Firsthand Account

After my assault, a colleague who had survived a violent assault two years prior sent me an email: "Do not wait. You need to be enrolled in therapy and start EMDR immediately."

I had no idea what "EMDR" meant. EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It sounded more like a scientific experiment than a therapy approach meant to heal me from a horrific 45 minutes I had endured with a group of hooded, masked men. How in the hell could any therapy take that back? How could anyone heal from such an experience? My world was upside down.

But, the subsequent lines convinced me that I needed to listen to her advice. "I waited too long. Now, it's too late. Don't convince yourself that you're fine. Start therapy now. You will be better off later."

My colleagues and friends complimented me. I was "better" than they expected. Or, so it apparently "seemed". What in the hell did they know? Worse, what in the hell were they saying? Better than WHAT? I was apparently putting on a better front than I thought. I couldn't walk anywhere without checking every few seconds behind each shoulder. I couldn't communicate with any male. I couldn't even look a man in the eyes. I couldn't enter a public bathroom alone. Hell, I couldn't go anywhere alone. I could barely even speak. Friends called me on the phone, talking endlessly, so relieved that I was alive. I held the receiver on the other end. I had nothing to say. I couldn't speak. I felt emotionless, yet was full of emotions. I was overwhelmed. I was lost. I just stared. I couldn't find the words. What could I say? Who was this person? What did this person know about what I had lived? what I was going through?

I was living inside my head. I was plagued by nightmares, flashbacks, hallucinations, and hyper vigilance. I had anxiety, nervousness, and fear to an uncontrollable extent. I was overcome by extreme fluctuations in emotion - from extreme rage to an overwhelming sense of sadness and depression. I was angry. I was enraged. I couldn't stop crying. I hated the world. I hated men. I hated myself. I wondered if I should swallow a container of anti-anxiety medication I had been given in one gulp. Wouldn't it be easier? Oh, yeah, I don't like the easy way out. Sit with it. Be with it. What does this feel like? It's interesting. It's definitely interesting - on a purely biological level. I hate it! I HATE this!! I want my life back! I want to return to my life where I was working, heading an office, protecting refugees. I want to go back. They stripped me of my life. I hate them. They took my life.

Oh, yeah, I'm not quite right. I need to find a way to extract the hate, the rage, the anger, the hurt, the sadness, the depression, and the overwhelming sense of disappointment that I feel toward the world. I need to shed all of this anger, all of this emotion, all of this negativity. I need therapy.

I started therapy as soon as I could. EMDR commenced about two months later. I was apparently not ready for EMDR yet. I needed to be calmed first. I needed to feel comfortable in my new environment - back in the U.S. - where I was assured of my safety, but I wasn't convinced. How could they know? I now knew - you cannot predict when or if these things will happen. I was convinced that the world was a dangerous place.

"Here", take these in your hands. My therapist handed me two plastic, oval-shaped pieces connected to cords that were hooked to a black rectangular-shaped plastic box. She, then, handed me earphones. It looked like a 1990s walkman with two microphones. She, then, explained the gig. She would slowly sway her index finger back and forth in front of me, and I was expected to follow the motion of her finger with my eyes. While following her, I was supposed to imagine my incident - the entire 45-minute scene from start-to-finish.

That was the goal but, especially in the beginning, I couldn't even bring myself to think about the incident. I would either stare off into space, thinking about something else or thinking about nothing else. Sometimes, I would think about how ridiculously stupid EMDR was. I would fill up with rage, wondering why in the hell I was sitting in this therapy office instead of back in the field where I wanted to be.

Oh, yeah, I'm not ready. There's a reason why I'm here.

Other times, I would break down sobbing or screaming - crying about how my life had ended the moment a group of hooded, masked men kicked down my door or screaming about how much I hated them, how much I hated those who were meant to come to my aid but, instead, left me sitting alone for 7 hours while I waited to be rescued.

Often, I would get stuck on the first few minutes of the assault - when my throat and lungs had joined in unison to create the shrillest, most ear-piercing scream I can imagine and which I hope never to hear again. Or, it would be that moment when the hinges released the door to the floor and I, armed only with a woman's razor and a nail file, stood face-to-face with a group of hooded, masked men bearing pistols and knives. That moment when I knew death was imminent. Or, it would be the moment when they gained control over my female body. I couldn't move past that moment. I wanted to change it. I wanted someone else to enter the room to my aid. I wanted to manipulate the energy of the room so I was in power. I wanted to show them what it was like.

I was stuck.

The weeks passed, the months passed too. I wanted to return to work. I begged to return to work. The therapist said "no". It was not "ethically" right. She was obliged to keep me under her care until I was showing signs of being able to function in society again. I was still unable to function. Unable to function. I tried working from home. The office said "no". They had nothing for me to do. Nothing?

I roamed the streets, staring at strangers wondering if they could tell, wondering if they could see the sadness in my eyes, the disappointment with the world, the fear of strangers. I was in a daze. I roamed in a daze. I slept intermittently, still waking up every night to check the clock awaiting a group of hooded, masked men, still having intense, overwhelming nightmares when I did sleep - of the military searching for me, wanting me dead.

I continued my therapy and, one day, it clicked. EMDR was working. I began to progress beyond those initial moments, accepting them for what they were - horrific moments in my PAST. As I slowly progressed within EMDR, able to think about the incident from start-to-finish and feeling as if I'd released a brick off my chest by the end of each EMDR session, I began to crave EMDR - much like a long run or a yoga class or a meditation session. I needed it. I realized something critical: EMDR was helping me. My assault was slowly finding its way into the compartment of my brain where it belonged: my PAST.