A Personal Experience in Primal Therapy

by Bernadette Murphy

John, I thought that some of your website readers would be interested to read about my initial experience of Primal Therapy and I think it would be good for me to write some of it down in order to clarify for myself some of the aspects of it that have been very difficult to come to terms with. -- Bernadette Murphy

At the end of October '82 and again at the end of November '82, I experienced very early regression (birth, pre-birth, conception, cellular memories, evolutionary memories, fish and amphibian stage memories). The people around me diagnosed me as being mentally ill and suffering from a nervous breakdown. My defense system was broken down and I was left feeling extremely open and vulnerable.

One of the most terrifying things for me to cope with at this stage was other people's fear and their power to do things to me because I was 'ill' when I knew that they needed to do those things to me in order to stop their own feelings of helplessness coming up. There is nothing like emerging feelings of helplessness to prompt people into action and decision making aimed at whatever or whoever is triggering them.

What I needed and what was not available at the time was a person or people who could have taken care of me and would be able to cope with hearing about what was happening to me. My partner was able to do this for one week during the first episode. It seemed chaotic to others but to me it was as if all the separate fragments of my life were coming together.

I could feel and I realised that feelings were a part of being human. Quite an amazing insight to someone who had already lived for 30 years. The trouble was that all the feelings came back at once and I was totally wiped out physically. At times I was unable to move at all because I was exhausted and weak. At other times I was terrified, hurting, crying, laughing, fragile. These feelings changed sometimes from minute to minute and I think this was difficult for others to see. Because of other people's reactions and also because of their behaviour which triggered more feelings, I shut myself away in the bedroom and refused to see anyone except my partner and children.

My partner found the whole thing interesting but because he had been totally dependent on me, domestically, he found it hard to cope with ordinary day to day living and he wanted me to return to the way I was so that he could be relieved of the household chores and the hard work involved in looking after the needs of two children. Family and friends (I think feeling rejected because I refused to see them) began to work on him to persuade him I was 'ill' and persuade him to get a doctor to see me, which he did.

The look of terror in the doctor's eyes frightened me and I became very concerned for my safety. I told him that I did not want his drugs or psychiatry, but I knew that it would be necessary for him to do something which would affect me, to stop himself from feeling terrified. I told him I wasn't ill. He told me that I must be because I was not looking after the housework or children. I had nothing to say to that.

Later that day a psychiatrist called to see me. I heard his voice downstairs and it really frightened me because it was so hard and unfeeling, and very pompous. I knew that there was no way he had the capacity to understand what was happening to me. So I pretended to be asleep in the hope that he would go away.

My partner expressed his relief to the psychiatrist saying that it was the first time I had slept in five days. The psychiatrist tried to waken me by shouting and when I would not respond to his questions he told my partner that I was psychotic and he had to bring me to the hospital straight away. My partner suggested that this was probably not necessary and that now that I was sleeping I would probably snap out of whatever I was in. To which the psychiatrist responded by saying 'You must bring her. She is a danger to herself and others.' My partner started to laugh because it was so far from the truth. I was unable to lift a finger, I was so weak I was incapable of harming anyone. It took all my effort not to laugh as well. The psychiatrist became angry and said 'If you do not bring her this afternoon, I will section her.'

To cut a long story short, the fear of being under the power of this man in the hospital prompted me to literally 'pull myself together,' to get a grip on reality. I knew I had to get away from the people who knew me because they all expected me to behave in the way I had always behaved and this was not now possible. I needed time to build up my strength so that I could cope with being different and cope with other people's reactions to me being different. My partner was very supportive in this. He said that he needed a break from me and he thought he would be better able to cope with running the home and looking after the children without the added burden of looking after me.

He found a 'retreat like' place in Glastonbury, run by a family and booked me in there for a week. They knew nothing about me. He dropped me off there with a few summer clothes, without a coat (it was the beginning of November and quite cold) and without money. I did not realise until he had gone and I knew from then that I would have to find a way to help myself because he was not capable of even taking care of my very basic needs when I was not able to take care of them myself. While I was there in Glastonbury I walked into a book shop and straight to a shelf. Without looking at the titles, I picked up two books. One was called The Primal Scream and the other one The Feeling Child, both by Dr Arthur Janov.

I read bits out of both books and was amazed to read that experiences I had had in my 'breakdown' were similar to experiences people underwent in his therapy. I left the book shop without looking at any other books and I returned each day to read a bit more. When my partner returned to take me home at the end of the week I told him about the books and I also told him of the birth feelings that I had. He was interested but told me never to mention this to anyone else because they would think I was crazy. I did not feel that what had happened to me was crazy, and I also knew that I would need to find someone who would listen to my story and make some sense of it.

I had experienced so much in just a week. I had been on a journey that had turned me and my life upside down and although other people thought I was ill, I knew that a lot of it was positive and I wanted to understand it, not push it down with drugs or see it as an illness. I returned home and began to get strong again. However 4 weeks after the first 'breakthrough' (I prefer to call them 'breakthroughs') my defenses began to break down again.

As my partner's primal feelings began to rise he was not able to cope and he began to see me as 'ill' in order to rationalise what was going on for him. However, he was able to be very open to my experience during that first week and that gave me enough confidence in 'the process' to know that what was happening, whilst viewed negatively by most, was a very valuable experience. The tension in my partner began to rise and I began to feel afraid for my physical safety.

I called the Primal Institute in Los Angeles and while I was on the phone my partner overheard and started to hit me and call me crazy, saying that ordinary people like us don't call America. He took the phone off me and I was so upset I was sobbing. I thought that doing Primal Therapy was my last hope and he was taking this choice away from me. I was angry with him and I began to verbally assert myself with him, trying to put 10 years of relationship straight overnight. He physically attacked me, smashing my face and breaking my nose. I thought he would kill me and I walked all the way to the hospital and got them to admit me into the psychiatric unit.

To cut another long story short, they gave me two injections of chlorpromazine and I was totally out of it for 2 days. I was aware that my blood pressure was being taken frequently and the hushed whispers of voices around me made me think I was close to death. As soon as I came round a mixture of feelings started to rise and I knew that I needed to be on my own to feel them. I knew that if I could not feel them I would be unable to control my behaviour, they would then give me more drugs and I thought that I was too sensitive to the drugs and I might die from the effects. I managed to manipulate the staff into letting me out of the hospital but I was in a desperate state not knowing where to go for help.

My partner feeling guilty about beating me up (I suspect, although neither of us ever mentioned the incident) and also wanting to help me, telephoned the Institute in Los Angeles and was given the telephone number of the Institute in Paris. I began therapy at the Primal Institute in Avenue Percier in Paris in April '83. At the interview I had been told by France Janov that they would take me for the initial three week intensive, but that if it did not work out I would have to leave. I was terrified because I did not know how I was supposed to be in order to stay. I had never met anyone who had done any type of psychotherapy. I was in a foreign country, I did not speak the language. I did not know anyone and was in no fit state to make relationships with complete strangers.

I was terrified that my defenses would break down again, leaving me helpless, and yet I was doing a therapy that intentionally did this. I was wide open and vulnerable as a baby. I could barely look at anything because colours were so bright it was painful. I could hear things really loud and this was painful. I could not bear to look into people's eyes because I saw the pain there and thought they would attack me. I was all the time terrified of being attacked, murdered or mutilated by just ordinary folk going about their every day lives. I looked into peoples faces and saw murder there.

When I arrived at the Institute Art walked over to shake my hand and introduce himself. I can remember feelings of despair sweeping over me as I looked at him and thought 'My god, this guy is so full of shit. I have made a dreadful mistake. Should I go now?' I did not say or show any of this. There was no where else to go so I shook his hand and said 'Hi.' There was a registration process during which we had to sign a document disclaiming any rights should anything go wrong. This really frightened me. I knew I was in bad shape because I was only taken on trial for the initial three weeks, so if anything was likely to go wrong it would be with someone like me. I think what fightened me most about this was the not knowing what could go wrong and how that would leave me after.

There were three other people starting therapy at the same time as me. They all looked okay. I wanted to know why they were in therapy. There was Art, France, and two female therapists. I wanted to know why the therapists had come into therapy and I wanted to know what made Art Janov tick and what would happen to me if I inadvertently triggered his pain. I wanted to know who would be my therapist. This was probably the most important question for me. It meant the difference between staying or leaving therapy.

We were shown into a room where there was a video camera set up. I was thinking, how can I do therapy, these people are not sensitive enough for me, they do not understand what is needed, why are we being treated like this, how can they use a human being, who comes to them for help, in this way? I said nothing. In order to cope I shut everything out which included what Art was saying until he came to the bit where he wanted us to introduce ourselves to the camera. I knew that this was beyond what I was able to do. Even before my defenses had broken down I would not have been able to do it. I kept thinking that they would throw me out of therapy because I am not able to talk to a camera.

These people did not have the capacity to understand that I needed a real human being to talk to, someone who did not act out, someone who did not judge me and someone who could know what was going on with themselves enough to be able to let me see what was going on with me. Panic and despair were fighting for control over me. I sat there and said and did nothing. Each of the others went in turn. They all spoke in French. They were all able to do it. I knew I could not, but still I tried to put words together in my head. All I could manage was 'My name is Bernadette.' My brain would not let me think anymore. It was someone else's game we were playing here. I was being pushed into a role I could not and did not want to play. I needed to be with people who did not play games. I needed people who did not want me to do or be anything. I needed someone who could be there for me. Most of all I needed someone who could treat me as a human being, with sensitivity and understanding.

I thought I had made a terrible mistake coming here but at the same time there was no going back. I had to make a go of the therapy. If I went home now I would not be capable of taking care of my children and the pain I had caused them by leaving them would have been for nothing. My only reason for living was so that I could go back to them and help them to grow up. With their little faces in my mind it came to my turn to speak to the camera and I tried to do it for them. All I could say was 'My name is' and I broke down in tears. One of the therapists came over to me, put her hand on my knee and said that it was okay, that I would have a session with her later that day.

The despair lessened but I worried about what they would do next and I returned to the hotel room and contemplated suicide. I felt that my feelings were being manipulated and I was afraid. From then on until I left Paris I had thoughts that Janov had wired up my room and was filming every moment I was there. I thought that he was filming me in the street, everywhere, every day. I was never able to relax when I was there. I then went on to have three weeks of therapy with this therapist.

Each day I went to the Institute I thought that this would be the day they would tell me that the therapy was not working and I would have to go. I did not know how to be with her. I needed time to get used to her. Three weeks was not enough time. Looking back now I know that I did not need three weeks intensive therapy. I needed someone to commit to being my therapist for at least six months on a weekly or twice weekly basis but at the time, I had this idea from reading Janov's material, that if I did things their way I would be cured in a year to a year and a half. For me that was a big attraction to the therapy, that there was a time limit on the suffering I was going through.

However their way was a bit like taking a sledge hammerto crack a nut. I was very vulnerable and what defenses I did have were very fragile. The biggest difficulty I faced during my three weeks was that I sensed that the therapist was afraid of me. At the start of every session I panicked because I wondered what she would do to me because she was afraid. I never trusted those instincts, thinking that I was imagining things. Years later I found out from a friend who went to some of the supervision sessions because she was considering being a therapist, that this therapist went into supervision and was saying 'I don't know what to do with her' (meaning me). Art told her that that was her feeling and she had better go and feel it.

Although I know therapists would never discuss what was going on for them when with their patient. I really wish she had said it to me at the time. It would have made a difference. I was so afraid of having therapy 'done' to me and because of her fear I thought she would have to do something to me to stop her fear. During my breakthroughs I could see that the process was a natural one and I did not want anyone doing anything to me to produce a result that they were looking for.

Looking back now, I went into therapy looking for something different from what was being offered. Most patients had very strong defenses that needed to be broken down and the therapy seemed geared to doing that. They were looking to experience feelings as written about in Janov's books. I had a shattered defense system that was very fragile. I had already experienced life changing feelings and was really looking for a way to integrate them into my life. I just needed to make a relationship with someone who was real, who had a kind of map of their own pain and know what was mine and what was theirs so that they did not dump on me. I think this is all that anyone needs even when they have strong defenses.

After the first few sessions the therapist took me to a room with a videorecorder in it. She pinned a microphone to my clothes and I was so hurt by it all. She never asked if I wanted this. I swung between feeling full of despair that they couldn't understand what I wanted and needed, and feelings of rage that they could think it was okay to do this to me. I told her that I did not want the video running but she started it up anyway. I suppose generally people are more assertive than I was. I just simply told her and when she took no notice of what I said I hurt. I had been so well trained from infancy never to show my hurt. I became silent so I suppose she thought it must be okay to continue. And I kept thinking this is my session and I have no say in it. I could not feel safe because I had no say and she was afraid of me.

This reflects so well the relationship between my mother and myself. How this had created itself in the relationship with the therapist I find fascinating because it was not me creating it, but both of us. After about a week I could hardly speak to her at all. She kept asking me to lie down, but I did not want to lie down because I was terrified that I would go into early feelings. She kept asking me what was going on with me and I just said nothing. I knew things were going badly.

One night in the hotel room I was thinking that they would probably tell me that I had to leave. I could not go home to my kids in the state I was in. I would not be able to look after them and yet I was in so much pain living without them. I looked at their photos. They were so sweet and I told them that the next day I would go to the Institute and do whatever the therapist wanted me to do. I was terrified but I promised them that I would do it for them. When I arrived the next day Art was with her. I felt numb.

I knew this was it. He was going to tell me I had to go. I could not think. My mind raced in an effort to avoid feeling. Suicide was all that was left. They led me down to a room and Art told me to lie down. I didn't and neither did I speak. I was so afraid. He asked me what was happening with me. I couldn't tell him because I didn't want him to say I was too sick for therapy. He told me that things were not going well and that I would have to leave therapy. Then he told me to lie down. I did as I was told. Then he asked me to say what had happened in my breakdowns. My mind raced from one thing to another. What could I say? I did not know how much he would understand.

Then I told him about a dream I had had during the first breakdown. In the dream I was the young girl in the film 'The Exorcist' and all the things that happened to her in that film were happening to me. (When I had seen this film on the cinema, I kept waking up in cold sweats for about a week afterwards.) The thing was that when I woke up from the dream I did not know it was a dream, I really thought I was that girl and all those things really had happened to me. It wasn't until I came out of the breakdown that I realised that it had been a dream. As I was telling him I started to cry. He touched my head with his hand and said 'It's okay' which meant 'you can stop now.' He explained about nervous breakdowns and how I had too many first line feelings (editor: repressed birth pain) coming up. He told me that I would have to see a doctor and get prescribed medication.

I told him I did not want to take drugs and he said that if I didn't I would have to leave therapy. He explained how the drug was in a small dose which was enough to hold back the first line feelings so that I could feel second and third line feelings first. He came into the next session and let the female therapist work with me. Somehow he helped me and her to connect. From then on the therapist became more relaxed with me. She persevered with trying to video me 'in action' but I could not perform and eventually she gave up.

Art worked in a very instinctive way. I will always be grateful to him for what he gave me. I know in my heart of hearts that if I had had to leave therapy there was no where else for me to go and I would have killed myself, not because I wanted to die but as the only way to stop the pain. I see that Art comes in for a lot of criticism, some of it valid, but I can only speak as I find, and he helped me at a time in my life when no one else was there to help me. I will always be grateful to him for that. Therapy was extremely difficult for me. I always felt that I was walking a tightrope between living close enough to my pain to resolve it, and breaking down so that I could not function.

John, This was how I got into Primal therapy. This is just a small part of my experience. There is so much more that I think it is too much to write in one go. I really appreciate that you are there to send this to. Otherwise no one would ever know and I somehow feel that my experience may be of interest to and helpful to someone out there. Please feel free to publish it and my internet address on your page. At some stage in my life, if I ever get time and enough money to live on without working, I would like to write a book about it all.

Best wishes,

Bernadette Murphy

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