Monday, 2 May 2016

Befriending Dissociation:

a Focusing Journey into the Not-here Places


In December 1999 I was stationary at a road junction waiting to turn right when a car accelerated into the back of mine. This changed my life. Gone was my career in acquired brain injury rehabilitation, my ability to drive, to enjoy my hobbies, to live life like my peers. I found myself stuck in a world of severe chronic pain exacerbated by a vestibular disorder. I had joined the ranks of a group of my previous clients who, like me, suffered a whiplash injury but achieved little or no recovery. Like them my life became about micromanaging everything so as to ‘control’ the pain and the vertigo. And like them no doctor could explain why my body could not recover. My only gut sense, which came from my professional experience, was this was not ‘all in my mind’ but very much in my body.

Quite early on I became aware that, whilst most of the time my inner experience was taken over by physical pain and a spinning nausea, sometimes I had times when something in me knew I was in a  lot of pain but I could not feel anything. Sometimes ‘the something in me’ encouraged me to take some pain-relief medication and I found that by doing this I was able to feel the physical pain again and this felt ‘better’. I felt more real, more here. I preferred the pain to the other vague-somehow-not-here place.
For over ten years I had no idea why my body did this and then, by a wonderful serendipity, I made two discoveries: the first was a book called “The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease” by Robert Scaer, a neurologist, and I also found Focusing. Out of this came a rapid cognitive awareness that this vague-somehow-not-here place is a physiological state called dissociation and that   I was, unknowingly, a Nobel-prize-winning expert at dissociating. Indeed the whole reason why my body had not recovered from the accident was because   it was literally stuck in a physiological state of fight/ flight and freeze. My body was just yo-yoing between overwhelm and severe pain to dissociation and chronic nauseous exhaustion, it was hypersensitive to the smallest thing.
Through reading Scaer’s book and some email correspondence with him, I came to realise that, despite many years of therapy about my very difficult childhood which had given me a lot of insight into my past, it had not enabled me to release from my body the layer upon layer of trauma created through living in a household where we breathed in fear not oxygen. Scaer’s book outlines in great detail how such a childhood had created a particular neural architecture in me to do with the autonomic nervous system. This meant that, as he put it, I had been left with ‘… a greater tendency to freeze at the moment of … [future] … trauma and to develop dissociative symptoms’ (p. 108), and the accident  had  been the final trigger to activate the whole dissociative reactivity that had been stored in my body for years.
I now understood what was wrong with my body, this left me with the questions: what does my body need to heal? How do I teach my body not to yo-yo between overwhelm and dissociation? I quickly found that the body-based trauma therapies, such as Somatic Experiencing, were mostly just ‘too much’ for my body and its hypersensitivity.
However the fortuitous suggestion of something called Focusing, mentioned in passing to me by a Mindfulness mentor, opened up for me a way forward that was about letting my body take the lead in this healing process
This process has been a highly challenging journey that started with a something in me needing to find out as much as I could about trauma, attachment and neuroscience. For me, growing up in an academic family, the default place of ‘safety’ was reading books. My head needed to understand, to make sense of, and my body needed to feel safe and chose the then only way it knew how: the left cortex. Then my goal was to get rid of dissociation – I viewed it as ‘the problem’
Two books however offered me a more compassionate perspective: “The Myth of Sanity” by Martha Stout, which is an exploration of dissociation, and “The Boy who was Raised as a Dog” by Bruce Perry – a heart-warming book which showcases how a lack    of love traumatises children and impacts on their neural development. Both books felt full of humanity, care and hope.
Focusing enabled me to take some of Perry’s neurodevelopmental approaches in working with children, such as Reiki, massage and music, and adapt them to supporting me as an adult to start to create some safeness within me that was body- based I realised, when my father died, that I had never been able to feel safely embodied, which is a core developmental need in a child.
So these unmet needs were still driving my physiology and I had to find creative ways as an adult to complete this process. One of the most potentially challenging areas, to my head, was how to help the dissociated/ overwhelm places that came from a start of life trauma. By listening to my body, I found myself experimenting with the senses – particularly those of smell, touch and sound. I discovered that a particular brand of pink grapefruit shower gel made my body feel safe whereas others didn’t.
So I harnessed the power of neuroplasticity and used this shower gel daily plus I wrapped a soap of the same fragrance up in my pyjamas, so when I go to bed I smell the pink grapefruit and it strengthens the neural loop. I created different playlists of music that have different effects depending what I need and I also put together a ‘feeling’ bag made of fur and containing various things like a wooden apple. As layers of terror came up I will sit and hold/stroke these items and anchor on them to support my body.
The beginning of being in my body led to a further awareness that when I had to make the shift from the internal orientation of Focusing and Mindfulness to reconnecting with the outside world, my body would immediately default into dissociation.  So with Focusing I learnt how to help my body through a simple three-stage sensory strategy that utilises both the witnessing left cortex of the brain and the experiencing right cortex, and in so doing brings the whole of my nervous system ‘online’ and into the present moment. All of these strategies were about building into my neural architecture ‘feeling safe wiring’
This last year has been the most powerful as I embarked on a training to become a Whole-body Focusing practitioner. I began to be able to live on a day-to-day basis in my body, and then discovered that this is not a state of ‘happy ever after ending’ but has its own challenges like actually feeling frightened in the present moment when I found myself trying to deal with a friend who was drunk and abusive. It was only later that I came to realise how ‘well’ I had done – I had not defaulted into stoical dissociation.
Then, a couple of months later, I discovered that I had  had an unconscious place whose sole agenda was still all about fixing/getting rid of this troublesome pesky annoying part – namely dissociation. And yet in discovering this place I became aware that implicit in this awareness was actually me now being ready to welcome and befriend the places of dissociation. That far from being pathological – the places in me that are ‘not here’ have saved me and my sanity. Martha Stout opens her book with a quote from Joseph Conrad
How does one kill fear, I wonder? How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat?
quoted from Conrad, Lord Jim, 1900, p. 296
And my answer now, to Conrad and to myself, is to befriend the fear, the spectre. Dissociation no longer haunts me – I welcome it now, like Rumi’s Guesthouse Keeper, as a dear, dear friend of mine.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

 A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

 Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

 Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Jeladuddin Rumi
Written December 2015 and published in the British Focusing Associations newsletter April 2016





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