An Abbreviated Life

Ariel Leve

June 21, 2016 
The following is from Ariel Leve’s memoirAn Abbreviated Life. Leve is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Guardian, Financial Times Magazine, the Telegraph, the Observer, and the London Sunday Times Magazine, where she was a senior writer and a columnist. At the British Press Awards she was short-listed twice for Interviewer of the Year and Highly Commended twice. Her books include It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me.

We are not calling it brain damage. We are calling it an altered brain. A brain that was denied nutrients such as stability that were needed to feel safe and grounded. Emily believes that a therapy called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) will help me. She says, “Early childhood trauma has a profound effect on your ability to function as an adult.”

Article continues below

The consequence of my childhood trauma is a bespoke suit of armor that can’t be discarded. Love is unreliable. Joy does not sustain. Good things will go away. I need certainty in an uncertain world, and the tyranny of the past dominates the present.

* * * *

Just before I started EMDR, I had given up the flat in London. My contract with the Sunday Times Magazine had ended after ten years, and I found myself back in the apartment in New York. I had lost my family at the magazine, my sense of being a part of something larger than myself. Even though it was professional, it had been mooring. I had no steady income, no escape, and my mother on my doorstep.

I was sinking, steadily and with little resistance. At fortyfour years old, I was chest-deep. Extricate myself or be engulfed.

Article continues below

* * * *

Emily feels that by reprocessing some of my earliest experiences and memories, my nervous system will recover. She uses the word regulate. It sounds clinical. But this word means the difference between moving forward and being stuck. This inability to regulate makes for a defective operating system. A twisted mess of wires that needs to be untangled. My mother’s inability to regulate was out of her control. Is it out of mine, too? Emily has no reservations that EMDR will help me. “You are,” she tells me, “still an emotional hostage to the way you were as a child.”

* * * *

I trust Emily, which allows me to defy my innate cynicism about this form of therapy. I research it for weeks. It was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1987. It was intended for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). Dr. Shapiro’s theory that the experience of trauma results in an overly stimulated part of the brain correlates with what Dr. Teicher said about pathological changes to brain chemistry. I read about brain hemispheres and cortical regions and neural pathways and what happens when cortisol (the stress hormone) excessively floods the amygdala and hippocampus—parts of the brain where thoughts and emotions are formed. I read about bilateral stimulation. And how enlarged amygdalae are linked to childhood anxiety. I read about interrupted attachments when the primary caregiver dies.

* * * *

Article continues below

In EMDR, the patient focuses on a disturbing memory or thought while undertaking a repetitive series of eye movements. He or she follows a series of blinking lights while listening through headphones to a variety of beeps, all while talking through a memory and exploring the negative beliefs associated with it. The bilateral stimulation from the lights and sound rewire the brain, gradually eliminating the emotional sting from lingering memories. Thoughts and emotions are reprocessed and the patient is healed from the psychological trauma. At least that is the theory.

* * * *

I’m afraid I will suffer a psychotic break.

“You won’t,” Emily says reassuringly. “You’re not a candidate for that.”

“How can you be sure?” I ask.

Article continues below

I want guarantees. Nothing bad will happen. I won’t lose my mind. I won’t be out of control.

She is staring at me with a look that suggests she would roll her eyes if it wasn’t unprofessional. She lets out a sigh. I can tell from her aplomb that nothing catastrophic will happen, but I have regressed. You promise? You promise it will be okay? How do you know? The seven-year-old looks down into the lap of my adult body. My arms are listless and my hands rest flat on my upper thighs. After a few seconds, still not looking up, I begin to make a swooshing movement with both of my hands. A deliberate and rhythmic move where I brush off an invisible layer of silt that rests on top of my jeans. Sediment from the erosion of childhood. This silt is resistance to change. I sweep it away. Just like that.

* * * *

Every week for nine months I make the trip on the subway to the Upper West Side. Like a migrant carrying around my only possession: a passport of pain.

I walk from the train station to Emily’s office. I pass the pharmacy, with expensive face creams in the window. I pass smiling parents on the street, pushing children in strollers, even in the snow and the sleet. I stop for a cold bottle of water on the corner. And enter Emily’s building, ready to put things in order.

Article continues below

* * * *

On some days, this is all that I do: wake up, make coffee, believe it will get better, go to EMDR, believe it won’t get better, walk downtown on West End Avenue afterward, thrusting my fists deep into the pockets of my coat, crying. The broad sidewalks are ideal for these tear-soaked extended walks. I try to process the reprocessing. Passing pedestrians pay no attention to me. I am no one. Just another crying woman wandering in Manhattan.

* * * *

There are times I’ll be walking down the street and wonder: What do I look like to other people? Do I look like someone I’d want to talk to? Do I look like I could be Irish? When I visited Dublin, people there thought I was Irish. I have dark hair. I have blue eyes. Why not? I like the feeling of walking around and having a secret. I like that I have something all to myself. I can be standing next to someone on the sidewalk, waiting for the light to change, wondering how it would feel to be hit by a garbage truck. I can think “That’s an ugly baby” and smile. Sometimes there will be a sensation, a fracture of the moment, and I will have a wave of understanding how in the absence of learning what was appropriate, I devised my own interpretations. I will walk along thinking about this until it gets dark. Thinking how there are some people who will never be seen or known or found.

* * * *

EMDR reminds me of a neurological do-over. The trauma—which I don’t even recognize as trauma but for me was everyday living—I envisage as dense and intractable ice sculptures on display in my brain. I have maneuvered around these obstacles. The angles are pointed and sharp. These ice sculptures are past events that prevent positive beliefs from getting through. They’re on permanent exhibition in the prefrontal cortex and cause conclusions to be drawn and reactions to be had that should not be there.

They don’t melt with time or age. And their presence informs how I feel. Now these ice sculptures can be thawed.

* * * *

I wear a hooded sweatshirt to each session so that I can pull the hood up over the headphones. This becomes ritualistic. The sweatshirt functions like a cotton talisman. I sit down on the leather sofa. The lighting in her office is soothing and pleasant. For weeks in advance we have discussed “targets”—negative beliefs associated with traumatic events.

Emily’s notepad is full. She flips through the pages on the white legal-size pad and chooses memories where I felt helpless. We banter back and forth about them, and I object to the memories she chooses. The time when Kiki died. The time when my mother came to Thailand. “They’re all anecdotes,” I say. “I don’t feel anything.”

Isolating a particular memory seems useless because the trauma wasn’t an incident but a state of being. How do you make the feeling of aloneness a target memory?

* * * *

She ignores my question and brings out the EMDR “machine.” I call it the light saber. A rectangular metal bar sitting on a tripod and resembling a flattened crowbar with small holes dotted along its length, it looks like something that belongs in the bedroom of a teenage boy.

She plugs it in. The holes light up and begin flashing the luminous green of a stoplight. The lights then move in a linear fashion, one hole lighting up at a time. My eyes follow the green light as she works to adjust the speed. Back and forth. Left to right. Right to left. “Slower,” I say. “It’s going too fast.”

She dials it back. Now my eyes adjust.

The headphones are also connected to the machine and there are syncopated beeps as my eyes follow the lights. “The beeping is too loud,” I say. She turns down the volume and they become fainter.

The lights are slow and the tones are dim, so we proceed. We have talked about what I want to change. She is trained to do EMDR, and she follows the protocol exactly. I try to delay by asking questions or making witty comments, but she won’t have it.

* * * *

I take a deep breath. My eyes are moving. Emily speaks to me and I am responding. I give an unemotional, detailed observational account of witnessing a violent scene. I am in danger. My fist is clenched so tightly I can feel my nails digging into my palm. I take another breath, my eyes are moving, I am describing a situation where my reality was canceled, and as this happens, my cheeks become flushed and burn with rage. I am powerless. Devoured with a tension that is so intense, there is a lump in my throat and I can’t swallow.

“Keep going,” I hear her say. “Just a few seconds more.” We stop. I exhale. We start again. Eyes moving left to right. The sensations are strangulating. Betrayal. Loneliness. Neglect. Panic. I begin to sob. Back then, there was no escape. We stop. I take a deep breath. We start again. This time as I describe what happened, the sensation of helplessness is less powerful. I see my mother for who she is.

* * * *

The session ends with a final round of installing a positive feeling to replace the negative ones. My mother couldn’t help herself, but I can. I took care of myself.

The machine is turned off. I feel hollowed out and tired.

But before I leave the office, Emily wants me to do a visualization exercise. “Come on,” I say, wincing. But it’s part of the protocol, so I reluctantly agree. She tells me to picture myself somewhere where I feel relaxed. We run into trouble. I can’t come up with anywhere. “Okay,” she says, “somewhere you feel good.”

I settle on seeing myself in Bali, because when I have visited my father there in the past, it’s a place in which I feel relatively at ease.

* * * *

Nearly two years have passed since my EMDR sessions and my days are filled with what I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine telling the girls to shut up. I can’t imagine snapping at them “Stop whining!” even when they are tired and the whining gets on my nerves. I can’t bring myself to scold them without considering what to say and my tone of voice. I’ll be confused for a few seconds as to what is right. Am I responding to them fairly? I will say, “Please don’t shout.” And they will stop.

“Are you angry at me?” one of them asks. She looks nervous. “I’m not angry,” I reassure her.

I can’t imagine telling them stories about my childhood with information that would frighten and confuse them. I make decisions about what’s appropriate and filter out what I can share. I share very little. When I mention this to Mario, he says, “That’s normal, no?”

* * * *

I cover my mouth so as not to pass on the germs and infect them. That’s normal. You don’t want to infect your children. You don’t want them to feel your pain and your sadness and your anger and your depression. You don’t want to expose them to sickness. You don’t want them to feel sorry for you. You want to insulate them from your suffering. That is normal. A normal I’ve never met. Normal is not exposing children to every feeling as it occurs.

* * * *

There is a sign that hangs on the door of the bathroom. It reads Family Toilet, and underneath it has the girls’ names and Papa and Ariel allowed. We made the sign with watercolors and Magic Markers; colored it in and drew butterflies and stars.

All of us use the same bathroom and there is no guaranteed privacy. This is new to me. I am sitting on the toilet when the door opens and the little girls walk in. “Hi, Ariel,” one of them says sweetly. The other one asks, “What are you doing?”

At that instant, I’m unsure how to answer.

In one week they will turn seven years old. What is the right age to explain what menstruation is? I know they are too young to understand, but I don’t want to lie.

“This is something that happens when you grow up,” I begin slowly, trying to figure it out as I go along.

They are listening carefully, the way they do when I’m about to tell them a story.

“One day something happens to your body so that you will be able to have a baby.”

I stop myself from going on. They’ve lost interest. They are standing by the sink, where they are playing with a can of shaving cream. One of them pumps a dollop of foam into her tiny hand and turns to me, “Like when we were in Mama’s belly.”

“Exactly,” I say.

* * * *

I can’t imagine wanting these little girls to identify with sorrow. I can’t imagine hitting them. Or slapping them across the face. Or kicking them or jerking them or squeezing their arm so tight it leaves a bruise. I can’t imagine promising something I don’t deliver. I can’t imagine accusing them of trying to hurt me or hating me or being jealous. I can’t imagine condemning them for not listening to my problems—or spewing words of contempt that shred their fragile self-esteem. I can’t imagine ignoring them when they plead for my attention or to be listened to. When they ask a steady stream of questions (“Is the tooth fairy real?” or “Why can we throw peanut shells on the sand and not plastic?” or “Why do flowers smell?” or “Is ketchup healthy?”), I can’t imagine ignoring their curiosity. Because they need to be heard, and at that moment, this is more important than anything else. They are hungry for attention. I can’t imagine starving them.

* * * *

This is how it is now. These moments, filled to the brim with complicated narratives, are part of my life. And every moment I absorb how much attention they need, I experience how deprived I was. But this awareness of neglect is not a sorrowful feeling or a spasm of self-pity. It is a stunning and lucid clarity of the loss. Every moment I can’t imagine is also a moment of remorse, release, and emancipation.


From AN ABBREVIATED LIFE. Used with permission of Harper. Copyright © 2016 by Ariel Leve.

More Story
Five Books in My Life: Lionel Shriver Lionel Shriver's latest, The Mandibles, is out today from Harper. What was the first book you fell in love with? Like...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.