Sliding Scale Primal:

Confessions of an Undercover Primal Therapist

by "RockManEnuff"*

The author does unofficial primal-type work in a government supported mental health facility. I have read of a number of clients who have had their first primals in such environments, sometimes to both their own and their therapist's discomfort. This was my first contact with a therapist doing primal work in such a facility. In such surroundings, primal work is definitely a challenge.

The author said that when a client first enters his office, she has no concept of primal or any deep feeling therapy. "Those who do best are those who harmonize, in the first few sessions, and at a heartfelt level, with my "wisdom sound bites" such as, You can't heal the roots by manicuring the leaves. (Those who don't know they have "roots" get level-one therapy, or get transferred.)"

"On the other hand, I know that the power of the work is limited by the room environment, which includes my presentation. One example of the latter would be: I invite clients to lie on the floor -- but not with a whole lot of enthusiasm. There is no soundproofing, and no lock on the door. If my supervisor were to walk in. . . . !

*The author regrets that he must remain anonymous, at least while he works for "The Man."

John Speyrer has invited me to write about my work as a primal therapist in a small-town community mental health center. Even to me, that is a piquant phrase - something like "bull in a china shop," or worse, "ten pounds of - - - - (feeling) in a five pound bag." But the work is an exquisite challenge - exquisite - and is almost always very rewarding.

Community mental health centers, as you probably know, generally employ licensed counselors and social workers who have had training in the basic counseling techniques (empathic relating, reflection, concreteness, confrontation, immediacy, etc.), but little to no exposure to controversial theories or drastic therapies.

This is the world of emergency services, case management, cognitive/behavioral brief therapy, DBT, "strength-based" approaches (focusing on the client's positives), maintenance meds, and rapid client turnover (and recycling). For a splash of color, EMDR is sometimes available.

I carried my own psychotherapeutic outlook through the master's and post-grad clinical course work which led to the LPC (licensed professional counselor). It was a primal-focused outlook, which I had come to through very conflicting origins: my lifelong search for inner and outer truth, and my erstwhile narcissism (DSM-IV). An example of the fruit of this odd partnership is the fact that I came to admire and accept (originally) Janov's ideas not because they were right, but because they were consonant with the truths which I had, independently, discovered in myself

Through the last few years I've built a therapeutic life force that is primal while being a versatile shape-changer. My "primal therapist self" intervenes with suicidal teens and self-mutilating "borderlines," assesses boyish wife-batterers, gently confronts (or lectures) somatizing women who have no insight, plays with false-euphoric traumatized children, agonizes with and kindly touches pathological liars, compromises with those whom feeling would nearly kill, and finds the peculiarly bent key which opens the peculiarly shaped lock of shut-down, "dysthymic" spirits.

My techniques and outlook come partly from the literature. I've added favorites to the basic primal writings (Janov, Jensen, Sheppard, Miller, Stettbacher, Vereshack, etc.), such as The Masterson Approach's therapy of personality disorders; Bettelheim's superior empathy with children; Levenkron's "nurturant-authoritative" re-parenting therapy of OCD, anorexic and self-cutting teens; Branden's Sentence Completion and "Death Bed Situation" techniques; and others.

More substantive parts of my approach come from experience. Mostly, however, I work from an ever-expanding palette of my own "felt sense" into pain, defenses, and the kaleidoscopic idiosyncrasies too subtle for any microscope, or theory-colored lens, to detect. I believe a really good therapist must be like a radar, continuously rotating, detecting as many invisible and visible waves emanating as possible, present and past.

Most of my clients sit in a chair, though I encourage them to move around, to swing, to yell, to feel self-pity, to throw stuffed animals, to rip tissue boxes, to dilate their soul. Some walk the room, lost in themselves, shuddering like crpe paper in the wind. Others (mostly women), come in, shut off the lights, get down on my nine-dollar Wal-Mart exercise mat, and reach their depths.

Even these, I must acknowledge, probably reach primal horizons circumscribed by the physical properties of the room and by the atmosphere in it: my anxiety, though now at a minimum, about supervision, which could walk through the door and be shocked (despite my advance warnings to staff). But to see the middle-aged woman on the floor in an unsoundproofed room, screaming into her coat; or the man shaking uncontrollably in his truth and telling me he is not aware that he is sitting in a chair, is to know that primal can happen at many levels.

Given this forum, I'd like to put forth two of my own "reinventions" of the primal wheel. One is my awareness that a primal therapist may in fact help the client reach more authentic selfhood than the therapist has achieved. It is no problem for me to help, or watch, my clients experience raw and holocaust-level feeling that I haven't felt. When she is going there, I vibrate - literally - to her emotional harmonics, and welcome everything she finds. Why not?

Another personal tool is my conviction that "cure" is an erroneous and blind concept. The adult is - pre-primal or post-primal - a default of dissociative defenses. To the extent that we are adult, with our experienced eyes, our conceptual speech and conceptual impulses fueling it, our stuckness in the maturity-demanding present, we are neurotic. Conversely, "cure" would be regressing the person back to his screaming baby in the crib - and leaving him there.

Another aspect of this idea is that developmental abort, in the first years of life, is nonrecoverable. Feeling feelings clear through does not rekindle the developmental process of normal autistic, normal symbiotic, and separation/ individuation phases. This outlook translates as a therapeutic tool for me in at least one major way: I don't believe that adults, or even older adolescents, can be re-parented; I do not hold them or nurture them. I do, however, support them.

Doing primal work in a community agency is not my ultimate goal, but I do remain ambivalent about it. I don't believe I'd like to do only the major surgery of deep-feeling process. The challenge of the smiling narcissistic personality; the hair-trigger borderline personality; the depressed and scarred-over woman inert behind her "I don't care" mantra; the violent, macho man - is delicious, and enriches my mind and spirit with great variety. Ultimately, I may move into a private practice in the near future and become - as I am here - a slightly covert primal therapist.

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