Five months ago I began a therapeutic method called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. I went into this EMDR journey hoping I might finally forgive myself for bad past decisions so I can enjoy present peace of mind. My therapist had me begin by identifying some of my neurotic fears (everyone is mad at me, I am an absolute fuck-up, etc.). Then I listed a bunch of traumatic memories associated with these fears. In my sessions I revisit those experiences, recalling each one as I follow the hypnotic rhythm of my therapist’s fingers moving side to side across my visual spectrum. And then I notice whatever thoughts or feelings arise in my brain and body. Doing this helps me connect the dots between those awful experiences and harsh lies I’ve been telling myself for years. It’s tough emotional work. The rewards are absolutely worth the discomfort. I come out of every session finding those upsetting recollections to be way less triggering than they were before. And my sense of self compassion, confidence, and calm has grown immensely. 

The processing doesn’t stop at my therapist’s office door. One night following an EMDR session, I dreamt about the student co-op where I lived for two years during college. That house has been a common venue for nightmares in which I’ve somehow gone broke and must go back to living in the co-op, with its low-lit hallways and grimy bathrooms. But this dream was different. I was merely visiting the co-op with a group of alumni who’d called it home during its 75+ year existence. The current young residents were hosting a reception, and most of them seemed pretty standoffish toward us old folks. I was struck by a friendly girl with long brown hair who was buzzing back and forth between the residents and alumni. She seemed to really enjoy all the different people in her presence. Dressed in bell bottom jeans and an olive green sweater, she had a chill, hippie vibe – different from her housemates but amiable with everyone. At one point she said to her friends that she was heading out to the porch for a cigarette. I thought to myself in the dream, “Well, that’s a bad habit. Maybe she’ll let me bum one.” Then I woke up, imbued with a warm, pleasant feeling. For the first time ever, I dreamt about the co-op in a way that didn’t incite a sense of personal failure. I actually felt good being there. Many hours later I realized that the girl in the dream was me.

Right before I began EMDR, I wrote an essay called “People Can Change.” In it, I discussed a triggering memory from my co-op days that spawned the emotional breakdown which led me to EMDR. I’m proud of that essay, because I found a way to share my gnawing sense of shame and self-consciousness with utter honesty. I was also able to connect that sense of embarrassment about my past with a very funny sketch from the TV series I Think You Should Leave. But when I reread that essay now, I can’t help noticing how odd the conclusion sounds to me:

“The sketch ends with a sort of redemption that’s quite funny at first. But upon repeat viewings, I now find it rather profound and beautiful. As the main character keeps insisting, ‘People can change.’ This sketch is a healing reminder that even at my worst, some part of me always wanted to be better.”

While I do think I’ve become a better person since my very confused, mentally ill, and untreated college days, I no longer think I was a bad person back then. That’s what that dream taught me. Yes, I was messy. I drank too much, chain-smoked, ignored my studies, didn’t mind my own business, and made bad choices with the small amount of money I had. I also enjoyed great conversations with housemates from all over the world, laughed a lot with my friends, assisted housemates in crisis, cooked some good dinners, and helped organize a few really fun parties. I was a kind, loyal friend. Still am. I remain imperfect. And I self-improve. I learn from mistakes. Sometimes I’ve had to repeat those mistakes over and over, maybe spiralled a bit. But eventually I got some mental healthcare, and I’ve been on a pretty good trajectory for the past 20+ years. I do not need to apologize for who I’ve been.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this whole shame and morality thing is pretty overrated. I feel reborn, especially since I recently decided to take a big step back from leftist organizing (or at least the way I’ve been organizing over the last eight years). So many people who identify as leftist, progressive, or even socialist get really caught up in moral judgment. I know. I’ve been that person. It’s probably because so many of us came to radical politics by way of liberalism. To the liberal mind, political analysis is more about good vs. bad, rather than who has power and what they’re doing with it. So that leads people to activism out of a sense of moral righteousness. Ultimately, I’m more interested in how the majority of everyday people wrest power away from an ultrarich, patriarchal, white supremacist minority, and then use that power for the benefit of all people. That has less to do with deciding whose heart is good vs. whose heart is rotten. I’m of the opinion that most hearts are decent enough to be given the time of day, and we can achieve great things together once we get over the fact that all of us are flawed and messy. I believe we can build a society where we are more responsible and caring toward one another. And that starts from a place of humility and empathy, not from a place of moral superiority.

This week I’m beginning a new phase of EMDR. Now that I feel pretty confident I’m not a failure (and most people aren’t mad at me), I’m going to begin exploring how I’ve wound up in so many damaging friendships with toxic people who have strong narcissistic tendencies. Fun stuff! I look forward to viewing the vast difference between what I believe about myself now vs. what I’ll understand when I get to the other side. 

Photo of a toddler in a late 1970s living room, dressed in an oversized white t-shirt, red hat, and one dirty snow boot. She is holding a bucket (like a purse) and a picture book. She looks like she thinks she’s ready to go somewhere.
The author, circa 1979. A bit messy, a bit put together.

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