In my late 20s some kindly college professors intervened on my behalf and got me a free ride to a northeast graduate school so I could pursue a PhD in clinical psychology. The downside was attending the school required a 90 minute drive both ways, a tiring journey under good conditions – killer in the winter. After talking it over, my girlfriend Darika and I decided during the winter months I would commute to campus Monday mornings and return home on Friday afternoons.
One cold week in January, with blizzard warnings blaring over the local media, I elected to come home early on a Thursday morning instead of Friday. When I got to the house just before dawn, the place was dark and strangely still, and the spare key was missing from its usual hiding place. I went back to the car, got my own key and made my way inside and up to our doorless bedroom. There I found myself stunned to find Darika in flagrante delicto, snuggled up all warm and cozy with Dick, our local chiropractor. In that moment, my mind stopped working very well. Having no training or history with such an experience, and at a loss for what to do, I crept back downstairs and drove to an all-night diner in town, and called the house from there.
After some whiny, lame responses to my angry accusations, Darika gave me the news: it was clear to her that she and Dick the chiropractor had been together in previous lifetimes and were now destined to be together forever in this one! She would leave my stuff for me out in the driveway over the weekend (Author’s Note: Their relationship barely lasted three months).
Needless to say, this news was difficult to receive. In fact, it blew my mind. Literally. My brain actually stopped generating thoughts for about five minutes. It seemed an eternity. When my neural net finally booted back up, I found myself in an obsessive loop, thinking only about what could have happened to bring about yet another in a series of critical emotional losses in my life. “We have all been here before …”
Because I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t think straight, I decided to get some help: I checked myself in to a residential community mental health center. My Dark Night there lasted three months, and in that time what I discovered was a long string of ungrieved losses stacked up in my psyche like airplanes over SeaTac International on a Bulwer-Lytton night. Together with a therapist at the mental health center I began unpacking those losses one by one, crying and flailing over each of them, gradually neutralizing their charge in body and mind.
Upping the Emotional Ante
In retrospect it became clear that every time a loss went ungrieved, the ante managed to get raised. It was as if my brain was struggling mightily to get me to wake up and take notice. Finally, the abrupt and unexpected break with Darika broke through powerfully enough to get my complete, undivided attention. In retrospect, I came to the conclusion that … healing integration is always trying to happen. Often unfortunately, in my experience, without the needed outcome desired.
Social neuroscience offers a unique and useful way to consider the Dark Night, I think. Life experiences that evoke a significant emotional response get recorded and stored initially on the right side of the brain. The brain and body need to have the energy of those experiences expressed or discharged at some point. Dreams seem to partially serve that function. If something prevents that discharge, then the brain steps in and affixes inhibitor neurons to the brain cells in the network that have recorded the emotional experience in order to keep them from firing. Inhibitor neurons, like these white ones wrapped around the pink, as depicted at the Blue Brain Project, usually prevented the brain cells holding my many memories of betrayal and abandonment from firing. Until they no longer could: Darika’s betrayal apparently used up the last available platoon of inhibitor neurons, and my own history of traumatic loss and betrayal came flooding to full consciousness all at once.
Healing Wanting to Happen
Having collections of non-firing neurons housed in our network takes up valuable neural resources that we could very well put to good use in our daily lives. For example, we might use them for these nine important prefrontal functions: 1. Body regulation; 2. Emotional balance; 3. Attuned communication; 4. Response flexibility; 5. Fear modulation; 6. Insight; 7. Intuition; 8. Empathy; and 9. Moral awareness (This last one makes me wonder how much loss and trauma people on Wall Street and in Corporate America have usurping their prefrontal function; and perhaps even a few politicians?).
Diminished neural resources results in diminished lives. The brain, astonishing structure that it is, knows when there are neurological logjams. It seems to test our readiness for release in any variety of ways, from panic attacks to nightmares to having us unconsciously move towards situations that will somehow recreate earlier traumatic experiences. All in the hopes of being able to get them resolved, or as the pioneering neurologist Sigmund Freud believed, “mastered” – a constant trajectory in the direction of healing integration.
All Cylinders Firing
Having large clusters of neurons suddenly come online, after being previously prevented from firing by inhibitors, can result in any number of experiences. I suspect that this might be at work when what’s known as a Kundalini Experience occurs: out of a Dark Night suddenly our brain and body begins processing exponential amounts of energy and information streaming into and running up our spine from neurons somehow now free to transmit from our kidneys, stomach, spleen and heart. It’s like having an early Apple II computer with 64 Kilobytes of RAM being suddenly upgraded to a MacBook Pro with 8 Gigabytes of RAM instead.
So, here’s the one righteous reason for embracing the Dark Night of the Soul – it holds the potential, with skillful understanding and knowledgeable help, to be a powerful healing experience. Better of course, is to be there for our kids all along the way, and to know and practice effective ways to help them address life’s inevitable slings and arrows as they periodically come visiting.