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.”


Eileen Flanagan said...

I'm glad you are writing about this. My father was a WWII veteran, and it wasn't until after he died that I figured out that he most likely had PTSD. His generation didn't have language to talk about their suffering.

Max Rosenthal said...

Michelle - I did not even realize you had a blog. Im looking forward to reading more!