Michele: An Interview

Michele, 31 years old, grew up with her brother, Ricky, in a middle class, Jewish family in Philadelphia. She attempted college but only stayed three semesters before dropping out of school and into drugs. For the next several years she was functional off and on - being able to work when she was on drugs and being non-functional when she wasn't. Until recently, her whole life has been geared towards survival alone.

Michele: When I first read The Primal Scream, I really was in bad shape. But I was in such bad shape that I don't think I was aware of it. I was doing speed all the time. I had hepatitis; I was real sick. I was living with a guy who sort of took care of me - he's 12 1/2 years older than I am - and he'd go to work and be gone for eight hours, and I'd still be laying in the same position in bed, and he'd say, "What did you do?" and I'd say, "I don't know," and I wouldn't remember. I read The Primal Scream at that point, and I was so far under that I just said, "Well, who doesn't know this?" and, "This isn't important," and, "I don't even see the point of it," and just kind of threw the book away. And about a year, a year and a half later, I was in a real good place, I was functional, - functional for me meant I could get out of bed every day and go shopping and cook, and I was taking dance classes occasionally. But it still felt like agony all the time just to do those things. But I was able to see that I really needed help. I wanted to go to a hypnotist because I had bad feelings about conventional psychiatry, so I didn't want to do that.

Bob: Was that your first attempt at psychotherapy?

Michele: Actually, all through my childhood I'd been sent to psychiatrists and psychologists, and I wouldn't open up to them at all . . . my teachers would call my parents and say that they felt that they should take me to a psychiatrist. I was very arrogant. I was really feisty in a lot of ways - but I also was real, real spaced out. I was rebellious against everything that the teachers said, plus I just couldn't concentrate at all, so I was flunking nearly everything in school. I was one of those stories where they thought that I was really smart and why wasn't I doing it, so it had to be an emotional problem. I always had a real "Fuck you" attitude, which was a facade, because most of the time I wasn't there at all.

Bob: . . . . you mentioned the hypnotist?

Michele: Yes. That seemed like the closest thing that would help me really get back to what it was that was bothering me.

Bob: So you knew then that it was something that you had to get back to.

Michele: Yes, I guess I did. Probably, when I read The Primal Scream I wasn't ready for it. But it was in my brain, because about a month after I decided to see a hypnotist, I said to myself, "Well, let me read this book again." And I went out and got it, and read it, and I said, "This is what I want to do." So I went out to L.A. I wasn't all that suicidal at that point. Once a day I would become terrified - it would only happen about once a day, I'd feel like I was going insane - and the rest of the time I just felt real bad. I'd think about suicide, but it wasn't there all the time.

The guy that I was living with was a good defense for me - he's Scottish, very, very strong and functional, and I kind of vicariously took some strength from him. On the second day of therapy in L.A., as soon as I was away from him, all my pain came up, and I started cutting my wrists. From the second day of therapy on, I'd carry razor blades around with me, feeling suicidal 24 hours a day. I decided that if I was going to go through the therapy I had to do it alone, because he was too much of a defense for me. So I didn't ever live with him again.

Bob: How was he a defense for you?

Michele: He must have given me something, some kind of strength. I really got something from him, because after I left him I went right back to the place I'd been a year before that, which was totally incapacitated. I couldn't walk around without a razor blade - it was symbolic for me to have it. I didn't do that when I was living with him. I did OD once and try to kill myself, and I think I did cut my wrist once, but it wasn't a constant thing like it was when I started therapy.

I don't think that I should have had therapy the way it was. I don't think the way Primal therapy was done was a good thing for me at that point, because there was just one way to do it - you had a three week intensive, and that was it; then you went to groups. I feel like, the way my pain was, having that three week intensive was not a good idea, because I opened up too fast, and there wasn't anything I could do. It would have been O.K. to not be isolated in a hotel and have a session every day if I had been encouraged to talk. I think that what I needed really, was to have some defenses built up, rather than be broken down.

I was always real close to my pain, but I guess I was just hanging on by a thread to my sanity, and my defenses, then everything opened up too fast. It wasn't a good thing. When I look back on my intensive, I don't feel like I got any good out of it at all. I can't think of one thing.

Of course, my therapist was very young. I think I was his first patient. He said he didn't have any pain before the age of eight, and he really wasn't good for me. He had no idea what to do with me, or what was happening to me. He'd tell me weird things like I had narcolepsy, and I didn't .....!

Bob: What was it like after the three weeks? Was there anything helpful, or useful, in that six or seven months that followed?

Michele: I'm sure there was. My therapy seems to have gone differently from most people - and I think that's where some of the problems came up. I was expecting it to be like everyone else's. For example, in the past year, since I've been away from the Center - and I hardly ever primal - I have connected more pain than I did in four years before that. I connect it by being up. . . . I don't connect it by being down in the feelings. I connect the things that I've felt over and over. When I go down in a feeling, I never can come up far enough to really see what's happening. I look back over the past year, I can even look back to the time that I was in L.A., and see that there were some changes made and I did - did connect some of my pain. But at the time I don't think that I realized that.

Bob: Can you give an example of that?

Michele: Oh, it's amazing! As I'm walking around sometimes or when I lay down to feel, things click in, you know, like ten things in half an hour - click, click, click, click.

Bob: Think of the last time you did that. What was it like for you?

Michele: I can think of a time about three or four weeks ago when I sat with someone. (Now, when I sit with someone it happens even more.) It's a real good way for me to connect things in myself, depending on where they're at - depending on what they're feeling. The person that I was sitting for had only been in therapy a year or so, and was going through all different levels and all different splits and all different emotions, and going from anger to feeling crazy to feeling drugged. As he was doing that my head was connecting all of the times that I felt like that. It goes right into my head and right inside me and I know what it is. I seem to make connections on all different levels.

Bob: Can you describe in more detail what you mean by a connection?

Michele: Connection, to me, is hitting what I call the absolute bottom line of my pain, where there's no emotion left at all. It's completely physical. And then being able to come up and see that feeling on all different levels - how I've used it, how I got there, and how I relate to it in my life.

What I've really done in the past year that's made the connections stronger and more solid was to break patterns. For some reason, even though I felt all the feelings, I could not break the pattern of my behavior in the present. I would keep doing the same thing over and over again. Maybe I hadn't gone down in the feeling enough, but it seemed like there'd never be enough time to do that. What happened in the past year is, as I would repeat a destructive pattern I would think, "I know where that feeling is coming from; why am I still doing it?" Then I would have to fight - it was like a war - in the present, to break the pattern. And once I broke the pattern it was gone.

Bob: So you had to change your behavior in the present, actively, willfully, in order to change your life in the present. It's not just a matter of lying down and feeling.

Michele: Not any more.

Bob: You have some internal sense as to where the feeling comes from, but you also have to do this other part.

Michele: Right - for me. Now, I don't know if everyone else is the same way.

Bob: It's important to hear you say this. One way I think of it is that I have to do something in the present with my life and feel the pain of doing that rather than only dropping into the feelings on the floor - I have to go through the behavior.

Michele: Exactly, exactly right!

Bob: . . . and feel that pain, which is sometimes more painful than only having the feeling.

Michele: That's the same thing, except I feel like I have to do both. I've felt a lot of the pain before but the patterns weren't broken and the behavior didn't change that much, until I felt it more in the present. It might be possivle to be all done at once.

For some reason I was overwhelmed by my first line pain almost all the time. I don't feel that my pain is worse than anybody else's. In fact, I don't even think it's as bad sometimes as some people's. I think that it's almost a genetic and a chemical thing for me - that I'm so sensitive I just do not have the buffers against stimulus that some people have. There are a lot of traumatic things that happened to me. I was not able to build up functional defenses. I think that what I've done in the last year is build up functional defenses. My pain hasn't changed. I've just learned how to defend against it in a more constructive way. I had defenses before, but they were all very destructive defenses.

Bob: Was suicidal behaviour a pattern that you changed willfully, or was it something that happened as the other, more appropriate defenses grew?

Michele: All of a sudden, one day, I decided I wanted to stay alive. I really had never known that I wanted to stay alive. Once I decided that, I no longer had the option that had been my way out - to kill myself because I couldn't stand the pain. . . I couldn't stand the suffering. Since I have decided that I wanted to stay alive the suicidal feelings still come up, but not nearly as often as they used to. Now I have this other part of me saying, "You can feel that all you want but you're not going to kill yourself - you're just not going to do it!" So, if the pain is too much and I don't feel like I'm strong enough to handle it I have got to find a way to get out of it.

I feel I have a lot of control. I have to have that - it's just the way I am. If I don't have a lot of control I might kill myself. But the control that I have offers me a choice. I know I'm in pain, I know what the trigger is, I know what I need to feel; and my choice is, "Can I feel it? Can I handle it?" And if I can't, I have to do something else with it.

Bob: Like what?

Michele: Like dancing. I can get rid of some of my pain by dancing - physical activity. It's just easier, see? It's through feeling some of it that it's not as heavy as it was, it's not as overwhelming as it was, and now I'm able to dance.

Bob: You said you used to dance before therapy.

Michele: A little bit. My physical pain was so bad. Getting out of bed to go to the bathroom most of the time was as much of a struggle as it would be for someone to work eight hours. So I would dance. All through my life I've taken dance lessons, and I'd get into it real heavily for maybe three months at a time before I just was totally exhausted, and then I wouldn't do it for another two years. It's something that I always felt I had a gift for. Dancing to me is like being in love.

Bob: Are you saying that dancing is a defensive maneuver now, it helps you. . .

Michele: No, I don't like that word for it. No... it's not a defensive maneuver. The dancing can be used to channel part of the pain and the tension. In other words, instead of going through different levels like crying and getting off tension, I can channel that energy by dancing. Now at the bottom level of physical pain, there's nothing I can do with that. That's just to me real, pure primal pain, and I can't dance that off. Once I'm in that, there's nothing I can do except wait until it's gone.

Bob: Does dancing bring you pleasure?

Michele: Not all the time. It's really painful a lot of the time. I became very inhibited as a child. My mother tells me of a time when she and I went to the train station - my father was overseas - and she went to see if the train was coming. She told me to sit still and not move. She said when she came back I was in the middle of a circle of people, singing and dancing, and entertaining them. They said, "She's another Shirley Temple!" My mother exaggerates - that may not be true - but I always could dance.

It was an instinctive thing. I don't hear music with my ears, I hear it with my body, and I start to move. Now what's really painful is learning a technique . . . I don't have any discipline. What I've learned in the past year, what I'm working to learn is discipline because you can't just get up and do something, you have to learn first. There are certain things that you have to train your body to do.

The joy of dancing comes when my body doesn't hurt. I've gotten to the point where the music fills me up and I move. I become the music. That's a different thing than trying to practice, which I try to do, too. I'll practice for a couple of weeks and then it starts to get difficult to continue. When that happens I call upon this positive direction in my brain that I never had before. I can say to myself, "You made up your mind you want to dance. I don't care what all of these feelings are that come up - that I can't, I'm too tired, I don't know if I want to anyway, I don't even know if I want to stay alive. You made up your mind that you want to dance, and that's what you're going to do first, before you do anything else!"

It's a constant struggle - not always that bad - but it is a constant, kind of struggle for control. These words sound bad, for some reason, but I don't think they are, and I would never say that dancing is a defense for me.

Bob: You were saying the defenses that kept you alive before were crazy, and the things that you do in your life now that also keep you from having to drop into feelings are not crazy.

Michele: Some of them are still a little crazy, but they're not destructive. There is a difference. I would say that talking is a defense for me. I feel that for almost 28 years of my life I couldn't talk or express myself adequately. Now all I ever want to do is talk. Talking is a defense for me, a way of getting off the feeling. But I also learn a lot about myself. Talking helps me connect things that I've felt.

Bob: When would you begin talking defensively?

Michele: All the time. I do it all the time, whenever I get a chance! The reason that I feel that that's a defense and that it's crazy is that it comes up in a burst - I can feel it, I'm very connected to the drive to talk. But I don't feel it's that bad. If it really irritates somebody they can tell me to shut up, but who am I really harming? It's not like taking drugs.

Bob: What happens when you don't talk?

Michele: It's not that kind of a thing. I live by myself, so there are hours and hours and days and days that I don't talk to anybody - I also like that. I pull the phone out of the wall and shut all the doors and won't answer the door bell. That's something that I need to do to recharge myself.

I can catch myself right in the middle of talking, feel the feeling that is driving that compulsive talking. Then I can get in touch with how much my body's hurting, but it's still not a matter of having to lay down on the floor.

I always feel really in touch with where I'm at - that's one thing that's changed. I never feel split anymore. I used to be constantly watching myself. I never did a thing without seeing a mirror image of myself. I was either sitting across the room or sitting in front of myself, or there were movie cameras watching me. It seemed like someone was watching me all the time. I don't have that any more, at all.

Bob: Do you know what that connects to?

Michele: Yes. I have a sense of it on quite a few different levels. It feels like it started during my birth. Every time I blacked out, I could feel my body coming out of itself, rising up, and looking down at myself. To me, this is part of death. This is where the feeling of always watching myself begins. I can remember all through my childhood watching myself, walking down the street feeling like people were watching me; walking into a store feeling like there was a TV camera, a movie camera, and I was always on stage. I think that it was cemented more by the fact that I was not allowed to be spontaneous around my mother or around my father.

When I was older I remember a friend telling me that she'd never heard me laugh. It surprised me - I had often laughed inside. I hadn't realized that I never laughed aloud. I was that split from myself.

Bob: What about now?

Michele: I feel completely spontaneous. I feel very connected to life.

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