Get ready to weep tears of sorrow
As bright as the brightest beads
And like the bright beads you string
To wear around your throat at the burial
Gather your tears and string them
On a thread of your memory to wear around
Your heart or its shattered fragments
Will never come whole again.
from Flamingo Feather
by Laurens van der Post (1949)
Gazing in the mirror, my primal process still in progress, I glimpse again fragments of another process, ten years past, belonging to another universe of style and method. I discover that some traumatic events, previously dealt with in analysis, appear altogether different as I re-experience them on the primal path.
I fell and fractured both bones of my right forearm when I was five years old. Under analytic scrutiny, the memory of my hand: paralysed, deformed, frightening before my eyes, yielded only dim fantasies of punishment for masturbating with that hand. Later in primal work I recovered the terror of being alone in a hospital, waiting to have my arm set; dreading they would put me to sleep and I might never wake up.
Swimming out of the confused sleep of anesthesia, I found my arm aching inside a plaster prison, tied to the crib so I couldn't injure it. I needed comfort, needed something or someone familiar, but nobody was there all night. I remembered the feeling of abandonment, the terrible helpless longing; until a nurse came with some orange juice - my only relief from fear and loneliness. I know now the terror of that night was but one bead on a string upon which hang earlier horrors of feeling totally vulnerable to the hurt of losing Mommy. Against those early pains, guilty fantasies about masturbation seem to pale. The top layers of fear, the layers I could wrap my mind around without being shaken deeply, were often interesting, but revealed little of what lay closer to the core.
I was one of those people who found it hard to feel and talk at the same time. Talking and thinking used to shut off my feelings. Sometimes when I was lying on the analytic couch, some strange feeling would come over me. There were no words to describe it. just as I was beginning to sink silently into the feeling, the voice behind the couch would prompt me to speak. As soon as I would try to describe the feeling in words, it would vanish. Often the analytic process cut off my feelings in this way, though that was not my intent nor the intent of a warm and caring analyst.
There is something that hurts, looking back even now, after many years: the scary, empty feeling of deprivation that prevailed almost all the time during my analysis. Was it only what was already inside me, transferred, as the theory says, into the analytic situation? Yes, and in addition to that, it was the rigid discipline, the abstinence from touching in analysis. I sensed even then the unfulfilled possibilities of contact with my analyst, which might have been more healing than the enforced flowering of my desperate fantasies of restitution - restitution for what didn't happen then with my parents and wasn't happening now with this new person.
It was useful to find out that I had inside me a bad, stony, terrifying witch-mother and a benign, gentle, good mother - but I found out only with my mind. None of my body sensations participated in that process because my mind was always there, making words to shield my body in the desert of the analytic field.
The healing times I remember best were not moments of analytic brilliance. I came in one day especially dejected and started dumping on myself more cruelly than usual. Something in what I said must have touched her, for, as I recall, before my analyst had even sat down, she leaned over and said to me in a gentle voice, "Why do you hurt yourself that way?" It was a question that needed no answer, unlike many other questions that came up during those four and one-half years on the couch. It was a question that spilled the light of her compassion over me and said to me, "You need not hurt yourself, you can be good to yourself." That was a beautiful moment of caring, not a moment of analysis.
A complex crisis reared up halfway through the analysis. I was beginning my final year of medical school, having just finished a taxing and scary clerkship in medicine on a busy city hospital ward and gone on to obstetrics, when suddenly, without warning, I felt frightened and decided to leave medical school.
Most medical students have that fantasy many times over, but this was the first time it had seriously occurred to me, and I acted on it. My analyst was marvelous during those days. She worked with clarity and aplomb, sitting facing me as I requested, helping me sort out what was really happening. I was pleased and relieved when we put it all together, and five days later I resumed my work at medical school.
We identified some reasons: (1) A professor who was in charge of the medicine clerkship had criticized me and raised my castration anxiety at a vulnerable time during the analytic process; (2) blood from the genitals on obstetrics had further increased the intensity of my castration anxiety; (3) there was my ever present identification with my father, who dropped out of graduate school before finishing.
That version seems incomplete now that I know about a more profound terror which lurked unrecognized: I could not stand to see and hear babies being born. I could not bear to be reminded about the agony of birth. All the rest was true, too, but of my birth terrors we knew nothing and never found out anything, and never could have found out anything because it all happened before I had words. There was no way to communicate it, no way to look for it by Freudian psychoanalytic technique.
What I gained then was a sense of mastery over my anxieties that let me finish my training limpingly, never welcoming the task of delivering a baby, but shutting myself off and pushing myself through that and many other experiences just to get to the other side. When I terminated analysis, having run dry, there were still many unexplored paths and annoying little symptoms that were so adaptive I could hardly expect them to be recognized as such; a tendency to obsess about my schedule, a certain compulsive dedication to my work, an incapacity to enjoy myself except in a productive activity. All these fit so conveniently into the life of a doctor that they might be called virtues. I still was not in touch with my feelings most of the time because most of my feelings had no words, and words were all I had dealt with in my analysis.
I came at last onto a path where thoughts and words come second, feelings are uppermost, and where unmet needs can be gratified to the full, even to the overfull, where I got more than the familiar deprivation of an analyst-Mummy, poker-faced, walking stiffly by the couch to reach the anonymous, safe seat behind. Now I have accepted a primal good Mummy and truly let in her caring touch and supporting cuddles, allowing me to grieve at last for what I did not take in as an infant. Even then I was trying to satisfy Mommy by pretending to be a happy baby, hiding my needs.
Scary though it sometimes is to be straying off the familiar narrow path of analysis into uncharted primal territory, I am grateful to have known both routes. I owe completion of my professional training and a fruitful marriage to the internal changes that came about during analysis. It was perhaps as far as I could let myself grow at that time. I owe the liberation of my true self to the still-continuing process of primal re-integration.
During analysis, I had only opportunity to withstand more deprivation, using my mind to cut and slice, redefine and control the ways I dealt with deprivation long ago. Now I am beginning to fill an inner place that was hollow for so long. I am letting my spirit out of the shackles of compulsive work so that it soars free where it will. I am supported by loving and touching others, rather than only headwork. The old void is being filled at last and my adult self begins to rest on a secure foundation for the first time.
During analysis I dreamed of leaping down a waterfall. My father had jumped before me. I landed safely in the water, but he was lying hurt upon the rocks. I went to his unconscious body and was moved by a tender feeling, wanting to be close, to hold him. In analysis, that dream yielded the insight that it was safe to feel tender and close with my father only when I saw him as weak, sick, injured or helpless. That knowledge provided no satisfaction of my unmet need to be close to him. The day came, years later, when I revisited that waterfall in a beautiful fantasy which completed some important primal work on my father. I was a great eagle, flying down the face of the waterfall, swooping over the foaming pool, brushing my father's body with the tip of my wing, sending up gleaming sparks all along it, transforming him into a bird like me. We circled playfully around the falls in the misty spray, then both of us dropped into the pool, now becoming children who played together in the water. Thus I broke through the barrier of the past: father isolated from son. I brought the playful children living inside us together at last through the magical power of transformation and resolution that resides in us all, waiting only to be unlocked from the shackles of a false self. After that, I felt close to my father for the first time in years.
I began with the right arm; I finish with the left. Fitting, since the right arm acts for the left side of the brain, the thinking, reasoning powers of the mind, while the left arm acts in response to images, feelings, intuitions from the right side of the brain, the part of me long denied full expression.
Not long after I broke my right arm, I was in the laundry in the basement of our house and my left hand got caught in the wringer of our washing machine. The wringer, motor-driven, drew my arm in and through up to my shoulder before my father succeeded in reversing it so that the bruised arm rolled back the same way that it had gone in. In analysis, I remembered the incident like a scene in a movie, recalling the trip to the doctor to learn if my arm was broken, and relief that it was only bruised. I never learned what that incident was really about until I started having shooting pains down my left arm and woke up one morning screaming, "Nol Not againl" and thinking about the scene in front of the washing machine. I knew it was time to repair that trauma.
I came to my group, told of the incident and asked the therapists to put my arm back in the wringer when it was time. Burt came to me a few minutes later while I lay breathing deeply on the mattress, and he asked me what was going on. My adult self was hovering about thirty feet above the laundry room, looking at my little-boy self in front of the washing machine, not wanting to come closer to him. Burt said, "Unless you help your little boy, how can you expect him to go through that pain again?" I brought my adult self down, reluctantly, to the side of the little boy I once was, standing in front of that washing machine. Burt came over and applied his forearms lengthwise to my left arm. I uttered the cries and wails of a newborn infant.
In those days, the work on each trauma began with a related piece of birth primal. It had been the sudden pressure on all of my left arm at once that had thrown me back into birth trauma. My body experienced that; there was no intellectual analysis involved. I just let it flow, and when my cries were done I told Burt, "This time, roll your arms cross-wise like a wringer." Burt came again after I had been breathing for awhile and started rolling my left hand as hard as he could. Before he had gotten above my wrist, I was screaming, "No! No! No! I won't let it happen again." I was pulling with all my might to get my arm out of the wringer. This time, with the help of my adult, I succeeded in wrenching my arm free.
The moment my arm was out, feelings I had never recalled began to surge up. I felt wretched and began shouting at my parents: "I couldn't get through to you. You wouldn't listen. You didn't care what I was feeling. It was so awful at home. I couldn't tell you what I needed. You weren't there. I was so angry, I was so hurt, and you weren't listening." I poured it all out, crying and yelling, until I came to the end and knew what has always been true - that I had put my hand in that wringer. I did it myself. It was not an "accident." There had been no other way to get the pain out, to let them know my hurt. I had been too scared to complain to them in any other way. I cried and cried and cried when I realized what that poor little boy had done to his arm just to make his parents know that he was hurting. I held his hand and said, "I'll never make you do that again. I'll always try to listen to your feelings. You won't ever have to do that again."
We stayed awhile together holding each other and then the joyful little boy that I could have been if somebody had only been there to listen, led me up the cement stairs out of that dismal cellar.
We threw open the storm doors and rolled around together on the grass, laughing in the sunshine.
Dr. Stephen Proskauer is presently (1996) a research physician at the University of Utah. He emphasized to me the importance of balance to prevent a possible addiction to the primal process. Towards that end, he feels that meditation can be successfully combined with primal therapy. He does not believe that meditation is always a defense against primal pain and recommends no particular type of meditation. Dr. Proskauer may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org