Finding a Place to Cry: My Path into Primal

by 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 by which I will measure before and after.

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 in various forms. In the previous three years, they came back with a vengeance, and I was experiencing them two times 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 recover. I was becoming a zombie, constantly trying to recover some balance after my last attack. No sooner had I recovered from the last one, a new one would take its toll. They took on a vicious cycle of their own. Less and less would trigger them, 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, hadn't finished off my panic attacks, then talk therapy simply wasn't 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 didn't just need a different therapist, I needed a different therapy.

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 than mere words. Something non-verbal and visceral. But what?

I didn't know what primal therapy was. I had some vague notion that its practitioners remember their birth. This I dismissed as improbable and not at all related to the panic attacks that beset me. I even have three friends from NOCIRC that had been in primal therapy. It didn't occur to me to ask them if it could help me.

The Internet is a wonderful thing, but it still took many Google searches before I stumbled upon primal therapy. I couldn't find it if I didn't know what I was looking for!

It was by luck that I finally found primal therapy. I was simply looking for someone who treated post-traumatic stress, which was the best way I had to describe my problem. There in Barbara Bryan's listing on a mental health website, the words "post-traumatic stress" and "primal therapy" were put together for me for the first time.

I began skeptically. It all seemed rather vague to me. I kept waiting to hear my therapists explain "the technique." At first, the whole process felt rather contrived, but I laid on the mat each week and let myself go.

I have been primaling at least once a week, plus a few weekend intensives. I have the privilege to work with Barbara Bryan, Bill Russell, and Karen Kendall. They each have given me three gifts: safety, permission, and acceptance. From their gifts, I have evolved a primal process for myself that seems to be working.

In psychotherapy, 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. A non-verbal process 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 wouldn't know how it would end until the session itself had ended.

At some point I realized that I wasn't 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 in 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 simultaneously enter 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'm crying and screaming.

Questions that I could never really answer in psychotherapy are now being answered clearly in primal therapy. It's like I've 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. And like the IPA slogan goes, I "Feel Different."

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