Blink Once for Crazy, Twice for Sane

One of the things about being in chronic pain for so long is how desperate you become to find something, anything, to make the pain go away. This is how otherwise intelligent people end up spending the last of their savings flying to a naked, aboriginal shaman down in Alice Springs that has been rumored to remove brain rumors with a didgeridoo or some such shit. 

I’d heard of EMDR before—a number of people mentioned it to me. I’d heard it was some weird, experimental therapy that they used on returning vets where they blinked a bunch until it somehow made them forget seeing a man’s head blown off in Iraq. I don’t mean to sound glib. Seriously, that’s what it’s used for. It’s a therapy tool used to cope with PTSD, and it has a pretty high success rate. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, is a legit therapy that does involve eye movement and blinking. And my new shrink is licensed to do EMDR. When I asked her about it, she shrugged and said “Yeah, we can try that if you want. It definitely works for a lot of people.”

Well fuck yeah, let’s do this blinking shit then. Where do I sign? 

Typically, she explained, EMDR is used on people who have experienced a trauma. Since my chronic pain was not the obvious result of one specific event that I could recall, we decided we’d just focus on my pain and see where that got us. 

Dudes. It was crazy. I closed my eyes and reclined in a comfortable chair and put on headphones. She then asked me to think about the pain in my feet. She asked if it has a shape (a stingray without a tail), a color (orange), a smell (no), a texture (needles), or a sound (no). So I focused on my orange, needly pain blob and she pressed Play on an honest-to-god-cassette-Walkman. These tones started beeping in my ears, back and forth, from left to right, very much like the same tones in the hearing-test machine from elementary school they’d use to test kids to see if they were deaf. 

So I sat there with my eyes closed, tones pinging back and forth, thinking hard about that pain blob for 30 seconds? Sixty? I couldn’t tell. What I immediately noticed was that I was having a physiological reaction. My chest was tight and my wrists were tingling. I felt myself getting pissed. And frustrated. Why me? I asked through gritted teeth. 

Then she stopped the tones and asked me what I felt. I told her, then she asked me to hang on to that anger and frustration and to really focus on those feelings. Then she started the tones again. I immediately burst into tears. Focusing on the anger made me suddenly feels enormously sad. The weird thing is how instantaneous it was. I wasn’t working up to those tears—they just burst forth from my face. 

Then she asked me to focus on that sadness and started the tones again. Then what popped up was a deeper level of sadness associated with having let this condition define me, that this was just who I was gonna be the rest of my life—a depressed, hurting person who watched life pass her by. 

And so it went. Each time she asked me to focus on the primary emotion that had arisen during the last set of tones. And each time, I had a strong emotional and physical reaction. It was like we were peeling back layers of shit. 

In the end, the EMDR lasted about 30-35 minutes. When she asked me to take off my headphones, and it looked at the clock. I was shocked. I felt like it had been 10 minutes, tops. 

She kept asking if I was okay. She wanted to make sure I was okay to leave and drive up to Chico to see my mom, a three-hour drive. I said “Yeah, I’m fine. Why do you keep asking me that?” She said that the entire time my eyes were closed and I was listening to the tones, my face was contorted into the very picture of suffering and misery. She also said that my body was basically twitching all over the whole time, which is fucking insane! I thought I was just quietly sitting there with my eyes closed, listening. I didn’t think all of that shit was happening too. Crazy. 

Then, the weirdest thing: I got in my car and drove to Chico, and in the three hours it took to get there, my mind was fucking blank. It was like what I strive for during meditation—just this blissful absence of worry or stress or pain. There was no critical voice constantly nattering in the back of my head—the one that is constantly trying to figure out how to get my shit together, stop being in pain, do something meaningful and worthwhile, be nicer to my wife, be better at my job, stop smoking, start swimming, stop eating garbage, stop doing drugs and drinking so much, be a better friend, stop being so lazy—all of that shit that seems to take up all the space in my brain now for some reason. 

It was motherfucking goddamned BLISS. Just getting a few hours of relief from that critical and depressing cunt who has taken up residence in my brain and turned me into a bitter old crone was fucking BLISS.

And so we shall continue. She says people typically see some pretty major changes after three or four sessions, so we’ll see. I only see her every other week because she’s like a million dollars. But something is undoubtedly different in my brain already. Like one layer of sadness has been stripped away, and I can feel myself getting that much closer to the person I remember being for most of my life. It’s exciting, yet terrifying. I’ve had my hopes dashed so many times since all this shit started, I’m holding my breath waiting for it all to fall apart and the darkness to close in again.