Friday, October 31, 2008

PTSD & Hypnotherapy, Part 2: My First Session

Laura continues my hypnotherapy initiation with further explanation of hypno and the process.

“Now," she says, "the second thing I need you to understand is this: Imagination is as strong as knowledge. What we’re going to do in here will engage your creative mind. The suggestions I give under hypnosis will stimulate your imagination so that it uses its power to reinform your subconscious mind about the beliefs you hold. Beliefs such as,” and here Laura refers to her notes. She reads back my statements in direct quotes. “‘I can’t let it go.’ ‘I don’t feel safe.’ ‘I’m so afraid.’ ‘I feel powerless.’ ‘There’s always something wrong with me.’ We’re going to change all of those thoughts by engaging your imagination. I’m going to give you what’s called a fake frame. I hate that word, ‘fake,’ but it will be fake right now because you don’t yet believe in it yourself. However, the frame will become real through the process of hypnosis. In this way, we’ll re-frame your ideas and beliefs so that they are more positive and harmonious for your well-being. It’s important to know that in the same way the imagination can help you reach your goals, it can prevent you from reaching them, too. Many of the difficulties we experience in life usually originate in our imagination; beliefs are so powerful that our minds transform them into reality. The 88% overrides the 12%.

“We’re also going to rewrite the scripts you’ve been using. You have thought patterns that have been going on for years. In hypnosis the suggestions will be geared toward rewriting these thought patterns and forming new ones that will bring you a feeling of peace and safety. It’s not only your subconscious mind that we’ll be tapping here. Your conscious mind will need to participate, too. All the hypnotherapy in the world won’t work if you don’t want it to. You must actively want to engage in this process. Also, you need to carefully monitor your thoughts. If you fill your subconscious with negative thoughts, feelings and images you will soon begin to experience all of those things. What you put your energy on is what is created. Any time you have a negative thought – for example, any time that you think, ‘I am powerless’ – I want you to say to yourself, ‘Cancel.’ As in, ‘Cancel that negative thought.’ For myself, I use the image of a purple elephant. It is so ridiculous and out of the ordinary that it immediately takes my mind off whatever negative thought I’m having. When I think something negative, I say, ‘Purple elephant!’”

Laura’s eyes get big and excited. She’s pulls a stuffed purple elephant off one of the book shelves. “Take this image home with you. You must only allow and reinforce positive thoughts. Cancel the negative statement and replace it with its opposite. For example: ‘I am powerless’ becomes ‘I am powerful.’ Will you be able to do this?”

I nod, “Yes.”

“Great, then you won’t be working against yourself. The mental attitude you hold when you hear a suggestion determines whether or not it is accepted into your internal computer for change, or flat out rejected. There are three mental attitudes that affect the hypnotic state. The first is one of complete embrace; you passionately want and trust the suggestion. Because of this, the suggestion goes into your subconscious and change occurs. The other two attitudes will cause you to reject the suggestion and no change will occur. That is, if you’re uncomfortable with the suggestion, or if you don’t care about it at all. You have to really want the suggestions to come to life in order that they will. So, it’s important that you whole-heartedly embrace them.

“The last thing I need to explain is that hypnotherapy is not like talking therapy. In here we will not focus on the past. There’s no need to do that. We don’t need to keep going over and over what happened. Going back isn’t what heals us; going forward does. With hypnotherapy we focus on the future so that you can see where you’re walking toward rather than constantly looking back at what you’re running from. By activating your subconscious we’re going to create and liberate the new you from the authentic self that is submerged beneath all this other stuff. That’s what we’ll be doing together, you and me.”

Oh, God. I’m melting into this couch. I’m fervently wishing this hour would never end. I’m plotting how to make it last forever. Laura’s energetic attitude transforms everything into something simple and manageable. All this time I’ve felt controlled by the past, but Laura’s outlook makes it seem like she and I control a future where the past is inconsequential. Why didn’t anyone ever turn me on to hypnotherapy years ago?

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

PTSD & Hypnotherapy, Part 1: My First Session

I make a list of hypnotherapists in my geographic area and systematically begin making phone calls. Unlike all other healthcare providers, I immediately like this group: they advocate speaking with you before you even make an appointment. You could never call an internist and say, I’d like a few moments before I commit, but hypnotherapists welcome that chance to connect. What’s more, they’ll spend over thirty minutes doing it.

I have a list of questions I put to each one. The first, Can you cure post-traumatic stress disorder?, gets the same reply from everyone, Yes. Right off the bat I can see I’m going to have to revise my technique. Instead, I begin asking each therapist to outline his or her background and some personal examples of PTSD results. I weed out the woman who says her success is due to her devotion to the Unitarian Church. I quickly end the call with the West Palm Beach woman who is so hyper and frazzled I don’t think I could relax anywhere in her near vicinity. I cross off the list the man in Fort Lauderdale who will chat with me about himself and hypnotherapy, but evades answering any of my specific questions.

I narrow down the field to two therapists less than ten miles from my house. I spend a long time on the phone with each. One is a male in his sixties; the other a female in her fifties. One heads a large PTSD healing center; one directs a hypnotherapy center. One looks a little like a cross between George Plimpton and Ichibod Crane while the other looks like the next door neighbor who always baked us cookies when I was a kid. One travels all over the world making speeches and one has developed a wide range of self-hypnosis CDs and a couple of books because mostly she stays close to home. The man says he’ll cure me in one day for $1,500 no matter how long it takes. It could take two hours, he says, or it could take nine, he isn’t sure.

“We’ll just keep working until we’ve resolved all of your issues,” he says.

But this guy hasn’t met me. I’m afraid that, as I did with Henry my former therapist, every time we uncover one issue we’ll uncover a whole host more and the day with this guy will never end. I don’t think I could take such a marathon session. It sounds a little too pressured. Also, I can’t imagine, no matter how good this guy might be, that we can cure twenty-five years of issues in one single day.

The woman, on the other hand, says we’ll need to take it one $125/hour at a time. This final fact is ultimately how I make my decision. Also, the female candidate shares some of her own story with me. In a chirpy southern drawl she explains how she, too, had a severe trauma that she needed to overcome and how she did it through hypnotherapy. I realize this convenient example could be part of her sales pitch, but she’s the only hypnotherapist I’ve spoken to who has related her own deep belief in the success of this bizarre process. I decide Laura Boynton King is the hypnotherapist for me.

The day of my first appointment I obsess about what to wear. This is a little worrisome because in my whole life I have never cared about my clothes. To meet Laura, however, I want to wear something that makes me not look as pitiful as I feel. I want to wear something that projects who I want to feel like instead. I choose a white flowing pair of low rise pants and an equally flowing long sleeved white button-down shirt. I feel like an artsy hippy, but the outfit forecasts what I intend to be: a comfortable, confident and relaxed woman.

I breeze into Laura’s office acting happy and chipper and nonchalant. In other words, a complete fake. I chat and laugh and joke around and do everything I can to hide the pain I’m in because I want Laura to like me. I want her to enjoy helping me. I want to be not a pitiful patient but just some woman who wants to find a better balance in her life. Laura’s professional and business oriented demeanor, however, isn’t the type to let you get away with this charade. A few inches over five feet, she has a cap of close cropped wavy gray hair and warm, soft brown eyes. She’s got a perfect ski slope nose and a generous mouth; she wears no makeup. Her warm, smiling, kind and utterly genuine expression makes faking it seem an insult.

Laura’s small office contains a single window, a desk, two bookshelves, a beige suede couch and a cream colored leather recliner. She motions me to the couch where I curl up and tuck my feet beneath my legs. Laura sits with perfect posture opposite me on a small swivel chair. She dons a pair of ruby red reading glasses and picks up a pen and clipboard.

“Tell me everything,” she says.

As I tell her the condensed version of 1981 to the present 2007, Laura writes all over the pad, every which way. Sometimes, she doesn’t even look at the paper; she keeps her eyes on me with unwavering attention and writes and writes and writes. It doesn’t take long for me to drop my guard. By the end of the tale I am in a tearful puddle of self-pity and desolation.

When the final sentence ends Laura deliberately looks at me and says, as if making a promise, “I’m going to help you with this.”

A physical wave of relief washes over me. No healthcare professional has ever said those words.

“We are going to get rid of this trauma once and for all,” Laura continues. “I guarantee it. I told you, hypnosis saved me from suicide. So, I know that it works. But first, there are some things I need to tell you.” She pauses to adjust the height of her seat and then leans forward toward me.

“The first thing I have to tell you, and the most important thing for you to understand, is that 88% of your brain is your subconscious; 12% is your rational mind. The 12% that functions logically makes you feel like you’re in control, but it’s the 88% – where you feel – that’s really guiding and informing everything you do. That 88% is who you really are. The other 12% is merely a construct designed to get you through the day to day. When a trauma occurs, the magnitude of the experience is absorbed into your subconscious. It’s like a hand leaving an imprint in the sand: even when the hand is removed, the sand retains the shape. The actual experience of the hand in the sand no longer exists, but the sand continues to behave as if it does. Trauma and the subconscious are like this. The 88% holds the imprint long after an experience ends. That imprint – both immediate and visceral – is like a ghost following you around. So, we’re going to perform a little exorcism. Are you with me so far?”

I nod.

“Good. The role of hypnosis is to revise, relieve or erase those impressions that are not serving you. When you do the same thing in the same way with enough repetition the subconscious mind makes it a habit. A habit is an automatic response to a certain situation in a specific way. You don’t think, you just react. Ninety-seven percent of what you do every day is by habit. When you get up and get dressed in the morning, that’s a habit. You don’t think about it, you just automatically do it. Our subconscious develops habit patterns that can either help or haunt us. Luckily, any habit can be changed by working with the subconscious mind through hypnosis.

“The subconscious mind stores the memory of not only everything you experience, but also everything you think, feel, fantasize, day or night dream about. The reason for this is because your subconscious mind cannot tell the different between something that’s actually happening to you and something that you are imagining. The subconscious records everything equally and responds to both the real and the imagined with the same intensity both during an event and also afterward. Hypnosis uses this concept to help you reprogram your behavior by using the imagination to help you change what your subconscious thinks and feels.

“Most of what the subconscious remembers is inaccurate. We can never trust what we recall under hypnosis even though the feelings housed in the subconscious are completely real. I don’t care what you think you remember from 1981, or whether or not it’s true. If your subconscious believes it, that’s true enough for us. Our job here is to change your attitude toward those perceptions and beliefs that are causing you pain. You’ve already outlined several of them in the thirty minutes you’ve been here. The goal of hypnosis is to change behavior through direct suggestion and the reprogramming of the brain. Reaching the subconscious requires no effort, no concentration. It’s simply a matter of allowing, not forcing. When you allow yourself to relax, you’re in the most receptive state of consciousness.”

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

PTSD Introduction to Hypnotherapy, Part 2

To continue the discussion about PTSD, hypnotherapy, you and me.....

The reason hypnosis works so well has to do with the way it transforms the subconscious mind’s perceptions and beliefs. To begin with, hypnosis works from the assumption that the subconscious mind (the veritable source of all of our internal power) is the storage space of all our past experiences and emotions. In this incredibly vast warehouse, traumatic experiences are filed away on both physical and emotional levels, the stimulus of which can affect our immune system and health. Processing old traumas and the emotional charges attached to them allows a patient to find internal resources that begin the healing process.

In all of this research I come across an article by Michelle Baudry, a board certified clinical hypnotist. In ‘Hypnosis and the Mind’ she explains how the mind subdivides into three parts: the unconscious, the subconscious and the conscious. We can, she says, break down the mind into a computer analogy: the unconscious mind operates automatic body systems in the same way as a computer’s operating system; the subconscious operates like a hard drive by storing information; the conscious mind functions like RAM choosing what information is to be acted on moment by moment. Immediately, the supreme importance of the subconscious mind becomes apparent. In order to update any files, the subconscious must be engaged. We cannot change memories, but we can update how we feel about them. In order to do this, the critical factor of the conscious mind must be bypassed. This is achieved through hypnosis when the conscious mind is set aside during the so-called trance state.

The Baudry article goes on to describe how the subconscious is the part of your mind burdened with the job of protecting you. It will do anything – even adopt negative behaviors – in order to keep you safe. The subconscious mind is a mighty advocate but sometimes can be a little too earnest and excitable. “Misdirection is one highly effective way your subconscious protects you by keeping a lid on overwhelming emotions. Ergo the addict,” Baudry writes. She explains that when these protective measures no longer serve us we feel the need to change. This change is difficult to bring about because the subconscious mind is devoted to its imprinted perceptions. In its bypass of the conscious mind, hypnosis brings the subconscious to the forefront so that changes can be made via suggestions. Hypnotherapy helps change perceptions of memories, which in turn helps change perceptions of the self and hence, behavior. It’s all a very neat little package. The past cannot be changed or escaped, but our emotional and intellectual attitudes toward it can be radically altered. “Talking happens in the conscious mind,” Baudry explains. “Change happens in the subconscious.” Since emotions play a large role in our activity, thoughts and actions, they are an intuitive seat of transformation.

Though we don’t delve into it on a daily basis, the subconscious mind is much greater and stronger than the conscious mind in which we dwell. So, while the conscious mind whips us around all day, the subconscious mind calmly waits at the bottom of some vast personal ocean, ready to rise up like a great watery beast and devour conscious opinion. It just needs the right bait and atmosphere.

At the time I was learning all of this, I thought it was all very interesting and new agey. I had uncovered some tantalizing data about the ability of hypnosis to cure PTSD, but I was only half-heartedly compiling all of this research because I didn’t, in fact, believe in hypnotism. I had in my mind a memory of a hypnosis session in the fall of 1986. My freshman year of college I took the ubiquitous Psychology 101 class with about 150 other students. Halfway through the semester, the professor and his teaching assistants asked for volunteers for a hypnosis research project. My friends and I could use some extra cash, so we signed up for the $25 sessions. The point of the study was to see how easily hypnotizable random subjects were. We were told not to try to give in to hypnosis, but just to allow it to happen naturally. I was, by the age of eighteen (5 years after my trauma), already incredibly hyperaroused and hypervigilant. I never gave up an iota of conscious control and I wasn’t about to start. I went into the project with the idea that I would be The One Who Would Not Give In.

I entered the TA’s office on the basement floor of the Psych building. The small rectangular room was dimly lit with an orange glow. There was only enough space for a desk and two desk chairs. The TA, a guy with long, shaggy hair, corduroy pants and a rugby shirt, told me to make myself comfortable. I sat bolt upright. He told me to close my eyes and listen to his voice. This was not the kind of hypnosis I expected. Where was the shiny metal object swung before my eyes? Where was the creepy voice saying, You are get-ting sleee-py? Instead, he counted backward from 100 to 93 and talked softly and gently. But no matter what he said or how he said it, I remained completely conscious and alert – was working hard at it, so determined was I to prove how strong and resistant my mind could be. The session lasted about twenty minutes. I was smug when the TA gave up. I walked out of his office so very proud of myself. Another self-designed test and I had passed.

But now I was actively seeking, as the U.S. Government puts it, to find someone who’d help me achieve “hypnosis… the bypass of the critical factor of the conscious mind combined with the establishment of selective thinking” so that I could finally be completely healed. I didn’t have much faith in the process. I was not expecting nirvana. But I was at the end of my proverbial rope and so while I didn’t believe in this cure, I soaked up the information hoping that something would lead me to an emotional aha! moment.

Baudry defines hypnosis as a blend of physical relaxation and extreme mental alertness; a state of focused concentration. Some of the other literature explains that under hypnosis the patient is generally aware of her surroundings and can choose to come out of hypnosis whenever she chooses. This will not be a mind control session. I would remain in control while choosing to relax to such a degree that the conscious mind will let down its defenses. When I read all of this I thought perhaps I could get into it, maybe fake it for a little while, see what happens. At least, this time I wouldn’t fight the process. The only obstacle now was that I had no idea how to find or choose a hypnotherapist. I wanted a blueprint or an outline to follow; some procedure or vetting process. I want a bunch of hypnotherapists to submit resumes and schedule interviews in which I lie on a couch and see how I feel about this particular person pecking around in my subconscious. Lacking any of these tools, I decided to wing it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Are You Ready To Let Go Of Your Trauma/PTSD Identity?

We all want to be healed, right? We all would do just about anything to live more happy, PTSD-free lives, wouldn't we? .... Or would we?

I'll tell you a little secret: For a long time, even while I felt controlled, manipulated and devastated by my extreme PTSD symptoms, I wouldn't have given them up, not for anything in the world. Here are a few reasons why I loved my PTSD:

#1 PTSD made me feel safe.

a) The illnesses, emergencies, depression, symptoms, anxieties, all of it made me feel as if I was involved, as if I was connected to the moment and myself, even if it was in a negative way. I existed so dissociated from everyone and everything that the minor traumas that kept occurring bridged the gap between me and everyone else.

b) The symptoms made me feel awake and aware. If I was already always feeling in danger that meant I was paying attention. No new trauma could rise up and surprise me. If I was constantly feeling threatened then I would not be caught off guard when a new, cataclysmic trauma presented itself.

c) The symptoms made me feel powerful. In the moment of my original trauma, I had been completely powerless, and in the wake of PTSD symptoms I was powerless again. But in my management of those symptoms, I regained some sort of power. I could decide or not decide to pursue a treatment, a therapy, a practioner. (I'll get back to this idea of power in another post because I believe that as trauma survivors it is critically important to regain a sense of our own power.)

d) The symptoms made me feel stoic. I was constantly suffering and enduring, as I had throughout my original truama. The continued extension of that act guaranteed that I was keeping up my strength and my ability to endure again. If another major trauma occurred I would be ready. I would not have gotten soft, I would be primed like an athlete for an event.

#2 PTSD gave me an identity.

a) After the original trauma I lost a sense of myself. I split into selves (I'm not talking personalities here, just sensibilities). Where there had been one united entity, now there were three, a self for each phase: Before, During, After. Each self had strong opinions and experiences and wanted to run the show. I was completely at the mercy of the motivations of them all as they fought for control, which only made me dissociate more, which only made me feel even more lost. Galvanized by PTSD symptoms, however, I could muster a single, overarching identity: patient; trauma survivor; PTSD sufferer, take your pick. I could choose to be someone instead of a plethora of people all at once.

b) The original trauma so decimated the real me that I became someone else. I was a new person. That original self, the one who had not suffered, was dead (or so I thought). This new identity, Survivor, was very much alive and living a life that celebrated not survival of the truama, but survival of every moment afterward. I no longer saw myself as a regular person, but a 'special' person. In her book, Faith, Sharon Salzberg writes that “sometimes… I secretly build a monument to [my distress], as though I am really very special in [it].” Ring a bell? That was me, and I'd be damned if I was going to give it up. If I had suffered this life-altering trauma, it damn well better be good for something.

#3 PTSD reinforced how I had come to see the world and my experience of it.

a) Every minute holds the potential for trauma. Oh, yes, it does, especially when you've got a bad case of PTSD!

b) The original trauma stunned me and changed my entire outlook on life. Afterward, I made some startling life decisions (i.e, about my purpose, philosophy, religion) and set about living accordingly.

I decided the world was not a safe place and I must guard against it in every minute.

I decided it was not possible to enjoy life because that was distracting. How could I prepare for another trauma - how could I be sure I would be ready to survive again - if I was off having a good time? I couldn't, so better make sure my focus was on trauma all the time. It was not OK to be OK. How nice of my debilitating PTSD symptoms to comply!

So there I was with many reasons why, for all that I railed against it, on another level PTSD was really working for me. It was not until I took a really good look at who I was, what my identity had evolved to be, that I recognized the fact that it was not at all whom I wanted to be. I did not want to only be a survivor. There is so much more to me than that! I did not want to be a PTSD sufferer. I can be so much bigger than that!

At the nadir of my PTSD struggle I sat myself down and looked at who I was Before, During and After, and then I decided that I wanted to be someone else Now. This is what brought me to the pursuit of joy, which gave me the courage to bridge the gap between who I had become as a result of my trauma, and who I really wanted to be. I wanted to be well. I wanted to be healed. I wanted to cured and PTSD-free. I wanted to be happy and adventuresome and unafraid. There were so many ways that PTSD was preventing me from becoming a post-trauma person. My Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was really Prevalent-Traumatic Stress Disorder and it was time for it to end.

I decided to pursue joy to eliminate the dark psychological stasis in which I lived. The resulting flood of joy gave me the courage to imagine a life that was both trauma and PTSD-free. The more joy I felt, the more close and attainable that new life felt. Joy gave me the courage, too, to feel I would survive if I left my trauma behind. I would be able to define a new identity for myself, even if I let go of what had defined me up until then. I would be able to carve out a new philosophy, purpose, etc. even if I released my grip on what had formed me up until then.

The constant experience of joy brought me to a place in myself where I was ready, truly ready, to bridge the gap between trauma and a happy life. And that's when I discovered I didn't know how to make that final leap. If I wasn't so entrenched in this trauma life, I might have been able to do it myself. If the PTSD habit hadn't spent so many years digging its way deeper and deeper into my pysche the joy alone might have formed a new joy habit that freed me. Indeed, I almost did achieve the conversion on my own. But then I hit a wall, and that's where hypnotherapy came in.

I meant to post more about hypno today (I will tomorrow), but it seemed important to note one thing: We can only be healed if we want to be. Before hypno is approached as a panacea, it is important for us to do the internal work that smoothes the land in which hypno is going to work. We must accept that we have suffered, and commit to moving beyond it. We must love who we were Before, celebrate who we were During, and respect who we became After. We must want to choose who we can become Now.

The degree of success of any hypno experience relies on the strength with which we want to be free. I wanted it desperately. Do you?

Friday, October 24, 2008

PTSD Introduction to Hypnotherapy, Part 1

Several people have asked me lately about my experiences with hypnotherapy and its ability to cure PTSD.


Before I tried it, I did a lot of research and found that it actually has a great track record to help PTSD sufferers. I also came across a lot of interesting background that brings its potentially "you are getting sleepy" creepiness down to the basis of facts and science (and no one says that phrase anyway).

Over the next couple of posts I'll be giving some background about hypnosis, and also my experience with it. I'll also try to find some links that might be helpful so you can do more of your own research. For now, you can visit the link for my hypnotherapist to read some background and see how absolutely normal she is, as it the practice itself! Many of her clients are business and sports related. It's not just us unfortunate PTSD sufferers who can benefit from hypnotherapy. Tiger Woods uses it. As does Kevin Costner (OK, maybe it's not really helping him, but still...), so do Fergie, Matt Damon, Samuel Jackson, Ellen Degeneres, Drew Barrymore and Ben Affleck to name a few. So you see, we're in good company.

My goal here is to give a complete 360 degree look at hypnotherapy, so today I'll begin with some background and in the next few days move on to my own experience....

In the beginning I didn’t know anything about hypnotherapy. I heard an ad that it could stop a nicotine craving and I thought, If it can cure that strong an addiction, maybe it can cure another kind. (Because, doesn’t PTSD feel like an addiction sometimes??) So I turned to the literature and discovered that hypnosis is actually a pretty antique practice, traceable all the way back to Hindus in ancient India who took their sick to sleep temples to be cured by suggestion. Egypt in 3000 B.C. employed the same practice in dream temples. So did the Greeks (in their Shrines of Healing) and Romans whose motto was, Mens sana in corpore sano; healthy mind in healthy body. A common element was creating a suggestion to be used by the patient’s power of belief. Believing that they were healed, many patients could put their own mind power to work to heal themselves. Group hypnosis was also very popular in antediluvian civilizations; several religious ceremonies included rituals such as mass rhythmic chanting, strained fixation, and meditation. Before Newtonian science divided the mind and body in 1750, the ancients seemed to know that the health of the two is connected.

The first hypnosis to be accepted and experimented with in modern society, however, had to do with chickens. That’s right, last night’s dinner represents the evolution of hypnosis into genteel circles. In the 1600s people discovered they could calm chickens through various hypnotic means, including balancing wood shavings on their beaks. Not long afterward, French farmers learned to hypnotize hens to sit on eggs that were not their own. In Germany, traveling shows hypnotized birds, rabbits, frogs, and salamanders to name a few. In England a man hypnotized a lion. In Hungary a man hypnotized all of the animals in the Budapest Zoo. In 1904 even Pavlov thought hypnosis was related to the state of his conditioned reflex dogs. Hypnosis, it was found, could be induced in a wide range of subjects.

There are several people involved in bringing hypnosis to its currently accepted status in the healing community – way too many names to mention in a brief overview. The truncated story goes like this: The man credited as the Father of Hypnotism, Franz Anton Mesmer, was born into a Swiss-German family in the Swabian town of Iznang, in 1734. Mesmer’s father was a gamekeeper and forest warden. Both parents were extreme Catholics who attempted to push their son into the clergy. After a brief stint training to be a Jesuit priest, and then studying law, the young man enrolled in and eventually graduated from the premier medical university in Vienna. As a medical student he developed a theory of the influence of heavenly bodies on people’s health, which he supposed to be through acts of ‘animal gravity’. Further to this, he developed the belief that the unobstructed flow of a quasi-magnetic fluid in our veins keeps the body free of disease. Curing illness meant correcting the flow of this fluid. The magnets put people into a sort of trance in which the fluids could be recalibrated.

In 1770, recently graduated and married to a wealthy widow ten years his senior, Mesmer began exploring, experimenting with, and validating ‘animal magnetism’ (later known as ‘Mesmerism’). For example, Mesmer found that he was able to stanch the flow of bleeding from a patient’s wound simply by passing magnets over the incision. He also found he could cure a patient’s convulsions by placing magnets on her thighs and stomach. Gradually, Mesmer’s curing abilities encompassed a wide range of physical and psychological ailments. He became famous for his diverse magnet cures and moved to Paris where he was wildly embraced by the French aristocracy. The medical community, however, disapproved of and disbelieved in his work, which prompted the French king, Louis XVI, to appoint a Board of Inquiry. Mesmer refused to cooperate with this investigation and it didn’t take long for the board (which included the French chemist Lavoisier, a medical doctor called Joseph Guillotin, and America’s own, Benjamin Franklin) to conclude that Mesmer was a fake. Mesmerism, they announced, had nothing to do with magnets and everything to do with the patient’s own act of imagination. In disgrace, Mesmer retired to a Swiss forest where he continued to believe in Mesmerism and administer his cures to the poor until his death in 1815.

After Mesmer, the hypnosis pool gets a little crowded. Mesmerism itself continued to flourish in the arenas of research, studies, demonstration and investigation. But it was one of Mesmer’s students, the Marquis de Puysegur who, in 1784, discovered how to lead a client into a deep trance state called ‘somnabulism’. De Puysegur accomplished this state by using relaxation and calming techniques. He described the state as having the following three features: concentration of the senses on the operator, acceptance of suggestion from the therapist, and amnesia for events in the trance. Over 200 years later, these theories still apply.

The definitive launch of hypnosis came sixty years later, in 1842, when James Braid, a Scottish surgeon, saw a man hypnotize a lion at the London Zoo. Convinced it was a hoax, he began his own experiments with his wife and servant. He discovered that a fixed gaze paralyzes nerve centers and destroys the balance of the nervous system, which puts a patient into a state that can be very useful when no origin can be found for a person’s disorder. Braid renamed mesmerism with the term hypnosis, deriving the word from the Greek, hypnos, meaning, ‘to sleep’. The importance of Braid and his colleagues is that his research was the first to be called scientific, and in that category raised hypnosis from the realms of mysticism and brought it into the respected medical arena.

Around the same time, James Esdaile, a surgeon in Calcutta, after placing a patient into a trance state, performed the first operation without anesthesia. His track record of over 1,300 operations – all done with hypnosis and without anesthesia – helped give hypnosis even more clout so that the leading minds of the 18th century took notice. It came to be accepted that hypnosis inhibited certain cortical activity in the brain thereby allowing suggestions to be more easily accepted. For many years suggestion was the only known method of psychotherapy. Thousands of patients were cured this way.

At the Salpetriere in Paris, Jean-Martin Charcot built on and advanced the theory of hypnosis with great success. He believed that hypnosis was not merely a psychological state but a physiologically alternate state of consciousness, one that could be affected through such means as magnets. One of his students, Sigmund Freud, used the theories of hypnosis to develop his original abreaction therapy, which utilized hypnotic methods. Unfortunately, when Charcot died his ideas were betrayed. The colleague evolving his work changed his belief about the physical affects of hypnosis and reverted to the theory of suggestibility. His attempt to prove that hysteria was the diseased manifestation of hypnosis associated hypnosis with neuroses and weakness; hypnosis completely fell out of fashion. No one wanted to be looked at as crazy.

In addition, Freud’s was some of the work that changed the approach of hypnosis from suggesting away a patient’s symptoms to eliminating the apparent causes. Freud believed that traumatic events (and patients’ failure to react to them) cause suppression. He maintained that in order to discharge those intense feelings of traumatic events it was necessary to bring them out into the light; this was the basis for what would become psychoanalysis. It was Freud’s eventual disuse of hypnosis, and his tremendous success at proliferating his ideas of a new psychotherapy, that helped push hypnosis onto the fragmented sidelines of patient care.

Then, in the 1920s, in a northeastern French province, the pharmacist Emil Coue studied the psychology of suggestion. His successes in this area brought auto-suggestion for self-benefit into vogue. Since then, hypnosis has spread from Europe to the United States. As early as the 1930s hypnotism began to be used to cure psychosomatic illnesses. In the 1930s and 1940s at places like Yale University American academics studied hypnotism and advanced it through publishing their findings. Later, the armed forces utilized the effects of hypnosis during World War II; the practice helped get soldiers back into the trenches more quickly. After the war, there were so many soldiers with psychological afflictions that hypnosis was used to allow them to relive the trauma and thereby relieve it. The success of these varied outlets regained some of hypnosis’ sullied reputation. By 1948 hypondontia (hypnotism in dentistry) became widespread and the American Society of Psychosomatic Dentistry (an association of dentists trained to administer hypnotic techniques) was founded. By 1958, even the American Medical Association approved a report on the medical uses of hypnosis and encouraged further research.

Following WWII one man remains responsible for bringing hypnosis completely into the mainstream of American healthcare. A double polio sufferer, a poor kid from rural Nevada who had severe dyslexia, profound tone deafness, and color blindness, Milton Erikson became an unorthodox psychiatrist who stressed the wisdom and intelligence of the subconscious mind and promoted the view that it was not a primarily negative force. Further, Erikson’s transformative idea was that hypnosis is actually a state of mind that all of us are normally entering spontaneously and frequently. That television set you’re staring at, that movie you’re watching, that magazine you’re reading, they all put you into a sort of trance. Erikson’s creative theories and successes increased the public’s interest and belief in, plus comfort-level with and acceptance of hypnosis. These days, hypnosis is incredibly widespread. Often used in psychotherapy, it is also a tool in law enforcement, hospitals, psychiatric clinics, jails, courtrooms, sports, schools and religious institutions.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Feeling Free From Trauma & PTSD

Yesterday I was thinking about that October 1998 Depeche Mode concert in Manhattan because this week I've been thinking about how far I've come because this past October weekend I went to another concert and right from the very beginning I danced and sang (what few choruses and phrases of Spanish I actually know) for over three hours in the heat of the Floridian fall afternoon and into the sweet breeze of a yellow-mooned evening.

My dance partner, John, and I are big Latin fans. We love anything Spanish. It begins with the music and the dances and extends to the language, the food, the culture, the people. We are slowly (very slowly, in the few minutes of free time we can capture off the dance floor) teaching ourselves Spanish. We can now say, I want to dance (Yo quiero baillar), which is a huge improvement over our first Rosetta Stone sentence that explained the fish is blue. At least now we can say things that actually pertain to us.

Our favorite dance is salsa. I won't go off on a riff here about why, although I probably won't be able to stop myself on another day. But it wasn't salsa that brought us to downtown Lake Worth last Saturday night; it was bachata, another Latin dance that is, hands down, the most romantic, sexy, fun Latin dance possibly ever. When I first began partner dancing a little over a year ago, salsa's complicated jazz-like rhythm was too difficult for me to be proficient right away, but bachata -- well, I took to it like the blue fish into water. The music has a slow, dependable beat that just gets into my soul and takes over. (Here's a great clip if you're curious to see what bachata looks like. The couple are not professional dancers, but you'll get the basic idea:

Anyway, after Aventura, Monchy y Alexandra ( is our favorite bachata band and they were playing a farewell concert in an amphitheatre in a park on the Intracoastal. It was a concert not to be missed. This duo is legendary and after many years are finally splitting up. Their performance would be the peak of Hispanic Fest de Lake Worth, which is a big party in Bryant Park that lasts all day and deep into the night. In addition to booths selling Spanish goods and foods, the amphitheatre has a full list of hourly bands. John and I went early in the afternoon so that we could salsa (because I am now, finally, really good at it!) before the bachata concert.

The salsa band was large, about 10 musicians and a great singer. In front of the amphitheatre a concrete area serves as a dance floor, behind which are about 30 rows of benches and then the park beyond that. It was so crowded that for a little while John and I kicked off our shoes and salsa'd in the grass. But then we moved up into the dance area. We wove through the crowd of young and old, fat and thin, proficient and learning dancers and found a small space for ourselves. And there, with the sun beating down, the crowd moving close and the music blaring we danced and danced and danced. That familiar joy high came over me, I rode it, I looked around and saw how many other people seemed to be feeling the same thing. There is not a single unsmiling face on the floor. There is not a frown or unhappy, sad-eyed look. There are only smiles and laughter and this is partly what I love about dance: that everyone is so joyous when they are doing it.

By the time the salsa band ended we were drenched with sweat and thoroughly warmed up for the concert. Here's the funny thing about Florida -- or maybe many places are like this, but as a New Yorker I'm not used to it. If this $5 concert with one of the top bachata bands ever had been in NYC the crowd would have begun assembling early in the morning, if not the night before. In FL, however, the crowd for the concert showed up only about 20 minutes before the band took the stage. I'm always surprised by this. No one in FL seems stressed by time. In NYC if I wanted to see the free, celebrity-studded Shakespeare in the Park I would have had to sleep in the park the night before to get a ticket. In FL, when I wanted to see Shakespeare by the Sea I went 2 hours early to get a seat and --- I was there all alone, until 30 minutes before curtain, and even then the crowd, which did eventually pack the park, didn't really arrive until 15 minutes before curtain. It's such a much different life here.

So, the salsa band had a crowd, but the bachata frenzy didn't begin until about 15 minutes before Monchy y Alexandra took the stage and then the crowd flowed in and pressed forward and John and I, who had been dancing right in front of the stage, suddenly found ourselves surrounded and cluttered by a mass of people. Everyone jostled for position, but in a polite way. This was not a crowd that would yell or push or shove. Everyone silently and with a smile snaked their way around and through to where they wanted to be.

John and I decided to remain standing by the stage instead of seeking seats. When Monchy y Alexandra took the stage we cheered and clapped. They spoke mostly in Spanish, welcoming everyone from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Mexico, Dominican Republic... the list of Latin countries went on and on and its representatives roared their heritage. Eventually the concert began and in the now very tiny space we had, John and I danced an abbreviated bachata for an hour and a half.

Every now and then, I still dissociate. I still split off from the scene and recede far back into my own head. Having so long ago developed the habit, maybe this will always be the case. In the throes of trauma and then PTSD, this was the state in which I perpetually lived. It was safer, easier -- and above all, not really a choice I made so much as a sort of survival mechanism that kicked into place and I didn't have either the strength or the desire to grope back toward the surface of life. It felt so much better to split off, in which case I only had to hold myself together, rather than attempt to hold myself together and also participate in the world.

Now, though, when I split off it is for a different reason. Since my PTSD has been cured, the habit still remains, but its use is changed. I split off for a moment of thankful appreciation, for a few seconds of gratitude. And then I come back. My selves are whole, so they don't splinter and then it's just impossible to regather them. I split off, the whole Michele, for a second or minute of reflection, and then I pick up time right as it is continuing along. This happened to me a lot during the concert. John's and my bodies are moving in rhythm, the music sounds wonderful, Alexandra's voice is crisp and clear and so beautiful, the breeze off the Intracoastal is a warm caress, the smell of the not-too-distant Atlantic Ocean wafts over us from time to time, the palm trees reach their fronds up and wave them toward the sky, the moon hangs low against an indigo background, this crowd around me pulses with joy and life and I split off for a moment and transcend it all to realize that life has become good; very, very good. That I am well, that I have suffered and endured and wandered through a Sahara of trauma and pain and I have finally found an oasis where the joy of life freely flows and it is my right to drink it. Here I am, finally, able to dance for over 3 hours without a single pain, without thinking about my body at all except in terms of pleasure. Here I am, wholly connected to myself, my partner, this crowd and this evening without any little bits of trauma creeping in to ruin the party.

I come back into the present moment where John's hand is on my hip leading me into a tiny turn in this little space and I think, It is really over. I am free.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

PTSD & The Power of Joy

For many years I lived in New York City, that thriving metropolis that teems with life and crowds. And although I was often out and about in what the Italians call, the corsa della gente, I felt so alone, so isolated in my trauma, my PTSD, my continuing pain, depression and angst. I saw all of these other people leading happy, productive lives and that only made me feel even more alone and cut off. You know what that feeling's like. It's pretty grim.

It's hard for those who love us to watch our struggle. We're in it, so we don't always look outward. But they're out and always able to see into the shifting plains of the desert in which we wander. Once, in an effort to cheer me up, my brother, Bret, took me to a concert at Madison Square Garden. First let me explain: Bret and I are still stuck in the 80s when it comes to our musical nirvana. Oh, we appreciate the rock of today, but it's Depeche Mode, INXS, Ministry, New Order, Thompson Twins, Erasure and that whole set of imported musicians that still gets us at the heart.

So, when Depeche Mode came to NYC on October 28, 1998, Bret got us great seats and we went down to the Garden for the show. At the time, my PTSD symptoms were so bad that my body was weak, unreliable and always in pain. I could not dance. I could not sit still for very long in one position. I could not stand for excessive lengths of time. The very idea of being at a concert almost overwhelmed me with fatigue. But Bret was so excited to take me, and I love the band so much that I went determined to enjoy what I could.

When we arrived at the Garden the opening act was just about to begin. The place was packed, every one of the 20,000 seats were filled. We filed through the crowd and found our seats in the 7th row. The band began and: within a few songs my body was aching with the volume of the music and the tension of standing in the crowd. I took a bathroom break and as I wandered through the long hallways, jostled by other people scurrying back and forth, I wondered how I would make it through the concert. My body was already in so much pain I was on the verge of tears.

But then I resumed my seat and Depeche Mode took the stage and -- I forgot about my body entirely. I was swept up in the music and my passion for it. I began to sing along with every song. I stood up. If I couldn't really dance, I swayed to the beat. Infused with the joy of the sound my body relaxed. The pain became a vague nuisance but not the focus of the moment. The past became an unfortunate memory, but not the headline of the day. This joy, of being with my brother (one of my favorite people in the world), of seeing one of my favorite bands, of being surrounded by this mass of humanity all of whom was feeling the same excitement I did, was evolutionary. It reconnected me to a pleasurable side of myself, and also, to the world at large. For an evening, it bridged the gap between me and the rest of the universe.

It's so easy to forget that a whole world continues outside of our PTSD world. And so important to make sure that we do remember that it does, every now and then. It's so easy to get lost in our own isolation. And so necessary to take the action that bridges the gap between us and the corsa della gente. Identifying something that makes us feel joy can do that. Pursuing it as much as we pursue some end to this constant PTSD suffering is a valuable, necessary, imperative ACT. If we hope to develop a life that looks forward instead of constantly being dragged down by the past we must commit to doing something ourselves. For so long I looked to doctors and therapists and said, Heal me. And some were helpful, and some were not. No matter what they did, they did not cure what ailed me. Therapies alleviated the intensity of my PTSD problems, but did not eradicate it. And now I know why: Because healing begins within ourselves, within the real, tangible desire to feel something other than what we do. It's hard in the midst of PTSD defeat to imagine that things could be otherwise. The experience of joy reminded me that it could.

For weeks after the concert I thought about that night again and again. I thought of the joy I felt and how close it seemed. I was surprised that in the emotional coma in which I lived any experience could actually engender such a strong and pure response in me. I thought of how terrific the band was and how much fun it was to share that night with Bret. I thought of how I seemed to shed my PTSD self and participate like every other normal concert goer. I thought of how I wanted to be that person again.

I kept the ticket stub on my desk so that on all of the future bad days I could look at it and remember that, even if only for one evening, I transcended all of the bad and found something really, really good. The ticket stub was my talisman of hope. It gave me the idea that there might be a very small light at the end of the long, dark and windy PTSD tunnel.

What's your joy? Go find it. Participate in it. Take an action toward the future you.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Importance of Joy In Healing Trauma & PTSD

There I was, about to turn 40 and the thought of living the second half of my life unhinged by what happened before my life had even really begun was more depressing than the depression in which I generally lived. So, I decided to finally haul myself out it: I decided to pursue joy. I decided to dance at least once a week, and then I decided to learn to partner dance. One year later, here's what I've discovered:

1. The role of joy in eradicating trauma is paramount to moving forward. Trauma causes a break in the narrative of our life's story; joy heals it. That is, how we perceive ourselves, how we envision the present, plan for the future and participate in the world.

2. After trauma it's easy to separate into a slew of selves (the Before self; the During self; the After self). Where there had previously been one united entity now there are several trying to inhabit a single space. A sort of gridlock occurs as they all jostle for position to protect us and move us forward. It becomes critically important to find a way to unite all of these selves into a single, strong force; a Now self. Joy can do that.

3. We must discover a throughline, some way to reconnect with that former part of ourselves who has not suffered. Otherwise, we will suffer every minute of every day. Joy is the key to that throughline.

Don't panic - the point is not to recall some distant pleasure. For myself, I don't remember much before my trauma. Bits and pieces, yes, but a vision of my whole, happy self, absolutely not. If you asked me to name one thing that brought me joy before my illness I could not name it.

But it isn't necessary to remember a pre-trauma joy. The point, actually, is not to spend any more time ferreting through the past. Today, it is only necessary to use some joy (any joy!) to woo that original self who wishes to be trauma-free. That self is from the past, but we have little ability to access him or her. How could we? The break in the narrative is vast and wide.

However, we can use the present day experience of joy to stimulate a reconnection with that past undistorted self. The important factor is not the source of the joy, but the feeling of it. You cannot be high on joy and also in the midst of a dark depression. The two cannot coexist in the same moment. Try a little taste of joy, and then fall back into the dark. And then another small taste of joy, and return to the sadness. The joy will linger, it will call to you, you will want more. This is the beginning of healing. That untraumatized self is waiting, curled up, asleep in the depths of the subconscious, waiting for joy to filter down like a song and woo it back to life.

The goal is to use the experience of joy to foster the dominant return of the self that has not suffered. Joy engages that part of ourselves that remains trauma-free because joy engenders pleasure, hope and an environment of peace, love and freedom.

Although it may not feel possible, that unscarred self does still exist. Joy, in its alchemy of purity, provides a bridge for that original self to cross over the gap in the narrative. Joy is the elixir of the self. In its ability to transform, joy is a powerful voodoo magic of the soul.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

More PTSD Joy, Or: The Night I Realized I Wanted to Learn to Partner Dance

There are four of them approaching the dance floor, two women and two men, all dressed in black. One woman is lithe and petite. She wears a black skirt about calf-length and a black tank top. The other woman is taller, a little plump. She wears an unflattering black wrap dress and a basic black pair of shoes that are round-toed, low-heeled and have a T-strap across the ankle. The men both sport black pants and black button down shirts. One couple looks American; the other looks Latino. All four look unremarkable and uninspiring and self-contained; they do not blend with the crowd, which is chic and self-conscious and needy.

I see this little group, these four people, come to the edge of the dance floor. They do not, as most people do, stand and survey the crowd. They do not study the geography of the floor as if looking for where they might slip in unnoticed, or noticed, depending on some personal agenda. They do not appear to have any agenda that includes those of us already dancing. Instead, they advance to the edge of the floor like a small battalion, sure-footed and disciplined. Then the women turn toward the men, and the men hold out a hand, and the women place their palms inside the offered hands and the four of them step onto a corner of the dance floor and begin to dance – not like any of the rest of us are dancing, but really dance. The song is a disco which, in the world of dance, translates to a hustle.

Based on older dances such as mambo, the hustle originated in Hispanic communities in New York City and Florida in the 1970s. Originally, it was a line dance, but after a fusion with swing and some alteration of the count, it became a ballroom and club dance. Think, Saturday Night Fever and you’ll have a clear idea of how this partner dance looks. There is an ease and flow. There are simple turns and windmill arms and the steps are just that – steps. On the most basic level hustle is really just a matter of a syncopated stepping to the &,1,2,3 beat, and making it look cool.

These two women syncopate and turn and hip-swivel. The men lead them through their moves with a simple rotation of the arm, a soft caress of the shoulder and the women spin around and around. These couples glide over their small corner of the floor with grace and uninhibited restraint. While the rest of us are stomping and shoulder-shifting and wiggling in place these couples move around each other with the energy of tightly coiled springs. They are units of precise and fluid and unpredictable mechanisms. I am mesmerized. All of the longing I’ve ever had for dance, for freedom, for that high I always feel when I dance – for joy – wells up and says, This is how you can possess me!

The men are styling, their hands and arms perfectly placed, but it is the women I can’t stop watching. Both of them are incredibly light on their feet. The illusion is that they are skating over the wooden floor following an undetectable lead. There is no obvious communication between the partners, yet they dance flawlessly. They are a synchronized extension of the music. Each pair is the ebb of the music’s flow.

Bret and I take a break. We sit at our table, faces flushed and moist with sweat.

“Watch them,” I say, pointing to the two couples.

Bret turns and observes. The Latino leads his partner into a series of five successive, individual spins. She comes out perfectly on the beat into a back break without looking the slightest bit dizzy.

A small voice in me whispers, I want

“Cool,” Bret says, nodding his head.

The man leads her into a dip and then out into a diva walk. She is wonderful and fluid and beautiful. As we continue watching them, the small voice becomes louder and louder until it unexpectedly erupts from my lips.

“I want to dance like that!” I shout over the music.

“You could!” Bret answers.

“I want to be that good!”

Juliette laughs.

“I want to look like her,” I say, pointing to the taller, plumper dancer. She moves with an unusual ease in her body. Her face is focused but at peace. There is a genuine softness to her movements, as if she sinks into each step as an afterthought and expects to land against a feather pillow. A small smile plays at the edges of her lips as if she harbors a secret only her partner might guess.

“I want to look like that,” I say aloud to myself. “I want to be able to dance like that.”

We watch the dancers for a while and then Bret and I get back on the floor. Suddenly, freestyling seems amateur. How difficult is it, really, to flail your arms about or gyrate your hips or shift your weight? How difficult is it to stand opposite someone and do your own thing? There’s no finesse, no style, no communication. Freestlying suddenly feels lonely and disconnected and boring. I am still high on the music and movement, but suddenly, not high enough. Somewhere in the pit of my stomach a small coil of joy has begun to stand up like a snake being charmed in a basket. It hums and thrums and writhes. It is a very small sensation, but I sense its great desire and potential to grow. I steal a peek at the two couples again and again while we dance. Each time I do, the coil in my stomach tightens and springs. Each time I watch them spin and wrap and lollipop something in me reaches out to touch their image on the floor.

But Enough About PTSD; Let's Get Back to Joy

The night of New Year’s Eve 2007 remains on my mind as life resumes its post-holiday routine. I decide I need at least a weekly dose of joy to buoy me through the upcoming year. It’s January 20, 2007, a Saturday night, when I take Bret and my friend, Juliette (an English teacher for gifted students at BAK Middle School of the Arts), to Noche, a new local dinner/nightclub in Palm Beach Gardens. The space is only about six weeks old and I have heard there is a good DJ, which is a rarity in Palm Beach County; I don’t quite believe it. As a New Yorker transplanted to Florida, I’ve learned how easy it is to be punk’d here. Things aren’t always the way they’re presented. A restaurant boasting “Asian fusion” really just means they smother some dishes in soy sauce. A museum’s “Premiere Matisse Exhibit” really just means they’ve hung six of his least known works in a very small back room. A public garden’s “Japanese Inspired Display” really means there are some bonsais planted in a corner. In the case of Sonny’s ‘BBQ Pit’, it really just means that a machine is pumping the smell of ribs into the parking lot. In Florida, you learn not be believe the hype. You hear the description and then scale down your expectations.

Noche, however, has gotten some pretty good independent press. The review in the Palm Beach Post (written, as a matter of fact, by an ex-New Yorker) opened with, “Let me start by warning the staff at Noche that I am moving in,” and went on to describe the hi-tech dance floor and sound system and the wonderful crowd. I think maybe this time I can take the credentials at face value. Try not to be so cynical. At the very least, it will be a fun night out with Bret and Juliette.

Located in a marina in a cove off the Intracoastal Waterway, Noche is owned by Carmine, a short, unattractive Italian man with a permanent scowl who, it is rumored, had and then broke ties with the Mafia, who then broke one of his knees in a late night attack he escaped with a knife. The space – including a lounge, a bar and a dining room – is beautiful. Decorated in bronzes and golds with soft yellow lighting, it is both trendy and homey with a working fireplace that divides the lounge from the dining room. Word on the street is that the building is cursed. Not one single restaurant has lasted a full year. But Carmine owns two other successful Italian restaurants nearby, so he’s tapping a new market with this Latin fusion menu and the variety of music. On Thursday nights there’s a live Latin band that plays salsa, bachata and merengue. On Friday and Saturday nights a DJ plays everything from 70s disco, to Top 40, to rock.

The article highlighted the wonderful outdoor patio and I particularly want to sit out there for dinner, but the temperature is too chilly and the breeze too strong, so Francisco, the gorgeous Latin lover-looking maitre d’, seats us at a table beside the dance floor.

“The perfect table so that later you can dance, no?” He winks as he holds out Juliette’s seat.

Juliette hates to dance.

“No!” This is Juliette's favorite word. She loves to punch it out with the official force of an agent stamping a passport. “I’m only here to watch,” Juliette says, as we settle into our table.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Francisco croons in his Italian accent. “The music will be very good.”

“That won’t matter to me!” Juliette says with a sort of sing-song lilt. She has a habit of speaking like this when she’s being particularly snooty, which happens whenever she feels self-conscious, which happens a lot. Juliette turned fifty-four this year. She’s a tiny woman, with straight, shoulder-length brown hair that she streaks with tones of warm blonde. She’s slender, a little hippy and slightly pockmarked. She wears a lot of Capri pants and camisoles. The single mother of an arty daughter she doesn’t quite understand, Juliette has parented alone since her divorce from Mark after he and a local cop were caught using a small commuter plane to fly firearms from Florida to somewhere deep in the rebel hills of Columbia.

“We’ll get you on the dance floor,” I tease her.

She laughs a haughty, sort of condescending laugh. “Oh, no, you won’t!”

“I bet we will,” Bret says.

Juliette shifts uncomfortably in her seat. She lowers her eyes and sets about deliberately arranging her napkin in her lap.

“I doubt it.” Juliette always likes to have the last word.

We order a smothering amount of tapas. The conversation is slow going. Juliette is clearly out of her element and feeling anxious about our proclamations for the rest of the evening. She constantly looks around the restaurant and lapses into deep silences at which Bret and I uselessly try to chip away.

Around 9:30pm we polish off the remaining bites of a shrimp quesadilla just as waiters and busboys begin clearing dinner tables from the dance floor. It’s like this a lot in South Florida. You think you’re in a restaurant, and then all of a sudden the tables are removed and the space transforms into a nightclub. At 10pm Noche’s DJ appears and music suddenly erupts from the speakers mounted around the ceiling of the dining room.

A few people immediately step onto the dance floor. The clientele is older and wealthy. They wear Chanel suits and cultured pearls, Brioni ties and Gucci loafers. Their generation doesn’t really know how to freestyle. Like my parents, they learned to dance at sock hops, so mostly they partner dance, which means a sort of East Coast Swing, no matter what the music is. After a minute or two of watching, Bret and I can no longer sit still. We abandon Juliette who shoos us away with a flick of her wrist.

Within an hour the crowd becomes younger. Hipsters in their thirties and forties take up residence at the bar. They wander around the space. They lean against the walls and sip mojitos while observing the dance floor which has now filled with a younger element that, not knowing how to partner dance, bops to the beat in a wholly other fashion. The music is good, the crowd sings the chorus to popular songs; everyone is friendly and everyone is having a good time.

I get caught up in the music and the freedom and the flow of unstructured movement. That familiar energy surges through me the minute Bret and I step onto the floor. The music enters my body through my feet and squirrels up through my limbs and my spine through my neck into my head where it whirs around like a mental massage releasing some sort of joy endorphin. I am consumed by sound and a happy feeling of excited freedom. No thoughts exist, no determinations hover, no decisions linger, no problems await. Everything is transcended in melody and harmony and movement so that I am transformed from someone struggling with the past to someone who lives only in the present, from someone who resides solely in her head, to someone who is fully in her body. My history, my depression, my physical symptoms are all neutralized to puffs of smoke that curl up to the ceiling and disappear.

A huge smile involuntarily curves my lips. I’m having a good time. I’m wonderfully moving and grooving to the beat. I’m allowing the music to infuse my soul. For once, my body and mind are not suspicious of each other, are not fighting with each other for control, are not about to deceive and/or betray each other. Instead, a temporary truce has been called and my body and mind are actually uniting for a little fun, which, as the night goes on, becomes a big fun and I’m filled with a sort of energy that makes me levitate to a plane of delirious freedom. I’m released and cheerful and content. I’m feeling like I can dance! Like I’m sexy and divine. I’m rocking my hips and shaking my ass and feeling invincible. I own the floor. I’m some kind of fabulous. I am good out here!

And then they arrive.

Recognizing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Ever been in psychotherapy for your PTSD issues -- and have them not resolve? Ever have people in the psych community NOT EVEN DIAGNOSE your clear PTSD symptoms? Several caregivers don't know enough about PTSD to recognize its presence. It's important for us - sufferers and those who love us - to educate ourselves.

Over the course of 20 years I saw several psychotherapists as I saught help for anorexia, insomnia, frequent mysterious medical problems that doctors (since they couldn't diagnose a cause for, say, my skyrocketing liver enzymes) suggested I seek alternative help, and a whole host of other traditional PTSD issues. Even as I sat in front of these professionals talking about and complaining of PTSD red flags, no one saw what was happening to me. It wasn't until I took responsibility for my own healing that I did some research and found the results: I had a classic, extreme case of PTSD.

Need a list of dead give away symptoms? Here they are, courtesy of the Sidran Institute (


There is a growing awareness among healthcare providers that traumatic experiences are widespread and that it is common for people who have been traumatized to develop medical and psychological symptoms associated with the experience.

Recent studies have shown that childhood abuse (particularly sexual abuse) is a strong predictor of the lifetime likelihood of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although many people still equate PTSD with combat trauma, the experience most likely to produce PTSD is rape. PTSD is associated with an extremely high rate of medical and mental health service use, and possibly the highest per-capita cost of any psychological condition.

But there is help and there is hope.

PTSD is a long-term problem for many people. Studies show that 33–47 percent of people being treated for PTSD were still experiencing symptoms more than a year after the traumatic event. Without treatment many people may continue to have PTSD symptoms even decades after the traumatic event.

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD symptoms are divided into three categories. People who have been exposed to traumatic experiences may notice any number of symptoms in almost any combination. However, the diagnosis of PTSD means that someone has met very specific criteria. The symptoms for PTSD are listed below.

Intrusive Re-experiencing

People with PTSD frequently feel as if the trauma is happening again. This is sometimes called a flashback, reliving experience, or abreaction. The person may have intrusive pictures in his/her head about the trauma, have recurrent nightmares, or may even experience hallucinations about the trauma. Intrusive symptoms sometimes cause people to lose touch with the "here and now" and react in ways that they did when the trauma originally occurred. For example, many years later a victim of child abuse may hide trembling in a closet when feeling threatened, even if the perceived threat is not abuse-related.


People with PTSD work hard to avoid anything that might remind them of the traumatic experience. They may try to avoid people, places, or things that are reminders, as well as numbing out emotions to avoid painful, overwhelming feelings. Numbing of thoughts and feelings in response to trauma is known as "dissociation" and is a hallmark of PTSD. Frequently, people with PTSD use drugs or alcohol to avoid trauma-related feelings and memories.


Symptoms of psychological and physiological arousal are very distinctive in people with PTSD. They may be very jumpy, easily startled, irritable, and may have sleep disturbances like insomnia or nightmares. They may seem constantly on guard and may find it difficult to concentrate. Sometimes persons with PTSD will have panic attacks accompanied by shortness of breath and chest pain.

Recognizing and Diagnosing PTSD

Three categories—or "clusters"—of symptoms are associated with PTSD. A diagnosis may be considered if:

A specific number of symptoms from each of the three clusters have lasted for one month or longer, and

The symptoms cause severe problems or distress in personal life, at work, or in general affect daily life.

Re-living the event through recurring nightmares or other intrusive images that occur at any time. People who suffer from PTSD also have extreme emotional or physical reactions, such as chills, heart palpitations, or panic when faced with reminders of the event. One or more of these symptoms must be present for diagnosis.

Avoiding reminders of the event including places, people, thoughts, or other activities associated with the trauma. PTSD sufferers may feel emotionally detached, withdraw from friends and family and lose interest in everyday activities. Three or more of these symptoms must be present for diagnosis.

Being on guard or hyper-aroused at all times, including feeling irritable or sudden anger, having difficulty sleeping or a lack of concentration, being overly alert or easily startled. Two or more of these symptoms must be present for diagnosis.

People with PTSD may have low self-esteem or relationship problems, or may seem disconnected from their lives.

Other problems that may mask or intensify symptoms include:

-Psychological problems such as depression or other anxiety disorders, including panic disorder.

-Physical complaints such as chronic pain, fatigue, stomach pains, respiratory problems, headaches, muscle cramps or aches, low back pain, or cardiovascular problems.

-Self-destructive behavior, including alcohol or drug abuse, as well as suicidal tendencies.

-Responses to trauma vary widely and many people who experience extreme trauma do not develop PTSD. However, for those who do, PTSD symptoms usually appear within several weeks of the trauma, but some people don't experience symptoms until months or even years later.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Even with PTSD Some Days You Find a Gift

It is New Year’s Eve 2007 and my thirty-ninth birthday is only one month away and I am such an emotional PTSD wreck that I am about to burst into tears in the middle of a massive New Year’s Eve party at the Breakers Hotel on Palm Beach Island, Florida.

The Breakers on New Year’s Eve is a rocking, international, black tie, high society party. Mom, Dad, and my brother, Bret, and I attend every year. There is a large floor show, fabulous band and five course meal. Dressed in their finest tuxedos and ballgowns everyone is dancing and tooting horns and throwing party hats in the air and there I stand, surrounded by falling balloons and confetti and happy faces fighting back tears that threaten to stream down my cheeks like their own New Year’s Eve display. It’s pathetic. I can’t step out of the PTSD grip for even just this one night.

Somehow, it’s always when I reach the seemingly lowest point, when I see myself and cannot stand what I see, that I find the strength to decide to pull myself out of the hole I’ve sunk into. Tonight is no exception. It’s New Year’s Eve; resolutions are in order. As I wipe a stray tear I resolve: By the time I am forty, I will be finished with all of this.

I have no idea how I am going to satisfy this mandate. Nothing has changed. I am as confused and distraught as ever. But something about making the resolution gives me a clear focus. Now, I have a deadline and a view toward the ultimate freedom. It makes it all seem plausible, even if I don’t yet know how to make it possible.

"Let’s dance!" I pull Bret from the table. "Forget about dessert!"

Bret has been my steady dance partner since I was six and he was three. We shared our first dance in a restaurant at the top of the Polynesian Hotel in Disney World. I vaguely remember holding his hand and showing him how to (sort of) bop to the beat. There was one other couple with us on the floor. In their forties, they had obviously been dancing together for quite some time. They partner danced and moved together in one seamless flow of body and beat. They took a shine to us. They asked my parents if they could invite Bret and me to their table for a drink. My parents allowed us to sit with them a few tables away and Bret and I chatted them up as we sipped Shirley Temples.

Since then, Bret and I have danced all over the world together. On beaches in the Caribbean, in nightclubs in Israel, Italy, France, England, and of course, our hometown, New York City. We slip into a simple symmetry when we get on the floor. Give us a beat; we’ll give you a groove. We dance with each other although we are each on our own. Sometimes we mirror each other’s style; sometimes we do our own thing. The three and a half years that separate us are purely chronological. We look so much alike many people mistake us for twins which, in spirit, we are.

Since we began dancing before Bret was old enough to lead, whenever we do any partner dances – which we do sometimes make up on the fly – I always lead. This has made me very aggressive on the dance floor and Bret pretty laid back. When we got old enough to be equal partners, we tried to get out of the habit of my leading, but it’s been a tough habit to break and since Bret doesn’t mind, I still pretty much control our moves no matter what the style of dance.

On the dance floor tonight all of my pent up anxiety pours forth into a transformative freedom. Something about moving my body to music is magical. It settles my soul with a subtle strength and veracity. My body relaxes and my mind suspends until I become only the feeling of every dance, only that soaring, surging feeling of liberty that courses through me when music demands a partnership with my limbs. Suddenly, everything else ceases to exist and the present, happy, carefree moment seems all that survives in the wake of traumatic experience. When I dance, pain and fear and depression appear wholly within my capability to transcend – as if all I have to do is give myself up to the magic and then embrace and embody this way that I feel.

So now Bret and I are dancing and I am floating in a bubble of this unfamiliar, surging emotion. When I dance I usually enjoy drifting on it while it lasts, but I don’t think twice about its ending. Tonight, however, is different: I am enamored with the magic and I don’t want it to abandon me. I cannot remember when I last felt this excitement to be in my body and in the present moment. And then I do remember: it was last New Year’s Eve, when I was dancing here with Bret.

Tonight, I listen to the music with extra attention. I feel the beat in my bones with added clarity. Something strange is happening. I am waking up from a very long, deep sleep and the phrases of music are luring me back to consciousness. I want to run and leap and shout and laugh and sing. I try to calm down and describe to myself what it is that I’m feeling, to give it a name, to pinpoint exactly what it is so that I might find a way to grasp and hold on to it because whatever it is, I NEED MORE.

Can I choose to feel this way more often? Can the simple act of deciding to do something that will make me feel this sort of crazed freedom unite me with a new self? I am tired of taking things apart, of analyzing and researching and dismembering what went wrong and how it has distorted me. For a change, I’d like to put things together, to feel a definite wholeness rather than a complete separation.

The band is banging out a Black-Eyed Peas song and I burrow into myself to consider this dancing sensation. While my body sways and moves I allow whatever emotion this is to nestle up to me and it is then, when it climbs into my lap and rubs itself against my chest that I recognize exactly what’s brewing in my heart: I feel an exorbitant joy. I’m not used to this feeling. I’m not sure what to do with it.

And just at that moment I realize that this is the answer to how I will fulfill my resolution by the time I am forty. I will free myself from the angst of the past through the pursuit of joy in the present. Not the same maniacal sort of pursuit I’ve been waging up until now, but a sanguine, languid focus that will, if it works, allow me to release yesterday because I have found joy in today. Perhaps it is time to define my identity as who I am not and then allow that to lead me to whom I am. For example, I am not an invalid. I am not a patient. I am not a thirteen year old girl. I am not a victim. I am not only 'a survivor'.

I am a woman on the verge of becoming purely herself. I am a woman taking charge. I am a woman strong enough to set herself free. I am a survivor who has moved on.

It is after midnight. 2007 has begun. If I am to replace all of this bogged down fear and depression with the thousand unbound effects of joy, I will immediately need to find a way to bring more of this joy into my life. I will need to dance. A lot.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


"When Charcot (1887) first described traumatic memories over a century ago, he called them ‘parasites of the mind.’ Because [some] people … have a fundamental impairment in the capacity to integrate traumatic experiences with other life events, their traumatic memories are often not coherent stories; they tend to consist of intense emotions or somatosensory impressions, which occur when the victims are around or exposed to reminders of the trauma…. Years and even decades after the original trauma, victims claim that their reliving experiences are as vivid as when the trauma first occurred. Because of this timeless and unintegrated nature of traumatic memories, victims remain embedded in the trauma as a contemporary experience, instead of being able to accept it as something belonging to the past."

This quote appears in Bessel van der Kolk (the current guru father of truama psychology) and Alexander McFarlane's article, "The Black Hole of Trauma".

I don't know about you, but this passage describes me exactly. For 25 years I didn't know what was wrong with me, and then I read about 'parasites of the mind' and it all became so clear. My dissociation, the dysfunctional fog in which I lived, my constant fears, illnesses, depressions, emotional coma -- all of it came from these parasites that leached my ability to lead a productive life.

It all began in 1981 when, at the age of thirteen, a rare allergy to a medication plunged me into Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis Syndrome (TENS). This life-threatening illness turns victims into burn patients almost overnight. By the time I was fully recovered I had lost more than just 100% of my epidermis; I had lost all sense of myself as anything other than ‘survivor’.

For over two decades I wandered through the darkness of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not that I knew that. Although I saw a multitude of professionals for relief from various, typical PTSD symptoms, not one single care provider (and that included several therapists and other medical staff) suggested that the fallout of trauma could lead to physical and psychological symptoms that would impair my ability to live a full life. Instead, they all scratched their heads when I turned up in their offices begging for help. Countless medical tests to define the cause of (what turned out to be psychosomatic) symptoms left my body bruised and my bank account incredibly depleted. Years of psycho- and cognitive behavior therapy did little for me. I would experience a temporary lift, and then a triggering event would occur and BOOM! I'd be right back where I'd started -- sick again, anxious, insomniac riddled and unable to see straight from fear, illness, depression, dissociation and sleep deprivation.

But that's not what this blog is about. This blog is about surviving survival. Coming out of the fog, swimming up to the surface of life and breaking through with strength, force and joy.

When I turned forty I decided it was time to change everything about the way I approached life. For over 25 years I'd lived in the shadow of trauma, consumed by a panic of fear, isolation and depression, suffering nightmares and flashbacks and a whole host of other physical and psychological disorders related to the trauma. In an effort to finally free myself from the past I determined to pursue joy in the present. I decided to get rid of the parasites once and for all.