Eight weeks passed. In the crunch of my busy practice as head of the Department of Psychiatry, I had forgotten about Ed's call. Catherine's fears and phobias worsened. Dr. Frank Acker, Chief of Surgery, had known Catherine casually for years, and they often bantered good-naturedly when he visited the laboratory where she worked. He had noticed her recent unhappiness and sensed her tension. Several times he had meant to say something to her but had hesitated.
One afternoon, Frank was driving to a smaller, out-of-the way hospital to give a lecture. On the way, he saw Catherine driving to her home, which was close to that hospital, and impulsively waved her to the side of the road.
"I want you to see Dr. Weiss now" she yelled through the window. "No delays." Although surgeons often act impulsively, even Frank was surprised at how emphatic he was.
Catherine's panic attacks and anxiety were increasing in frequency and duration. She began having two recurrent nightmares. In one, a bridge collapsed while she was driving across it. Her car plunged into the water below, and she was trapped and drowning. In the second dream, she was trapped in a pitch-black room, stumbling and falling over things, unable to find a way out. Finally, she came to see me.
At the time of my first session with Catherine, I had no idea that my life was about to turn upside down, that the frightened, confused woman across the desk from me would be the catalyst, and that I would never be the same again.
Eighteen months of intensive psychotherapy passed, with Catherine coming to see me once or twice a week. She was a good patient, verbal, capable of insights, and extremely eager to get well. During that time, we explored her feelings, thoughts, and dreams. Her recognition of recurrent behavior patterns provided her with insight and understanding. She remembered many more significant details from her past, such as her merchant seaman father's absences from the home and his occasional violent outbursts after drinking too much. She understood much more about her turbulent relationship with Stuart, and she expressed anger more appropriately. I felt that she should have been much improved by now. Patients almost always improve when they remember unpleasant influences from their past, when they learn to recognize and correct maladaptive behavior patterns, and when they develop insight and view their problems from a larger, more detached perspective. But Catherine had not improved.
Anxiety and panic attacks still tortured her. The vivid recurrent nightmares continued, and she was still terrified of the dark, of water, and of being closed in. Her sleep was still fragmented and unrefreshing. She was experiencing heart palpitations. She continued to refuse any medicines, afraid choking on the pills. I felt as if I had reached a wall, and that no matter what I did, that wall would remain so high that neither of us would be able to climb over it. But, with my sense of frustration came an added sense of determination. Somehow, I was going to help Catherine.
And then a strange thing happened. Although she was intensely afraid of flying and had to fortify herself with several drinks while she was on the plane, Catherine accompanied Stuart to a medical conference in Chicago in the spring of 1982. While there, she pressured him into visiting the Egyptian exhibit at the art museum, where they joined a guided tour. Catherine had always had an interest in ancient Egyptian artifacts and reproductions of relics from that period. She was hardly a scholar and had never studied that time in history, but somehow the pieces seemed familiar to her. When the guide began to describe some of the artifacts in the exhibit, she found herself correcting him . . . and she was right! The guide was surprised; Catherine was stunned.
How did she know these things? Why did she feel so strongly that she was right, so sure of herself that she corrected the guide in public? Perhaps the memories were forgotten from her childhood.
At her next appointment, she told me what had happened. Months earlier I had suggested hypnosis to Catherine, but she was afraid and she resisted. Because of her experience at the Egyptian exhibit, she now reluctantly agreed. Hypnosis is an excellent tool to help a patient remember longforgotten incidents. There is nothing mysterious about it. It is just a state of focused concentration. Under the instruction of a trained hypnotist, the patient's body relaxes, causing the memory to sharpen. I had hypnotized hundreds of patients and had found it helpful in reducing anxiety, eliminating phobias, changing bad habits, and aiding in the recall of repressed material. On occasion, I had been successful in regressing patients back to their early childhoods, even to when they were two or three years old, thus eliciting the memories of long-forgotten traumas that were disrupting their lives. I felt confident that hypnosis would help Catherine.
I instructed Catherine to lie on the couch with her eyes slightly closed and her head resting on a small pillow. At first we focused on her breathing. With each exhalation she released stored-up tension and anxiety; with each inhalation she relaxed even more. After several minutes of this, I told her to visualize her muscles progressively relaxing, beginning with her facial muscles and jaw, then her neck and shoulders, her arms, back and stomach muscles, and finally her legs. She felt her entire body sinking deeper and deeper into the couch. Then I instructed her to visualize a bright white light at the top of her head, inside her body. Later on, as I had the light spread slowly down her body, it completely relaxed every muscle, every nerve, every organ-all of her body-bringing her into a deeper and deeper state of relaxation and peace. She felt sleepier and sleepier, more and more peateful and calm. Eventually, at my instruction, the light filled her body and surrounded her as well. I counted backward slowly from ten to one. With each number, she entered a deeper level of relaxation. Her trance state deepened. She was able to concentrate on my voice and exclude all background noises. By the count of one, she was already in a moderately deep state of hypnosis. The entire process had taken about twenty minutes.
After a while I began to regress her, asking her to recall memories of progressively earlier ages. She was able to talk and to answer my questions while maintaining a deep level of hypnosis. She remembered a traumatic experience at the 27 that occurred when she was six years old. She vividly remembered the terrifying experience at age five when she was pushed from a diving board into a pool. She had gagged and choked then, swallowing some water, and while talking about it she began to gag in my office. I suggested to her that the experience was over, that she was out of the water. The gagging stopped, and she resumed her normal breathing. She was still in a deep trance. At age three, the worst event of all had occurred. She remembered awakening in her dark bedroom and being aware that her father was in her room. He reeked of alcohol then, and she could smell it now. He touched her and rubbed her, even "down there." She was terrified and began to cry, so he covered her mouth with his rough hand. She could not breathe. In my office, on my couch, twenty-five years later, Catherine began to sob.
I felt that we had the information now, the key to the lock. I was sure that her symptoms would improve quickly and dramatically. I softly suggested to her that the experience was over, that she was no longer in her bedroom but was resting quietly, still in a trance. The sobbing ended. I took her forward in time to her current age. I awakened her after I had instructed her, by posthypnotic suggestion, to remember all that she had told me. We spent the remainder of the session discussing her suddenly vivid memory of the trauma with her father. I tried to help her accept and integrate her "new" knowledge. She now understood her relationship with her father, his reactions to her, his aloofness, and her fear of him. She was still shaking when she left the office, but I knew the understanding she had gained was worth the momentary discomfort.
About the book:
The true story of a prominent psychiatrist, his young patient, and the past-life therapy that changed both their lives. As a traditional psychotherapist, Dr. Brian Weiss was astonished and skeptical when one of his patients began recalling past-life traumas that seemed to hold the key to her recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks. His skepticism was eroded, however, when she began to channel messages from the space between lives, which contained remarkable revelations about Dr. Weiss' family and his dead son.
Snippet from We Are Not Ourselves
- Matthew Thomas
Snippet from All the Light We Cannot See
- Anthony Doerr