April 22, 2019

By James Brister, M.D.

When I was sixteen years old, I was an athlete and I loved football. If my coach told me I could run through a brick wall, I would try. I felt “invincible”—holding the world by the tail. Then it all changed in less than a second.

During a football game, I injured my knee. Not just a little, but when I hit the ground my foot was pointing backwards and bent up to my waist. I had to have surgery. The doctor told me I would never play football again, that I would be lucky if I could walk normally. He also said, I was lucky I didn’t die on the field. All my dreams and invincibility vanished.

Life went on, but I could no longer watch football games. If I spoke with someone else with a similar injury, I would have an odd reaction. The feeling is difficult to put into words, but my mind would go blank. Nausea would start. It felt like I had a painful hole in my chest. It was impossible for me to stay in the room during these conversations. I would run over anyone who tried to stop me from leaving. This was my response for years to come. 

Becoming a Psychiatrist 

At the age of 31, I was struggling at work and at home. One of my children asked why I looked so unhappy. That told me I needed to do something—so I sought help. My first psychiatrist helped me realize the toll my work was taking on me. 
At the time, I was working as a general practitioner at a small rural hospital. There, one doctor did everything: ran the ICU, delivered babies and treated all medical problems that presented. One night, having a cup of coffee at two a.m. in the break area in the emergency room, I realized I had done all those things in the preceding two hours. I delivered one child, went to the ICU and ran a code on a man over 90 years old, and he didn’t survive. As soon as that was over, they called me to a second delivery. That night I decided I wanted to support quality of life—both my own and other people’s. I decided to switch my career to psychiatry. 
While my first psychiatrist helped me with this change, among other issues, we didn’t touch on the sheer terror I faced of being exposed to any thought of football or knee injuries. I continued to avoid the subject entirely for the next twenty years.

What is EMDR?

A few years ago, I attended a training for a new therapy: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). I went to this training to learn a new skill as a psychiatrist, one that I knew nothing about. 
To learn this new therapy, the students practiced on each other. When it was my turn to be the patient, my response to the instructor was noticeable. The mild traumatic memory I selected somehow jumped across the years to my knee injury. In my mind, it was like standing by a passing training. Each window had a different picture of my life and it went so fast that I couldn’t focus clearly on a single one. I’m sure my face showed what I was feeling because the instructor came and sat with me through the process.
EMDR involves many things, but the goal is dealing with emotional trauma. In most psychotherapies, there is a lot of talking. In this type, talking is limited. In this method, you don’t have to relive trauma. In fact, you don’t have to describe the traumatic event at all. You and the therapist design a code phrase or word, find an emotional safe place you can use if it gets too intense, and stop if you want. 

After that one experience, I could watch football again and talk about knee injuries. There is no way I could have written this prior to that experience. That first session of EMDR started me on a transformative path. Since then, I have sought therapy including EMDR to continue this progress.

As a patient, I sit in one spot and keep my head still. My therapist asks me to focus on her hand and then moves it side to side. This draws both eyes back and forth, somehow allowing the brain to process the trauma and make it far more workable. 
Every time I went, it helped me deal with my fears and anger, and allowed me far more control over my actions. My nightmares of fighting went away, my level of anger decreased and my compassion for others increased.

I cannot explain fully why it works, but it can be a real game changer. No one therapy is best for every condition and for every person. But for the right issue, EMDR can be phenomenal. 

As a psychiatrist, my focus is mostly on medical needs and the use of medicine to treat mental illness. However, I use EMDR when I feel it is the correct approach. For me, EMDR has been extremely effective both personally and professionally. 

James (Skip) is a board-certified psychiatrist at the VA Medical Center in Jackson, Miss. He is married to Teri Brister, NAMI’s Information and Support Director.


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