by Rob Leathen
Editor’s Note: Please read Rob’s article that describes his PTSD and how it brought him to the brink of suicide. Instead, he chose life!
My therapy session starts like every previous therapy session, with idle chat with my therapist about how my previous week was. The conversation has nothing to do with any of my previous incidents I have responded to or current things we’re working on. Regardless of the topic of conversation, I immediately feel at ease and comfortable, a feeling that comes from being in this office with my therapist and her welcoming judgement free clinic. It is my safe place. It’s a feeling I look forward to as I travel to my appointment even though I know how my session will end.
We reach that inevitable point in my session where I can no longer consciously ignore why I’m there. In a very comforting tone I hear those dreaded words “let’s revisit that call again”.
My heart beats faster and the thoughts start swirling in my head like a tornado. I’m very much aware of the tension quickly building in my shoulders and body and those stress wrinkles forming across my forehead. I get that well-defined crease and fold right between my eyebrows. I walk over and have a seat in the antique chair beside the old bay windows of this century home turned into a place of healing. My therapist sits across from me while she hands me the handheld fobs, one for each hand, that vibrate and are connected by wires to the control box in her hands. Without any further instructions, I close my eyes and I start to relive my problematic incident from start to end in all its graphic detail.
As I verbally describe the call, I immediately become a complete emotional wreck. I feel like I have been transported back in time. I’m flooded with all of the emotions I experienced but buried when I initially responded to that call. I’m crying and then not. Uncontrollably sobbing, then not as the 1st responder mentality and need for control kicks in and the tears are choked back and stifled, but not for long. I’m shaking, then not. I’m angry then sad then shameful then back again to angry. The emotions coming out are definitely not under my control.
Deep breathing, that is what I need to do to ground myself so I attempt some deep breathing techniques but my efforts yield no results. Here comes the uncontrollable tears again. I have no idea why I’m experiencing certain emotions and not others as I stall and stumble over my words and dread continuing on but my therapist compassionately encourages me to continue all while actively listening for certain words and phrases and closely watching my physical reactions.
All of the large muscles in my body, my legs and arms are tense and rock hard almost like they have turned to stone and yet I can’t consciously relax them. My therapist encourages me to take some more long slow deep breaths trying to bring my distress level back down. She asks about something I said or she provides a suggestion about something negative I said. Those fobs in my clenched fists are vibrating. I try to figure out if the intensity and frequency mean anything but my mind is too preoccupied. I’ve figured out after many EMDR sessions that those vibrating fobs are bi-laterally stimulating my brain at an intensity and frequency chosen by my therapist. This helps my brain process the emotions, feelings, thoughts and suggestions. This is the end of the first round.
My entire body is trembling by now as we start another round repeating the story or following up on something I previously said or exploring a tangent from the original storyline of the call based on an emotion or memory that came to light during the first round. Again, my therapist expertly monitors and manages my distress level which by now I have no control over and again uses the vibrating fobs selecting the intensity and frequency to help me process my emotions, feelings, thoughts and suggestions. A few more rounds of this are still in store for me during this therapy session.
After the last round I am physically, emotionally and cognitively spent. I’m thoroughly and almost uncontrollably trembling almost like the energy of the traumatic experience stored in my body over the years is slowly leaving. I’m keenly aware that my anxiety level is through the roof almost as if my fight/flight response is in extreme overdrive. It is. I look out through those old century windows and struggle to continue on with my deep breathing exercise and my various grounding techniques all to remind myself that I’m actually in 2020 and not actually back in 1998, the year of the problematic incident. I’m unbelievably happy, almost ecstatic that this round of EMDR is done. My therapist’s calming and compassionate voice Is so comforting.
I absolutely hate EMDR sessions. I hate how they make me feel, I hate that once again I bawled my eyes out in front of my therapist and I hate that the next couple of days may be particularly rough for me as memories have been stirred up but I absolutely know that you must feel the pain to be able to properly work through it and process it. I also know that when this entire process is repeated during my next session that the initial starting distress level will be less.
About the Author: Rob is a 27 year veteran of the fire service holding the rank of Acting Platoon Chief for a mid size Fire Department located in Ontario, Canada. He has held a variety of roles and ranks throughout his career including volunteer firefighter, fire dispatcher, career firefighter, Acting Captain, Captain, and Acting Platoon Chief. Rob has also been heavily involved in his local firefighter association holding positions on the Health and Safety Committee and Association President on two separate occasions. Rob is also a vocal advocate for 1st responder mental health using his lived experience with PTSD and depression to help educate others through talks, presentations and published writings.