Saturday, November 1, 2008

PTSD & Hypnotherapy, Part 3: Going Under

Laura goes on, giving me a primer in hypnosis by explaining a few more facts about how the conscious and subconscious work together, and how hypnosis bypasses the critical factor of the mind. Finally satisfied that she’s given me enough of a foundation, she moves me to the recliner. She turns off the overhead light, switches on a small lamp, and pulls her swivel chair beside me.

In a different, low and throaty voice, she says, “Close your eyes and listen to the sound of my voice.”

Laura hypnotizes me the same way that TA did in college.

“Move your body into a comfortable position and, Relax. In a moment I’m going to tell you to open your eyes, and then close your eyes. This will be a sign to your body to let go and relax. OK. Now. Open your eyes. And close your eyes. Feel your body letting go. Release all tension from your muscles. Feel your toes relax. And your ankles relax. Your shins relax. And your knees relax.”

Slowly Laura relaxes everything up through my scalp to the top of my head before she counts backward from 100 to 93. In my head, I am to repeat the numbers as she says them.

Next she says, “I want you to picture a room with an open roof. Place two chairs in the room. I want you to sit in one. In the chair facing you, place a repository box that has a red helium balloon attached to it. In the box I want you to put, one by one, all of your fear related to your illness, all of your anger, all of your sadness, all of your negative and disturbing emotions relating to 1981 and any health problems you’ve had since then. Put your pain in the box. Put your terror in the box. Put anxiety in the box. Put suffering in the box. Put all of those feelings you’ve had over the years into the box. When the box is full, close it and then let it lift up, through the open roof and watch it float away.

“Now, see you in the chair opposite. You are facing yourself and I want you to look at you and forgive yourself for all of the negative emotions you have felt about your illness. Forgive yourself for the pain and terror and fear. Forgive yourself for the sadness and illness and all other sicknesses. Forgive yourself for not being able to find a way to let it go. And I want you to tell yourself that it is OK to forgive anyone and everyone who has ever participated in causing these negative things that you have felt. Forgive your mother and your father. Forgive the doctors and the nurses. Forgive everyone who has knowingly or unwittingly contributed to your suffering. Now, I want you to hug yourself real tight, and then let yourself shrink up to an inch and land in your heart.” When Laura says the word ‘heart’ she touches two of her fingertips to my upper arm.

This whole time my eyes are closed and I am lying back in the recliner. I am disappointingly awake. While I did not expect to be asleep, I thought I would be at least in some state of altered consciousness. Instead, my mind’s critical factor seems hard at work. With every new image I work hard to create in my mind, the whole time I’m thinking this all seems like a childish and ridiculous exercise. My conscious mind is not at all fooled. This is all very nice, but I am still fully alert in a very critical way. In fact, I’m so critically aware that I’m thinking this is all some hoax; hypnosis is a sham. How can Laura effect anything when I am so totally and critically conscious? What happened to all that stuff about setting aside the conscious mind? I thought I’d be, as Laura informed me, awake and alert, but also, I thought I’d feel different somehow. Instead, my mind is still its usual busy self, coding and decoding all the information of every second. It is still focused enough to know that I’m listening and critiquing everything Laura says. It is still alert enough to conclude that this is not working. Shrink up to an inch? Put emotions in a repository box? Come on, lady, I want to say, bring on the good stuff! And then it dawns on me that maybe this is the good stuff and the problem is that I really am, as the TA decided all those years ago, unhypnotizable.

Laura, however, doesn’t seem to notice that things have gone astray. She continues to guide me into one visualization after another. Between each instruction she advises me to “Go deeper, and deeper, Relaxed.” She chants for a little while “attitude of gratitude, attitude of gratitude” and touches my arm. I find myself wondering what that’s supposed to mean. I’m on the verge of opening my eyes and saying, “Hey, we didn’t discuss this attitude of gratitude. What’s it about?” But I keep my eyes and mouth shut. This is all turning out to be a lot like the guided meditations we had in the playwriting course I once took where we laid all over the floor of a room, eyes closed, body relaxed, and invented characters based on the guided visualizations provided by the instructor. “Your character has a scar,” he would say, and we baby playwrights would dutifully imagine a scar somewhere on this hypothetical character’s body. So, I’m just in another guided meditation. I decide to accept it for what it is and resign myself to the role of simple observer. I’m disappointed, but I’ll just let Laura do her thing

Eventually Laura says, “The color for today’s program is the color red. Every time you see the color red in any shape or form today’s program is revitalized and reinforced. And any time you see the color red the effects of today’s program are doubled in your subconscious mind. In a moment I’m going to count to the number three. When I reach the number three and not before you will open your eyes and feel awake and alert and wonderful in every way. One. Feel the energy return to your body, moving up from the soles of your feet. Two. Your eyes feel as if they’re being bathed beneath the water of a cool mountain stream. Get ready now. Three. Open your eyes. Feel your body refill with a wonderful energy. You are awake and alert and feeling wonderful and marvelous in every way.”

By the time it’s all over hypnosis has been a very pleasant and (forgive me) relaxing, experience. Since I’ve been so conscious the whole time, I’m surprised, as I open my eyes, to I feel as if I’m waking up from a nap. My eyelids are heavy and I feel a little disoriented in the room. I feel the urge to stretch. I look at Laura. She smiles.

“That was very good,” she says, patting my hand.

“It was?”

“It was. We did some good work.”

“I thought I’d feel something that would make me know we’d done such good work.”

“How do you feel?”

I shrug. “A little groggy.”

“How long do you think that hypnosis session lasted?”

I check my infallible internal clock. “About fifteen minutes, maybe less.”

Laura’s smile gets wider. “It was almost forty minutes. Under hypnosis your usual critical faculties don’t function normally. Your sense of time, for example, is impaired.”

But I’m not convinced. Maybe I was just tired and drifted off a little while, although I’m pretty sure I remember everything Laura said. Anticipating this meeting I imagined there would be some physical, mental or emotional experience that would signal a huge turning point in my healing process. I want a sign. At the very least, I thought I would feel like I’d been hypnotized. But I don’t. Laura has turned on the overhead light now and I am pretty sure I feel exactly the same.

Laura, however, seems pleased. As she walks me out of the building she is full of cheery support and encouragement. When we say good-bye she envelopes me in a huge embrace, hugging me with sincere affection.

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