Snapshot of a Memory: EMDR in Practice

The silhouette looking at sunsetEditor’s Note: This article contains description of childhood abuse, which may be triggering for some readers.

“I have an image in my mind I can’t seem to get rid of,” I tell Dr. Erickson. “A snapshot of a memory that’s always there, and I can’t stop looking at it.”

His office is dimly lit. On the wall facing me are two pictures of shamans, medicine men who heal spiritually. I had thought a psychiatrist might decorate with pictures from the masters—Van Gogh, Monet, or maybe a classical artist like Michelangelo. Below the shamans, on an end table, is a Kokopelli statue set in a dish of smooth stones. Next to that are two huge bookcases filled with copies of publications from the American Psychiatric Association. At least he seems well-read.

“Are you sure it’s a memory?” He sits near the opposite wall, filing my evaluation form into a folder. Today he’s wearing a shirt and tie. If it weren’t for his long hair and ponytail he would seem every bit a doctor.

“Yes. It’s something the attorneys brought up during the deposition. Something I haven’t thought about in a long time.”

He stares at me and says nothing. I realize he isn’t going to prod. It seems a strange way to communicate, not asking questions.

“When I was nine I told kids at school that I’d seen my father’s penis,” I tell him, “that I’d touched it. Only I didn’t know to call it that. They stared at me in shock. That’s when I realized there was something wrong with what I was doing. You only know what you’re told when you’re a child. I didn’t know that other kids weren’t touching their fathers that way.” I pause. “They stopped playing with me after that.”

He’s quiet for a moment. “That’s the image in your mind?”

“Yes, swinging on the playground, laughing. I remember the looks on their faces when I admitted what I was doing. It was all so … innocent.”

“How does that make you feel?”

How does it make me feel? The memory is so old, almost thirty years have gone by, but it still seems like yesterday. It’s the kind of memory I store in one of those chests at the bottom of my mind, but now I can’t seem to put it back.

“Ashamed, sad, like I’ve done something wrong.”

“Do you feel that in your body?”

Another strange question. The memory is in my head. My emotions are in my head, glued to that image of swinging happily, chattering with my friends and having no idea of the impact of my words. My emotions are not imprinted in my body. But I think about the question anyway because I have so much anxiety these days, a tightness in my stomach that feels like a descending roller coaster. Even my nightly dose of Seroquel isn’t alleviating it.

“In my stomach,” I say.

“Images come forward in your mind to help you get what you want. Your subconscious wants to heal. This is its way of communicating that to you.”

“There’s something for me to learn from this memory?”

[EMDR] is very effective for trauma and posttraumatic stress. Once you process the memory, the picture goes away, along with the emotions associated with it.

He nods. “There’s something called EMDR—eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It’s a therapy like hypnosis that can help speed the processing of memories. It’s very effective for trauma and posttraumatic stress. Once you process the memory, the picture goes away, along with the emotions associated with it.”

I’d like to get rid of the snapshot memory, and the sadness and shame it brings with it. It was different before; it was a private memory I could easily tuck away. I could convince myself it was a single incident barely worth my energy to consider. But I had admitted it during the deposition; I had exposed my shame to a team of attorneys who simply stared at me, stoic and apathetic. I had mirrored their apathy, determined not to allow them to see my pain. I can still see their unimpressed expressions.

“How do I do that?” I ask Dr. Erickson.

“I move my hand in front of you and you follow it with your eyes as you think about the memory. Emotions will come to the surface. As you process the emotions, they will be released. The memory will lose its emotional charge.”

“Will the image go away then?”

“It should.”

Is that what the memory wants—to be felt? Have I tucked away so much of my life that it stubbornly refuses to be hidden any longer? Or is this just a byproduct of the deposition, the aftermath of stress?

What I know is that the memory bothers me. I don’t like looking at those faces of my schoolmates staring in shock, and the memory of realizing I did something wrong. I don’t like being made to feel bad when the onus should be on someone else. Maybe that’s been the problem; the guilt belongs to someone else and not me.

“Okay,” I say.

“Okay what?”

“Okay, I want to try that. I want the image to go away.”

He moves our chairs closer together, so his left arm will be next to my left arm. We’re sitting side by side, but facing in opposite directions. He lets me sit close to the door so I don’t feel boxed in. “An escape route,” he says. Then he stands back from the chairs like an artist appreciating his work.

I know his deliberate manner is meant to make me feel more comfortable, but his ceremonial style has the opposite effect. I hesitate and glance at the door. Am I going to need an escape route? Do his patients routinely flee the room and he’s learned to anticipate it? Or is this merely a psychological strategy?

I take my seat, knowing that I would rather feel part of the scene than an observer.

Nothing will happen with me standing in place, and if it’s all been set up by design then I’m failing and the image will remain. Unwilling to leave and uncertain of how to move forward, I take my seat, knowing that I would rather feel part of the scene than an observer.

He gives me a moment before taking the seat next to mine. We’re too close for my comfort. I have pretty strict boundaries; I’ve never been able to allow people to get very close to me physically. It always feels like they’re suffocating me with their proximity, as if they’ve wrapped their arms around me in a crushing embrace.

I can see the ring he wears and the tiny hairs on his arms, and it makes my body tense. He’s sitting only a few inches from me; I can feel his gaze studying me, and I become self-conscious and begin to fidget in the chair.

“Think about the image,” he instructs. “Think about being on the playground with your friends. Hear their laughter. Think about how you feel as you talk to them. You feel ashamed, sad.”

I hate this already. What kind of therapy begins like this?

He moves his left hand horizontally in front of me. I follow it with my eyes, but I don’t see his hand.

The playground is noisy. I’m swinging with my friends. It’s a Catholic school, and we’re all in uniforms: replicas of one another.

“I’ve never seen a boy’s wiener before,” Kathy says. Her voice is filled with laughter.

“I’ve seen my father’s,” I say. “It looks like a bratwurst.”

“You have not!”

“Yes. I touched it.”

“That’s right,” Dr. Erickson says in a soothing voice. He’s reading the emotions that play across my face. “Stay with it. Let the emotions build and then let them go.”

I don’t know how to let go. I don’t know what I’m supposed to learn from this. It’s all old news, pain long past. It doesn’t belong with me. I’m an adult now, a grown woman who’s made her own way in the world and crafted her own successes. I’m a million years from that little girl on the playground, but the pain is so fresh.

The transformation is rapid. The expressions on the girls’ faces morph from playful amusement to confusion, settling on prudence. They’re judging me. They know something I don’t know. For the first time in my memory, I feel like an outsider, a pariah.

Dr. Erickson stops EMDR. I can feel his eyes on me, but I don’t look at him. I stare, without seeing, at the carpet.

“I have a question,” he says gently. “Whose shame is it?” He moves his hand in front of me, and the image switches.

I’m touching one of my sisters, kissing her on the neck. On Wednesday nights we played a game my father made up, where we had to select small pieces of paper from a hat. On each piece of paper was written something we were supposed to do: kiss a butt, lick a breast, touch a crotch. Each of us would then choose one of our siblings and go into a room with them.

“Where are you?” Dr. Erickson asks. He’s stopped his hand movement and is studying me.

“With one of my sisters.”

“On the playground?”

“No.” Pause. “Every Wednesday my mother would go away and my father would have us sit in a circle, naked. He made up this game.” When I finished explaining the bizarre game, I said, “I’m with one of my sisters in a room … kissing her.”

“Go with that,” he instructs, and begins EMDR again.

It’s all giggles and little-girl fun. It doesn’t feel sexual, just playful. We’re both naked because that’s the way our father wanted it.

I don’t like touch. It’s a mantra I say to myself and it has defined my life. I don’t have relationships and I don’t let people near. But some part of my brain is wondering why I’m not afraid with my sister, why I don’t feel apprehension. I say as much to Dr. Erickson.

“You’re judging her as an adult with rights and wrongs. She’s feeling the comfort of her sister.”

“I liked when we were touching.” It’s the only time I can recall liking touch, when caressing was comforting and nurturing. What happened to that feeling? Darkness falls on me as tears well in my eyes. An enormous sadness overwhelms me.

“I like touching my sister, but I don’t like touching other people. Men. What kind of a person does that make me?”


What I hear is “different.”

The memories fade, but they don’t disappear.

I like the softness of my sister’s skin and the sense of freedom, and I like the closeness as if nothing were going to separate us. Sitting in a psychiatrist’s office, trying to come to terms with my life, liking to touch my sister seems wrong.

I’ve never had a sexual relationship with anyone, male or female. I stopped dating a decade ago; I long since gave up trying to let someone get close. And yet there I was at the tender age of nine, exploring my sister’s body. Was that what was wrong with me?

“I want you to think about the healing white light,” Dr. Erickson says softly. “It’s coming from high above and surrounding you. A brilliant white light taking away all the pain.”

The light bathes me with a warm glow. It calms my breathing, eases my tension and, like a drug, dulls the pain the memory created.

“Let those images go. You don’t need them anymore.”

The memories fade, but they don’t disappear. I like the light surrounding me. It takes me far away from my feelings of guilt and shame.

Laureen Peltier Share Your StoryLaureen Peltier is the author of Hungry For Touch: A Journey from Fear to Desire. She focuses on educating others on the possibility of making a full recovery from PTSD, as well as the benefits of healing past trauma. A passionate speaker for RAINN and other organizations, Laureen is sought-after for medical and nursing schools, and has participated in several online and DVD documentaries focusing on PTSD recovery.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • tonia

    September 14th, 2016 at 8:28 AM

    what a sad story- so painful I am sure

  • Ellen

    September 14th, 2016 at 2:18 PM

    I have my doubts that there would truly be something out there to help memories go away.
    Yes I can see how you can be taught how to maybe process them and then think about them in a different way, maybe even a way that is not as painful to you as they may have been at one time.
    But can you really force yourself to remember something, something that has haunted you and been a part of you, and to just not think about it anymore?

  • Marion

    September 15th, 2016 at 9:00 PM

    A friend living in UK was treated this year – for witnessing the death of he husband in Zimbabwe about 30 years ago, and for sexual abuse in the family when a little girl. It helped enormously

  • Philip C.

    September 18th, 2016 at 9:36 AM

    I am an experienced trauma therapist, and I utilize EMDR regularly, and I would like to suggest that it is not accurate, and I think, not helpful, to think of EMDR trauma processing therapy as “making a memory go away.” How I would characterize the benefits of EMDR is to say that the dysfunctional senses of oneself that are the most dangerous effect of traumatic experience (e.g. “I’m bad,” or “I’m damaged goods,” or I’m not worthy”), can be processed and digested so that the characteristics of the memory have been transformed…(the work of EMDR begins with naming and grieving the hurt and damage, expressing the hurt and often injustice of the trauma, which then can lead to opening up a greater capacity of the trauma survivor’s mind – to remember and feel the traumatic experience through a new lens: A transformed sense of self, that had previously felt “I’m bad,” or “I’m damaged goods,” or “I’m not worthy;” to a more whole and accurate view of themselves, such as “I am lovable and good – as all people inherently are lovable and good,” “I was attacked and hurt by someone, but I am whole and worthy,”). So I think it’s not accurate or helpful to say the traumatic memory goes away, but rather, the memory is transformed from the dysfunctional self narrative form that we humans seem to be vulnerable to internalizing, especially when we’ve experienced something that was unbearable, shocking, terrifying or humiliating. But it turns out – that with sufficient therapeutic work and support, and/or through many traditional healing provisions, that the feelings and self narratives can be transformed into healthy and life-giving senses of oneself and the world.

  • Warren

    February 14th, 2017 at 4:49 AM

    I have been through EMDR treatment for PTSD. Of course you don’t lose the memory, you will still remember the event, but the extreme feelings and emotions that go with that memory will (in my experience) fade. Essentially, the ‘memory’ we are talking about is not remembering something that happened long ago and how you felt, its feeling like you are actually back in that place, experiencing the event all over again, triggering those emotions of fear, horror, shame, over and over and over again. After treatment I still think of those events, and they are naturally still upsetting as all bad memories are, but they are memories of what happened then and what I felt then – it no longer feels like it is actually happening to me all over again, now, here, triggering the same emotional responses that I had at the time.

  • tres

    September 15th, 2016 at 7:54 AM

    wouldn’t you be offended if someone asked you if this was actually a memory?

  • Lyle

    September 16th, 2016 at 1:49 PM

    I am thankful that I have not had something so horrific happen to me that it still haunts me that many years later.
    I mean there are of course things that I always remember but nothing that scarred me I guess you would say.

  • Ginny O.

    September 17th, 2016 at 4:39 PM

    I am a EMDR institute trained, nationally certified EMDR therapist. I was so excited to read this experience & thinking I could use it with my first time clients. BUT for the reference ‘hypnosis’
    It is NOT and nothing like it. This is one of the biggest fears and misconceptions most clients have when they come in.

    I am very thankful for you that you were able to process your trauma & go on to inspire others. 💚

  • Larry o.

    January 7th, 2017 at 3:09 PM

    I am telling you from the perspective of a scientist. I cannot see this as anything but a form of systemic brainwashing and/or coercion. Before I would even consider this, I need more than ‘Ancient Alien Theorists’ purporting to having empirical experiences with this.
    It is not even verifiable, outside of therapist/patient dynamics and those who are buying a cake without the icing.

  • Seth

    August 9th, 2022 at 4:59 PM

    Larry o.: I’m struggling a bit to understand your pessimism regarding a form of psychotherapy that is evidence-based, as there have been over 30 randomized controlled trials evaluating its effectiveness. From a science perspective, I believe that is about as close as you’re going to get in terms of data on its efficacy. And I’m not sure what you mean by “Ancient Alien Theorists” as EMDR is a relatively “new” form of psychotherapy. As far as the “brainwashing/coercion” labels you applied to it, I don’t feel you are grasping how EMDR works. It basically allows the patient to access components of the targeted memory so that the brain (in a waking state) can work out how to more adaptively resolve the memory. This typically involves the patient moving from a point of, “I’m broken” or “It was my fault,” to a more adaptive associated self-belief like, “I’m okay,” or “It wasn’t my fault; I did everything I could have done in that situation.” This isn’t achieved through thought insertion or some form of “brainwashing/coercion,” but rather simply by starting with the negative memory and associated negative belief and asking the patient, “What do you notice now?” while engaging the eye-movements or other form of bi-lateral stimulation. As far as being “verifiable,” the World Health Organization (WHO), Kaiser Permanente, and the Department of Defense (to include the VA) recognize EMDR as one of the preferred treatment modalities for PTSD. And these are only a few of the professional medical organizations that support EMDR use with addressing patients’ traumas. I am curious… If you’re not supportive of one of the most effective, robust forms of trauma treatment in the medical profession, what alternative would you suggest in supporting patients struggling with moving on from their traumatic experiences?

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