Voyage Around My Body

roxane gay hunger body trauma

I am reading Roxane Gay’s immensely powerful memoir, Hunger. It comes at a time when I am deep into another intense period of therapy, thinking about trauma in new ways and inching toward recognition of the traumas my body has been harboring ever since I was a very small child. I have been at odds with my body for such a long time.

EMDR therapy allowed me to see, for the first time in my life, my body’s intelligence. An emotional intelligence I’d wanted nothing to do with up to that point, because I’d wanted nothing to do with my own emotions. I knew they would be unbearable. After EMDR helped me to process and to bear what I was feeling about having been trapped in a crashed airplane, about having survived my little sister, about having been told—and believing—that I did not deserve to be alive, I thought I was done.

But here’s the thing I am coming awake to: my body is riddled with pockets of grief, and anger, and shame. And joy, thankfully. My body is mapped with sites of trauma, and if I can let myself follow its quiet guidance, if I can stand to visit each one and, with help, connect to how it feels, then I can hope to fully embody my emotion. I can own my whole feeing and thinking self.

I am seeing two therapists weekly now. It was getting difficult to hold on to—or even to understand, sometimes—the concepts we were discussing in talk therapy. It felt like they were sliding out of my brain before I could process them. This made sense, my therapist said. We were talking about abuses that occurred in early childhood, before I had the language to describe them to myself, to name them.

I found a somatic psychotherapist to work with, because those abstract concepts that slide out of my brain were preceded by wordless, flesh-and-blood traumas imprinted on skin. We are in the early stages of our work together, slowly setting out on a voyage around my body. She puts a hand on my back and I burst into tears. I lie on a green mat on the floor and sob. I am a small, small girl in bed in the dark, tail tucked between my legs.

Something my talk therapist said yesterday, when we were discussing Hunger, made me consider that I may not always hold myself at odds with my body. I am bereft of my body. Bereft of the whole, unbroken self who came into the world as a Song of Joy. She was taken by adults who had no right. But I am moving through the dark toward her again.

As Gay writes, “She is still small and scared and ashamed, and perhaps I am writing my way back to her, trying to tell her everything she needs to hear.”


Burning Down the House

reliving trauma

by guest blogger Andy Weisskoff, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Some people who survive a life or death event — like war, sexual assault, or a plane accident — get mired, reliving trauma for decades, experiencing the intense anxiety, depression, vigilance, flashbacks, and nightmares characteristic of PTSD. For these people, memories remain vivid and feel horribly alive until a therapeutic intervention, such as EMDR, softens them. For others, who have been through the same types of dangerous events, memories of the trauma transform apace into manageable life lessons, without professional intervention.

The difference is in large part determined by the social resources available in the aftermath of trauma. If you have people around who help you process the thoughts and emotions aroused by trauma, you are much more likely to recover. If, however, you struggle alone with your memories, and the conclusions about yourself that follow, (like, “It was all my fault,” or “I’m still in danger,” or “Something’s wrong with me), the memories stay stuck in their original form, inspiring fight/flight/freeze responses to triggers of the original event.

I’m reminded of the episode of the 1970s TV series The Waltons where the family’s house burns down. In case you don’t know the show, I’ll recap using my very faulty memory of watching it forty years ago. One night in Depression-era Virginia, John Boy Walton leaves his lit pipe on a table in the hallway. That same night Grandpa Walton leaves the electric heater running in the bathroom. The next day both artifacts are discovered in the smoking embers. But was it John Boy’s pipe or Grandpa’s heater responsible for the disaster?

Eventually, (it was a two-part episode), Grandpa Walton takes John Boy aside in an effort to ease his guilty mind. Grandpa says something like, “It was either your pipe or my heater that burned the house down. We’ll never know which. Either way it was an accident. Put it behind you or you’ll drive yourself crazy with guilt. And that won’t help anyone.”

Wisdom from Walton’s Mountain.

After a catastrophe, the reactions of family and friends have the power to either mediate or reinforce our tendency toward self-blame. At the time of the event, if the people close to us are non-blaming, if they tell us, “This is not your fault,” or, “Even if you participated, you had your reasons,” if they say, “I’m glad you survived,” and “I still love you,” we have a decent chance of setting the experience to rest alongside our other important life lessons. If, however, the soothing messages are absent, if they’re ambiguous or frankly accusatory, our memory of the event will stay alive indefinitely, along with the belief, “I’m bad.”

In Every Moment of a Fall, Carol’s memoir of recovery from trauma using EMDR, we watch in agony as her parents miss one opportunity after another to challenge her self-blame. Like John Boy with his pipe, Carol takes responsibility for the crash that killed her sister. Then, because there is no Grandpa Walton in her story, (not in her immediate family, nor, when she becomes an adult, in her primary relationships), she remains stuck. That is, until her therapists Connie and Jan arrive. Connie, with acceptance and gentle prodding, starts challenging her life’s narrative.  Jan, with EMDR, facilitates a radical re-examination of the facts. When the work is done, instead of believing the accident is all her fault, she sees it as nobody’s. From this vantage she gets curious about why her dad let her take the blame in the first place, why her mom went along, and why the other men in her life had followed suit.

After EMDR Carol rejoins her life from a new perspective: “Accidents happen. People who blame me when things go wrong, or allow me to blame myself, are not on my side.” This perspective suggests an action plan: “From now on, I’m only hanging with the non-blamers.”

And that, as the poet wrote, has made all the difference.

Andy Weisskoff, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and EMDR specialist. Learn more about EMDR and his practice at

Many and Mighty and Loved

EMDR memoir reading

Stacks of my brand new EMDR memoir were on display in the front window of our local bookstore. Boxes of books had begun arriving from the printer, smelling faintly chemical, their bindings so tight they creaked when I opened them.

I got to sign the first two copies of Every Moment of a Fall to my San Francisco therapists, Connie Rubiano and Jan Cehn. We met to celebrate its release a few days before my first reading and book signing. We laughed ourselves silly, reminisced about the moments in therapy that stuck out for each of us, marveled at how far we’d come together, how much awareness of EMDR has grown since Jan and I did our sessions together. Anyone observing us would have seen nothing out of the ordinary, just three women having lunch, getting a little loud, talking with our hands.

It felt completely, conspicuously normal. I was a normal woman, like them, eating Chinese food on a Tuesday afternoon. Not a head case. Not a sad, self-loathing PTSD statistic. I was myself, easy and released from trauma. I was completely Carol, owning my name: song of joy. My fortune read, “No obstacles will stand in your way this coming week.”

All the flurry and excitement of the launch of my book—at last!—was thrilling, scary, goose-bump inducing. But maybe the best part was noticing, in the sunny window of that restaurant, how fine I felt. I was ready to share my story. Ready to look people in the eye, speak my truth and not feel judged or shamed.

In one of her columns for O Magazine, the awesome Martha Beck cites this life-changing zinger from spiritual teacher Byron Katie: “When I walk into a room, I know that everyone in it loves me. I just don’t expect them to realize it yet.” Beck challenges her reader to try that concept on for size. “Imagine how you’d enter a public space,” she writes,  “if you knew without a doubt that everyone in it adored you. How would you move? How would you look at people? What would you say?”

That’s what I resolved to do. I would enter those bookstores, stride to each podium certain that everyone in the audience loved me, whether or not they knew it yet. And guess what? They actually do. They flood me with their love, listening so attentively to my story. Asking such thoughtful questions. Coming up to tell me that I read beautifully, that my words let them experience a piece of what I lived.

I guess sometimes you just gotta roll with it: you’re A-Ok. And surrounded by love.

That’s what I’d say if came face to face with the woman who emailed me recently to thank me for writing this blog and publishing my EMDR memoir. EMDR has helped her tremendously, it turns out. So has my story. She wrote:

Thank you for having the courage to tell your story! I hope great things from it for you and countless others. . . .

I recently latched onto the thought, which has become almost an obsession, to put MY story out there, as well. It is because of the silence that the problem has gotten this far!!! And I find anyone suspect who discourages us from putting it out there! There is a reason they want us silent. . . .

I don’t have your vast experience and education, and I’ll probably never write the book I’ve dreamed of writing to share my story with the world. But reading yours makes me know that it’s no small thing to have lived an entire lifetime without true love, from and for myself, and from others.

I want her to know that she is heard, and loved—by all kinds of people who might not have realized it yet. Or are just beginning to. I bet you’ve already begun to love her yourself, reading her heart-rending words.

She sent a follow-up email to tell me that she’d kept a printed copy of one of my blog posts with her at all times “to remind myself I was not alone.”

I wrote back to tell her how incredibly thankful I am that a piece of my story made her feel like she didn’t have to go it on her own. There are so many of us walking around with similar stories, I reminded her. Far too many. Not every one of us is going to write a memoir. But whenever and however we let those stories out into the light, we become part of that light ourselves—and part of one another as well.

We are many. When we find our voices, instead of keeping silent, we are mighty. We remind one another that we walk in the world worthy of love—normal, everyday, anywhere, just-fine love.

My First Narcissist

Father #1 in my family diagram is my biological father, Arthur. It was important to him to be taken for an important man. As a sought-after family physician, he rushed to the bedsides of his patients at all hours and made himself indispensible at the local hospital. As a deacon at Calvary Baptist Church, he taught Sunday school and counseled struggling souls in the ways of righteousness.

From every angle, he looked like a pious man of God, an unimpeachable community leader.

He sent my oldest brother, Allon, to school in Florida because an Evangelical minister with an international following sent his kids there too. Allon was thirteen years old. Our father bought him a ticket and put him on a train to travel the 1,500 miles by himself. You can still hear that dejected kid in his voice today when my brother asks, “What did I do wrong? I don’t know why he sent me away.”

My middle brother Tedd was sent away to the Christian academy our father later helped to found with an itinerate preacher. Since reading a draft of my memoir, Tedd has told me many times about being in his dorm room at that school, which overlooked the parking lot. He knew our father was on campus when his car showed up in the lot. But instead of coming to say hello after his business was finished, our father climbed in his car and drove away while his son watched.

He’s been dead for four decades but people still take my sister aside to tell her what a Godly man our father was. A faithful servant of the Lord. How can she tell them that this revered Christian man was incapable of loving his family? That he stalked his patients, his wife, his children as sexual prey?

The hell a narcissist creates for those closest to him is an intensely private one.

Most Sunday nights after the evening service, my parents invited their church friends over to our house for fellowship. Bruce and Sue and I were sent to bed before the guests started arriving. Our father demanded that we stay out of the way. I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling while cars pulled in and ladies’ heels clacked up the front walk. One night, instead of settling in the living room or drifting to the kitchen for coffee and sandwiches, a group of guests hung back in the front hall. Spasms of laughter floated up the stairwell to the bedroom I shared with Sue.

I padded down the stairs in my footie pajamas and stood sleepily rubbing my eyes.  “Oh no,” one of the adults said with a wink. “Did we wake you?” Then they whirled me into the living room and plied me with chips and cookies while I performed. I danced. I sang. I answered questions. They hooted at my answers and looked approvingly at my parents. My father stood stiffly against the wall, arms crossed, his thin smile stretched taut.

He grabbed my wrists, marched me back to bed, hustled me under the covers and slammed the door shut on his way out. He wasn’t about to be upstaged in front of his flock. Least of all by a snot-nosed little kid.

When I met my husband, forty years after my father’s death, I found myself resisting the powerful manifestations of his love. This was what I’d been trying to invite into my life. Yet to be the object of such unequivocal feeling made me anxious. My therapist, Jan, suggested that I was holding onto the belief that I didn’t deserve to be loved so well.

We used EMDR to pursue that possibility. As I slowed my breathing and listened to the tones ping from one ear to the other, my father’s face appeared. We were outside, at dusk, standing in the space between the garage and the house. It was cold. He towered over me. He kept saying the same thing again and again: You don’t deserve to be loved. You don’t deserve to be loved. And then: Your mother only loves you because she has to.

Jan stopped the tones and let me cry a while before asking what was happening. Then she proposed I go back as an adult to get my child self out of there. She restarted the tones and back I went. I told my child self not to look at him, to keep her eyes on my face. As I held her and backed away from my father, I showed the child me all the things she was going to learn and experience, the fullness of who she would become. I told her that person was already inside of her. That she was perfectly suited for the journey just as she was.

I carried her into the house. My mother was lying on the couch. I told my child self to brush Mom’s hair until it was time for dinner, and while she was brushing, to raise the brush to her head sometimes and brush her own hair too.

Jan suggested I might be feeling unworthy of unreserved love because my mother hadn’t received it herself. She asked me to go back to the couch and have a conversation with Mom about that.

I told my mother I didn’t want to hold back or defend myself out of fear. I didn’t want to repeat her mistakes. She encouraged me to open myself completely, without reservation or doubt that I might not be worthy. Sitting in Jan’s office, I felt a palpable expansion, my chest brimming with breath.

We used the tones to reinforce the new belief: I deserve to be loved well. I laughed out loud at the image that came. My child self and I were outside again, between the house and garage in the almost-dark. We flicked our fingers and my father crumbled like dust. Poof.


Survivor Guilt

In the days and weeks following my family’s airplane crash, people kept assuring me I’d be fine. “You’re young,” they’d say. “You’ll bounce back in no time.” It would be a different story for my parents, these same people confided. A parent should never have to bury his child. One day when I had children of my own I’d understand, they promised. Losing a sister just wasn’t the same. And I still had my whole life ahead of me. I was lucky to be alive!

I listened. I tried to feel lucky. But all I could think was: Nancy is dead. I wasn’t even wearing my seatbelt. Why am I still here?

When my father told me he wished Nancy had been the one to survive, the guilt bloomed inside of me like a fungus. Gradually, I made myself a living corpse. I took shallow sips of air I didn’t deserve to breathe. I slogged through heavily freighted days.

Survivor syndrome emerged in the 1960s as psychotherapists began to identify a pattern of symptoms present in Holocaust survivors: depression and persistent anxiety, social withdrawal, emotional numbness, nightmares, mood swings, loss of physical drive. Survivors of natural disasters, warfare and terrorist attacks often suffer the same conditions. Our traumas differ, but we shoulder a common guilt at having lived through the horror that killed others around us.

I was forty years old when I finally began to invite myself back to life. First my therapist gave me the words “survivor guilt.” Then she gave me the eye movement therapy EMDR. (Hang on to your hats. There is much to come about EMDR in subsequent posts.)

Six months into therapy I wrote in my journal: “If everything I do has to be good enough to justify my LIFE, my having been allowed to live when Nancy died, how do I even get out of bed in the morning?” I was beginning to plumb the depths of my guilty self-punishment. Beginning to sense that every single day might not require me to defend my existence.

At the same time, I was realizing that my second father was not the only one who wanted to negate my life. My earliest childhood memories predate the plane crash by at least a decade. In them, my first father tells me again and again that my life has no value. To him or anyone else.

Survivor guilt gave me language to explore a big part of what had happened in my life. It helped explain why I behaved as if I didn’t deserve to occupy my own skin. But there was more. That guilt was compounded by the message I received from both of my fathers: We don’t want you.

My journal entry ended this way: “I’ve been raised by men who, given the choice, wouldn’t have had me live. Now I have to grow up, grow out from under them, grow past them, tell them to BACK OFF because I’m here to stay.”

Eye Movement What?


Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It sounds like an alien plot to hypnotize us and turn our brains to hamburger. I was skeptical, to say the least, when my therapist suggested I try it. So I started googling. I checked out a few library books and searched journal articles to find out what this thing was supposed to do, and how it was supposed to do it.

EMDR evolved from discoveries Francine Shapiro made in the late 1980s as a PhD candidate in clinical psychology. She was taking a walk one day, a distressing thought churning in her head, when suddenly her distress vanished. She decided to pay close attention to what was happening as she walked. The next time her mind seized on a disturbing thought, her eyes began to move rapidly back and forth of their own accord. Once again, the thought vanished. When she tried to call it back, it no longer troubled her the way it had moments earlier.

Shapiro began experimenting, first on herself, then with friends and family, and got similar outcomes. In the protocol she developed, the patient holds a traumatic event in mind while the therapist guides his eyes rapidly back and forth. The published results of Shapiro’s first controlled study, done in 1988 with a group of twenty-two survivors of rape, sexual abuse and military service in Vietnam, began to draw the attention of the profession.

Today EMDR is an internationally recognized trauma treatment that more than 60,000 therapists are trained to practice. Initially, the therapist moved a finger or a pencil back and forth in front of the patient’s face, instructing her to follow it. Soon it became clear that other modes of bilateral stimulation worked as well. Some patients now wear headphones plugged into a device that makes an alternating tone from one ear to the other. Some hold touch pads that buzz between the left palm and the right. Some watch a point of light move back and forth across a light bar.

Author and clinical professor of psychiatry David Servan-Schreiber theorizes that EMDR is effective because the eye movements “capture attention” and help the patient focus on the present while accessing emotions linked to traumas from the past. He writes, “It may be this dual state of attention—one foot in the past and one foot in the present—that triggers a reorganization of the traumatic memory in the brain.”

Scott Borelli of the European EMDR Association writes that trauma-afflicted patients often live as if there were little or no difference between past events and the present. One key element of healthy human motivation and behavior, Borelli points out, is the ability to look to the future with “hope and anticipation.” Trauma freezes people in past time, creating “anxiety rather than hopeful expectation.”

I related to this state of perpetual hopelessness. In my head, there was a video clip playing in a continuous loop. I saw myself trying to walk down an ordinary street. Every movement required a terrible effort, as if my legs were strapped to cement weights. When the camera panned down, I noticed something attached to my ankles. It looked like my shadow at first. Then I realized I was dragging myself along, face down on the pavement, hands clamped like leg irons to my upright self. I watched this wordless struggle over and over and over again, believing it would never end.

EMDR erased that video clip.

I went into therapy convinced that all the interesting things about my life were finished. I expected to just go on hobbling down the street until it was time to die. Slowly, as the EMDR sessions ticked by, I found myself becoming curious about the future. About what possibilities lay in store. I pictured myself in new situations, doing things I’d been too dejected to let myself imagine. Things like making my living as a writer.

It’s funny what happens when the head learns to recognize the past as passed. Seeding the heart with hope.

You can read about trauma and EMDR and learn more about what happens in an EMDR session on my husband’s website, He’s a licensed clinical social worker who’s been using EMDR in his practice for the past eight years. (And no, he’s not my therapist.)

Have you had an experience with EMDR? Leave a comment about it.