Monday, August 18, 2014

Childhood, sensory deprivation tank, hallucinatory voices

I once had a middle-aged client who heard a voice – his father’s – telling him he was “stupid” and useless.  The voice polluted his days and his years since he left home after trade school.  The man was not deeply schizophrenic, though he did have other telltale symptoms.  His manner – at least as he sat in the chair here – was distracted and underwater, a disembodied expressionless head, eyes bobbing here and there.  But he was able to work every day in a problem-solving technical job, and compatibly with coworkers.  He had a long marriage – a within-normal-limits bond both functional and dysfunctional.  They had raised a daughter who could carry out her life independently.

I am not psychotic, though there were once moments when I wished I could be taken by a halcyon fantasy – basically make myself insane – to forever escape the feelings of reality; and other evanescent states in which I wondered what reality was.  I am pretty sure that our lucidity is a microscopic matter, that insanity can be one molecule or more that sits between two billion sane molecules.  My client had started off in life as many children do – in pain and in a sensory deprivation tank where there is no one to talk to.  An older neighbor boy had overcome and raped his will, and therefore his voice and self-care and ability to feel joy, and he fell into the tank, to become silent for the rest of his youth.  Even if there are good parents, it is too easy for a child to fall into this silent underground cavern, because as long as there is a secret, or feelings unshared or even not the right words for them, he will be lost within a whole world he is disconnected from.  Floating, all dark, no sound.  I believe most of us carry and live within this silence at all times, even with our partner, our mundane or exciting occupations, our busy and loud life.  We have never really shown ourselves and reached for help.

A person in a flotation tank sometimes hallucinates.  There is nothing for his senses to join and his mind feeds on itself.  The boy had come home after a rape, where his parents avoided him and he formed an imaginary friend.  I never learned if this wight was like the alters of a multiple personality – one, the guardian, one a pitiful child, one violent, one abusive to the victim self.  Its voice, though, lingered after the friend faded away in adolescence, and it was now abusive – “stupid,” “dumb,” “you can’t think on your own.” It became a mantra that echoed in the silent tank and seemed, well, insane – What does the ruinous message have to do with his grown-up, walking-wounded decent life?

Therapy asked the man to see beneath the voice to the message, as the hallucinatory medium really didn’t matter.  It may as well have been nightmares of monsters and grand dreams, or the misreading of people’s looks, or the feeling of being ill-equipped for the real world, or the felt conviction of being stupid, or incapable of knowing (he would ask other internal voices to make decisions for him).  Owning the meaning, “I am stupid, I am dumb,” he could now leave the sensory deprivation tank for the first time and tell me how much it hurt to feel this way, ache to his parents to make him feel like a cared-for child.  Until he spoke to them, until they helped him, he would be the truth of their voice.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.