In an interview last month with Oprah for their jointly produced docuseries about mental health, The Me You Can’t See, Prince Harry made a deeply personal disclosure. Harry said he sought a special therapy program, EMDR, to process the death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. He described how living with the trauma of her death makes him feel “helpless”, “hunted”, and as if “there is no escape”.
Before I was officially diagnosed with PTSD, painful childhood memories consumed my daily life, sometimes rendering me incapable of completing daily tasks. My PTSD was caused by a tumultuous childhood in a home with an alcoholic father and a rage-filled mother who lashed out at everything around her, including her children.
I am a writer and teacher and I’m often on tight deadlines; my flashbacks, which could strike at any given moment, wrought havoc on my ability to work. I sometimes had to decline major assignments and other opportunities in the name of self-care. I was completely unable to focus, and unconvinced of my own capabilities and worth. In the best-case scenario, traumatic memories would leave me drained and numb. In darker moments, the emotional pain was incapacitating and unbearable. I’d crouch in the corner of my dark living room and wish for a different brain, a brain not mired in chaos and dysfunction.
Last year, under the care of a therapist who specializes in trauma, I began eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy to process my chaotic and emotionally unstable upbringing. When I’m in these sessions, my therapist sits me down with a pulsing lightbar – a machine that assists in treatment – and helps me to revisit and ultimately resolve unprocessed and painful childhood memories.
EMDR was developed in 1989 by Francine Shapiro, a California psychotherapist, as a treatment for trauma. It operates on the theory that, as Robbie Adler-Tapia and Carolyn Settle explain, “emotional, behavioral, and mental health symptoms originate from maladaptively stored life events. As those stored events are triggered, the client experiences disturbances and dysfunction in his or her current life.” EMDR aims to help patients with painful memories of trauma to better manage anxiety-provoking stimuli. A typical EMDR session lasts for 60 to 90 minutes, during which the client is asked to visualize a traumatic event. Practitioners use repeated physical stimuli – such as sounds, taps, or a pulsing lightbar – to facilitate “information processing” until the client is able to report that the memory is less disturbing. The EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) has more than 10,000 members trained to provide this therapy.
EMDR is not without controversy. The Harvard psychologist Richard McNally has argued that “what is effective in EMDR is not new, and what is new is not effective”. As an academic, I am personally skeptical of people, trade organizations, conferences, and the like that charge a premium for training and professional development. EMDR training ranges from $445 to $890. And it costs patients up to $200 per session if they don’t have insurance or if their insurance does not cover it.
That said, the therapy continues to grow in popularity in the US and across the globe and has been increasingly embraced by mainstream psychologists. EMDR may also provide an alternative for those who find talk therapy a challenge. Frontiers in Psychology, the largest peer-reviewed journal in its field, considers EMDR “an evidence-based psychotherapy which has been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a first-choice treatment for post traumatic stress disorder”, and cites “growing interest” in the treatment. Past controversies plaguing the therapy are now considered outdated and said to “stem from misinformation”.
In the weeks and months after undergoing treatment, I could feel the therapy working. Today, I no longer experience debilitating flashbacks, chronic anxiety or depression. One year later, my panic attacks – some of which would cause me to have to emergency-park on the side of the road, unable to breathe – are now so few and far between that I’m hopeful they may even become a thing of the past.
I’ve been through ten years’ worth of therapists, each with their own approaches. Several were reliant on talk therapy, which has been helpful to a small extent (admittedly, sometimes talk therapy actually made me feel worse). Another was heavily invested in cognitive behavioral therapy and suggested that I wear a tight rubber band around my wrist. She instructed me to zap the rubber band against my bare flesh any time I noticed my mind descending into darker thoughts. This approach was minimally useful to me – I’d often forget to wear the rubber band, and when I remembered, I’d forget to snap it. EMDR has been the only therapy that allowed me to defy my family’s legacy of generational trauma and take control over my mental health.
I credit the therapy with not only saving my sanity, but my life. I commend Prince Harry for working to change his family’s mental health legacy; I know firsthand the consequences of being born to parents who do not resolve their own trauma, even if only for their children’s sake. My hope is that he has some idea of the lives he likely improved by sharing his own story.