatic events are stored differently than every day, moderately stressful or positive events. The emotions, images, physical sensations, and beliefs that occur in what could be an instant or more ongoing, get stored, linked in a non-cohesive, fragmented or dysfunctional way, and get stuck.

“Knowing that trauma gets stored and encoded differently and learning more and more about treatment options, I continued to hear about EMDR in trainings, read about it and then had a few clients ask if I was trained in it,” she adds. “After EMDR was on my radar for about a year, I decided to get trained and have been incorporating it into my practice ever since.”

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With a reassuring smile as warm as a batch of fresh cookies, Brennan broke down the step-by-step process of our sessions, the emotional work it would require and softened it all with reinforcing support and encouragement.

Brennan takes us through a day in an EMDR session:

Being an 8-phase protocoled model, EMDR allows space for therapist and client to identify and talk about what has been impacting life in upsetting, disturbing or even unbearable ways.

Clients have the opportunity to share what is coming up for them, what life has looked like up until now and what they hope to gain from the EMDR process. After having gone through the initial phases of EMDR with the therapist, clients can expect to move into the reprocessing phase. This is the phase people often think of when they think of EMDR.

Clients decide on what bilateral stimulation feels more comfortable to them. Some people prefer a light bar where a light moves back and forth and they follow this light with their eyes (eye movements). Others might prefer tappers that vibrate back and forth from left hand to right. A headset that produces tones that sound back and forth between each ear are also an option.

Then the reprocessing/desensitization begins. The disturbing event that the therapist and client decide to target is brought up along with the body sensations, emotions and thoughts while simultaneously following the light bar, holding the the tappers or listening to auditory sounds. The therapist guides the client through sets, as more associations come up for the client. Whatever comes up comes up for the client and there is no right or wrong.

The client continues through sets until that memory is resolved and the charge around that memory is no longer.

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With Brennan’s encouragement, I tried every example listed above—the eye-movement light bar, the bilateral sounds via headphones, and the vibrating tappers. To be honest, I haven’t chosen a preferred method as of yet, but I will say they were all equally effective. The light bar method was what we ended on, in fact.

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To summon my memories, Brennan instructed me to allow my thoughts to move freely and to imagine myself as if I were on a train ride, stopping along the way to process each one. I’d follow the lights across the horizontal bar or listen to the beeps shift from one ear to the other for a few minutes, and Brennan would stop the procedure for a moment and then ask me to convey what I had experienced. What did I see? How did I feel? What sensations swept my body?

Every session, I sat on that “train” and inserted myself into one of the most challenging and intense bouts of processing and memory recall I’ve ever experienced. I sobbed real snot-nosed tears every week—the kind that wins Viola Davis highly respected awards.

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EMDR is “therapeutic” in every sense of the word, and as Brennan advises, should be conducted with someone trained in this particular psychotherapy. She likened it to putting the client in “the driver’s seat,” and I couldn’t agree more. My trauma (which happened in a car, so the analogy is apt) stripped whatever sense of control I may have had at the tender age of 12; and so I resorted to hyper-control in order to reclaim it. That method ended in a couple of suicide attempts and several mental breakdowns. EDMR gifted me with the safe space to take the wheel again with a newfound confidence.

“When people are moving thru the EMDR process, clients begin to report the in-between-session triumph,” explains Brennan. “People with post-traumatic symptoms may notice that nightmares, flashbacks related to a trauma begin to recede or completely go away. Places or situations that may have caused panic before are no longer triggering or less stress-inducing. People may report that they experience less reactivity and more neutrality, or non-reaction to the situations that were originally causing them distress. They can bring their fuller selves to everyday situations.

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“In addition to EMDR being widely accepted as a therapy that can treat post-traumatic stress, EMDR can be useful in resolving events that impact everything from stage-fright, job performance anxiety, phobias to being overwhelmed when there is conflict in an important relationship,” Brennan assured.

Though Brennan and I had to part after I moved to Los Angeles from my hometown of Chicago (pesky out-of-state insurance rules!), I’ll undoubtedly carry EMDR with me in my prolonged and highly complicated search for another therapist. Besides, my tiny eyes have some more work to do with a light bar ...

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About the author

Tonja Renée Stidhum

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.