Intimations of Birth:
Traveling and Elevator Rides as
Primal Triggers

by John A. Speyrer

"The relation of phobias to the birth trauma is most evident in the fear of
closed and narrow places (claustrophobia). It occurs in confined
situations, such as elevators, small rooms without windows,
or in subways, and the emotional distress is strictly limited
to the duration of the stay in these places."

-- Stanislav Grof, M.D., Beyond The Brain, p. 280

Riding in automobiles and using elevators have long been potent symbols of my traumatic birth.

Train Trips, Automobile Trips and Elevator Rides

Driving an auto has, on occasion, triggered primal feelings. The feelings were of death and dying in the birth canal. At other times, just feelings of pleadings and sadness. Once, the ten minutes feeling continued until the exact moment when I drove up to the carport. I felt that was no coincidence.

As a child, elevator rides were more consistently a metaphor of birth than even the adult triggerings of primal feelings during automobile rides.

Our family lived in an area with few tall buildings and thus few elevators, but as a child, those occasional trips to large cities always meant elevator rides -- but not for me. The thought of riding in an elevator was just too scary. Instead, I walked up the many flights of stairs. The motion of the elevator, its confining space, the possibility of not being able to get out, of getting stuck -- there were just too many symbols in an elevator ride which were unconscious reminders of my birth journey.

As I got further and further away in time from these blocked memories of birth, elevators and traveling they no longer had their earlier triggering effects. At about age ten, riding an elevator had become an exciting challenge. It was counter-phobic behavior and the thrill of risk-taking made it fun, although, to this day, riding in small, one-person elevators continues to make me feel uneasy!


  • After spending holidays at home, I would sometimes return to college in New Orleans via rail. The arrival of the train in New Orleans was always accompanied with feelings of abandonment and sadness. During the trip I felt a sense of being cared for. After having arrived at my destination there was a let down, a feeling of aloneness, of low-grade depression. The feeling of isolation and aloneness was further heightened when I'd step off the train. On each return trip to college, upon debarkation from the train, these feelings were reactivated.

  • During military service, I reported to Ft. Lewis, Washington for overseas assignment. I felt out of sorts as a result of the flight from Ft. Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. It was a feeling of too much happening too quickly. Only a small leg of the trip had been completed. The major portion of the journey to some Asian destination was still before me. I felt I needed to rest.

    If I were ill, I reasoned, I would be sent to the Army hospital, and there I could get rest and repose. Hoping to get sick, or, at least, a very bad cold, I exposed myself by unbuttoning much of my shirt and walked in the cold wind.

  • My overseas assignment was on the island of Okinawa. After 18 months I was scheduled to return to the United States for service discharge. I was lucky to have returned to the States by plane but it had involved a long, circuitous flight and upon arrival at an army barracks in San Francisco, I had felt depressed, nervous and could not sleep.

    The extended traveling was becoming intolerable. I needed to rest. I felt I could not go on any longer; yet another leg of the trip to Arkansas for discharge from service had to be made, and after that, the last leg of the trip to get home was also before me. I was overwhelmed and distraught. I needed the journey to end right away; I had an imperative need to recuperate.

    Once again reading my military orders, I realized that I was not required to be at Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas for another four days. That meant that I would be able to immediately return home in Louisiana and rest before reporting to camp in Arkansas for discharge. Upon this realization, my mood immediately changed. I become content and joyful. I would get that chance to recuperate from my journey sooner instead of having to immediately continue on two more legs of the trip.

  • A year or so later, one Summer, my grandmother, my uncle and I drove to Nebraska to visit relatives. The trip was tiring and insomnia developed each night. After I arrived at my Aunt and Uncle's home in Lincoln, insomnia was no longer a problem.

Last night, all of the incidents above flooded into my mind and their common theme became especially clear and meaningful. The insights had come without a primal regressive re-living. Rather, they had dribbled in over the years, the result of having felt regressive feelings during many hundreds, no, thousands, of birth primals. The insightful understandings had been purely an intellectual, although deeply satisfying, tying-together of the various separate memories.

All of the incidents cited had, at various times triggered unconnected birth feelings relating to the unconscious traveling metaphors of my birth. Their truth and personal significance had appeared surprisingly, suddenly and clearly in my mind.

* * *

"He doesn't speak, the newborn? Why his entire being shouts out,
"Don't touch me! Don't touch me!" And yet at the same time,
imploringly, begging, "Don't leave me! Don't leave me!"
This is birth. This is the torture, the Calvary."

-- Dr. Frederick Leboyer

My birth had been a brutal affair. I have relived many, many times my fetal belief that the battering I was undergoing in the birth canal would kill me. Fetal-me thought surely I would die. As painful as that feeling was, it was soon replaced by an even more disheartening one -- the wish to die in the birth canal and the actual begging of my mother to help me to die!

Sometimes I would plunge into even more emotionally wrenching feelings as I began begging my mother to kill me! "Please kill me Mom," I screamed. (I cannot explain how a fetus knows it has a mother, but it does - it does!) Dying would have been better than the suffering I was going through. I don't believe a fetus knows anything about death but it seemingly knows about non-existence and that is what I had wanted. Later in life I would understand what the word "kill" meant, so that was the word I had used to express the feeling content of the primal during the regression.

Immediately after birth, the only need I had was for rest and recuperation. Touch was unwanted as it would only have reminded me of the touch/torture I had just endured.

Each of the incidents recounted above were unconscious replayings of how I had felt immediately after delivery. The rhythmic physical movements during the claustrophobic feelings of travel I had had later in life, seemed like mini-births to those places in my brain where unknown memories were stored. My conscious memory had searched its databases looking for past experiences with the same emotional content I was experiencing, in order to make sense of what was happening in the present. Because of their huge amount of physical and emotional pain, my brain had immediately latched on to the repressed memories of my birth.

Repressed experiences could not be processed except as neurotic feelings and behaviors. Decades later, as a result of self-primalling efforts, the experienced though inaccessible memories began to become unblocked and I began re-living early traumas.

After each travel incident was over, the unconscious feeling of just having been born was replayed, with its accompanying feeling of needing rest and recuperation. Even the symptom of insomnia was a replay of the rising into consciousness of the trauma of my birth. Today, symptoms of insomnia are worsened the night before I have a particularly deep regressive birth primal feeling.

* * *

As a toddler and young child, whenever I would fall and hurt myself, I would became angry and combative towards anyone trying to help me to my feet. Flailing wildly with clenched fists, I would strike unmercifully at any helpers who came to my rescue by trying to lift me to my feet. The need to recuperate had once again taken precedence over every other need I had had; as when immediately after birth, I had wanted no nursing at the breast and no touch from anyone, not even from my mother -- only healingful repose.

For a lighter and more amusing read on the same subject,
see Perinatal Performance At the Museum of Art, by Chris Boyd, Ph.D.

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