It Didn't Start with You, Part II

This book should be read by everyone who has some kind of traumatic issue that's holding them down in life, something that just frustrates the hell out of them, like a relationship or lack of one, a crippling fear, an inability to attain something that should be relatively easy to attain, or a mysterious illness.  I wrote a bit about this book the other day, but I wanted to write a fuller book review. 

The science behind the therapeutic technique outlined in this book- epigenetics- is really new, and offers intruiguing implications.  There are many different forms of therapy out there, each one approaching the human psyche from a unique angle, and they can all help a little bit or a lot, but sometimes nothing helps.  This new field could provide some missing answers; when looking for the source of your pain, you may only need to look as far as your family tree.  The author explains the science behind his approach.

Emerging trends in psychotherapy are now beginning to point beyond the traumas of the individual to include traumatic events in the family and social history as part of the whole picture.  Tragedies varying in type and intensity- such as abandonment, suicide and war, or the early death of a child, parent, or sibling- can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next.  Recent developments in the fields of cellular biology, neurobiology, epigenetics, and developmental psychology underscore the importance of exploring at least three generations of family history in order to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeat. 

What I think is so smart is Wolynn's idea of using your own language as a kind of breadcrumb trail back to the original traumatic incident, the story of which is buried in the family's dusty unconscious cellar, a place they very understandably don't want to go.  By examining our fears and frustrations and how we describe them, we can trace our way back to the cause of our suffering.

Consider this story from the book.

When I first met Jesse, he hadn't had a full night's sleep in more than a year.  His insomnia was evident in the dark shadows around his eyes, but the blankness of his stare suggested a deeper story.  Though only twenty, Jesse looked at least ten years older.  He sank onto my sofa as if his legs could no longer bear his weight. 

Jesse explained that he had been a star athlete and a straight-A student, but that his persistent insomnia had initiated a downward spiral of depression and despair.  As a result, he dropped out of college and had to forfeit the baseball scholarship he'd worked so hard to win.  He desperately sought help to get his life back on track.  Over the past year, he'd been to three doctors, two psychologists, a sleep clinic, and a naturopathic physician.  Not one of them, he related in a monotone, was able to offer any real insight or help.  Jesse, gazing mostly at the floor as he shared his story, told me he was at the end of his rope. 

When I asked whether he had any ideas about what might have triggered his insomnia, he shook his head.  Sleep had always come easily for Jesse.  Then, one night just after his nineteenth birthday, he woke suddenly at 3:30 am.  He was freezing, shivering, unable to get warm no matter what he tried.  Not only was he cold and tired, he was seized by a strange fear he had never experienced before, a fear that something awful could happen if he let himself fall back to sleep.  If I go to sleep, I'll never wake up. Every time he felt himself drifting off, the fear would jolt him back into wakefulness.  The pattern repeated itself the next night, and the night after that.  Soon insomnia became a nightly ordeal.  Jesse knew his fear was irrational, yet he felt helpless to put an end to it.

I listened closely as Jesse spoke.  What stood out for me was one unusual detail- he'd been extremely cold, "freezing," he said, just prior to the first episode.  I began to explore this with Jesse, and asked him if anyone on either side of the family suffered a trauma that involved being cold, or being asleep, or being nineteen.

Jesse revealed that his mother had only recently told him about the tragic death of his father's older brother- an uncle he never knew he had.  Uncle Colin was only nineteen when he froze to death checking power lines in a storm just north of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada.  Tracks in the snow revealed that he had been struggling to hang on.  Eventually, he was found facedown in a blizzard, having lost consciousness from hypothermia.  His death was such a tragic loss that the family never spoke his name again.

Now, three decades later, Jesse was unconsciously reliving aspects of Colin's death- specifically the terror of letting go into unconsciousness.  For Colin, letting go meant death.  For Jesse, falling asleep must have felt the same.

Making the connection was a turning point for Jesse.  Once he grasped that his insomnia had its origin in an event that had occurred thirty years earlier, he finally had an explanation for his fear of falling asleep.  The process of healing could now begin.  With tools Jesse learned in our work together [...], he was able to disentangle himself from the trauma endured by an uncle he'd never met, but whose terror he had unconsciously taken on as his own.  Not only did Jesse feel freed from the heavy fog of insomnia, he gained a deeper sense of connection to his family, present and past.

Fascinating, and only one of the many anecdotes.  And isn't that so smart that we should look at our family's trauma history to see if we've inherited anything when we get a mysterious, weird sicknesses, or drag ourselves through frustrating life problems that are inconsistent with how we've been raised?  Why have we just clued into this now?  The big aha! that Darwin's insights contributed to the relatively new field of psychology was that we behave in certain ways because of how our parents treated us as children.  And now we're JUST finding out that we can inherit stories that have been shoved into the family's unconsious.  Brilliant.  I'm sure in a hundred years, we'll all be doing a big collective facepalm that it took us this long to figure that out.  So thank-you Mark Wolynn et al. for putting the pieces together for us (although I'm sure indigenous spirituality has had its own way of explaining this for quite a while).

I did mention the other day that I had a medium-sized criticism of the book.  It sails along all fine until he starts giving suggestions to people how to heal beyond just identifying the original trauma through the sentence-construction exercises.  He suggests telling the memory of an emotionally distant parent who passed away, for example, lovey dovey sentences like "Please hold me in my sleep when my body is more open and I'm easier to reach."  No.  That's too much too soon.  I mean, maybe at a certain point when the healing is farther along, and there's some kind of supportive context for this attempt at integration, but you shouldn't have a client open themselves up to that point of vulnerability when they're just beginning the healing process- when they're just learning about it through a book. 

When a parent was distant, the first step is not to ask that parent's memory to "please help me feel more peaceful in my body"- it's for the client to get in contact with their body through mindfulness.  Understandably, we need to feel safe in our bodies first before we ask an outside "energy" to be doing things to our bodies.  If I have a client who had a distant mother and their body is clenched up as they talk about her, and they're not even aware that their body is constricted, it's not the time to be working with these sentences.  Otherwise we're asking the client to do the integration work in her ego-realm and ignoring the fundamental principle of the Law of Three- that we should, through a meditation practice, become aware of how the pain affects us physically first before the healing can happen.  Am I right?  This is the foundation upon which all the most intelligent types of therapy are built. 

So some of this stuff is beyond what should be in an introductory book.  He does slide a paragraph in there, well past the middle of the book about the importance of working with a body worker, but it's buried under all these suggestions for "healing sentences" to say to person who caused you pain.

The second crticism was just an annoyance, but related to the first.  We're sailing along through the book, and he's offering all these reasons why our suffering is not our fault, and we can finally find healing, etc, and the tone is all compassionate toward the reader, and we're breathing this big, long 150-something-page-long sigh of relief, and then at one point-- I wish I'd put a bookmark in the spot-- he takes a jarring abrupt turn, gets on a soapbox and starts using all this exigent language saying, "It's your responsibility to change, not your abuser.  You must be the one to change.  Don't be sitting around waiting for them to change."  And he doesn't explain why.  I get where he's coming from; we've all heard this jingo-istic ditty that "when we want change, we should look at ourselves first", but we also all know that when someone does something mean to us, we're the ones who got hurt.  Taking the time to outline the logic for why the reader should take responsibility for driving the healing would have been welcome.

That's it.  Get the book, do some research to make sure your family tree is complete as far back as three generations ago, and do a little digging for those stories from family members while they're still with us.