From part i: “What you don’t hear about this kind of dissociation is that it can feel really good. The muscles, often overly rigid in a trauma survivor, go all soft, and the mind goes fuzzy and light. It can be blissful.”
My experience of this, and my readings of Kalsched, got me thinking about the interplay between spiritual experience and dissociation. When I first ran across Ehrenreich’s book, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, the blurb said she experienced in her dissociative episodes an element of the sacred. What? The atheist muckraker is saying it!? Explaining what I’ve been thinking about, trying to figure? Someone out there surely must be. Dissociation, a psychological term first used around 1895, is suddenly all over the place.
She wasn’t. What floored me most about the “sternly objective reporter seeking truth” is that in her pursuit of the rational, she neglected the obvious—that her dissociative experiences were the direct result of intense emotional repression. (This isn’t simply my lens. It’s in the first line of the wikipedia entry.) Ehrenreich hints, but somehow seems proud of her repression. She taught herself as a young child to think in order to “keep from going under when the waters were rising”:
If I needed anything from the grown-up world, it was not some concerned professional to interrogate my feelings and direct my metaphysics onto a presumably healthier and more productive track. I needed better teachers or perhaps a kindly librarian to point out that books are meant to be consumed in a certain order and not all at once…. On the whole, despite family tensions, social isolation, the ongoing horror of puberty, and intermittent philosophical despair, I was not unhappy, or if I was, I did not see fit to write about it. There was too much going on for that…and emotions were not my natural beat.
So if she’d just read all those books in the right order everything would have been different? Does she really believe that?
She took pains to make clear her emotional life was heavily influenced by her environment. How, then, can she write emotions off as simply not her nature? It doesn’t follow.
Ehrenreich tells the story of a classic trauma survivor. She indulged heavily in fantasy, was anti-social (e.g. “At the time this [killing everyone on earth in her intricate fantasy world] did not seem like a great loss, because I had no reason to believe that humans were, on average, better company than so-called inanimate objects”), and was extremely ambivalent about human connection and engaging in life.
Though she constantly downplays her emotions and ramps up physiological factors, in the description of her major mystical experience, she draws on the emotional pain that led up to the event.
When in high school, Ehrenreich went on a road trip with a handsome friend, Dick, and her younger brother. Shortly after they left home for the slopes of Mammoth Mountain, Dick became rageful and rude:
So, a very short way into the trip, I revised my expectations downward from comradely adventure to another long, solitary exercise in endurance. Any anger I felt was not directed at my inscrutable companion, but Joseph Conrad and all the other novelists who had been urging me to reach out, take a chance, carpe diem, and so forth. I should have stayed at home and read Kafka…. The pleasures of human company had been exaggerated, I realized…. I dealt with my disappointment by sheer force of mind. I erased Dick. I suspended belief in him. Who knows if any other person really exists? The great advantage of my slippery, on-and-off form of solipsism was that I did not have to live with the burden of other people’s inexplicable anger or rejection….
I had done what the poets and novelists were always urging me to do, I had reached out to another human with some companionable intent, and look what happened….
…Then the awful anger and shame that filled that little car, which were to set the stage for what followed, originated with my father, along with the idea of skiing.
Though she acknowledges anger and shame set the stage for what followed, she rejects the sheer force of emotion repressed and chalks what is to come up to low blood sugar, high stress hormones, and sleep deprivation: “Then one day, apparently selected on the basis of incidental physiological factors like exhaustion and hypoglycemia, the truth arrives in all its blinding glory, but with two conditions attached to it: one, that you can never speak of it, even to yourself, and two, that you can never fully recapture it ever again.”
But if she really does just chalk it up to physiology, why spend so much time on the emotional precursors, without the influence they had on her biochemistry? Are we supposed to note them silently, empathize, and nod our heads in agreement with her biochemical rational, her “Then one day, apparently selected on the basis of incidental physiological factors,” as if it had nothing to do with the emotional events she just detailed? Maybe we are. Throughout the entire book she writes on about her buried emotional pain, even its repression, but at the same time negates their effects by ascribing her mystical experience to “incidental physiological factors,” as if she’s trying to tell us she’s above all this and she knows this is all just a bio-chemical storm of sorts.
If that’s the case, why did her “neurotransmitter-induced” depression kick in when her marriage and community went south and not when she was happily engaged in her family and professional life? While we all have biochemical predispositions, they are profoundly affected by our environment. That her biochemical predispositions could have been set up by the trauma she suffered in childhood is at least as likely as an inborn genetic susceptibility (see Bruce Perry and, again, van der Kolk).
Next week, I’ll get to her mystical experience, and why it seems trauma survivors so often seek magic, altered states of consciousness, and spirituality.