Draining the Swamp: Using EMDR Therapy to Treat PTSD After Baby Loss
“Here you go,” she handed me two-pager sized buzzers, one for each hand. She turned the knob to on and I felt an instant discomfort. At first I was itchy. Then suddenly, I was back in a dimly lit hospital bed, my doula cooing in my ear. I was doing my best to fight against pushing because once he was born, it was the beginning of the end. I dropped the buzzers on the floor. I was instantly sobbing.
“I failed! I failed him! He died! I did everything right and he died anyway!”
My therapist coached me to notice the colors and mentally come back into the room with them. My husband sat in shock.
She was merely showing me the therapy tools and explaining the technique for EMDR: Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing. My immediate strong reaction confirmed the diagnosis. I had PTSD. My husband suspected I had acquired it after the stillbirth of our youngest son. Even a year after frequent counseling appointments, I wasn’t improving in sleeping patterns or social anxieties.
We thought we would be tackling the complicated grief. But we had to start by sliding into the thick swamp of guilt and drain it before even getting to the sadness. My husband attended every session with me so he was aware of the work we were doing.
Each therapy session was carefully tailored to a goal. On a scale of one to ten, we established what thoughts or memories qualified as a ten. For the first session, we focused on the intrusive cyclical thought that I had failed Reece and wasn’t a good mother.
“Good mothers don’t birth dead babies.”
Before EMDR, my therapist and I created a map of thoughts and questions that would be the focus during the reprocessing portion. It took about two or three sessions of talking, explaining, and gathering information before we were ready to begin the actual reprocessing session.
I was warned that this type of therapy was exhausting, that the following days would be marked by feeling as if I had ran a long distance, even though no physical work was actually taking place. The alternating vibrations were linking the two halves of my brain together to work towards healing the trauma. There is physical evidence in the PTSD brain, a greyish cloud can be found in medical cadavers known to have experienced emotional trauma. This therapy was literally breaking up the grey fog in my brain.
She handed me the buzzers and ask me a question from our map.
As I began to answer, she’d turn the vibrations on. The buzzers would alternate from one hand to the other, and I would answer or describe something in detail. Often I would sob, sometimes spilling open with surprising clarity, sometimes saying what I already logically knew to be true, but didn’t believe in my heart. The amount of tissues used was nothing short of impressive. We ended the session on the question, on a scale of one to ten, how much do you believe you failed Reece?
Following that first session, I was dragged down with exhaustion caused by sweeping floors in all the emotional corners. Those nights were crowded by intense visions and dreams, sparking some of the goriest poetry I’ve ever written. I felt as though a sand storm had blown through my entire being. I was a bit raw and dried out and dusty. By day three or four, I would bounce back to normal energy. The amazing thing was even after the session ended, my brain would keep working towards healing. Calm would settle in where it used to be a constant torturous swirl.
Calm. The sadness was still present, the longing, the heartache of my son’s death, but a little less painful. My brain was beginning to rewrite the script. I was a good mother to Reece. I AM a good mother to Reece and his older brothers. I was starting to be able to think about my littlest boy without being buried in the guilt or bursting into tears. This is the space where joy would grow.
We had more work to do, but I was starting to heal.
If you think you might be struggling with PTSD or other anxieties due to trauma, EMDR may be able to help.