Monday, November 3, 2008

PTSD & Hypnotherapy, Part 4: Afterward

I drive straight from Laura’s office to Rich and Carol’s house for dinner. Rich and Carol are my surrogate big sister and brother-in-law. They moved to Florida from New Jersey the same week I got here and we met on the beach. A few years ago Rich had a stroke from which he fully recovered but kept having mini-episodes. He used hypnotherapy to cure what turned out to be panic attacks after his recuperation. Rich claims hypnotherapy released him from a post-stroke induced fear. Rich and Carol have invited me to dinner after my session so they can hear how it went.

“It was nothing! I can’t be hypnotized,” I conclude as Rich spoons homemade chicken and turkey meatball soup into my bowl. We are sitting in the lanai that overlooks the pool behind their house. The October evening air is cool and slightly stirring so that the pool water gently ripples. Baylee, plus their Maltese and Morkie, lays stretched out beneath the table. “I didn’t feel anything. It was a complete waste of time.”

Rich affects a dubious expression. A retired cop from New York City’s canine unit, he’s a strange combination of the best cook I’ve ever known, the most sensitive man I’ve ever met, and your typical bald-headed muscle man. He looks tough and sour, but he talks a lot and is comfortable with revealing himself and his emotions. On this topic, however, he’s uncharacteristically quiet.

“Tell her what you told me,” Carol prompts. She is the perfect pea in Rich’s pod. If ever there were two people who belong together, it’s these two. Their chemistry and love are visible. They have seen each other through some very tough times and are totally devoted to, in love with, and trusting of each other. When Carol suggests something, Rich listens.

“When I went for hypnotherapy,” he begins, “I didn’t feel some big shift either. The hypnosis itself seemed unexceptional. But I never did have another panic attack. I went once, and I never had a panic attack again.”

“Maybe it just takes a while for things to settle in,” Carol offers. “This woman is a professional, Michele. Trust that she’s done a good job.”

Carol is one of those people who are always optimistic. I don’t know how she does it. She knows suffering, and she knows tragedy and while I have become immersed in them, Carol rises above them despite these facts: When she was forty-two she lost her first husband (her high school sweetheart) to the long demise of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Two years later her fiancĂ© died in 9/11. Her mother succumbed to Alzheimer’s a year after that. Then Carol met and married Rich, who had a stroke in the first few months of their marriage. All of this tragedy was in the space of five years.

“Don’t be too quick to judge,” Carol says. “Have faith. Wait and see.” Carol might possibly be the only person who can say this to me and I will acquiesce.

“Maybe,” I say. “OK.”

Of course, my submission might also have to do with Rich bringing out one of my favorite dishes that he makes: a baked, nut-crusted tilapia with mashed sweet potatoes in a sweet pepper sauce. I’ve already glimpsed the parfaits in the refrigerator for dessert. As I break off a piece of steaming, right-from-the-oven cornbread and slather it with butter, it’s pretty easy to set any doubts aside.


That night I crawl my overly stuffed self into bed with the usual resignation. I accept that the nightmare will come; I only hope I’ll be able to fall back to sleep afterward. Oddly though, I sleep deeply and undisturbed for seven hours straight and awaken the next morning feeling completely rested, as if I’ve just slept for a century. This strangeness continues for five nights. On the sixth morning I wake with an extreme feeling of profound mental and physical peace. I hasten myself to full awareness and take stock, trying to recall what would cause this feeling, but I can’t identify a specific fact. I have, it seems, just woken up feeling incredibly safe and secure. Unlike my usual immediate morning self, I am not already scanning my environment for what could go wrong, will go wrong, has gone wrong. I am not immediately surveying possible dangers, bolting shut the door to the past because something keeps pressuring the hinges, threatening to push through. I am not tense and anxious. I feel….. good. And also, optimistic in a vague, non-specific way. It has never occurred to me that everyone doesn’t wake up feeling the ominous fear I usually do. I’ve been waking that way for so many years I’ve accepted it as universal fact. But here I am after a single hypnotherapy session and suddenly all of that junk is gone. I am not afraid. I am not already feeling driven to produce something of meaning. The day begins; I am awake. That is production enough. I have the sense that everything is OK. More than that: it is OK for me to be OK. What the hell is going on?

I’m so peaceful that I spend the day walking around in a weird state of bliss. It’s occurring to me that my perceptions of what is normal are really, horribly off. There must be people everywhere who wake up this at peace on a daily basis. I could really start to groove on this new kind of existence.

Except that almost immediately this strange state of being makes me incredibly, exceedingly anxious. I feel like I’ve forgotten something very important and I’m going to remember it too late. Each morning I get out of bed slowly and go through my strength training workout waiting for the familiar rush of tension, but it doesn’t arrive. Instead, I spend the day in a state of suspended calm that continues into the following day and the day following that until all of this incredible calmness begins to really freak me out. I call Laura on her cell phone.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m feeling very strange.”

“Define strange.”

“This is going to sound crazy, but I’m feeling very, in my body, I mean, in my limbs – at peace. I feel more present in myself. I feel more comfortable in my own skin. As if I am who I should be.
As if I’m doing exactly what I should be doing. As if I don’t have a past that matters.”

“And this is bad?”

“Well, I’ve never felt this kind of serenity before.”

“That’s not strange, that’s good!”

“But I never feel at peace. I never feel as if everything’s all right. And now, somewhere deep
inside, this weird sensation of peace is radiating. I feel calmer than I can ever remember.”

“That was the goal.”

“I know, but all of this tranquility, it’s making me nervous.”

Laura laughs.

“How long will this feeling last?”

“It’s permanent!”

“I’m afraid it’s going to go away, so I don’t want to get too used to it.”

“Michele, everything you’re saying is completely normal. Hypnosis causes some immediate and some slower changes. We’re restructuring the 88% of your brain. You are going to begin noticing alterations in your behavior and your attitudes, in your beliefs and actions. Everything is all right! You should feel at peace! How are the nightmares?”

“I haven’t had a single one since I saw you.”

“Then relax and enjoy this new state of being! Get used to it; this is the new you.”

I tread carefully in my new self. I don’t trust it. I wait for it to abandon me at any moment. I am suspicious and disbelieving. I don’t imagine that you can be one person for twenty-five years and become another overnight. That defies the laws of sameness – or does it? Am I not a different person, but just a freer one? Am I the same person as I always was, only after 1981 I was carrying a lot of baggage and now I’ve relinquished some of it? All these years have I been the same self only hidden in trauma’s disguise?

This new sensation of calm stirs up a bunch of questions and possibilities. To begin formulating some answers I take my own pulse. While I feel completely different, I am not unfamiliar to myself. A quick run down of my likes and dislikes reveals no stark changes. A quick overview of my hopes and fears reveals they are all intact as well, although some of those fears have changed. I am still afraid of what the next medical mistake will be, but now it is a hypothetical fear, not one that I feel physically. So, maybe I am the exact same person, just with a different point of view. Maybe that’s all I’ve ever been. Maybe trauma causes a break in the narrative and when it resumes, the protagonist sees herself in a different way although her characteristics are still essentially the same. Or, maybe in my case, she sees herself for the first time and, having nothing to compare it to, gets lost in the fear of that perception when really, what she is seeing is only more of whom she was going to develop into had the plot not hiccupped along the way.

As Laura promised, it seems that hypnotherapy has already changed the perceptions and beliefs housed in my subconscious. It has, in effect, realigned me with my authentic self, the self I was before experience caused my perceptions to get muddled up. Maybe Laura has put me on the path to reclaim the essence of who I am – not a Before or After self, but an Always self that was never gone, only trapped behind, beneath, beyond, between the impressions of trauma.

Maybe all this time I’ve been searching too superficially for who I am. I have been evaluating physical signs and intellectual thought patterns, but the real evidence lies in some realm beyond the quantifiable. If the subconscious is the seat of the self, and if its natural state is a sort of omniscience, then all of these years I’ve been making a horrible mistake. I’ve been seeking myself in the entirely wrong place. I’ve been trying to get back to who I was before I was aware of myself, or trying to untangle the nervous self that resulted after trauma. Perhaps both of these are constructs of the good old ego voice romanticizing the girl who was vaporized in the hospital, and promoting the insanity of the woman who got lost in the mechanisms of how to cope. Perhaps a real identity is only found in the moment – the ever-changing moment responded to by a pristine, fundamental emotional cache housed in the subconscious mind. A cache that is instinctual; therefore primal; therefore everlasting.

Despite severe trauma, then, some untouched part of us always exists, locked up and shivering in the subconscious mind. The trick is to remove the chains and bars of experience so that the original, enduring self can come forward; so that we can supersede the warped self and reclaim whom we always have been.

Two weeks go by and I see Laura again. We continue rewriting my scripts, reprogramming the subconscious to stop protecting me and instead allow me to live wholly and fully, believing that I am healthy both physically and mentally. I begin to feel strange rushes of emotion. I am going about my business when all of a sudden I feel a surge of what I can only describe as happiness times ten, accompanied by a chaser of gratefulness for this new life I’ve carved out: for my house, for my family, for dance, for John, for my own determination to put an end to my suffering. As often as in the past I have been on the verge of spontaneous tears, now I’m on the verge of skipping and singing a psalm of praise for the sun, the beach, Baylee, Laura. It’s ridiculous and over the top, but I can’t help myself. What has Laura done to me? If this is who I am when the 88% is released from trauma, then identity really isn’t about finding some quality of sameness or a throughline but rather, getting back to basics; removing the shroud of experience and choosing who to be in any moment because the fundamental self remains constant and intact.

Two months pass. By Christmas I have seen Laura six times. The effects of her work deepen each week. After the initial settling of calm I began shedding, not exactly the past, but bits and pieces of armor I donned to protect myself from it. To remain unchanged by trauma is impossible, but hypnotherapy teaches me it is entirely possible to live without the effects. I am starting over, unifying the essence of who I was Before with whoever I might choose to become Now. I see myself as the human version of a tel, every persona building upon the one that came before, all unified through geography. Inside this dedication to joy I have excavated a buried self who so deeply believes in freedom and the possibility of its attainment that she is finally emerging and taking control. The war is ending. I feel my survivor self beginning to back down. I sense her retreat into the shadows. She is at peace. She will remain with me, but she has relinquished control to another self who desires to feel and experience and create joy.

In life as in dance, there is a lead and a follow. Since 1981 I have refused to respond to any lead at all. Every action requires a reaction, but my only action has been acceptance, which is really no action at all.

“You are responsible for yourself!” my dance instructor has been telling me lately. “Regardless of the lead, whether you like it or not, whether it is good or not, you must perform to the best of your ability.”

I have long known that I am responsible for my own healing, but the overwhelming pain sapped me of the strength it would take to perform the ritual of letting go. Joy has given me back my strength. That strength is finally setting me free.

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