In 2011 I met a person on a job who seemed somehow importantly familiar to me. The more time I spent with them, the more important and familiar they began to feel. One day, apropos of nothing, from a deep unconscious place in my brain, I simply blurted out: “You and I have Father Work to do.”
The person looked wide-eyed at me, surprised and perplexed. “What makes you say that? Is it because much of the free time we’ve hung out I’ve only talked about my mother?”
“No, I responded,” again without giving it any conscious thought. “It’s because when I look at you, I see my father’s eyes.” Which was absolutely true, even though, until that very moment, I hadn’t consciously made the connection. The fact that my father’s eyes were looking back at me in the face of a woman – while it registered on me – it didn’t seem especially important. What later proved most important though, was that my conscious mind actually thought it was only the woman who had the “father work” to do, not me. If I had thought it was me, I most likely would have not have allowed myself to become so exposed and undefended. The Father Work I have to do is not especially joyous stuff.
As Emma and I spent more time together, my brain, given loose reins, gradually began to not only notice and associate other aspects of her personality, personal history and affect with my father – they both grew up in Texas, they both used voice inflections in a similar manner, they both showed up developmentally at close to the same young emotional age – she also began to trigger memories of other people from my past. One day I sat down and made a list of them: my ex-wife, my high school best male friend, my first real girlfriend, my Anthroposophy teacher, my daughter, a girlfriend who reminded me of Ondrea Levine, and a number of others as well. When I looked over this list, all the people on it had one thing in common: I had “unfinished business” with every one of them. With all of them I had unrepaired relationship ruptures of one sort or another.
Bad Bode Rising
“This doesn’t bode well,” was the first thought I had after examining the list. Why? Because my research into brain and trauma resolution convinces me that just like a cut on my arm wants to heal, a “cut” in my neural network as a result of abandonment or emotionally overwhelming, neuron-impoverishing experiences with brain-scrambled people, these also want to “heal.” Pierre Janet and Freud after him identified this organic impulse as “the compulsion to repeat the trauma.” I tend to think of it as the compulsion to try and heal the trauma. When healing actually happens, I think it might work much like my Puget Sound Energy lineman’s work does – damaged power lines (inhibited neural fibers in my brain) get reconnected, positively charged and are brought back into the grid. Those times healing has actually happened for me have each been accompanied by a great surge of increased energy and function. For what an embodied repair experience might feel like, think … recovering from the flu. And science seems to think that recovery as a result of repairing relationship ruptures is important at the cellular level. Look HERE to see what Harvard geneticist David Sinclair has to say about it.
Repetition with a Side of Suffering
So what happened with Emma and me? Well, since her fragmenting, line-break trauma was a grave boundary violation and mine was abandonment, we were perfectly matched to powerfully resurface our respective core traumas with each other. One day I said something of no special importance (from my perspective, of course – it was about how transference and projection work) and she became hugely hijacked and left the room, and the job, and the relationship, never to return. She hasn’t responded to apologetic emails or to friends’ entreaties. The overwhelming feeling I am left with is great sadness, both for the suffering that happened – in the past and the present – and what didn’t happen – healing.
Resolution to Go
In the best of all possible worlds, how might this episode have been ideally brought to a place of full or partial resolution? Even though we were both familiar with the universe’s bait and switch trickster nature, that didn’t matter post-triggering. Probably, it would have required the help of an outside skilled mediator (which I offered to enlist and pay for). At some point each of us would have gotten in touch with the original overwhelming experience(s) that were dissociatively triggering each of us in present time. With skillful guidance we would have been able to meet each of those early experiences reawakened in real time, and moved our bodies in restorative ways. We might have moved our bodies in ways that resulted in “triumphant action,” and perhaps also given voice to the things we weren’t able to say and do at the original trauma time. Most likely what we both would have ended up feeling and expressing is great heartfelt compassion for ourselves and each other. Compassion is often what spontaneously emerges when we hear and resonate with the truth of others’ suffering. In the words of Gene Knudsen, co-founder of The Compassionate Listening Project – “An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t fully heard.”
Holographic Brain doc, Karl Pribram was right when he recognized that for each of us, “The most basic of regulatory processes is the regulation of (afflictive) arousal.” And because so few of us have had skillful training in various ways to effectively regulate neuro-physiological arousal – we act out or flee in lieu of working through, making it increasingly difficult to turn ghosts into ancestors. One central problem with fight or flight approaches to human relationships however is: wherever I go, there my ghosts go, too.
SPECIAL NOTE: For those of you in the Seattle area, Dr. Liz Adams is a really smart, lovely colleague who is soon to be a best-selling author. She and I will be offering a weekend in Narrative Medicine at Bastyr University. You can find the details HERE: The Art and Practice of Narrative Medicine. For those of you NOT in the Seattle area, stay tuned for an upcoming online offering of similar persuasion. I’m working out the inky kinks even as you’re reading this.