‘Raising Resilience’ – the ACE Aware NL podcast

Today is International Women’s Day! This year’s international theme is ‘Embrace Equity‘ and the Dutch theme is ‘Unlimited livability‘ – a call to work together to ensure that as much as possible, we can move through our living world, our life world, without social, cultural, financial and emotional limitations. For this, resilience is important. Resilience is sometimes described as the ability to deal flexibly with life’s challenges, among other things by truly really welcoming all your emotions. To achieve that and raise resilience, it is helpful if feminine energy has the upper hand, in both women and men.

The first 1000 days of a human life have a major impact on the rest of one’s existence. No longer is there any doubt about that now; this has been demonstrated in all kinds of ways and has been substantiated both empirically and scientifically. So the first 1000 days, from conception to about the second birthday, are essential. What happens during pregnancy and around birth really matters. In that phase the foundation is laid for the life that follows. When there is a lot of stress in those early years, it usually becomes more difficult for a child to handle things smoothly and to stay healthy on all fronts. Even when social and health problems do not appear until later in life, upon careful examination they often turn out to have their roots in childhood. With that knowledge in our pocket, the conclusion is obvious that we would all do well to cherish that period, so that life after birth can be lived in an unlimitedly livable way and can continue to be. And then it gets exciting… do we accept that challenge? How can we embrace equity in a practical sense? I do have some ideas. Let’s raise resilience! Let us take good care of our pregnant women, see the interests of children as equal to those of adults, and let us give vulnerability a more prominent place in our society.

In the context of vulnerability, this morning I thought of an amazing woman who has said beautiful things about it, namely Brené Brown. One of her most famous quotes is: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
Vulnerability as courage – choosing not to be armed to the teeth, but to allow yourself to be wounded and to be open to your own feelings and those of others, even if it hurts. That can feel very scary. In a society where individualism is almost an ideology, co-reliance is a difficult concept. Do we simply dare to acknowledge that we need each other, that it is difficult not to feel connected to loved ones? That is quite normal, namely, because people are ‘wired for connection’: their entire neurophysiological system is set up for meaningful connection with others. When that connection is missing, sometimes already very early in life, it produces feelings of deep pain and loneliness. This can lead to the belief that you are ‘not good enough’, that you are not worthy of being loved, that you don’t belong and that you have to survive on your own. And then… what if that threatens to overwhelm you…?

A few years ago I saw the movie ‘The House I Live In’, in which addiction expert Gabor Maté says: “When people are in pain, they want to soothe that pain. So the question is not ‘why the addiction?’, but ‘why the pain?’ ” I was perplexed. That illness is usually an expression of a (especially emotionally) disturbed balance – that was a conviction I had already lived with for a quarter of a century. The layer that Gabor Maté added with this statement, however, felt like an inevitable paradigm shift. I felt like I had been given some kind of key that unlocked everything. To me, this seemed to be the essence, a vision that urgently deserves to be followed everywhere in society.

That is the idea from which ACE Aware NL was born: creating awareness about ACEs, adverse childhood experiences, and recognising that many behaviours and habits that are labelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘unhealthy’ are in fact survival strategies and self-medication for the pain of loneliness and exclusion. That is why I started ACE Aware NL, together with Victor Bodiut. And speaking of courage and vulnerability: without him I would not have dared to. Together we have laid a wonderful foundation, on which we now continue to build. The so-called ‘feminine’ energy has a prominent place in this: soft receptivity, intuition, room for ‘being’ instead of ‘doing’, attention to the emotional life, from the inside out, as inspiration for the more masculine energy.

Everywhere in nature, growth always takes place from the soft spots. This is very clear in babies and young children. For healthy growth, it is therefore important to ensure that this softness is protected and that no (physical and emotional) hardening occurs. Love, closeness, compassionate attention… those are the things the young child thrives on and with that you can raise the child’s resilience. How can you shape that? And what are the consequences of the lack of such care?

In order to discuss this extensively with experience experts and professionals, ACE Aware NL now also has a podcast entitled ‘Raising Resilience!’, together with Petra Bouma, who has been making the beautiful visuals for the blogs for some time now and who also put together artwork for the podcast, I have now set up the infrastructure for it and the first four episodes are online! You can listen to Nikk Conneman, Eefke Postma, Marie-liz de Jongh and Hilde Bolt. In the near future a lot of interviews will take place again and we will meet many more beautiful people. They will talk about their work, but also about their own experiences, which often contain a lot of touching wisdom as a result of grief.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of shame and judgment around the subject of ‘trauma’. Those are not helpful, because they cause many people to experience a barrier to telling their story. People keep suppressing everything, eventually often resulting in illness. Opening up about the pain and grief of your life history… that takes a lot of courage. There is often so much wisdom in what people have to say about what was difficult for them and how they overcame those difficulties. I really have deep respect for that, because I also know how complicated it can be not to let the loneliness of the past fully influence your life in the present.

The tune of the podcast is entitled ‘Here Forever’. While preparing the launch, this fragment seemed to present itself to me. Here forever – forever here. To know that there are people you can always count on and perhaps to be such a person yourself for others… that is what creates a deep sense of security, the feeling that you are welcome with everything that belongs to you, just like you are. For many people, that appears to raise hope and confidence and resilience. The Raising Resilience podcast is therefore also a powerful plea to be alert together to what the youngest in our society need to grow up joyful and happy, on the way to an unlimitedly liveable future. We hope that you will enjoy the specia stories and insights with us and who knows, we may welcome you as a guest in due course!

Book review ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ by Viktor E. Frankl, Part 2 (final)

Last week, we made a start with a review of Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ and discussed what was dealt with in Part 1 of the book. Different aspects of finding meaning are the topic of Part 2 of the book, where logotherapy is discussed in a nutshell.

Logotherapy is sometimes called the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. Where Sigmund Freud focused on ‘the will to pleasure’ (psychoanalysis) and Alfred Adler on ‘the will to power’ (individual psychology), Viktor Frankl focused on ‘the will to  meaning’ (logotherapy), as meaning in life turns out to be the primary motivational force for most people. This is also what the increasingly mainstream concept of Positive Health notices. Of its six dimensions (Bodily Functions, Mental Functions & Perceptions, Spiritual Dimension, Quality of life, Social & Societal Participation, and Daily Functioning) the spiritual aspects turn out to be most often mentioned as what really matters. People can have chronic health issues, but as long as those are fairly well dealt with and they have meaning and purpose in life, they generally consider themselves healthy. If physical health is overall good, but meaning is missing, people give much more despondent descriptions of how they are. The more meaning people can discern in their lives, the bigger the chances that health and happiness flow from that. Those are then not goals in themselves, but the consequence of having found meaning and purpose in life and of being able to contribute to something bigger than one’s own life. In Nietzsche’s words, quoted by Frankl: ‘He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how’ (p.109, author’s italics).

Without such a sense of meaning, Frankl writes, people can experience ‘existential frustration’. Not feeling challenged, but bored and useless, is understandably hard, he maintains, and deserves attention, instead of medication:

Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. It may well be that interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient’s existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs (p.108, author’s italics).

In other words: healthcare providers should take the worries of their patients seriously when it comes to them not seeing enough or even any meaning in life anymore. Frankl sees three different layers of meaning in life: ‘1) by creating a work or doing a deed (work); 2) by experiencing something or encountering someone (love); and 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering (mental strength)’ (p.115). The sense of meaninglessness, ‘resulting from a frustration of our existential needs which (…) has become a universal phenomenon in our industrial societies’ (p.141) can create an ‘existential vacuum’, often more widespread in places where spiritual, ceremonial, professional and familial traditions have gone lost. This can lead people ‘to do what other people do (conformism) or (…) what other people wish [them] to do (totalitarianism)’ (p.111).
Logotherapy’s aim is ‘neither teaching nor preaching’ (p.114), but to help people broaden their views and find their own meaning in life and thus the logotherapist ‘will never permit the patient to pass to the doctor the responsibility of judging’. A beautiful explanation is this one: ‘A painter tries to convey to us a picture of the world as he sees it; an ophthalmologist tries to enable us to see the world as it really is’ (p.114,115). Logotherapy encourages clients to find the potential meaning of their life and Frankl terms this ‘the self-transcendence of human existence’. Only when we can truly feel and see this, we will be able to reach self-actualisation, ‘as a side-effect of self-transcendence’ (p. 115). This especially applies to difficult circumstances, when things look hopeless.

For what then [when fate cannot be changed] matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation (…) we are challenged to change ourselves (p.116).

We are called upon, however, to relieve suffering if possible, because to ‘suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic’ (p. 117). What is needed for this is to find the ‘super-meaning’, not ‘to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear [the] incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic’ (p.122, author’s italics).
We can never be fully free from difficult conditions, so true freedom, in Frankl’s view, is the ‘freedom to take a stand toward the conditions’ (p.132), a route towards self-determination. This is typically human, because: ‘Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary’ (p.133). If meaninglessness drives us crazy, it merely proves our humanness, Frankl says. This ties in with a quote from Krishnamurti’s work: ‘It is no sign of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’  That is not to say it is always easy. We can, for many different reasons, fall prey to ‘give-up-itis’ (p.141), losing all hope because we no longer focus on the remaining meaningfulness of life. Thus, we may lose all ability to deal with the suffering.
There is, however, a ‘difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness’ (p.152). Bearing whatever fate with dignity means rising above and growing beyond ourselves and thus increasing peace and wellbeing in the world.

That is hopeful, indeed. Compassionately exploring with people who grieve and suffer, the things that still make their life worthwhile may support them in finding the way back to their purpose and happiness. Seeing all this so impressively well laid-out by someone with a history like Frankl’s, is a humbling read.

Book review ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ by Viktor E. Frankl

A little booklet it is, in its 2004 paperback version, but a crucial message it contains and so a classic it became. Originally, the book was written and published in 1946 with the title ‘Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager’ (‘A Psychologist Survives the Concentration Camp’) and then in 1978, with the English translation, it got its new title, that aptly summarises the book: how to find meaning in even the most ghastly plights.
Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna in 1905 and died there in 1997. He studied Medicine there, specialising in neurology and psychiatry. He focused on depression and suicide and the knowledge and insights this brought him, he took with him when he was deported first to Theresienstadt (1942) and later to Auschwitz and Dachau (1944). The book basically consists of two parts. Part 1 is an account of his stay and travails in the concentration camps and Part 2 is an explanation of ‘logotherapy’, the psychotherapeutic method he developed already before the Second World War, but that he meticulously described and practised post-war after his return to Vienna.

Logotherapy is sometimes called the ‘Theory of Meaning’, because at its core it deals with the question of how to find meaning (logos meaning ‘word’ or ‘meaning’), to remain resilient in the face of adversity and injustice. There may be many reasons to lose hope and faith, and one may be robbed of personal freedom, but there is one freedom, in Frankl’s view, that cannot be taken away from any person: the choice to decide how to respond to external circumstances. In the context of ACEs this is quite relevant, seeing that the essence of trauma is losing the connection to one’s true self. If there are ways to nurture that connection and remain authentic, it is important to share those with people who have (had) to go through dire circumstances.
At first, Frankl wanted to write the book anonymously, but he changed his mind and felt he had to ‘have the courage to state [his] convictions openly’ (p.20).

His first-hand description of the proceedings in the camps is impressive. Most readers will have something of a general knowledge about what these tragic places were like, but the clarity with which Frankl looks back at it, is admirable. Those circumstances were so dreadful that he writes one can hardly blame people ‘for trying to dope themselves’ (p.24), either with alcohol or by any other possible means.
He describes the phases people would go through upon entering the camp: shock (at first paired with painful emotions like longing, pity, horror, and disgust), apathy (emotional death, not caring anymore, an attempt at self-protection), and lastly the psychological response after liberation.
This third and last stage was difficult in the sense that joy had to be ‘relearned’: ‘The pressure which had been on [the prisoner’s] mind for years was released at last [and] his desire to speak was irresistible’ (p.96). Frankl describes this process as ‘from that war of nerves to mental peace’ again (p.97). Ideally this is done very slowly, step by step, so as to prevent ‘moral deformity’ in the form of revenge being taken and doing harm to (properties of) offenders.
We can see a parallel here with other kinds of trauma: feeling happy again, letting go of pain and loss, can be difficult, if those have been your developmental habitat for a lifetime.

The biggest part of the book, however, is focused on the second stage, that of apathy and how to either deal with or prevent it. Some people were able to achieve ‘spiritual life to deepen’ (p.47), Frankl writes:

They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature (p.47).

He describes it as the ‘survival of the sensitive’. What under normal circumstances might be described as dissociation could under severe adversity be seen as identification with the riches of inner life by drawing on previous experiences such as love and joy and gratitude, humour and curiosity. All of this is what we could see as ‘the wisdom of trauma’, using the mind’s abilities to survive the unbearable present. It also means that the more abundant those previous positive experiences are, the greater the likelihood of people being able to draw on them, or, put differently, to manifest resilience. Frankl says: ‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior’ (p.32). In line with this were prisoners’ efforts to disappear in the crowd, so as not to draw attention to themselves, whereas in normal life, people may love to be seen and recognised for their unique individuality. Tiny pockets of privacy and solitude were considered pure luxury, moments to connect to Self again (p.61).

Yet, humans are not merely the product of biopsychosocial factors, Frankl states, pointing to the emotional, spiritual dimension of mankind. Throughout all of life, ‘everything can be taken from a man, but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance, to choose one’s own way. (…) It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful’ (p.75,76). Remaining ‘brave, dignified and unselfish’ (p. 76) within the suffering, while nurturing hope and faith for better times to come, can give a deeper meaning to life. It can even lead a person to reach immense personal and spiritual growth.

Next week, we will discuss Part 2 of the book.

The lived experience, Episode 9 – This week: Hester, Part 3 (final)

Last week Hester told about her period of illness. Today she takes a closer look at a number of forms of therapy and we read about where she is now.

She says that although she could not find her healing in the mainstream care system, the alternative circuit also regularly failed to improve her health or even caused damage. Some therapists used her difficult situation to feed their own spiritual egos. They asked her to grant them an experience of success; one even advised that she take her own life. It meant that in her desperation she also had to be alert to people abusing of her health issues: “I find that dangerous, such an attitude in which you, as a traumatised client, have to protect yourself against the therapist. Then you will not come to a pure form of healing.” However, the regular healthcare providers offered no way out either. They repeatedly came up with only one solution: more medication. “When I refused and said that I wanted help, but not endlessly more medicines, they refused help and I was deregistered from all kinds of circles. Then there was only one thing left for me: to completely turn inward. I had a conversation with ‘Above’ and felt that I still had something to do in this world, but my life energy was drained, gone, exhausted. I considered lying down in bed and to just wait until I would die, because no one had a solution. Believe it or not, but then I approached people from a holistic reflection circle and told my story, in tears. They organised not just a local, but a national meditation for me. Then peace came to me. I felt that I wanted to go back to the bioresonance therapist I had been to before. His guidance and approach, including that of the toxic load, finally helped me and saved me. My doctor, however, was sceptical. He called it all placebo effect, but until then, he had also not been able to help me.

My illness has made it necessary for me to deeply feel everything that has happened in my life. I think I can say I have seen the deepest darkness and now understand how things have had their impact. Then the pain let go of me and at the moment I am doing very well. My energy is limited, but it is nothing compared to how it was and I am extremely grateful for where I am now. Doctor Sarno’s pain reset method certainly helped me with that. I remain alert to how the past can still have an impact on how I feel or experience things, but all of that has a completely different character now, compared to before. I think I have lived through that enough now. That does not alter the fact that my body is still tired quite quickly and that I then get symptoms that I deserve to take seriously, even if my head actually wants to continue with something. There is still a certain vulnerability, but I can live with that now.”

In response to her remark about ‘not being able to feel well’, we talk about the question of who she used to turn to as a child if she had strong feelings. She thinks and says: “Do you know that I don’t remember…?” Somehow that says a lot, that for her, no one clearly comes to mind with whom she can link a sense of security. “I didn’t have many friends either; our family was so closed off, such a small world, that we were not really prepared for what it takes to meaningfully connect with other people outside the home. It’s not so bad anymore, but I still prefer the one-on-one meeting; superficiality does not make me happy.”

From her need for depth, she sometimes still falls into the trap of doing more than her body can handle: “I could call that a bad habit – certainly. From my willpower I think that I can go on for a while and recover again tomorrow and that remains a quest…” She falls silent for a moment and thinks. “A quest… how can I really sink into my body, less in my head, and find that relaxation there, really feel that it is good and safe and then let go of the stress? Learning that is an ongoing process, which I sometimes feel resistance to. When will it be ready? At the same time I realise that sometimes I still don’t really know what I’m feeling, so that definitely takes practice. And what also requires practice is that when I am tired and feel restless, I also take real rest and do not numb the unrest with ‘crap’ from, for example, social media. That is often a struggle: numbing one unrest with another… not good, but silence is hard for me. It makes me rebellious, because it gives me the impression that my life is still too boring, and so I look for stimuli, when I actually need rest. By now I know that I can feel, but I do not always feel in a sound way. Then I override with my head what my body has to say. With all that has happened, I now understand a lot better that a lot of my behaviour was necessary to get me out of the situation I was in, with all the ancestral dynamics involved.”

After all the personal aspects, we zoom out to the social perspective. I ask if she feels that the influence of childhood is given enough attention. “No, I think there is too little recognition for it. Even in a trauma centre where I was, the views on trauma turned out to be completely outdated. I think that the insights that experience experts could provide in all kinds of organisations, are very valuable. We just need more knowledge about what it means to experience and heal from trauma. As you said, there is a difference between ‘healing’ and ‘curing’, and while I am not completely cured, I am certainly healed. The impact of pre- and perinatal trauma, the influence of growing up in a dysfunctional family, ancestral trauma… there is still a lot of work to be done to make all of this widely known!

I have also experienced things on a spiritual level that I don’t want to make public now, but really… we are spiritual beings as humans and that is something that often gets snowed under in protocols and fixed structures. Many approaches in mainstream healthcare are very cognitively oriented, but trauma runs so deep… With your cognition, you cannot reach that at all. That requires something completely different. You may need complementary care for that, but as said… there the spiritual egos are so big sometimes that it is dangerous. I have also sometimes felt really not taken seriously in that field. And when you finally do get treatment from someone, you sometimes have to wait weeks or months for follow-up treatment; that I also find very problematic. In the meantime, nobody knows how you are doing and sometimes you have nowhere to go if a previous session has released a lot that deserves guidance.”

When we talk about what a child needs in the early phase, she immediately has a clear picture: “An environment that is as open as possible, where everything is allowed to be there, where there is no judgment on what you feel and say and on what concerns you emotionally… where there is understanding for you. And in addition, I think it is important that we do not forget about the body. There may also be a toxic load that needs to be cleaned up.”

We end with our three basic questions.
What gives you hope?
“That we as humans are so strong that you can even get out of such an almost hopeless situation as I was in.”

What is number 1 on your bucket list?
She beams and smiles when she replies: “Aaah, yes… publishing those children’s books! Hopefully I will find someone who can support me!”

And what are you currently very excited about or what do you want to be working on?
“That is not difficult either! I am currently doing a spiritual course, four online workshops and I love that. I do it at my own pace, but enjoy that I can do it that way and that I am now again able to!”

We wrap up. Hester indicates that she really enjoyed sharing her story in detail with someone who can receive it as it is, who listens to it and takes it seriously. “I don’t know if I want to go to therapy again; I think that this new phase and the quiet integration of everything I have learned in the previous stage will suffice for me for now. I am especially grateful that I am where I am now, again, after such a crisis, and it was good to be able to talk about it in peace!”

The lived experience, Episode 9 – This week: Hester, Part 2

Last week we heard about the beginning of Hester’s life. Today she talks about her illness.

She got married, became pregnant and with that began a period of many sad, difficult experiences. The first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. The second pregnancy brought a daughter, who was a single-born twin. Another pregnancy followed, which also ended in miscarriage. Then a second daughter was born, her parents divorced, and a third daughter was born, also half of twins. “This youngest daughter still suffers a lot from that. She feels like she is still looking for her other half. The amazing thing was that during that pregnancy the eldest said that I had two babies in my belly and she also suffered from the loss of that other child. I was bleeding, but also remained pregnant, so the situation was clear for us. My childbearing years were intense because of this and have worn me out. Moreover, I already suffered from TMS (Tension Mysositis/Myoneural Syndrome); I was really always in pain and, like my mother, was often close to exhaustion. Subsequently, my husband also became seriously ill and, in addition to non-regular medical treatments, it took time before he was able to function properly again. When our youngest daughter turned 3, both my parents passed away in one year. All in all, we have had some really tough years. At a certain point it also turned out that, in addition to my pain complaints, I had a heavy toxic burden. I think that as a child I was already emotionally exhausted and that my survival instinct and the spiritual knowledge I already had got me through my crisis.”

With this term ‘crisis’ she refers to her illness of five years ago. After the first miscarriage, friends gave her a book about spirituality that gave her a feeling of ‘coming home’ and that encouraged her to go deeper into that area. “From then on, like some kind of hungry soul, I read, read, read, even though after high school I thought I would never read again! For me, the essence of my soul lies in spirituality and creativity, and that reading has helped me to find something to hold on to. For example, I have come to see that I am not the type to ‘market’ myself. Work where I have to profile myself commercially… that is not for me. For example, I like to write, but publishing my children’s books… I would have to find someone for that. Also poetry, mandala drawings, postcards… I can’t make a business out of it, but now that I’m better, unlike during my illness, I finally feel the space to think about how I could handle that.

Our family grew up and I certainly experienced joy and gratitude in it. Still, in retrospect, I think I was in survival mode a lot. When the kids had moved out, life felt like a dark hole. Existential life questions arose about where I come from, who I am and why I am here. I thought: ‘I just have to do something in society, otherwise I am a ‘failure’ and then I picked up something that again did not suit me. We moved many times and everywhere I tried to make a fresh start. With volunteering and various artistic activities I certainly had happy years, especially from 2011 to 2018. After that I followed a therapy that completely destroyed me. Moving, going through menopause, physical complaints, blockages in the emotional part of my brain… I wanted to take a kind of sabbatical, but the chosen therapy turned everything upside down and said that afterwards I could let all of my pain go and then I would be ‘done’ with it. However, that form of therapy does not examine in advance the state of your emotional stability and capacity. I panicked and my whole system said ‘no’; I was too full with everything.

Although I now see that the collapse was necessary, because as a child I had really locked away everything, it was extremely intense. I had never learned to really feel and then when I fell ill, feeling was all that remained. I could not ignore it anymore: I had to feel and feel everything, in the two and a half years that I mainly lay in bed. At the same time, my brain actually did not have the capacity to process all stimuli and emotions. I felt like I was going crazy and it actually seemed that way. This led to a procession of health care providers prescribing me a range of medications and, in particular, psychotropic drugs. It is my firm belief that they have largely only made me sicker instead of better. It made me even worse than I already was. They put a veil between my physical body and my soul; this is how it felt: as if due to the negative power of the medication I could no longer tap into my own strength and the light within me, my self-healing capacity.

Years later I started to wonder what it was that I had really needed and couldn’t find or get from any therapy or healthcare provider. I think what I would have needed is to lie on a treatment table with someone in a very safe space and be touched in a very gentle way, which would have allowed me to learn to feel again. I needed a therapist who, in tiny steps, could take me closer to the pain of the past, to the moments when I had felt unheard and to the pain and sadness that had become stored in my body as a result. An example of this is that my tonsils had to be removed. At the time, parents were not allowed to stay with their children and very young children were then utterly alone in such a hospital. That frightened me so much that I left my body. I fell unconscious and saw the whole operation, the doctor with the lamp on his head, the surgical gown, the high chair, the balloon… I saw everything, but I hid that experience deep within me. The fear of abandonment, which I already had, was further fuelled by this and during my illness I noticed that my body wanted to rid my body of all those events stored in my cell memory.

More things have happened that all fit within that framework. Some of them also have to do with that previously mentioned guilt-shame-infamy program that was so deeply embedded in my mother. If something was supposedly my or my mother’s fault, it created shame and then I or she was an embarrassment to the social environment. That is a very toxic dynamic to grow up in. The conviction arose that if only I didn’t do this or that or the other… then my mother wouldn’t be so unhappy. Originating in church dogmatics, there was also a lot of fear of going to hell. Because of my illness I came to see that all that burden was not mine, but my mother’s and that I don’t have to carry it.

It was no easy feat, however, to work through all of that. I was ill for about three years and there were times when I cried for ten hours a day; sometimes there was howling and screaming, of desperation and anger and compulsions, and the effects of the medication. I tried to get rid of everything and talk it off, so I sometimes talked all day and regularly went from one panic attack to another. There was actually no way to live with me at that time, so it was also extremely intense for my husband. In the end it was all healing, for me, for him and for our relationship, but it was a tough journey we had to go through.”

She tells how she slept only three or four hours a night for four years, how her nervous system was so overworked that she was both hyperactive and apathetic, depressed and manic as well as psychotic, and how she has seen as many as 50 therapists and how none of them could help her any further, especially since there were times when she could only talk for five minutes before she was totally exhausted again. “I also received a lot of criticism, that I was selfish and had to think about my family, that I had to adopt a different mindset, that I had to be a bit more positive, that I had to continue with certain trajectories longer, although everything inside me screamed that I was unsafe. The anger of others, however unjustified, then fed my guilt again. I found all of that so complicated because I felt that the way I was… that that wasn’t my true self. I really wanted to get better, but I couldn’t and it made me desperate. I was afraid I would not survive it all. In the end, the solution only came when I stopped looking for it.”

Next week we will read the conclusion of the conversation with Hester.