Sunday, May 12, 2013
I Feel Good: A Letter From a Patient
Last night, sitting at my desk like I always do, a surprising and unfamiliar sense of relief suddenly washed over me. It wasn’t like a thunderbolt, but like the slow lifting of a veil. This pall of pain that hangs over me like a cloud all the time was vanishing into thin air. I felt an exhilarating sense of release, of relaxation. A calm invaded my body and I wasn’t quite sure why. It was so different from the chronic aches and pains I live with much of the time. In contrast to the routine, relentless misery, this welcome calm felt like euphoria.
The moment reminded me of that night 40 years ago when I was just as suddenly plunged into a crater of panic and anxiety, without knowing why. One moment, I’m sitting in my Berkeley apartment calmly reading a book, a sophomore without a care in the world. The next, a pit opens in my stomach and I’m being engulfed by a fear and dread that came out of nowhere. I got up, went to the bathroom, splashed water on my face. I went to the kitchen and manically did the dishes. But it wouldn’t stop. I thought if I went to sleep it would finally go away, so I clutched the pillow and shut my eyes tight, praying for this inner monster to disappear, but when I woke up it was still there. I’ve been trying to find the cause and the cure ever since. Only Primal Therapy ever gave me any answers and any respite.
But Primal Therapy only works if you stay with it. I’ve had big breakthroughs over the years. Clouds part, angels sing and you really feel reborn. But the pain comes back and you have to keep muddling through. My problem is that I’m a big avoider. If my terror is kept under wraps and my pain at an endurable, dull constant, that’s good enough. I focused on my work, my family, my whatever. So literally years would go by without therapy, without feeling. Eventually, it caught up with me, slowly dragged me into a mental and physical morass. I could no longer brush it off saying I’m fine for now. I was feeling horrible.
There were times when my whole being felt anguished. I’d be just sitting in my house and feel this pain in every pore. Like a wretch, I wanted to be put out of my misery. How could I be feeling so miserable when my life was going relatively well?
My body carries all my pain. The tension grabs my stomach like a vice, penetrates to my bones. There are times when I’m just one big aching organism. I even feel at times like there's acid in my veins. Maybe that’s why I was so transfixed by the images of Christ on the cross as a kid. I was not aware then that I was hurting, but I was mesmerized by the symbols of suffering, of pure agony, of despair in the face of so much pain. I now see that was me.
For a year, I’ve been getting regular sessions again at the Primal Center in Santa Monica. It’s the fourth time I’ve been back for therapy since I started in 1974. Every two weeks, chipping away at the things that hurt me, in the present and the past. Luckily, I cry easily. And almost from the first deep Primal, I started feeling that little bit of relief, enough to keep me going.
But then came last night. This was a feeling of total well-being that swelled up in me. Oh my God, there was no aching muscles, no throbbing forehead, no clenched abdomen. I didn’t feel any of those symptoms of suffering I’ve learned to live with.
Instead, I felt…I felt… good!
There was almost a pleasant buzz in the pit of my stomach where that old panic used to be. That acid in my veins turned into a rush of warmth flowing through me. I didn’t just feel relieved. I felt free. Hallelujah. There is an end to this misery at last.
The sliding door to my office was open. Outside, a warm Santa Ana wind was rustling the tall palm tree overhead. It felt like a caress from nature, like a good wind blowing down the canyon. I was at the computer and I had to stop what I was doing, the chore of paying monthly bills. As it happens, I was on the phone with my bank, trying to resolve a problem with their website. The agent had put me on hold and I had put down the phone with the loudspeaker on, and they had classical music playing during the wait. That piano sounded so soothing, so completely attuned to my mood at the moment. It reminded me of the music my Mom played at night as she fell asleep, the radio always on her nightstand. And I just closed my eyes and listened and floated away on that reverie. The breeze, the piano, the inner peace. I felt serene, liberated. For that moment, I was just there.
What is strange is that the payoff came today. I had gone for a session earlier that morning, but nothing big had happened. The feelings were not so strong, not so deep. It was more like wrapping up lose ends from two weeks ago, when I had plunged into big feelings about being molested by a relative at age 10, the age my son is now. The uncle who did this had been very nice to me, showing all the interest, praise and affection that I had never received from my dad. He let me put shaving cream on his face and I still remember his stubble bristling on my hand because I had never touched a man’s beard before. He let me sit at the head of the table and asked me all about myself and what I wanted for dinner and made me feel special, like no other man ever had. He held me in his arms as we fell asleep, and I was in heaven because I had never been held by a man like that before. So when he twisted our closeness into something bad, something so selfish, I felt crushed. Not back then, mind you. Back then, it was never discussed. It was a secret that I buried down deep. I always knew it was there. What I didn’t know was how deeply it hurt. That pain was buried too. But now, in reliving it, I understood the meaning of that abuse for me. It meant the little love I had found was a fraud. It meant I would never find pure love. I would never be loved just for me.
So in that follow-up session, I cried more about that. About how sad it was to come to the end of my emotionally empty and lonesome childhood to have my hopes raised, then betrayed. I cried thinking about my dad, seeing him at his usual place at the kitchen table, wanting to go to him with my secret but not actually having to tell him. I just wanted him to understand, to see my need and my hurt. I wanted to ask him to hold me, like a son. Just put his arm around me and protect me. If I didn’t need him so much, maybe this would not have happened.
I left feeling almost as sad as I came in. So eight hours later, when that veil of pain lifted, it was like a delayed pay-off. I see it as the cumulative benefit of consistently dipping into my personal “hurt locker.” I was just so backed up and overloaded, I needed to drain it down.
The next morning I had to get up early to take my son to chorus practice at 7:30. I didn’t sleep much, but I didn’t feel as lousy as I usually do in the morning, especially when I’m sleep-deprived. In fact, I was cheerful, laughing with my son over some jokes on the TV and moving more quickly without coffee. After dropping him off, I went for a walk, salsa music playing on my earphones. I felt so different, physically, than I usually do. Before, every step was a burden. My muscles hurt by just stepping up on a curb. I felt like I was loaded down, heavy, always pushing against some force. But this day, my step was light. I walked briskly for three miles and didn't feel all that inner sludge weighing me down. I actually skipped up onto curbs.
When I mentioned this milestone of progress in an email to Art Janov, he suggested I write something for the blog. Patients get discouraged, he said, and this could help them stay motivated. That’s the key. Primal Therapy requires stick-to-it-iveness, but it’s easy to get bogged down and give up. That was even part of my feeling: “This won't stop. Nothing works to make it better. Art is wrong. His critics are right. Primal is dangerous. I need a doctor to give me painkillers and get it over with. It’s all too much, too scary.”
When the relief finally came, Dr. Janov looked like a genius.
Coincidentally, when I got home and checked Facebook, the following quote from the philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke came across my newsfeed. Wow, I hadn’t thought of him for a long, long while. But when I was in college, at the depths of my breakdown and the peak of my insanity, I somehow found comfort reading him. Back then, it was just his lyrical prose, his uplifting spirituality that lulled my freaked-out nerves, plus a kindness and wisdom I perceived in him.
Now that Primal has released my potential for enjoying life, his words have a real meaning.
“I confess that I consider life to be a thing of the most untouchable deliciousness, and that even the confluence of so many disasters and deprivations, the exposure of countless fates, everything that insurmountably increased for us over the past few years to become a still rising terror, cannot distract me from the fullness and goodness of existence that is inclined toward us.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Life: New Prose Translations
Review of "Beyond Belief"
This thought-provoking and important book shows how people are drawn toward dangerous beliefs.
“Belief can manifest itself in world-changing ways—and did, in some of history’s ugliest moments, from the rise of Adolf Hitler to the Jonestown mass suicide in 1979. Arthur Janov, a renowned psychologist who penned The Primal Scream, fearlessly tackles the subject of why and how strong believers willingly embrace even the most deranged leaders.
Beyond Belief begins with a lucid explanation of belief systems that, writes Janov, “are maps, something to help us navigate through life more effectively.” While belief systems are not presented as inherently bad, the author concentrates not just on why people adopt belief systems, but why “alienated individuals” in particular seek out “belief systems on the fringes.” The result is a book that is both illuminating and sobering. It explores, for example, how a strongly-held belief can lead radical Islamist jihadists to murder others in suicide acts. Janov writes, “I believe if people had more love in this life, they would not be so anxious to end it in favor of some imaginary existence.”
One of the most compelling aspects of Beyond Belief is the author’s liberal use of case studies, most of which are related in the first person by individuals whose lives were dramatically affected by their involvement in cults. These stories offer an exceptional perspective on the manner in which belief systems can take hold and shape one’s experiences. Joan’s tale, for instance, both engaging and disturbing, describes what it was like to join the Hare Krishnas. Even though she left the sect, observing that participants “are stunted in spiritual awareness,” Joan considers returning someday because “there’s a certain protection there.”
Janov’s great insight into cultish leaders is particularly interesting; he believes such people have had childhoods in which they were “rejected and unloved,” because “only unloved people want to become the wise man or woman (although it is usually male) imparting words of wisdom to others.” This is just one reason why Beyond Belief is such a thought-provoking, important book.”
Barry Silverstein, Freelance Writer
Quotes for "Life Before Birth"
“Life Before Birth is a thrilling journey of discovery, a real joy to read. Janov writes like no one else on the human mind—engaging, brilliant, passionate, and honest.
He is the best writer today on what makes us human—he shows us how the mind works, how it goes wrong, and how to put it right . . . He presents a brand-new approach to dealing with depression, emotional pain, anxiety, and addiction.”
Paul Thompson, PhD, Professor of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine
Art Janov, one of the pioneers of fetal and early infant experiences and future mental health issues, offers a robust vision of how the earliest traumas of life can percolate through the brains, minds and lives of individuals. He focuses on both the shifting tides of brain emotional systems and the life-long consequences that can result, as well as the novel interventions, and clinical understanding, that need to be implemented in order to bring about the brain-mind changes that can restore affective equanimity. The transitions from feelings of persistent affective turmoil to psychological wholeness, requires both an understanding of the brain changes and a therapist that can work with the affective mind at primary-process levels. Life Before Birth, is a manifesto that provides a robust argument for increasing attention to the neuro-mental lives of fetuses and infants, and the widespread ramifications on mental health if we do not. Without an accurate developmental history of troubled minds, coordinated with a recognition of the primal emotional powers of the lowest ancestral regions of the human brain, therapists will be lost in their attempt to restore psychological balance.
Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D.
Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well Being Science
Washington State University
Dr. Janov’s essential insight—that our earliest experiences strongly influence later well being—is no longer in doubt. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, immunology, and epigenetics, we can now see some of the mechanisms of action at the heart of these developmental processes. His long-held belief that the brain, human development, and psychological well being need to studied in the context of evolution—from the brainstem up—now lies at the heart of the integration of neuroscience and psychotherapy.
Grounded in these two principles, Dr. Janov continues to explore the lifelong impact of prenatal, birth, and early experiences on our brains and minds. Simultaneously “old school” and revolutionary, he synthesizes traditional psychodynamic theories with cutting-edge science while consistently highlighting the limitations of a strict, “top-down” talking cure. Whether or not you agree with his philosophical assumptions, therapeutic practices, or theoretical conclusions, I promise you an interesting and thought-provoking journey.
Lou Cozolino, PsyD, Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University
In Life Before Birth Dr. Arthur Janov illuminates the sources of much that happens during life after birth. Lucidly, the pioneer of primal therapy provides the scientific rationale for treatments that take us through our original, non-verbal memories—to essential depths of experience that the superficial cognitive-behavioral modalities currently in fashion cannot possibly touch, let alone transform.
Gabor Maté MD, author of In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction
An expansive analysis! This book attempts to explain the impact of critical developmental windows in the past, implores us to improve the lives of pregnant women in the present, and has implications for understanding our children, ourselves, and our collective future. I’m not sure whether primal therapy works or not, but it certainly deserves systematic testing in well-designed, assessor-blinded, randomized controlled clinical trials.
K.J.S. Anand, MBBS, D. Phil, FAACP, FCCM, FRCPCH, Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Senior Scholar, Center for Excellence in Faith and Health, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare System
A baby's brain grows more while in the womb than at any time in a child's life. Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script That Rules Our Lives is a valuable guide to creating healthier babies and offers insight into healing our early primal wounds. Dr. Janov integrates the most recent scientific research about prenatal development with the psychobiological reality that these early experiences do cast a long shadow over our entire lifespan. With a wealth of experience and a history of successful psychotherapeutic treatment, Dr. Janov is well positioned to speak with clarity and precision on a topic that remains critically important.
Paula Thomson, PsyD, Associate Professor, California State University, Northridge & Professor Emeritus, York University
"I am enthralled.
Dr. Janov has crafted a compelling and prophetic opus that could rightly dictate
PhD thesis topics for decades to come. Devoid of any "New Age" pseudoscience,
this work never strays from scientific orthodoxy and yet is perfectly accessible and
downright fascinating to any lay person interested in the mysteries of the human psyche."
Dr. Bernard Park, MD, MPH
His new book “Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” shows that primal therapy, the lower-brain therapeutic method popularized in the 1970’s international bestseller “Primal Scream” and his early work with John Lennon, may help alleviate depression and anxiety disorders, normalize blood pressure and serotonin levels, and improve the functioning of the immune system.
One of the book’s most intriguing theories is that fetal imprinting, an evolutionary strategy to prepare children to cope with life, establishes a permanent set-point in a child's physiology. Baby's born to mothers highly anxious during pregnancy, whether from war, natural disasters, failed marriages, or other stressful life conditions, may thus be prone to mental illness and brain dysfunction later in life. Early traumatic events such as low oxygen at birth, painkillers and antidepressants administered to the mother during pregnancy, poor maternal nutrition, and a lack of parental affection in the first years of life may compound the effect.
In making the case for a brand-new, unified field theory of psychotherapy, Dr. Janov weaves together the evolutionary theories of Jean Baptiste Larmarck, the fetal development studies of Vivette Glover and K.J.S. Anand, and fascinating new research by the psychiatrist Elissa Epel suggesting that telomeres—a region of repetitive DNA critical in predicting life expectancy—may be significantly altered during pregnancy.
After explaining how hormonal and neurologic processes in the womb provide a blueprint for later mental illness and disease, Dr. Janov charts a revolutionary new course for psychotherapy. He provides a sharp critique of cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, and other popular “talk therapy” models for treating addiction and mental illness, which he argues do not reach the limbic system and brainstem, where the effects of early trauma are registered in the nervous system.
“Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” is scheduled to be published by NTI Upstream in October 2011, and has tremendous implications for the future of modern psychology, pediatrics, pregnancy, and women’s health.