Changing the Foundation of Being By Elenore Snow
Like many psychotherapists, I have a trauma history that informed my career path. I lived the first twenty-seven years of my life with trauma so deep that I had a day self and a night self who did not know of each other’s existence. This kind of “dissociative identity disorder” happens when trauma begins very early, is long term, and is of a scale of horror beyond what most people can imagine.
When I discovered that there was more than one of “me,” I was crushed. I found that I was losing time and that the dissociated response to trauma had left me vulnerable to abuse. During time lapses, I was continuing to be abused by my father and his cohort as I had from my earliest years.
I was used to not sleeping because of nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, and hyperarousal. My well-intentioned therapist did not seem comfortable with these occurrences. I think it wore on her to sit with me twice a week in this terrible state of anxiety. So she recommended that I see a psychiatrist for sedatory medication to induce sleep.
Thus began a seven-year de-evolution of a life in which my interiority, with its pain and wisdom and aliveness, was eclipsed by medical complications, such as seizures at bedtime, as the trauma was suppressed and suppressed and suppressed. My doctor’s counsel was to increase the dosage so that the dose increased one hundred times. Desperate to stop the cycle of dissociation, and the ways that losing time threatened my safety, I pushed and pushed myself to follow the dose adjustments.
I experienced, in due course, loss of short-term memory and, as written up in two consecutive years of neuropsychological testing, a diagnosis of “moderate cognitive impairment, multiple domains.” My days were spent in isolation, recovering from my nights. I had a new medication to add to the list, the Alzheimer’s medication Namenda, which the doctor prescribed to try to stop the seemingly inexplicable dementia onset.
Finally a neurologist advised me to get off everything and see what might change. It was not easy, but I was able to start over––not just with the practicalities of rebuilding a life but with the basic tools of feeling and grieving and being in relationship with my trauma history.
My Heart Could Love
During this time of transition and loss, I spent hours in the library. Somehow I found my way to the Buddhist section in the back of the stacks. Running my thumb across the spines of books, I found You Are Here by Thich Nhat Hanh.
At age fifteen, I had heard an audio Dharma talk in which Thich Nhat Hanh told a story of an American soldier in Vietnam who had made bomb sandwiches, which he left on the edge of a village to avenge the death of his dear friend. Hiding behind a rock to watch the act of vindication, the soldier watched as children poured out of the village, delighted with the sandwiches until they began to writhe with pain. Many years later, he was still tortured by the horror of what he’d done. When Thay taught him to work with the breath and to practice service-oriented action, he began to experience some healing.
Twenty-five years later in You Are Here, I came across the story again. The seeds that had been planted so many years before were watered and began to flower. I was living the daily reality of early dementia diagnosis because my brain had been injured by a toxic intolerance to medication. Despite or perhaps partially because of my severely diminished cognitive ability, it dawned on me that my heart could love even if my high IQ and ability to think were lost to me. Acceptance became a very intimate experience. I could do this––I could open my heart. I brought home a six-CD audio set of Thay’s, and his teachings bathed my essence in a way that was alive and true and transformative.
As Thay’s student, I strived to be as still and as present off the cushion as on, to water seeds of compassion, and to dampen the kindling of fear and reactivity. I learned to have tenderness and care for the “other me,” who saw the world as a trapped wild animal might. Those were brave and difficult days as she learned to integrate into me and I learned to hold space for all the ways terror informed her.
Thay’s counsel to practice with a Sangha prompted me to come out of my long season of loneliness. I walked into a room full of people that I sweetly felt I remembered. My “first conversations” were awkward as I allowed the slowest part of me to emerge into the world. Self-compassion and meditation practice were to be my mainstay in learning to move forward.
I also researched everything I could get my hands on about helping a traumatized brain become a compassionate one. Eight minutes a day of loving-kindness practice could rewire the brain to a new, gentler worldview. Fifteen minutes a day of mindfulness practice could strengthen the parts of the brain that were most alive in advanced Buddhist practitioners with over ten thousand hours of meditation practice, whose world lens was that of true compassion.
Rewiring my brain into integration was, and still is, a humbling challenge. Many days I felt like Sisyphus, pushing a rock uphill only to have it roll back down, over and over.
I wasn’t just learning how to organize my own grocery list. I was learning how to feel, how to relate, how to grieve, how to resume the trauma healing that had been suspended by taking the many medications in my early days of recovery. Resilience, I learned, was not just getting back up again after being knocked down––it was also about making choices toward serving collective transformation that arose from the personal wound itself.
Two years into the healing process, through the most miraculous turn of events, I integrated my prior Hollywood career as a producer with my love for neuroplasticity and spirituality. I started to make a movie on transformation that offers a road map for all of us. The movie, Becoming Snow, is a documentary in which I interweave my own story of trauma and transformation with interviews with the key figures whose insights specific to healing trauma were seminal in my finding my way out of the darkness. In having let it all go, I was given back all of who I was and something more––an aspect of interconnectedness to what is good and beautiful and true, flowing beyond me and through me.
One person I interviewed was a traumatologist, Dr. Robert Scaer (author of The Body Bears the Burden and Eight Keys to Body-Brain Balance). Dr. Scaer discusses the fallacies of trying to treat trauma victims with painkillers: “Pain in chronic trauma victims is phantom pain. And so, it is not due to tissue damage; it is due to memory. And so you are treating memory with a painkiller and that makes no sense whatsoever. You’re not treating the physical disability; you are treating the memory and further corrupting the memory. Medication will produce some analgesia, but it won’t effectively stop the pain and the emotional response to the pain, which is what keeps the kindling going.” He goes on to describe the thousands of patients he saw over twenty years, whose chronic pain was not helped by back surgeries and other intrusive treatments.
Our most progressive researchers, such as founder of interpersonal neuorobiology Dr. Dan Siegel, have found that medications not only do not heal dissociation; they also suppress the integrative fibers in key places, such as between the right and left hemispheres (in the corpus callosum) and between the “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain (reptilian/limbic and neocortex). A brain that is biochemically compartmentalized produces a consciousness cut off from itself.
Many of our war vets come home, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and are only prescribed medications. Society’s failure to recognize their terror and trauma adds the wound of invalidation and expresses something terrible in our culture: the willingness to avoid and suppress suffering instead of healing the root by meeting it fully and compassionately.
Practicing discernment with the use of medication is crucial. In moderate doses, medication can help people stabilize enough to engage their own abilities to bring healing to their trauma. With bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and other illnesses, medication can save lives.
For me, overmedication obstructed my ability to learn healthy attachment and compassionate relationship with the unbearable traumatic events of my life. Thay’s teachings of turning up the thermostat of warmth in the cold of the pain itself, of holding our fear or anger like a baby, of staying with the breath, were simple and direct ways to transform the trauma in my consciousness. As I opened my heart to the part of me that bore the pain––with the greatest tenderness, quietest acceptance, and trust that love heals––I opened the possibility of transformation.
Sometimes we think that heavy trauma needs to be hit heavy to transform. It goes against mainstream thinking to meet such suffering with subtlety and softness. But water, with its gentle flow, is the universal solvent that carves the deepest canyons. So too, the flow of compassion can carve healing into the hard wiring of the deepest pain when healing is our heart’s true desire. When we can be in a depth of presence, mindfulness, and compassion to ourselves and to others, we are a great resource to us all.
Editors’ note: If you are taking medications and are considering changing dosage, please consult your doctor to minimize risk of harm.
Elenore Snow received her MSW from Smith College. She has a private practice specific to transformation, working both with rewiring the brain through neurofeedback and with a depth/intersubjective approach to healing the wounds of trauma in consciousness. She is a teacherin-training in the field of Applied Existential Psychology and co-author, with Dr. Betty Cannon, of The Spirit of Play. She is the creator/producer of the documentary Becoming Snow and its companion memoir, Letters to Tenzin.