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  • Writer's pictureJoscelyn Transpiring

Holding the Girl

(Part 2 of 2 on the topic of Gender Trauma being edited by Doc Impossible and cross-published on Stained Glass Woman for the "Grinding Glass" series.)


CW: Gender Dysphoria, cPTSD, description of therapy session



 




 


A little girl with long, blonde hair. She was maybe seven years old and she was sobbing, facing a world that was so much bigger and scarier than she could understand. I wrapped my arms around her and told her, “I’m here now. I’ll protect you. You no longer have to be afraid.”


I’ll never forget her face as she looked up at me, tears falling down her face. Funny thing is, for how vividly I remember this moment, it never happened. Or, at least, it never happened physically in the world. And that girl never was a person in the world.


Before I explain further, I need to pause for a moment to remind you that this is part of a series on complex trauma, gender dysphoria, and healing. So it might be a good idea to first go back and read the first part where I explain coming to terms with having complex PTSD, Complex Trauma Disorder? I Hardly Know Her!


Okay? Did you finish reading it? I can wait all day until you do. 😜


So how did I come to hold a girl that never was? What I described above is something I experienced during a session of Eye Movement, Desensitization, and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR is a therapy approach that was developed to help patients heal from trauma, and it has emerged as one of the most effective ways to help a person recover from complex PTSD. Speaking for myself personally, it was downright life-changing.


How does EMDR work? Originally, it relied upon eye motion, as you might guess from the name, but over time it became clear that the most important aspect of the practice is something called bilateral stimulation. What is that? Bilateral stimulation involves stimulating bilaterally...okay, yes, I’m being silly, but actually it is literally just that. There are different ways to do it, but the key is to do something that rapidly stimulates one side of the body and then the other. This, in turn, activates one side of the brain and then the other.


While there are some approaches to this that use specialized devices, an increasingly common method is to use your right hand to tap you left arm and then your left hand to tap your right arm. Your therapist then guides you as you talk about a traumatic memory, thought, or emotion, called a target. They use this guidance to help you explore what emerges during the session, let you safely reprocess it, and act as a guardrail to ground and deescalate you if the session triggers a PTSD response or flashback that’s too risky for you right now.


Why it works


Our brains are fantastically resilient and have many natural processes like grief to help us process and adapt to events. But sometimes a traumatic experience leads to a neural pathway getting locked in a certain awful moment and wires directly into our fight/flight/freeze/fawn system. That’s basically what a flashback is—activating our emotions and thoughts that are still locked into that traumatic experience.


So what sets EMDR apart from other forms of trauma-informed talk therapy is that rapid, alternating stimulus while talking about your trauma lights up your brain like a Christmas tree--both physical and emotional spaces, in addition to your memories-- which allow it to make all sorts of connections that it normally couldn’t, because it's been stuck in that trauma moment. This lets new neural pathways form, and that allows you to freshly access and reprocess the experience, but in a safe place this time. When it's successful, and it can take a while to really get un-stuck, your brain is able to engage the natural modes of recovery and resiliency it couldn't the first time around, which lets you heal.


I often describe the experience as being like what might happen if you break your leg and it didn’t heal properly the first time. You’ll be in pain and it will be hard to walk on that leg. So, the doctor may need to break the bone again in order to re-set it, allowing it to finally heal properly. Similarly, you have to confront the traumatic experience again, reprocess it, and resolve it in a way that allows your brain to heal and recover.


I know it sounds hard to believe that this could be that effective. After all, how does tapping your shoulders do anything? Sure, there are studies that support it as a treatment for cPTSD, but like...it’s probably more placebo than anything, right?


Well, let me share what the experience was like for one of my sessions to help you understand what it involves, what it’s like, and how it might support your own recovery journey.


What it’s like to do EMDR


The experience I describe here is one of the more dramatic and intense sessions I had, but I want to note that the experience can vary a lot. Some were fairly calm and easily wrapped up. Some of them hit a wall and I wasn’t really able to make any progress that day. And yet others can be much more intense, and even go off the rails, if you’re not careful.


This is why I always encourage people to only do this with a certified therapist trained in EMDR. I myself had one session where we accidentally stumbled into a violent and visceral dissociative spiral for me. And it was thanks to the guidance and skill of my therapist that she was able to help me ground myself and deescalate that spiral. Needless to say, we approached that trauma much more carefully in future sessions.


Anywho, the target for the session I describe below started with an experience of parental neglect, but crossed over into accessing and reprocessing my gender trauma. So, here’s the story of how I held the girl that never was.


The beginning of this session wasn’t all too different from most talk therapy sessions. My therapist checked in with me about how I was doing that week and opened the space up for me to update her on any life developments. Given that EMDR does require some time though, we quickly moved on to confirming the target I had selected the previous week.


Since it was one of my few traumas that I could point to something more like a specific memory, I had chosen a moment related to how my father had treated me when I was a kid. After my parents’ divorce when I was only 3 or 4 years old, my father was unpredictably in and out of my life. At some point on the phone, when I had told him about learning how to fish, he mentioned something about taking me fishing during the summer vacation from school.


I realize now this was probably just one of those wistful affirmations people do in conversation, but my seven-year-old brain translated that into a promise that he would pick me up to go fishing on the first day of summer vacation. So I grabbed my fishing pole and tackle box and sat on the front porch of my mom’s house waiting for him on the very first day of summer.


He never came that day. I wouldn’t even hear from him for a month or more.


The truth is, this occurred more than once when I was growing up and I don’t carry many specific memories of these experiences other than the facts about what happened. When I thought of this one though, there was just the tiniest glimpse of a memory—sunshine, blue sky with slowly plodding clouds, and the green grass as view from my mother’s front porch. There was another…memory? No maybe not even a proper memory, just some sense of a space of darkness that I could touch the edges of when I thought of that moment.


Not much with work with, right? But it was enough to serve as a jumping off point. After describing this, the therapist helped reflect back to me what I had told her about this memory and told me to begin bilateral stimulation. I crossed my arms, placing my right hand on the left bicep, and vice versa. Tap left... Tap right... Tap left, tap right, tap left, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap… and I let my eyes close to focus in on the memory.


My therapist said, I want you to picture that day. You’re sitting on the porch, looking out. What do you see?


I focused in on the memory and, while it was still that little scene, it began to emerge as a more full and vivid moment. As I described what I was seeing, it suddenly clicked for me why I had that vague sense of a dark space – I was viewing the scene from the gap between my arms as I sat on the porch with my knees up and my face buried between my elbows. I was buried in the dark shadows between my knees and arms, only looking out occasionally.


What are you feeling right now?


My emotions had been coming into focus, like a TV that was in black and white until you adjust the settings and the image becomes saturated in color. In trying to describe what I was feeling, the distance between that moment and who I am today began to be bridged. I felt so sad and alone, rejected and unwanted. There was a tightness in my chest, and my breathing began to stumble – uneven and hard.


And I could feel the little kid I once was telling myself over and over, “He didn’t come and doesn’t care about me. Of course not. Why would he? I am bad and annoying. No one would want me around. Of course no one would want me around. It only makes sense for no one to want me around. I should be alone.” This was the root of the thought spiral that has stalked me my entire life. I had thought it so many times in my life, but this was the first time I was connecting with the seed and fetid fertilizer from which would grow my trauma responses to rejection and relationship conflict.


As I articulated these thoughts, I more and more felt they were my thoughts and my feelings, not just a memory of them. Even the way I was speaking began to drift, shifting back to how I used to talk as a kid. It was startling and confusing at first, to say the least. While part of me was still firmly sitting on a chair facing a computer screen in 2023, that moment from decades ago was just as real and immediate. It was around this point in the session that I began to cry.


Stay with those thoughts for a moment... Of course, no one cares. I’m bad. No one wants me around.


I explored this space in my memory. Describing what came up – the thoughts, the feelings, and the connections. This moment, and others like it, was at the root of my sensitivity to rejection, my belief that I didn’t deserve love or care, and my thinking that no one would want me around because I am annoying and awful. And it finally clicked: this is how a kid makes sense of rejection and neglect by the people they love. I loved my father and thought he was amazing, so it must be me that was the problem. It must be my fault and I must deserve it…just because I’m inherently bad.


Initially, the tears had only welled up in my eyes, maybe one or two slipping down my face. But as we explored these thoughts and feelings, it was like a clog starting to clear from a pipe. Tears that had been backed up in me for decades began to flow more easily.


Okay, Joscelyn, I want you to now imagine that you, the Joscelyn you are today, right now, is there and going to comfort that kid. Imagine you are there. What do you see?


I began to shift my perspective, bringing who I was today into that memory. I placed myself there in my mom’s front yard. I saw her house the color it used to be painted, white with green shudders, and her old front porch – just a concrete slab step by the front door. And there was a little boy, wearing baggy jeans, a striped shirt, and a mop of light blonde hair (why did I insist on having a bowl cut when I was that age?). But I couldn’t see his face, just his head buried in his arms crossed over his knees. I described this to my therapist.


I want you to go to that boy. Tell him what you want to tell him.


I walked up the sidewalk leading from the porch and sat down next to him. I could tell he was crying, but his face remained buried in his arms. I wrapped my arms around him and I told him, “I know how much you are hurting right now. I want you to know that it’s okay to cry. Let it out. You are safe now. I am here and I will take care of you and I will protect you.”


In that moment, something truly unexpected happened. Rather than me actively imagining or exploring this scene, my mind showed me something new. The kid I was hugging looked up at me, but instead of the face of a little boy looking back at me, it was the face of a little girl. She had long blonde hair and resembled the way my mom looked as a kid, but somehow different... like it was my mother’s daughter... like it was me. And in that moment, I simultaneously was the woman holding a little girl and a little girl looking up at this beautiful, strong woman that I knew cared about me.


Honestly, it is hard to put this moment fully into words. It was almost as if I had been viewing life through only one eye with the other one covered up, and in that moment my mind removed the patch allowing me to see through both eyes for the first time in decades. But it was more than that, with the thoughts and feelings of an adult woman and a young girl being experienced at the same time. I suspect the trauma of my childhood led me to dissociate, breaking part of myself off. And I finally had reconnected with the little girl I had always been.


Little Joscelyn buried her face into my chest, as I buried myself into the embrace of Big Joscelyn. And both of us cried. It was like that pipe had fully cleared and all the backed up tears poured out like a waterfall, finally releasing the sadness and pain that I had buried inside for thirty years.


In that moment, I told that little girl a personal affirmation that had come to me in a previous therapy session, “You will do impossible things. You are powerful and you are loved. And I will be here to take care of you whatever happens.”


My therapist reinforced this moment and then guided me to slow the bilateral stimualtion. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap right, tap left, tap right… tap left... tap right… tap left.


As I opened my eyes and came back fully to my body and my room, there was a greater wholeness to me that I didn’t know was missing. One of the splinters of my self that I had walled off in my brain was a full part of me again. And I would need to uphold my promise to that part of myself and care for her.


In the months that followed, I found myself returning frequently to a song by Rina Sawayama, “Hold the Girl.”


She is talking about her own experience coming to terms with her trauma in therapy, and reconnecting with her inner child. And it would remind me again and again what I needed to do:

“Reach inside and hold you close,
I won’t leave you on your own
[…]
Cause the girl in your soul’s seen it all
and you owe her the world.
[…]
I wanna remember.
She is me and I am her.
So hold the girl.
Hold the girl.”

As I nurtured the girl that never was but I had always been, she grew and found herself in the woman I am today. So I will keep holding the girl and upholding my vow to her: I will care for you. I love you.


And whatever else, I will protect you.



 


Afterword, from Doc Impossible:


A lot of people have asked me how I’m able to write such raw, close, intense stories about myself and my own life. How I can bear being so close to the pain, the intensity, of it all. How it doesn’t tear me apart to touch these parts of my life. How I could hold my own girl, the day I almost ended my own life.


Trauma therapy is how.


My own journey to heal from complex trauma was very different from Joscelyn’s, but no less harrowing—or important. EMDR is one of the very best tools out there to heal trauma, but it's not the only one. There are many different types of trauma-infomed therapy, and EMDR might not be effective for you, as it was not for me. If that’s the case, please don’t—as I first did—simply believe that you’re broken beyond repair. You may, as I did, just need a different approach, and there are many, with more emerging every year. MDMA-assisted trauma therapy, for instance, seems to be on the verge of FDA approval, and looks like it may be the most effective trauma therapy approach yet, especially for severe PTSD.


Trauma therapy was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It took years for me to really heal. It was incredibly worth it.


You deserve to not hurt anymore.


Some options for trauma-informed therapy that might help you:

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