"I knew that talk therapy was over for me. If 17 years
once or twice a week, had not
finished off my panic attacks
then talk therapy simply was not capable of
doing so. I
had given it my all....I did not just need a different
I needed a different
-- Norm Cohen
I recently celebrated my one-year anniversary in primal
therapy. I say "celebrate" because my birth into primal therapy
has become a milestone in my life. It was a long time in coming
and needlessly so. I spent 17 years in psychotherapy, but my
panic attacks that started when I was 11 kept re-emerging it
various forms. In the final three years, they came back with a
vengeance, as often as twice a week.
It was painful to be in my body. Something was shaking
most of the time. My skin was crawling. My chest was aching.
My heart was beating strangely. I felt that I was going to die a
slow, painful death.
Each time I had a panic attack, it took a day or two for
my body to recuperate. I was becoming a zombie, constantly
trying to restore some balance after my last attack. No sooner
had I recovered from one, but a new one would begin. It was a
vicious cycle: it took less and less to trigger attacks, and they
were growing more and more intense.
I knew that talk therapy was over for me. If 17 years
once or twice a week, had not finished off my panic attacks
then talk therapy simply was not capable of doing so. I
had given it my all. What I
learned was certainly useful
in adult life, but not effective
in treating trauma. I did not just need a different
therapist, I needed a different
I had suspected from early on that the feebleness
of words was the problem. If
I was ever to get better, I
needed something far more powerful, something non-verbal
and visceral. But what? After many Google searches, I stumbled
upon primal therapy. Since I did not know what I was looking
for, it was only by luck that I finally found what I needed.
I was searching under post-traumatic stress, which was
the best way I had to describe my problem, and I came across
Barbara Bryan's listing, where the words "post-traumatic stress"
and "primal therapy" were put together for me for the first time.
I had some vague notion that primal therapy's practitioners
remember their birth. This I dismissed as improbable and not at
all related to the panic attacks that beset me.
I began the therapy skeptically, as it all seemed rather
vague to me. I kept waiting to hear my therapists explain "the
technique." The whole process felt contrived, but I lay on the
mat each week and let myself go. I have the privilege to work
with Barbara Bryan, Bill Russell, and Karen Kendall, who have
given me three gifts - safety, permission, and acceptance. From
these I have evolved a primal process for myself that seems to be
In my previous therapy, I would cry once or twice a year.
Maybe. Since the start of my primal therapy, I cry every week.
My body was enlisted to bring out feelings, but my non-verbal
development emerged slowly and tentatively. It was a starkly
physical process that I did not understand, but obviously it was
coming from somewhere in me. I played along with it. I learned
how to start it up, stand back, and let it rip. I would not know
how it would end until the session itself had ended.
At some point I realized that I was not just playing. I was
becoming a live puppet for my unconscious, spontaneously
grinding out rage, fear, and sadness in front of my stunned self.
"Where the hell did that come from?" I asked at the end of each
session. I had finally met the power responsible for my panic
attacks. We were communicating now for the very first time.
My therapists and I were able to reconstruct my panic
attacks in the laboratory of the primal room. I played the victim,
then the perpetrator, and then the rescuer. I have been inside
my mother, been suffocated, been born, been spanked, and
been killed. I have been my mother, been pregnant, given birth,
and beaten my baby. My mother has spoken to me, and I have
spoken to my mother.
I have crawled around the room with a face full of snot. I
have choked, drooled, and slobbered. I have barfed into a
bucket. I have primaled with a baby
doll, a baby bottle, a pacifier, and
a plastic bag over my head.
I have been crushed in a
corner. I have raged like a lunatic.
At my request, my "deviant" therapists hug me, cradle me, lie on top of me, and
crush me. They play every part of my mother and every part of me.
They watch when I beat my baby doll to death, tearing him to
pieces. They sandwich a pillow between my body and my bat
when I hit myself. They watch and listen.
I watch and listen. Once the process begins, it takes on a
life of its own. I am in a dream. Consciousness suddenly runs in
parallel. The voyeur, the participant, and the perpetrator are
simultaneously in the primal room. My childhood feelings and
my feelings about those feelings go bouncing off the walls of the
room like boomerangs. My body gets hit, and I am crying and
Questions that I could never really answer in talk therapy
are now being answered clearly in primal therapy. It's as if I
have learned how to use a supercomputer, and now I can put it
to work on large, perplexing questions. Sure enough, the primal
process shows me the answers that explain my symptoms in a
surprising and profound way.
My way forward is primal therapy. The process is taking
me where I need to go. My panic attacks have become less frequent and less intense. As the IPA slogan goes, I "Feel Different."
Norm Cohen's "Finding a Place to Cry: My Path into Primal" is from the March, 2007 issue of the International Primal Association Newletter. Reproduced with permission.