Equine-Assisted EMDR Trainings now open! Learn more

Ghost Responders, Part 1: Heal Thyself

Black and white pencil drawing of half a brain, with the other half covered in flowers like roses and daisies.

Just as maybe no one sees and knows what it is like to go through what our clients endured, what they went through; we too can have a parallel process. We might find ourselves grabbing for an anchor, trying to pull ourselves up from the weight of the work. Clients, too, are just trying to find ways not to drown. They are seeking a life raft, and sometimes, so are we. I see it in consultation and training on a regular basis, therapists just need a soft space to land, to just be seen, heard, and felt in the work. We, just as our clients do, can feel truly alone in the work, and that no one “gets it.”

I do; I get it. I remember telling my husband once that I felt like the first responder, but the invisible one. I described it as being the first responder to helping others heal from their deepest level of traumatization and dissociation, albeit in a mental health field that, ironically, is dissociated to working with these very clients. I coined the term “Ghost Responders.” We are the first responders who work with highly complex and traumatized clients, albeit in a field that is, ironically, dissociated to dissociation, in the first place.

Doing complex trauma work requires that we be embodied. We must be presence. We must heal our own dissociation, for the work we do with clients demands a full sense of awareness, an embodied presence. This, in and of itself, is the work. For many of our clients, no one has been present to them; which is the trauma. Sometimes we are the very first ones who have given them the experience of what it is like to “feel felt.” We are a life raft. We see them. We hear them. We are present to them. We must also be present to ourselves.

Of course, to cope, we therapists, we Ghost Responders, just like any traumatized human, have to also heal our capacity to dissociate when in a state of overwhelm. The options of going into cortical loops, parts, and neurochemical states are endless. There are a variety of options that our systems can use. But, the very best Ghost Responders are very well aware of this fact and actively seek to treat their dissociation so that they don’t get into traumatic reenactments with clients. They get aware of it, they work on it.

Over the past twenty years, it has been and continues to be, a privilege to hold space for clients. To be present to other human beings as they heal the deepest of traumatic wounds is an indescribably profound and deeply moving experience. At the same time, and maybe if you are a therapist, you can relate to this, juxtaposed alongside being present to our clients, can also be the deep aloneness pain of witnessing their pain, with no witness for oneselfI remember days when I would come home from work, horrified by the atrocities that I had heard, feeling so devastated by my witnessing and hearing the pain that other humans are willing to inflict on each other. It wasn’t caused by my clients, and my clients aren’t at fault, at all. It was just twenty years of exposure to the fact that these atrocities existed in the world in the first place. I would feel an indescribable heartache, be left speechless, and have an impenetrable sense of aloneness in my awareness of it. I was burned out.

Yes, of course, I have done my own trauma therapy and years of it. Yes, have I done tons of EMDR therapy over the years on sessions, what it floated back to, and that work has been powerful and necessary. Yes, I practice what I preach and maintain a regular sitting meditation practice. I’ve also practiced yoga for over twenty + years. Yes, I also partner with horses to remind me of the difference between what is real and what is not. So, I can tell you I have done a hell of a lot of deep personal healing work. But alas, there was still a residual sense of “I didn’t get to it all.” It was as if I got to the images, the emotions, the thoughts, and yes, the somatic, but there was still something missing. I could still feel in my bones, that there was more left.

The residual ambiguous “something,” was a low-grade sense of static on the line, just underneath it all. It seemed out of reach, albeit still in my awareness. Like the beautiful dark Welsh Oak antiques that I grew up with, there was still a thin patina, a slight layer that lay on the surface of my healing work with clients, let alone in my own personal recovery work.  The catch is that no one, not me, nor those that I did my healing work with, had found it, or even knew what it was. In fact, we weren’t even looking for it.

I had to find it through my own Deep Brain Reorienting (DBR Therapy). It was unhealed shock.

For over twenty + years, as one organism, witnessing other organisms’ deep pain, I had stacked on top of each other, moment, upon moment, upon moment, upon moments, of “oh no, something’s wrong,” “off,” or “there’s trouble.” Don’t get me wrong here though, shock is not based in the world of thought or emotion, it’s even before that. Outside of our conscious awareness, shocking moments, what we see or hear, can register super-fast, as in 50-100 milliseconds before we even register any emotions or thoughts.  These moments of shock can still accumulate and impact us without us picking it up. In my case, the very slow build, the accumulation, was to eventually hit me as a buildup of physical pain, especially locked in my left shoulder. Over the years, I had built a physical brace against the shock itself. No matter what I had tried, physically, emotionally, spiritually, you name it, this brace seemed unrelenting. I felt like I had tried everything, but the pain in my left side, the brace against the shock itself, was ever-present.

I dropped into my own Deep Brain Reorienting Therapy (DBR therapy) and the gut punches that occurred from years of witnessing the deep aloneness pain of my clients hit me in waves. And, when I found the shock that I had not found in my EMDR therapy, and wouldn’t for reasons that I better understand now, the physicality of it hit me like a tsunami, albeit, the waves still rolled through me gently, releasing shock’s hold over me gradually. It didn’t take me over. It also wasn’t a specific moment, nor a declarative memory, not even specific clients, it wasn’t even a cognitive process, but rather me, just as an organism, my brainstem. There was a need to get to the original physiological sequence in my brainstem, processing the understandable shock at witnessing others’ pain. I had to process twenty years of bracing. I also had to “get under the brace,” as we say in the world of horsemanship, to my own pain, underneath.

Don’t get me wrong, there were defenses. There was neuron-chemical dissociation that I also had to process, the natural opioids that would come in from my brain’s Ventrolateral PAG, trying to help me cope with the intensity. I had to get through that to get to the aloneness pain underneath it. Years of what I saw and heard, the deep-rooted pain, expressed itself as if a blanket of heavy distress that would envelop me. There were moments where I could feel myself wanting to curl up, to hide within myself, as if I could bind shrink wrap around my heart to stop it from breaking as my brain turned towards what I had heard and seen. It felt as if the energy in the room was reaching from outside of me, a hand clamoring out of someone’s breaking heart to reach into mine. Save me. Hold me. Hold this.

As Ghost Responders, we must still be present. The work demands it. We must see, hear, and feel our clients and be with them in their darkest moments. Nevertheless, if we do not get to the underlying shock in our systems, we can easily get ourselves into a state of burnout. We might not know that it is happening. Then one day, like a solid piece of ice that slowly melts imperceptibly and then appears to become liquid in one fell swoop, something will tip. We will then find ourselves struggling and feel the burnout, in full force. If we don’t get in touch with this realization, if we don’t see and heal it, how easily we can become ghosts in our own lives, unaware of the impact of this state on our clients, our loved ones, and most of all, our relationships with ourselves.

Over time, I found that I could breathe underneath what I was bracing against. I could finally get in touch with the deep pain of witnessing others’ deep pain. Now, I can look at what helped me access that unhealed shock file, and see it for what it really was, a healing doorway into years of bracing against the horrors of what I had seen and heard. Being fully present in those moments was required. Being present in the work itself had still left a residual impact, over and over again, of gut punches, the shock, that needed to be healed, in me, and that I had unconsciously braced against.

I feel such a deep sense of gratitude that I am still able to be part of that healing work. It’s a privilege and still is. But, alongside that, I can also fully breathe now, and I can feel my SEEKING system come online again. I feel rejuvenated in the work. I feel excitement, joy, and my creativity expanding. I feel expansive. It’s magnificent. I am inspired.

Healers, I hope this writing inspires you. I beg of you, the world needs us to be present. Our clients need us to present. But, as we all know, part of presence always means bringing awareness to what healing work we still need to do. I will keep writing on topics such as this, and I hope it speaks to you. Ironically, the amount of shock we can hold can be shocking to find, but it is necessary for our growth and the healing work we do with our clients. My fellow Ghost Responders, please consider doing the work to find it.

Keep reading

We map our internal and external worlds in similar ways, as did my client in her traumatization. One can consider that our current mapping may be based on old data, old, outdated maps, and unprocessed traumatic material.
What causes our systems to use dissociation as a strategy? The fact is, it’s all about attachment and trying to preserve it, but also managing the distress and conflict about that very safe drive to attach. There’s conflict. 
Feeling that our internal state, our emotions, were “held” by others, and processed, was a foundational need in childhood. To process it, as children, we needed the presence of an attuning other in the outside world, our caregiver to “hold” that distress to help us regulate, settle, calm, and let it move through.