The journey began weeks before I entered his office. It began with a petal of hope, then another and another. The weightless, soft, fragile, and lovely sepals that fell into the palm of my heart were gifts of encouragement from others who had successfully walked the EMDR road to mental and emotional freedom. I tenderly carried those petals for weeks, wanting my own success story, and finally into session one of my EMDR journey.
Just inside the doorway of the therapist’s small, oblong office, I was instantly affronted and immediately halted by the heaping disarray that consumed the entire back half, a good six-feet deep. From the shadowed recesses of his windowed back wall, to his long-armed desk jutting from the side wall into the center of the room, creating a makeshift barrier, was a mass of wild, tangled overgrowth. Stone mounds of stacked books among the extraneous foliage of misplaced papers, and weeds and wildflowers of “this and that” were all tethered together like ancient ruins, and spilling over the desk like wild ivy.
A gust of doubt flurried my petals, pushing them precariously near the edge of free fall.
Is there enough room in here for the wagon load of refuse I’m pulling in with me? Could a cove of such utter clutter have the capacity to foster order in my overgrown, tangled, and decaying mind and spirit?
To avoid the embarrassment of gaping, I quickly shifted my gaze to the exceptionally tidy, open, and generous seating area where I stood in the front half of his office. Anchored in this well-ordered side were three unburdened and expansive seating choices: two hefty leather armchairs on my right, and a long, deep leather sofa on my left. Each begged to me, “Sit here! Sit here!” The rich dark sofa called the loudest—a big oaf with elongated open arms, offering a spacious, uncluttered berth. It rested sturdily with squared lines and ordered angles like a shield against its disheveled band of roommates to its left.
I stepped toward the sofa and briefly considered crawling onto it and stretching myself out from tip to toe, like the idiom image of the patient lying on the therapist’s couch. But I caught myself, just short of raising my knee to climb aboard; a sudden thought had stopped me:
How forward (and humorous), and how awkward for both me and my new therapist, if I were to lie down on his couch, right off the bat, at this first session?!
Nate and I had just met, only moments before, after he’d opened the inner door to the large waiting room and swept the scant group of clients for his new one, me, whom he couldn’t yet identify except by name. I had the advantage. Weeks prior, before making the appointment, I had perused the mental health group’s website that correlated his photo with his name: Nathaniel H. Barley, MSW, LCSW. And according to my referral: a.k.a. “an experienced EMDR therapist.” My movement toward him caught his eyes before he had the chance to call out my name. Everyone in the waiting room knew why we were all there—because we’re all troubled and need professional help (ha!)—but no one wants to be called out by name on that truth. As I neared him he asked, “Renee?” Extending my bony, thin-skinned and veiny hand to his large, puffy, round one, I smiled and nodded.
Now, here I was in his fragmented office, making my second decision of this new journey: lie down or sit on the sofa? Decorum quickly turned me from facing the large, welcoming oaf to sitting properly on its wide cushiony lap. The ultra-fine leather felt like a soft pillow burrowing my petite frame. Nice! I had braced myself for the chill that would rush through me as it always did when I sat on leather, but this breed was unlike any I’d ever encountered. This leather was exceptionally soft to touch and not-at-all cold. I felt comforted and scooted back on the center cushion to rest against the oaf’s indulgent back. Choosing to seat myself in the center was my third decision in a matter of only sixty seconds in Nate’s office. As usual, my legs were too short for the sofa’s depth and my feet dangled a good five inches above the carpeted floor. Swinging my legs like a gleefully eager child, swallowed in the booth of an ice cream shop, I said brightly, “I feel like Alice in the big chair.” I thought the cheerful façade adequately masked the staccato of anxious anticipation pulsing inside me.
The room’s initial affront to my eyes, and to my faith in Nate, had eased a bit, and the messy back half no longer felt confronting but rather ancient and stoic, too well-settled to be awakened by my intrusion. By the time I had taken a seat on the oaf, the disturbing back half of the room had magically morphed into an intriguing tangle of busy art that now beckoned me to study it. The first thing that caught my eye was the nearby clock melted over the front edge of Nate’s desk. A round plastic face rimmed in black plastic and housed in a clear plastic bevel. The bottom half appeared to have melted over the edge of his desk. Hours ten to two melted atop the desk’s edge while hours ten to two dripped over the edge as if a great heat and warped it—symbolic of my life.
Nate made no apology for his shambled work area, as though it were a part of him and certainly his trade: reshaping shambles. His office was like the psychological before and after picture. Come in as a tangled mess and leave with softened tailored lines.
Three weeks earlier, just after making the appointment, I’d sent to Nate my autobiographical novel, detailing my first twenty-seven years of life surviving ritualistic abuse at the evil hands of my dad and a disjointed and verbally abusive first marriage. My hope was that Nate would read in a couple of days what would otherwise take weeks of sixty-minute sessions to unearth, so we could bypass all that rehashing and jump right into EMDR. Having spent years in counseling, I was certain his reading my book would cut my EMDR journey by several hundred miles. To my relief, Nate’s sprinkled comments during this “getting acquainted” session led me to believe he had actually read my book. I was thrilled that I wouldn’t have to start from scratch yet again with a new counselor.
After settling his extra-large, round frame into a wide leather armchair across from me, he stroked his short beard, which seemed to ignite a bright flame of anticipation in his eyes. I imagined him indexing the content of my book and thinking: oh, the EMDR possibilities! Clearly, he loved his work and the challenges his clients presented. At that juncture, though, he knew only of my childhood and early adulthood traumas. I hadn’t yet shared the trauma of my mom’s near-death on the heels of my young nephew’s death; nor my recent six-year, trauma-taxed stint as an infantry military mom; nor the trauma my much younger child was suffering that had dramatically imploded in her psyche and exploded our family’s quality of life. Six years later, we’re still working to glue the shattered pieces together, daily muster a hope for her future that mirrors my own: healing and wholeness, peace and joy.
What had brought me at age fifty-six to seek EMDR, after years of what had once been successful counseling, was the incessant fatigue I carry every day from expending a lifetime of energy to stay upright from one gut punch to another, and another . . . ; the lack of joy that daily robs the greatest percentage of my motivation; and the fact that both of these are tying my arms and legs while I push for energy that I no longer have to stay afloat in this turbulent ocean.
Halfway through this first session, I had pretty much described myself to Nate as I would have described his office: half of me neat and tidy inside—the statics-defying “thriver” over childhood abuse—and the other half a snared jumble of weeds and debris that hold me weighted and trapped in the dark shadow of suicidal depression. But Nate’s eagerness was another petal of hope that assured me I’d be among the many successful EMDR participants. I was fully ready to move past the starting line, but as the hour flowed forward, I grew more disappointed that he wasn’t bringing out the EMDR tools to start snipping at my fetters. To do so, I learned in this first session, would be like setting out for an extended camping trip in the dangers of the wild without first making proper preparations with the necessities for such an expedition.
I learned that in the ensuing sessions we’d first be working to create a “safe place” in my mind, to run to when the going got tough—imagery that would include the details of sounds, smells, and textures. My self-guided tour of EMDR hadn’t included this base camp construction, though “safe place” imagery was far from new to me.
What would my safe place look and feel like?
I hadn’t visited a previous one in years, and adding sounds and smells seemed new to me.
Those extras must be for comfort since sounds and smells can’t keep me safe. But once my safe place is constructed, how could I truly feel safe?
The first image that came to mind was my happy place rather than a truly safe place. A warm, sandy, ocean beach is not immune to threats because earth is inhabited by people, and people are too often prone or pushed to make evil choices that literally and metaphorically slice others open and leave them to bleed out.
So perhaps my safe place will be rather other worldly, somewhere out in the universe, or inside an impenetrable bubble on earth.
In the end, Nate’s prognosis was encouraging, but we both knew my renovation wouldn’t be a quick flip. I’d been a regular in his split-personality office for months to come. Just after he expressed surprise at the steep amount of my insurance co-pay, he affirmed my thoughts that we’d be seeing a lot of each other. “I’ll see what I can do about that co-pay.”
Wisteria Cove, North Atlantic