When I was in my early twenties, I took a road trip with a friend of mine from LA up to the San Francisco Bay Area. Adam was hot to reconnect with Sybil, a former girlfriend that he hadn’t seen for several years. Sybil, it turned out, had a roommate, Lila, and while Sybil and Adam were renewing old acquaintances, Lila and I managed to find our way into her bed. Love, or something aspiring to it, was in the air.
As our lovemaking reached a climax, I was more than a little surprised to discover that Lila had completely passed out. With all the ego and ignorance of a 20-year-old I immediately attributed Lila’s unconsciousness to my sexual prowess. I mean, what else could it be? Later I discovered not only what it could be, but what it actually was – as a child Lila had been repeatedly incested by her father. Going unconscious was her brain’s and body’s way of regulating the intolerable, overwhelming hyperarousal that having sex with me unwittingly triggered.
Surfacing Buried Trauma
The vulnerability and openness that sexual encounters often precipitate make such experiences profound possibilities for triggering unconscious implicit and explicit memories and having them rise into conscious awareness (drugs, yoga, massage, somatic psychotherapies and many contemplative practices can have a similar effect). One reason I believe many spiritual traditions advocate for some form of celibacy is for precisely this reason – to avoid the intrusive catalytic surfacing of hyperarousing traumatic memories. Sigmund Freud knew that simply surfacing traumatic memories did little to integrate and heal them. He advocated for “remembering, repeating and working through.” It’s that last part – the working through part – that often gets left out of hookups and other intimate human interactions, including a lot of therapy. Without the working through/integration part of the equation, a new memory involving yet another hyperarousing experience is added to the storage vault on top of the threat memories already stored away in there. Better to deliberately titrate such stored memories and slowly and safely integrate them into our psyche. In the best of all possible worlds, that’s what long term, committed relationships can help us do. Ideally.
Healing Yearning to Happen
When I look back on my own relationship history, I can clearly see unconscious impulses at work moving me in the direction of increasing attempts at healing and neural network integration. My very first romantic relationship fully recreated the experience of being abandoned as a four-year-old child. So did my second, third, and fourth. Except for a clarity slowly beginning to emerge of the pattern that I was repeating, each of those relationships mostly produced “reenactment without resolution.” It was only after enrolling in a startup Mystery School, with a requirement to engage as fully as possible in work on myself, that some small degree of healing integration began to take place.
Without me fully realizing what I was getting into, the school served as a psycho-spiritual neuro-alchemical cauldron. I was invited to do dreamwork, participate in group processes of one sort and another, visit off-campus venues to experience a variety of contemplative practices, learn to do psychotherapy, work with death and grief, craft and participate in psychodramas, and search out anything and everything I felt called to experiment with as an independent study. And I did it all in the company of fellow travelers, who, in addition to all of the above, were collectively tasked with actually running the school itself! The meta-learning there was in discovering the importance of being responsible for my own learning and my own healing … in community.
Seeing the World As I Am
In such a venue – through the sensory magic of transference and projection – almost everyone from each student’s family of origin sooner or later managed to show up. This neurological vulnerability of the brain emerges in workplaces all over the world and in many other venues where people recurringly meet and spend time together. You know it by the intense emotion emerging or erupting at such venues – romance, fear, confusion, anger, the whole emotional spectrum. It is our brains going about morphing and distorting and overlaying our personal trauma histories onto each other, ostensibly in the service of … healing trying to happen. And for many of us at the Mystery School it did. But it was much different than I signed up for, and anything but easy.
Still, to one degree or another, some healing managed to happen for me. With my ACE’s-loaded early childhood beginnings, filled with loss, mental illness, alcoholism and repeated traumas, there was little to suggest that I would ever go on to have anything resembling a healthy, socially redemptive adult life. But what did I know? And here we are 50 years later!