At the end of the last post I quote Joy Schaverian’s description, in her powerful book Boarding School Syndrome, of her patient,Theo’s shock at being reminded of the traumatic event he’d described in the previous session. He seemed not to have realised that he had revisited it.
I can testify to the truth of this process from my own experience.
My Hospital Experience
Those who have read this before on my blog can skip this bit.
In 1985 I had a powerful experience using Rebirthing therapy. The key was breathing:
I found a therapist and I went for eight sessions and it was the last one that brought about the dramatic shift in consciousness. It was on 11 July 1985. The session lasted over three hours.
So, there I was in the back room of a small cottage, lying on a mattress along the wall, a stone fireplace nearby, with the therapist on a cushion by my side. I can’t remember her name, which is rather sad. It’s fortunate that she ignored the clock for this session – a generous piece of good judgement for which I am extremely grateful.
The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body.
And at that moment I let go.
Several things happened then that would be barely credible if I had not experienced it myself.
First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.
Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.
This was not new material. I had always known that something like it happened. I had vague memories of the ward I was on and the gurney that took me to the operating theatre. What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.
This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.
And what were the thoughts?
I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’ It was rather uncanny when I read almost the same words in Schaverian’s book, speaking of Theo’s experience (page 126): ‘He remembered thinking to himself that he was now alone. He had no one to depend on but himself…’ It’s harder to imagine a stronger resonance to someone else’s experience than that.
This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind found words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.
At that young age I began to grow the carapace that would lead me eventually to feel safe only in trusting no one but myself. The shell continued to hide its origins even from me as its creator until that moment. It was the root of my atheism, the root that I had concealed from myself and everyone else for so many years.
What is even more bizarre, and relates to the point that Schaverian is making, is that in my 1976 diary, which I re-read only recently, I found that in my Transactional Analysis group at the time, I’d re-enacted the moment of my second surgery, when it took half-a-dozen ward staff to hold me down.
I wrote that it left me sobbing in the absolute clarity of the insight. Even the words of the life-script I wrote in my diary the day before the re-enactment – ‘I’ve only myself to rely on’ – are the very same ones that came like a bolt of light into my head in 1985 during the breathing meditation in Much Wenlock. I could understand why I might not remember something that had happened 40 years previously, even if it was important at the time. But to forget about something so significant in less than nine! Still, forget all about it was what I had done: I had no memory at all, not the faintest trace, that I’d used those words before. It came as a complete surprise.
Theo had not fully understood when he drew it that he was kneeling at the desk before being hit in the face with the cricket bat.
Schaverian explains why when she discusses Theo’s difficulties dealing with the time a teacher hit him in the face with a cricket bat (page 57):
Theo first told of this incident early in analysis. Then, a few months later, he retold it, this time with more depth of feeling. It was as though he was at first incredulous but then, as I took it seriously, he began to believe himself and to take seriously how abusive this had been. As Theo recounted it for the second time the feelings associated with the event became live in the session. Theo went white; he felt sick; he had trouble breathing and physically regressed.… The emotional impact of this was fully present in the room. Theo was overwhelmed and speechless.
There is even more to it than this need to revisit traumatic events, possibly having forgotten the previous attempts (page 118):
. . . if [traumatic events] can be told they are gradually detoxified, thus eventually accepted as part of the person’s personal history. It is then an accessible narrative and no longer unconsciously dominates their life. When there is no such witness the trauma may become embodied, leading to conversion symptoms such as digestive problems, migraines, chronic pain, poor energy and a large number of other physiological indicators. This may be because the event that caused it is remembered in an embodied sense, but not recalled cognitively and so it cannot be consigned to the past.
I suspect the long-time focus on my lungs and breathing may have been such an indication of embodied memory. Certainly the efficacy of a breathing therapy seems unlikely to have been a coincidence and my need to re-experience the events strongly suggests that the original Transactional Analysis attempt had only been partially successful, and therefore the memory of it was suppressed until the whole event resurfaced nine years later. Even then I never recalled the original work.
Ian and not believing yourself
There are just two other less lengthy correspondences to note before this very personal record is complete.
I recently revisited my work with Ian. I quoted from a recording we had made of his feedback about the process.
P.: I know this sounds a very stupid question, but in terms of when you then came and talked about them, what was valuable about just talking about them?
I.: Because it made it real. When I was ill, it didn’t seem real. You know what I mean? My memory didn’t seem real. It was like a dream. And it was as if I’d never done anything. But talking to you reminded me that I’d actually done these things, you know? And that it was memory. And that I’d actually done the things. It was reality.
P.: And how did knowing that it was reality prove so helpful? What did it do?
I.: Well, it proved the voices wrong for a start.
P.: Ah. Why? Were they saying that they were real and your memories weren’t?
I.: Yeh. It proved the voices were wrong. And that my memory was right. And talking to you fetched it out into the open. . . .
Theo’s experiences echoed this as well. Schaverian had encouraged him to draw when he initially could not describe in words what had happened (page 64):
There was a notable change in Theo’s demeanour as he sat back and viewed the drawings; they gave credence to his story. He began to believe himself and he was overwhelmed. The atmosphere of the school was live in the room and with it the long-buried emotions.
Until you see it in front of you, it’s hard to realise that anyone could doubt their own experiences in this way, particularly when they are so powerful. But it really is as I quoted earlier (page 81):
It is common for those who have suffered trauma to disbelieve the extent of their own suffering and so it may be difficult for the analyst to believe it.
This is another aspect that Schaverian only touches on relatively lightly, which my own experience suggests is immensely important. It is not enough to have a sense that the traumatised person does not necessarily believe their own story. The problem is confounded by the fact that in many cases too many other people don’t either. Judith Herman confronts this head on in her excellent groundbreaking 1992 treatment of the problem, Trauma and Recovery (page 8):
Soldiers in every war, even those who have been regarded as heroes, complain bitterly that no one wants to know the real truth about war. When the victim is already devalued (a woman, a child), she may find that the most traumatic events of her life take place outside the realm of socially validated reality. Her experience becomes unspeakable.
The study of psychological trauma must constantly contend with this tendency to discredit the victim or to render her invisible.
I can speak here for the soldier, Ian, whose story was consistently met with incredulity by some of the ward staff who had to look after him during his acute admissions. One even denied at one point that Ian had ever been in the army, even though we had seen the evidence that confirmed he was receiving an army pension.
Returning to Safety
There is another important issue I recognise from my own work with people who had been traumatised. The work they do on their past reactivates the trauma and at the end of each session it crucial to ensure that they have come back safely to their more ordinary consciousness. Schaverian describes the situation (page 69):
Theo was still regressed and after a while I realised that I needed to intervene in a practical way. It was vital with such regression to attempt to bring him back to safety before the end of the session. When trauma is so live in the room the therapist needs to speak. Ten minutes before the end of the session I suggested that he wrap himself up in the blanket from the couch and then sit in the chair to recover.
The most powerful example of this phenomenon from my own work was with a young woman who had experienced years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. She had a diagnosis of schizophrenia and came at her own request for help coming to terms with her traumatic history.
It took more than a year for her to begin to describe the abuse, so painful was it for her. She could focus on it for no more than ten minutes in each hour at first. After that she became overwhelmed with terrifying hallucinations of her father, hallucinations which impinged upon all her senses – smell, touch, hearing, taste and vision. The only way she learned to determine afterwards that he had not really been there was to observe that she had no marks upon her body.
Generally it would take the rest of the session to help her regain control of her own mind. This we managed to do partly by using her strong visual and sensory imagination for her benefit. We asked her to imagine that her dog was with her on her lap. She loved and trusted her dog and would use it at home to calm herself down. Even imagining that her dog was close to her at the end of a distressing session would gradually calm her down, the hallucinated presence of her father would fade and she would be able to leave safely.
My final comment
So, in short, I find the book powerful and credible, at least in part because of its strong resonance with many of my own experiences. I’m not sure whether that means I am biased or just very well placed to make an authentic judgement. Either way, I wholeheartedly recommend this moving and important book and leave it to you to decide, if you read it, which description applies to this review. Even for those who might not share her Jungian perspective and feel somewhat frustrated by the relative lack of quantitative data, will find it an illuminating read because of the authentic qualitative data it draws on, which make the issues she discusses come alive.
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