Trauma king

An EMDR patient explains how the controversial therapy helped him revisit childhood memories he thought he'd left behind

"Over the summer, my epiphanies were often so intense it felt like I'd taken a drug."

"Over the summer, my epiphanies were often so intense it felt like I'd taken a drug." Photo: Courtesy of Maria Stegner

Traditional therapy has never appealed to me. How could I explain growing up gay in Alabama with a mentally ill father to a stranger in less time than I spend with my trainer at the gym? But last spring, a friend turned me on to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR was developed in the 1980s by Dr. Francine Shapiro, a psychologist who discovered that alternating stimulation between the right and left hemispheres of the brain—through repetitive horizontal eye movements; tapping of the hands and/or oscillating sound effects—somehow pulls traumatic memories from the subconscious to the surface. Combined with talk therapy that's geared to redefining the way a person experiences those memories, EMDR is believed to accelerate trauma recovery. For years, typical EMDR patients were those who'd suffered from "Big T" traumas such as war or rape. More recently, the practice has been used to address less severe traumas, like, for instance, having a cuckoo father and being a gay boy in the 1970s South.

Advocates hail EMDR as a miracle. But despite the fact that therapists and patients are unequivocally pleased with its results, clinical studies fall short of explaining exactly how it works. One theory holds that bilateral stimulation evokes the kind of dream-like state in which deep emotional conflict is often worked out. It is also believed that the stimulation helps release traumatic moments which had been frozen in the nervous system since the time of the event. With EMDR, patients seem to be able to heal the entire scar of an experience, rather than just fragments of it.

Still, the therapy community remains polarized over EMDR's efficacy. Skeptics see it as a pseudo science, on par with subliminal self-help tapes or rebirthing. "EMDR raises people's hopes unfairly," says Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, associate professor of psychology at Emory University, who's published several articles on the subject. Although he doesn't think the process itself is harmful, by advertising itself as a "quick fix," the treatment could stunt therapeutic gains. Still, he admits that his reservations are based almost solely on EMDR's ambiguous clinical evidence.

I made my first appointment with Dr. Christine Ranck last June. A youthful 50-ish former back-up singer for Barry Manilow, Ranck became a psychoanalyst in 1991 and trained in EMDR in 1996. "That is when my patients began to actually get better," she said, as though she'd discovered penicillin and would never go back to leeches. I got comfortable on the couch in her Upper West Side office, put on a pair of CD Walkman earphones, closed my eyes and began to hear faint sounds of ocean waves moving back and forth from my left ear to my right. I suddenly became acutely aware that I was terrified I would cry during the session. So I decided to tell Ranck.

"Do you remember a time you broke down before?" she asked gently. (EMDR therapists avoid steering patients to memories, preferring to provide guidance once they're there.) Though I intended to deal with the mysteries of my sex life, my thoughts went to my cousin's death in 1987, a chapter in my life I thought was closed. I found myself inexplicably reliving the horrific moment of watching my aunt and uncle in utter despair while I stood in shock, feeling powerless. And the images were not the typical dim and fleeting visuals of my waking mind, but were intensely vivid, making me feel in every way that I was there again.

As the sounds shifted into a rainstorm, Ranck suggested that part of me was still frozen in that moment. I agreed, since it would explain the unaccountable anxiety I felt for the children of loved ones (and why I bawled when Julia Roberts died in Steel Magnolias—and I hate that movie.) Then, a vision of a black void with a crater floating in the middle appeared in my mind's eye, asif I was looking at the wound itself. Ranck asked me to "go in" and look on the memory with what I know now, rather than as the 17-year-old who originally experienced the death. And over the next few days I finally broke down and cried for my aunt and uncle. I was no longer frozen. I also felt utter mental exhaustion.

Over the summer, my epiphanies were often so intense it felt like I'd taken a drug. Ranck helped me locate the source of a nagging guilt—my father's attitude that one should know his place in life and stay there—and helped me change my opinion that I'd been wrong to break away. She also assisted me in pinpointing a time in my childhood, when I'd determined that being gay was defective, and helped me change my conclusion. Outside of the sessions, feelings began to rise to the surface quickly and frequently, and then just as soon depart, as if I were coughing up emotional hair balls.

By the end of the summer I felt less terrorized, less guilty, happier. That's partly due to Ranck, but EMDR made it possible for me to truly revisit certain memories. Based on my nine sessions, I'd say EMDR actually is a quick fix, but not one for the faint of heart. It takes you to your scariest memories—so make sure you're ready to relive them. Then again, if you've ever wanted to do it all over, EMDR is as close as you'll get.

For more information on Dr. Christine Ranck's EMDR therapy, call 212-873-8079.