Perinatal Agonies

by John A. Speyrer

Dr. Stephen Proskauer writes about how he almost dropped out of medical school soon after
beginning his obstetrics rotation: "I could not stand to see and hear babies being born.
I could not bear to be reminded about the agony of birth."
-- A Freudian Analysis in the Primal Looking Glass,
Primal Community

"We, in primal therapy, have found that all suicidal feelings arise from the individual's first
confrontation with severe pain and near death from morbid conditions in the womb.
It is not just the pain that plunges one into suicidal gestures, but these infantile feelings
that go with it; that is, the sense of timelessness, that the pain will never end."
-- Bonnie Randolph, R. N., Birth and Its Effect on Human Behavior,
The Denver Primal Journal

Strange as it may seem, I dislike seeing the sheets of a freshly-made bed - one I am about to enter. My disheveled slept-in bed from the night before is always much more inviting. For that reason, I never make my bed and the only time I sleep in a freshly made-up bed is after its linens are changed. Its not the feel or the smell of the new sheets that disturbs me. Nor is it the anticipation of the feel of the top and bottom sheets against my body which triggers this improbable reaction. It's the view - the way they appear!

Smooth, tucked in sheets, look so different from rumpled, slept-in sheets, that my mind classifies them as different - like different in an uninviting way. Perhaps, it's the tautness of the tucked-in fresh sheets which gives me pause. The rumpled bed does not trigger this feeling. It seems bizarre, but turning back the comforter, blanket and top sheet of a freshly made bed reminds me of death and dying. It took decades of regression therapy for me to discover why.

Birth was my first introduction to the reality of death. Indeed, I still don't understand how a pre-born could comprehend the possibility of its own annihiliation or death. But during my birth process such a consummation was devoutly to be wished. This was because, for me, the only alternative of suffering in the birth canal, for all eternity, was death. Death meant a surcease of suffering. Continuing to endure the pain of birth meant being confined, without redemptive hope, to an everlasting hell of torment and torture. Earlier, I had felt the pre-birth anxiety of not being able to get out -- to get born. As the discomfort began escalating, I pleaded with my mother for help to exit that place of torture, "Help me Mom, I'm Dying."

[A short aside. I almost always "say" my primal feeling, whether it involves a feeling during birth or a later hurt, as I have found that the feeling gets intensified when I verbalize it. However, purely physical birth work, have no words as it's only my body going through its efforts to get born and I'm almost like I'm a spectator to what is happening. I never say the feeling, as there is no feeling - the body just does what it wants to do during such episodes of suffocation, asthma, anoxia, coughing, choking and spitting up large quantities of mucous; guttural throat sounds; neck torsion pressure; facial pressure, including jaw, cheek bones, gums and head pain due to pressure and molding, feelings of being inverted, internal rotation, pressure involving the chest, lower and upper back; hands turned inward, arms twisting; twisting of legs, pressure on legs; shoulder blades compressions; full body spasms, seizures and contractions, twistings, convulsions and vibrations and many other actions too numerous to mention here. But going through the physical efforts of birth definitely can be accompanied by emotional feelings; if there is a feeling involved, to those feelings I always give voice. Like, "Help me Mom, I'm dying"; "I want to die", etc. It usually intensifies the feeling. Arthur Janov writes that the patient is silent while experiencing these feelings - That no words were used originally and no words are uttered during the primal. For me, physical birth feelings, no words; emotional birth feelings, yes, always]

But, how does a pre-born know it has a mother? I cannot answer that question either. All I can do is describe what I felt in reliving this phase of my birth process. I could neither advance nor retreat. I was stuck; I could not move. My birth pain was both emotional and physical and both were steadily increasing in severity. The pummeling my body was taking caused the anguish of despair. When the physical pain began, I had pleaded with my mother to help me - to help me get out of the torment I was enduring, but as no rescue was forthcoming, I became rageful at her and finally began pleading with her to help me to die. Before we were delivered from each other's suffering, I had reached not only the wish to die, but eventually reached the point of begging my mother repeatedly to kill me. There is something worse than severe physical and emotional suffering and that is feeling the hopelessness of not being able to die - of not being able to obtain relief from agony.*

It was during that state of mind, the way one imagines a soul must feel in hell, that I either became unconscious, dissociated, or the beginnings of my expulsion from my mother's body had begun. This is when I assumed that the white sheet which I earlier wrote about and which covered my birthing bed fixated my gazed attention and became forever linked with the torments of my beginnings.

As a child, but much less often as an adult, a fever was an open-ended invitation to my mind to conjure up its awful "twisting sheet routine." The scenario would occasionally present itself when I had had a fever and was between asleep and being awake. I assume that a febrile illness lowers one's defenses making repressed trauma easier to access.

At that time, I would have hallucinogenic movie episodes of a twisted sheet that would continually replay in my mind like a 5 second looped length of video tape. Each segment would end with my complete identification with what I was "viewing" - the symbolic reliving of maximal, almost unendurable, pressure and upper body twisting and turning. I was experiencing what I was seeing and seeing what I was experiencing.

When the image of the sheet became twisted to its maximum, the psychological pain also increased in severity and when both were stretched to their limits the experience shut off and then immediately rewound to the beginnings of the storyline as the nightmare sheet image began to slowly but inexorably tighten-up once again. During birth I must have felt a complete identification with what I had seen in the dream state as a twisting sheet accompanied with feelings of pressure, nausea and dread. Again and again, when the scene arrived at the point of maximal twisting, the scenario would again freeze the frame and then run off the sequence, once again, from its beginning. At that time the sheet upon which I was fitfully resting took on the aggressive qualities of my nightmare. It also was twisting and torturing me. The fever induced torment was repeated until I could force myself out of my semi-conscious dream state.

Once in group primal-oriented therapy I had inexplicably begun feeling particularly insightful about the origin of this scene and I asked the group members to twist a sheet directly in front of me, hoping that I could be triggered into feeling that early scene. The twisting of the sheet in group that night did not trigger the feeling but the earlier insight I had had was reinforced and I "knew" that it was related to my exiting the birth canal. I feel certain that it was a reliving of the external rotation of my head and body which occurs as the fetus is expulsed from the mother's body. [See on this website, Resolving the Rotation Trauma of the Birth Process. ]

I identified with the sheet because I had become traumatically paired with it during the final phase of my birth. It was the first thing I had seen outside of the uterus in the final birth phase - the torturous external rotation of my body. During this partial hallucination I was always nauseous but as with the original event I felt powerless and victimized since there was nothing I could do to stop the waves of revulsion I was enduring.

As I rotated and emerged from the birth canal, I viewed the sheets of the birthing bed from a changing perspective. What I saw became indelibly stamped into my memory to be relived in a partially symbolic unitive experience - my being one with my view of the bed sheet - although naturally, when I was born, I was the one being twisted - not the sheet.

My birth experience was so incredibly painful that when it finally ended I wanted nothing but rest and recuperation. I did not want to be breastfed or touched. If I had been touched or breastfed at that time all it would have done was remind me of the hellish experience I had just endured. Solitude as an aid for recuperation was my only need.

As a toddler, I had associated touch and physical help with pain. Whenever, I'd fall and someone would rush to help me to my feet, I would lash out with clenched fists and murderous rage. Although not understanding why I had to keep others from touching me, I clearly felt, "Leave me alone." I knew that all I needed was rest. No help could come from others. Being touched was too much of a trigger to repressed peri-natal pain.

I also know that my neck was traumatized during the rotation phase of the birthing process because for many years in later childhood, I had had a neck-cracking tic. Any situation which made me tense sometimes made me compulsively "crack" my neck.

As a young child, a weekly event which sometimes triggered my neck cracking tic was Sunday mass. Living in south Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun country, most residents of Leonville spoke French, so it was reasonable that we had a French speaking priest. Fr. Jean Batiste LaChapelle's sermons were long and at that time I understood very little French so there was nothing with which to occupy my time. His sermons, like my birth, seemed to go on forever. Seated in the uncomfortable pews, I would look to up to my mother for assurance that my intolerable waiting and frequent neck cracking tics would soon be over. I am sure my family was embarrassed by my Tourette's tic but I don't remember anyone ever speaking about it. I can imagine that it probably was said that John Allan est très nerveux.

Decades later, after I had begun deeply feeling my birth trauma, I experienced periods when I alternated between desiring touch and detesting touch. Invariably, after a deep birth primal, even on a subject not related to "touch" at birth, I often had a great desire to be held by a woman. I would often fall asleep fantasizing being held by a desirable woman. The closer in time, I would get to feeling, in therapy, a particularly deep birth trauma, the more I was repulsed by the idea of being held. My lifelong push/pull feelings expressed as a desire/attraction vs. fear/repulsion to physical intimacy had, as least, become partially explained.

Edvard Munch
Man and Wife


The majority of traumatic births do not involve such severe traumas as I experienced. But even a birth which doesn't flow smoothly can make a fetus, now an adult, feel anxious when he is waiting in a relatively short line to see a movie or make a bank deposit. These early moldings on the emotional/physical theme of ones fetus' birth can persist in behavorial and emotional imprints for the rest of our lives. They become factors which make us who we are. That is how our blank slate gets written upon. Even less severely traumatic births can imprint and later trigger feelings of death and dying.

The Linn brothers and sister, Sheila, in Healing Our Beginnings, 2005, on page 66, quote primal therapist and psychiatrist Graham Farrant, "If you want to know about someone's birth, ask them what is going on in their life right now." Graham believed that the reply would give you information about the person's troubled and persistent fetal feelings. Jules Roth, an early director of training at Janov's Primal Institute, in L.A., believed that some of us are so consumed with our birth traumas that, as we go about living our daily lives, we may be properly regarded as "walking fetuses."

Sheila Linn writes that, if they will soon be leaving on a trip, a good question to ask her husband, Dennis is,

"'What do you mostly want ?' He will reply, 'I want to leave early so I don't have to rush.' Denny is telling me about his birth, when he was late and had to rush so that he wouldn't die.

Matt will give a similar answer, 'I want to leave early,' but for a different reason. Matt will add, 'in case we get stuck in road construction or traffic.' Matt's reason reflects his birth, in which he got stuck in his mother's narrow pelvis and nearly died.

If you watch me with John, now a very active seven year-old, I will often say to him, 'Honey, please don't move your toys so fast in my face.' I am telling him about the forceps and my need to be able to protect my head.

And John will often say to me, 'Mama, be with me.' He is telling me about being in the womb of his birth mother, who was not emotionally present to him."' [my emphases] (pps. 66-7)

*Miller, D. W. Ph.D., (1977) Birth, Death and Organic Energy, A Somatopsychology, Part 1 - in Primal Community, Vol II, Nr. 1.
"One may question whether the terror the adult experiences in going through a birth primal is experienced at all by the preborn infant, and there is no simple answer. Nevertheless it appears safe to say from innumerable experiences with persons of all ages that the biological patterns that are established by the withdrawal or threat to the life support system remain very intact and are recoverable in fairly much pristine form as much as fifty and sixty years later. Obviously, a word like 'terror' is an adult form of identification which is applied later to birth's biologically patterned experience. The word 'death' is likewise an adult way of identifying a response to a physiological event, the two together giving 'terror of death' a not uncommon ego signification. The preborn of course does not have the words, it only has the biological patternings which eventually give rise to the words (Pierce)."

Also see other articles about these subjects on the Primal Psychotherapy Page:

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