Every Moment of a Fall: A Memoir of Recovery Through EMDR Therapy. Carol E. Miller. Scaffner Press, 2016. 228 pp.
I was intrigued when the publisher invited me to review Carol E. Miller’s book Every Moment of a Fall: A Memoir of Recovery Through EMDR Therapy. I have been in clinical psychotherapy practice for a decade specializing in an evidence-based treatment initially utilized to heal trauma. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was first developed in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro. It has since grown into a widely known and sought out treatment for addressing a variety of mental health challenges.
I’ve had the honor of witnessing the recovery process of hundreds of individuals using this technique. I am continually in awe at the capacity people find during this treatment to recover from unimaginable events and difficulties. Whether one is dealing with the effects of a one-time traumatic event or the daily distress of growing up in an environment of violence, instability or victimization, I have come to believe deeply in a self-healing ability that is innate and that can be accessed by all of us. There is no reason for anyone to carry trauma through life. Growing awareness about the need for proper treatment is changing the way people are being diagnosed and making recovery a reality.
Miller’s book is a pioneer in conveying the patient’s point of view in EMDR treatment. Her story is timely as more than a decade of research on trauma is now manifesting in a push toward trauma informed care in most medical, mental health and substance misuse recovery centers across the nation. Miller chronicles her experience of using Shapiro’s EMDR protocol with a trained clinician. During the treatment, a patient holds a distressing memory in mind while the therapist guides her eyes rapidly back and forth. The hypothesis is that when the eyes move this way, as they do in REM sleep, a cross-brain wave pattern is produced that allows a person to both access memories of a trauma and process the emotions surrounding it. EMDR sessions can be very personal and I was curious to see how Miller would approach writing about her therapy.
Miller’s memoir details her experience at age sixteen of surviving a private plane crash, which was piloted by her step-father. In the accident, she was pinned in the wreckage for hours. Her parents were critically wounded. Her twelve-year-old sister was killed. Miller writes about her experience of using EMDR therapy in a compelling way that gives insight into her own struggles throughout her life as a result this event. Further, her story highlights many of the common factors people face when multiple traumatic experiences compound and are not treated appropriately.
Trauma treatment often starts with education. Often, the word trauma feels too severe or not applicable to people. Miller states this was true for her about the crash. She recalls that her therapist insisted, “Until you address that trauma… you’ll only get so far in any relationship.” She responds, “I’m startled to hear her use the word trauma. Nothing about my story feels traumatic. It’s just oppressive. Harder and harder to carry.”
After a traumatic event, a person is left to process both the direct experience of that event and the secondary impact of how it is handled by others. I find quite often that people experience their trauma in isolation; family members or others around them don’t know how to give the right support because they don’t understand the importance of treatment or don’t know how to talk about it and in worst cases, the events are outright ignored or denied.
Without adequate support or proper treatment, people remain confused about why events occurred and their responsibility in them. Miller describes her post-traumatic stress symptoms that started to develop after the accident and became pronounced in college. About those years of her young adulthood, when she should have been developing a healthy adult identify, she writes instead:
“I don’t sleep much…When I doze, I dream some variation of the same thing: I’m being chased through a dark house. Sometimes in the dream I find the door and escape, but when I run into the street I am hit by a car, the warm metallic taste of blood rising in my mouth.
I lose track of my parts, gone numb for days at a time. I can’t taste. I can’t hear birds or footstep or my own breath. Other days my ears ring and a shrill panic knifes high in my chest.”
PTSD involves “stuck” memories and part of what EMDR helps address are the negative cognitions a person develops in relation to themselves and the event. Most often, feeling responsible, at fault, or that the events happened because one is bad, unworthy or somehow deserved it can be why memories remain unprocessed by the brain. When left unchecked, these thinking errors trigger feelings that often result in unhealthy behaviors and interpersonal patterns. The memory becomes like a knot that the mind can’t untangle and process, constantly triggered by the current environment.
Miller’s experience also gives insight into what is called complex trauma, meaning there may or may not be one single traumatic event but multiple experiences of loss, fear or violence. Miller chronicles how through the EMDR process, she begins to remember earlier issues and is able to gain insight into how beliefs she developed about herself because of these prior incidents were exacerbated by the plane crash and by the way it was handled within the family. With the help of EMDR treatment, she is able to understand how these old negative beliefs and behavioral responses led to a series of unhealthy and abusive relationships, inability to achieve in her career and ongoing depression that kept her from leading a fulfilling life.
I applaud Miller’s achievement in conveying her EMDR process, which is often difficult for clients to put into words. Her story is courageous and gives insight into how she used appropriate resources for recovery and was able to move forward in life. Miller’s journey is one of hope for all who are curious about EMDR therapy or have been burdened by unresolved trauma and afraid to find the right support.