Chapter Two - "Help Me --- I'm Tired Of Feeling Bad"

Chapter Two

How the Central Nervous System Gets Damaged

It is the business of the Central Nervous System (CNS) to contain the powerful buried material of childhood in order to prevent suicide or homicide.

The CNS does this by allowing the slow leakage of these pressures in a highly disguised form. For example, the rage of one child may become the cutting knife of the surgeon, thus containing it and leaking it out across a lifetime in a highly constructive way. In another child it may become the cutting edge of a knife during a street brawl. Yet again, it could become the cutting article of a professional critic.

Whatever the disguise, the impulses come from the same place, the white, hot inferno of the unconscious which is shaped and channelled by the mental mechanisms of defence into all the shades and textures of adult behaviour. We are the living disguise of a primitive and powerful childhood self.

When we seek depth therapy, we ask the therapist to penetrate and remove our outer civilized self so that the wounded and infected parts of our being may be laid bare, drained, and thus permitted to heal.

Therapists work at different depths; each depth has its method and its necessities. Only a few of us attempt to handle the white-hot stuff of the unconscious directly. Most therapists remain near the surface while the sharks remain asleep in the depths.

Therapy is impelled forward by the same thing that impels all behaviour: the need to finish what is unfinished, and to obtain what is needed. What therapy patients seek more directly than others, in ordinary society, is to uncover and express aloud this early pain, the situations that caused it and the results in adult life. When the patient connects with unconscious material and brings it across the great river of defensiveness into conscious awareness, healing begins. Previously frozen processes melt, enter the mainstream of mental phenomena and become integrated, losing the power to warp human thought, feeling and behaviour from a hiding place inside of us that we cannot see. Let us look at childhood damage and see what it is we are trying to heal.

There are only two ways that an adult can hurt a child. In the first way, an adult can withhold itself, its presence, its empathy, its physical and verbal support. From the child's point of view this is called, in the jargon of our profession, `object loss'. The parental object is missing. The child begins to starve slowly and inexorably, the tree of its life, without nourishment, stunting and twisting like a plant when nutrients are withheld.

The second thing an adult can do to hurt a child is to intrude into its world with verbal, physical or sexual abuse. In the jargon of our profession this is called `object intrusion' and once again the tree twists.

Most childhood damage contains both of the above elements. A beaten child, for instance, is intruded upon and also suffers a major loss of empathy.

Trauma does not have to be sudden and dramatic. It can happen in small ways over a long period of time.

The inability on the part of parents to properly listen to their children, without inserting their own thoughts and feelings into the child's mental life, is one of the most damaging kinds of parenting. This interrupts the growing self with a constant denial of the child's inner reality and feelings. This failure of empathy and the endless application of rules and beliefs that override and do not honour the child's own processes can, over the years, destroy the intrinsic self-balancing mechanisms of the growing brain.

This failure of empathy can leave, in the end, as much pain and disability as actual physical harm.

- Mommy, mommy...the teacher was unfair to me today.

- Now dear, the teacher was only trying to do his best.

This lack of allowing the child to explore its feelings, when they occur, tens of thousands of times across the growing years, seriously disables the supple processes of the young mind.

The finest book I know which deals with this issue is Parent Effectiveness Training by Gordon.

When negative influences impinge upon the child, how does the tree of life twist and stunt? Very simply, the child seeks to avoid pain by suppressing not only the pain but chunks of mental process as well. Thoughts, needs, feelings and behaviour which might lead to the pain, or in later life recall the pain, are shunted into the unconscious and, with many of its processes taken off-line (to borrow the language of computers), a child consciously and unconsciously builds a self which will lead to safety and the fulfilment of its needs. Rebellion, or avoidance and compliance with its world, begins to take precedence. In the suppression of the child's real and organic self, the unconscious becomes filled with pain and unmet needs which, no matter how carefully we try to hide, make themselves known in many subtle ways, wrecking our adult life.

The damaged child becomes two adults:

1- First, the false outer self emerges, within which, to a certain extent, we all dwell. This self has been constructed to keep inner pain at bay. It does not see itself, or should I say we do not see ourselves, as false and we will fight like cornered rats to maintain our view of reality regardless of external truth. It is in this region which cultural consensus lies.

2- The second self is the underlying damaged child which still lives in a pressure cooker of anguish, fear, rage and sadness. In the case of the damaged child we have both an increasingly chaotic unconscious and a decreasing strength in the self which has to contain it. Thus the self becomes brittle, frightened, easily provoked, swept by storms and ineffectiveness in life. We misunderstand our world and overreact to it. These forces are immensely powerful. For instance, consider a child left unheld in its crib. At first it cries out for attention and then sinks into a depression and finally dies in a condition known as marasmus.

Place yourself for a moment, if you will, inside that dying child and you will begin to appreciate the forces with which I deal. Those of us who take our patients back in time to re-experience this pain directly are subject to the most unbelievable degree of feeling and therapeutic necessity. Our world in the depths of the mind is sometimes seemingly bizarre.

The therapist does battle with a false self locked around a core of pain which it does and does not wish to feel.

Now, obeying the central paradox of depth therapy, we must journey with our patient to the centre of these chaotic places. The release achieved when this material is brought to the surface is the only and final real relief we can find. Around this paradox all deep healing takes place. To put it briefly, feel it and you will be freed from it. It is astounding how the vast majority of psychotherapists and the vast majority of patients will do anything to avoid this truth. Psychotherapy has fled from this understanding and built in its stead castles of theory, as I have said, to keep its practitioners safe from the feelings a deeply regressed patient will trigger in them.

I was trained in classical methods of thought as a resident in psychiatry and it has taken me twenty-five years and more than thirty-two thousand hours of psychotherapy to penetrate the ornate buildings of psychodynamic theory and bring forward the simple truths which I am about to share with you today. My methods work for those who can utilize them. I have treated more than one thousand patients of which at least seven hundred were women. I know what I am talking about.

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