How EMDR Helped Me Recover After a Breakdown
After a breakdown in 2018, Horatio Clare sought therapy to help him recover; it was an experience of EMDR that really moved things for him
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After an awful breakdown in 2018, during which I was detained in hospital, I came out into the world desperate to change, to find out, to get better. An appointment with an NHS psychiatrist was rather uninspiring. My image of psychiatry was formed in childhood by Radio 4’s, In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, presented by Anthony Clare (no relation). The programmes were long, exploratory conversations. Guests talking about their lives to the presenter, who made various suggestions about how they might have come to be who they were.
It is absolutely not the fault of the NHS that this sort of service is beyond its wildest dreams, but even so: I had been up and down and had a breakdown and therefore my future was lithium or another ‘mood-stabiliser’, this gentle and pleasant man said. I respected him, but I felt he had diagnosed me before he met me, we had scarcely talked, and that his solution might as well have been calculated by a pill vending machine. My request for a second opinion met baffled rejection, so I turned to psychology. My father helped with my bills: the biggest division in the world of wellbeing is surely between those who can afford private therapy and those who cannot. We all know that every wider conversation about mental health will continue to be broadly circular until everyone who needs a clinical psychologist can see one, and quickly, on the NHS.
So I was hugely fortunate to begin meeting a trauma specialist, call her Jane, who I had seen a little before the breakdown, but with nothing like the openness, urgency and determination I felt now. I had been almost comically suspicious in those early sessions, my self-doubt manifesting as cynicism. I couldn’t quite believe she wanted to talk about my upbringing. I had written a book about my childhood – wouldn’t it save a lot of time if she were to read that? Jane managed not to laugh but she was adamant: she was not interested in Running for the Hills or in my established narrative of who I thought I was. She wanted to start again. Post-breakdown. So did I.
The initial sessions established trust and progress. ‘You will always go up and down,’ she said, ‘Who doesn’t! But we want to get you to a place where this pattern is normal and manageable.’ Privately, I thought I was a write-off, a more or less decent person who had messed himself up irredeemably. Jane disagreed: if we could get at the roots of what drove my perfectionism, risk-taking and self-destructive behaviour, she said, we could change it. First, I held a vibrating node in each hand as she asked me to revisit memories. I was not sure how much this helped, but she set store by it and our conversations became wonderfully honest and open. When we moved on to EMDR, rather extraordinary things started to happen.
It should be said that Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), although increasingly popular, and heralded by some as near-miraculous, has not been universally received as such. One sceptic, Professor Richard McNally of Harvard, paraphrases Samuel Johnson in a neat judgement that, ‘What is effective in EMDR is not new, and what is new is not effective.’
So much for Drs Johnson and McNally. Anyone who has had or practised EMDR will know something of its power. ‘Follow my finger with your eyes, and think about that scene,’ Jane said. ‘I want you to picture it, and picture yourself in it, as you were then, but also as you are now. Tell me what you feel.’ And so, with at least a portion of my conscious mind distracted, I went back to my childhood, to moments of pain and confusion, and began to work them through. The fundamentals seemed to lie partly in the body.
‘Where in your body do you feel the tension? How bad is it, from one to ten?’ Jane often asked. As we progressed, she asked me to tap out a scale, then count backwards and tap, then count in French and backwards while tapping, as she moved her finger faster, closer, up and down. Something about doing all that while seeing a scene again, in the mind’s eye, and feeling it, in my chest or the pit of the stomach, then experiencing it, somewhere right in my core, was astonishingly cathartic.
As I became more accustomed to the process she upped the intensity. In between bursts of action we stilled. ‘What did you get?’ she would ask, and it all came pouring out. What I had felt and why, how my parents had acted and why, how our situations bore down on all of us. How, in tangled efforts to square impossible circles (how can mum and dad and me all be good people if they are splitting up, and I feel somehow responsible?) I had learned to split my feelings, indeed my very self, into what I thought the world wanted to see and what I believed of myself, deep down.
I can best describe it as creating a storm, like a little hurricane of distraction, through which you glimpse the eye. In that still, calm space, even momentarily, you know with certainty what you felt and feel, and that it was natural and not wrong to have so felt and to so feel, and that on the other side of it, the you, now, having experienced that clarity, has understood, held and cherished the you then.
In a very strange way, that little boy seems also to have understood and forgiven the person I became.
Over two years since the breakdown, and as my therapist predicted, I have been up and down, albeit on a vastly-reduced amplitude. And I still mess up, and punish myself for messing up. When I think about those childhood moments of distress now, I can still see them, as vividly as ever. But the amazing thing is that the memories of those events have been stripped of their confusion and guilt. What felt like a traumatic anxiety of eight or nine out of ten is down to one or two. Perhaps this is part of the reason that whatever else I am, I am also a long way from the wild, denying figure, a troubled mystery to himself, who drove himself to breakdown.
Researching and writing a book about what happened to me, I came across another wonderful psychologist. ‘It’s not about cure,’ she explained. ‘It’s all about healing.’ It was a sublime moment, though it sounds so simple. You do not have to batter yourself with the agonising thought that there is no cure for being you. You can raise your gaze with hope, and look for healing.
Horatio Clare is the author of Heavy Light: A Journey Through Madness, Mania and Healing