"Primal therapy is not for the faint-hearted, it is a
This split can take many forms, from the extreme where the person becomes "split in two" with a greater part of his personality becoming repressed; to less severe splitting off where a painful incident becomes blocked off from consciousness. (Another form of splitting is Multiple Personality Disorder, but that is beyond the scope of this article).
Over the years I have been intrigued by noticing the number of ways in which different people undergoing Primal Therapy, split reality in order to survive. The illustrations given here are from my own insights in Primal Therapy and those of two friends (who I will call Mark and Andy) who also went through therapy in the late 1970s at the Primal Institute in L.A., and who became part of a "primal buddy support group" which we formed after returning home to South Africa.
It must be noted that this list does not claim to be exhaustive, and that the ways of splitting described here form more or less "ideal types", which the three of us just happened to illustrate. Some people might fall somewhere on a continuum between the types, or use a combination of these defences.
THE EXTERNAL SPLIT
The person who uses this defence does not necessarily split himself, or even his way of perceiving the the world in general. Instead, at a definite point it time, he splits someone outside himself into two people in order to cope, while at the same time being totally unaware of what has occurred. Thus, I unconsciously split my mother into two people, because to acknowledge that "good mommy" and "bad mommy" were one and the same person would have totally devastated me as a child.
"Good mommy" was the mother who breastfed me (albeit only once every four hours!) and who picked me up and walked the floor with me when I cried. When I was bigger, she played games with me, read me stories every day, let me lick the spoon when she baked cakes, showed me how to colour-in, and played the piano and sang nursery rhymes with me. I loved her totally, and believed that she was perfect in every way.
But there was another mommy who also lived in our house. She often got angry and impatient and would shout at me and hit me. Nothing I did seemed good enough for her, especially after my brother, her favourite child, was born. She made me deny my own childhood needs and forced me to grow up emotionally far too early so that I could be "big for her" and side with her against my father. Also, she frequently vented on me all the rage that she felt towards my father, but was afraid to express towards him. She was my "bad mommy" and in order to survive, I had to deny the fact that she existed at all.
I was totally unaware of this split until I discovered it in a highly symbolic, almost nightmare-like primal during my time at the Primal Institute. It began with me reliving the day of my mother's funeral. In the primal, I seemed to be standing in the church next to her coffin, feeling a vague sense of uneasiness and dread.
Then I noticed a dark, shadowy form hovering about the coffin. I identified it at once as being "evil" and "demoniac". To my absolute horror, the realization gradually dawned on me that this sinister being wanted to get into my mother's coffin with her. For what seemed like eternity, I fought with it, struggling to keep it at bay, and screaming, "No! No! stay away from my mother. Leave my mother alone!"
But I was powerless. Finally, to my growing horror, the sinister, black form descended into the coffin and finally into the body of my mother lying there. Suddenly the realization hit me -- and somehow I managed to half scream, half choke out the words, "No! No!.... Oh God!.... No!.... Don't make me see.....THAT IS MY MOTHER!" For the next half hour I cried very deeply as I went through the funeral again, this time with "bad mommy" in the coffin. But the crisis had been reached with the words, "That IS my mother".
Afterwards I felt strangely at peace. I "knew" that the split had occurred when I was about six years old. I had developed the fantasy that it was not my mother who said and did those bad things that hurt me, but a black "demon" that sometimes possessed her.
Immediately I had blotted the black demon out of consciousness as well, since it too was threatening. But it had served its purpose -- it had allowed me to split off from my mother the part of her that didn't love me, so that I could still feel loved and believe that everything was okay. Interestingly, it was only after putting her back together into one person that the direction of my therapy changed and I was able to start expressing in my primals some of the childhood anger and rage that I had buried so incredibly deep.
Today, I have just one mother, who was neither wholly good or wholly bad. She is the person who hurt me as a child. She is also the person who stood by me when I had a break-down and was hospitalized after reading The Primal Scream. In fact she read everything by Janov that she could get her hands on, and was devastated when she understood what she had done to her children.
Also it was my mother who sat for me during my early primals before I got to the Primal Institute, who hugged me, held me while I cried, said how desperately sorry she was that she had hurt me, and that no effort would be too great in helping me to get well. So today I can remember the good and the bad times, the happy and the sad -- which means I have healed the splitting of my mother -- I can remember her the way she was -- just another fallible human being who had pain of her own, and at the end was honest enough to say, "I'm sorry". I love her for that. It's given me the encouragement to deal with all the pain and anger of my childhood, and thus to begin to heal.
THE INTERNAL SPLIT
There are two main aspects to consciousness - knowing and feeling. The integrated person knows what he feels and he is also able to feel the implications of what he knows. The most common ways that a child has of splitting himself away from pain is to deny either (1) his feelings or (2) the knowledge of or (3) the meaning of what is happening to him.
An interesting observation is that for many people, one or other of these three defences becomes a prototypic way of coping, and thereby becomes the person's habitual defence. The three if us described in this article all started primalling more than a decade ago, yet each of us still deals with our pain in one of the following prototypic ways.
THE PERSON WHO KNOWS BUT CANNOT FEEL (NEUROSIS)
This is a way of dealing with pain, which I turned into a fine art! I have always been able to remember most of my childhood from the very earliest time. In our extended family, which consisted of several warring factions, one had to have all one's wits about one in order to survive. So I always knew what was going on -- what I didn't know was what I felt about it. I could feel neither sadness nor anger. I would simply become tense, my throat would close up, my head would feel as if it was going to burst and I would start shaking.
One of the therapists at the Institute described me as, "Very articulate but cut off from feelings". My "three-week-intensive" therapist said to me, "You have just told me about some of the most horrific things that were done to you as a child, to the point where even I feel angry, yet you reel them off as if you were reading a shopping-list. For goodness sake, what do you FEEL about what you have told me?" It has taken me more than a decade to find out.
The most important part of therapy for me has been putting the feelings back together with the memories. I have never been one of those people who could cry easily, and getting into feelings was a major feat for me at the beginning. Early in therapy I learned that when a feeling was coming up, I had to go with it right there and then. If I put if off for even half an hour, I would often lose access to it, and it might be weeks before it would come up again.
So I acquired a "primal box" and built up a network of "buddies" who I could contact at a moment's notice. Some had been through Primal Therapy, the others were family and friends who were willing to be there for me and just listen. If no one was available I would go into the primal box alone (at 3.00 a.m. if necessary) rather than put if off and lose the feeling.
Because I have more access to mental knowledge than feelings, I found that sometimes I made the connections days or weeks before getting into the feelings themselves. On numerous occasions I would dream the connection, down to the minutest details. Sometimes in the most vivid dreams, I actually saw the whole of the primal long before I felt it. When I woke, I would remember it all clearly, though I felt nothing more than interest.
However, within days, or at the most weeks, something would trigger me and I would have the primal, along with all the intensity of feeling, including the tears and the anger that went with the connection that I had already made. For me, Primal therapy has been like putting a puzzle together a piece at a time. Each new connection makes the picture clearer, but it is feeling the emotional content of the connections that is giving me back my self and making me well. And as time passes, access to these feelings is becoming easier.
THE PERSON WHO FEELS BUT DOES NOT KNOW (NEUROSIS)
For a long time I envied those people who could lie down and cry at the drop of a hat. Now I realize that though outwardly they may seem to be making spectacular progress because they are close to their feelings all the time, progress for them is actually often very slow and quite difficult.
Andy is just such a person. Since I have known him he has been able to drop into a feeling at a moment's notice. In fact he is often awash in feelings, to the point where his therapist at the Institute, told him to try not to cry till he absolutely had to. Almost anything can make him cry -- a piece of music, a gentle touch, a kind word, the death of an animal, a TV programme, etc.
He cries deeply, usually with the cries of a baby or a very small child. He also often goes into the foetal position with baby-crying, choking and gagging, hands turned inward and knees drawn up. The problem is that when asked what he has been crying about, he is quite often unable to say more than, "A diffused feeling of sadness", "I feel unloved", or even, "It's about missing something that I never got, but because I never got it, I don't know what it is that's missing."
For Andy, from many of his very early birth primals, where everything was "out of rhythm"; to his baby primals where he cried and cried and nobody came (and then when he didn't cry they did come), the predominant feeling is, "I can't make any sense of what's happening." He often uses those very words. In fact it's one of his favourite phrases.
In fact for Andy to have "made sense" of his childhood, would have meant facing up to realities of which he is only now beginning to become aware. He would have had to face the fact that his father was a rage-filled, unreasonable, selfish bully, his mother lost and helpless, and that both of his parents were unable to give him the unconditional love that he needed. Such knowledge would have been completely overwhelming to a small child. So rather than face this living nightmare, his prototypic defence became "not knowing".
Another way that this defence operates, is that sometimes he "forgets" his connections. He can have the deepest primals, with the most profound connections, only to "forget" them within a day or two. One can buddy with him a week later when he will bring up the same feeling again, saying he has no idea where it comes from. If someone in the group points out that this sounds like something he felt before and reminds him of what some of his connections were, he seems genuinely surprised. He will then say that he remembers it all now, but had completely "blotted it out" in the interim.
After his sessions, whereas someone else might spend time excitedly making more connections, putting the pieces of the puzzle together and sharing them with the group, Andy does something to distract himself. "Getting a break from the pain", is what he calls it and he seems to use this time to "forget" what he has just experienced. If someone asks him what he has just been crying about, he often says, "I don't want to talk about it". "Not knowing" is something that has kept Andy from being overwhelmed by pain, not only in the past, but in the present too.
THE PERSON WHO FEELS BUT DOES NOT KNOW (PSYCHOSIS)
Mark has a very different way of "not knowing". He had several psychotic episodes before starting therapy at the Primal Institute and was later diagnosed as suffering from "Borderline" disorder. During his three-week-intensive, his therapist must have picked up on this, because he was put straight onto medication. I remember buddying with him once when we were both still at the Primal Institute. He was crying about his mother's death when he was 14. Suddenly he sat up, looked at me suspiciously, and asked, "Are you my mother come back?"
On one occasion he heard a voice telling him that he was "the Messiah", and he believed it for a while. He also used to have night-time delusions that he was Christ being crucified, and then being thrown into hell, alone. (The symbolism was interesting, since he is Jewish!) He was aware that these visions were delusions and was able to connect being crucified to his birth, and being thrown into hell, to being abandoned in the newborn nursery afterwards, but he was very frightened by it all. Eventually he managed to get the lid on the pain, came off the Thorazine and decided to stop primalling altogether.
Then after returning to South Africa, and after years of not primalling, he joined the primal support group and started feeling once again. This time, perhaps because he had a stable job and had his life more together, he seemed to be keeping his hold on reality and began to share with the group the origins of his borderline-psychosis. For example, he told us that he had been living permanently in an illusory world after his mother's death when he was a teenager.
Everyone else seems to have known that his mother was dying, except the two children. He and his brother were not told until an hour before she actually died, and his feeling at the time was one of total unreality. His older brother broke down and cried, while Mark instead became strangely mature and held everyone else together. But inwardly he had withdrawn into a world where the boundaries between reality and unreality were blurred, so as "not to know" that his mother was dying. It was more than 20 years later, during therapy, that the reality of her death finally hit him - and then he was in a terrible amount of pain.
In one of his most recent primals Mark relived lying in the dark as a tiny baby, crying and crying, and finally giving up in despair because nobody came. Afterwards he explained to us very lucidly the relationship between a delusional episode and a primal. "The difference, he said, "is not in the feeling, it is the interpretation you give to the feeling".
He went on to explain that in the past he had had times when he believed that he lived alone inside his head and believed that no one else existed in the whole of the universe except in his imagination. "I had exactly the same feeling in the primal tonight", he said, "The only difference is that in the primal, it felt as if I was the only person in the Universe, because I cried and cried and nobody came." For Mark, hopefully he will be able to use his sometimes rather bizarre interpretations of what is happening, to talk himself into connected feelings, and thus widen his base of reality.
From the above it seems clear that there are many different ways of splitting one's self from overwhelming pain. Although life-saving when they occur, once the need for these defences has passed, they remain the chief obstacles in the way of the person becoming integrated again.
There have been many theories put forward about why one person becomes psychotic and another only neurotic. Janov's theory is that it has to do with how much trauma occurred and how early it happened. This however, has never been conclusively demonstrated, and there is much research indicating that brain chemistry and hereditary factors are involved. It is also quite possible that both chemical imbalances and primal pain may interact with each other to cause psychosis. (See note below).
But even if we don't know what the predisposing factors are, we certainly do know what the precipitating factor is for many kinds of "splits" in consciousness -- overwhelming pain, and the need to defend against it. The advantage of Primal Therapy is that it gets behind these defences, whatever they are, and helps the person to put the split ends back together again. To do so is not for the faint-hearted, it is a life-time commitment of slow, sometimes, tortuous progress. But for those with the courage to follow it through, there is an increasing awareness of becoming whole again -- of being able to say, "I know what I feel, and I can feel what I know".
NOTE ON PSYCHOSIS: I suspect that people suffering from serious psychoses, such as occur in schizophrenia, are not good candidates for Primal Therapy. People like Mark, quoted above, who hold some delusional ideas, but who can otherwise cope with the rest of their lives in an integrated, insightful way, can sometimes benefit quite a bit.
There is currently quite a lot of evidence to suggest that the predisposition to schizophrenia is chemically based and may be inherited. However, someone with minimal primal pain might never manifest the inherited tendency, while someone with a great deal of early childhood pain, might become severely psychotic. Getting such people into primals, especially without medical supervision, could be very dangerous and should not be undertaken by "primal buddies".
I originally wrote this article about 10 years ago but never had it published. Things have changed since then, but for the sake of integrity, I decided to publish it as it stood, and simply add a postscript.
Soon after this article was written, Andy left the primal support-group and I do not know if he ever primals anymore. About a year later, Mark died tragically of an illness. One by one, group members left or moved away, so the group has now been disbanded.
My life has changed too. Soon after writing the article, I began to access very early traumatic feelings (birth and before), so the nature of my primals has changed somewhat. Coping with first-line pain is quite different and much more difficult than coping with second-line pain. But that will have to wait for another article.
In the meanwhile, there are still a few "long-time" primallers around in South Africa, and we would like to form a "buddy" support group again soon, where people could buddy, either in a small group or over the telephone. Anyone anywhere in South Africa who might be interested, is invited to e-mail the author at email@example.com or phone (021) 558-4463. People in any of the feeling-regressive therapies are welcome to contact us.
"Primal Buddy Support Network"