Theresa Sheppard Alexander, MA

Theresa Sheppard Alexander, MA

Former Director of The Primal Institute, NYC. Author of Facing The Wolf: Inside the Process of Deep Feeling Therapy

 

INTRODUCTION

'You can't run from the wolf because the wolf travels with you." This Danish proverb tells it truly. Slowly, over the years, it was borne in on me that the wolf of my childhood—my fear, pain, and rage—was always with me, always lurking, ready to pounce at any moment. Sometimes the wolf was wild and ravenous, raging and slashing at some small transgression on another's part. This would often happen with one of my younger brothers or sisters, or a person I was sure wouldn't harm me physically. At other times, this same wolf would cringe and be submissive at the very moment my strength and courage were required. This side of my wounded personality would emerge when I felt in conflict with a powerful authority figure, or when I was with people I very much wanted to like me.

Often, in these situations, I could not control what I did. I would yell fiercely at someone that I wasn't afraid of who made a small mistake but find myself meekly agreeing to rectify the much larger mistake that a frightening person had made. Looking back on my actions later, I would be consumed with shame or sadness. But I would do the very same thing again the next time. I would try to rise above the situation or the feelings only to find my inappropriate behavior seeping out in some other area of my life. I began to feel that I was trapped with this wolf, that he would be forever chasing me over the landscape of my life, a life that felt empty, stupid, and pointless.

I have written this book because I struggled for years to control, change, and deny the effects of my childhood. I thought that simply by growing up and leaving home I could escape the reality of the torment and sadness I had suffered there. What a horrible discovery it was to find that this was not possible.

A further consequence of years of having been a frightened, unloved child was the unbridgeable gap between my feelings, my mind, and my body. These splits in myself caused me to be very vulnerable to feelings of confusion, self-loathing, and fear. I was often filled with sadness over something that happened to me, while at the same time observing myself with a critical, unfeeling eye. I was once treated very rudely by a bus driver while I was visiting in the South. I trembled with rage at the driver while my throat was tight with tears. But I was also coldly observing my reactions and berating myself for getting on the bus at all, for asking the driver for directions, and for not having a clever reply to his rudeness. For months afterward whenever I thought of this incident my stomach would begin to hurt, while I sat in even the most ordinary circumstances, with a false appearance of ease. I trusted no one, not even myself, because I knew that I could turn against myself in a moment. I had no compassion for myself, except in extremely brief moments that I contemptuously labeled "feeling sorry for myself."

I had been told by many of my teachers that I was a very bright girl with a great deal of potential. I was a National Achievement Scholarship finalist and as such I had received scholarship offers from several colleges and universities. I entered a college in my hometown in the fall of 1967. I only managed to last in school for two weeks before I was overcome with anxiety and fear about my ability to do the work. I left without a word to anyone. I would periodically reenter school and take one course. I could not use my intellectual abilities in a full and meaningful way. I supported myself by doing menial, dead-end jobs. Still, I haunted my local library, reading everything I could about psychology and trying to understand what was wrong with me.

Then in May 1970, at the age of twenty, I had the good fortune to encounter The Primal Scream, a book by Arthur Janov, Ph.D. Somewhat taken aback by its grandiose claims, especially that therapy would only be a three-week process, I was nonetheless driven by the hope that some of what he wrote could be true. Eleven days after reading that book I was, through the generosity of Arthur and Vivian Janov, a patient in Primal Therapy. It was during this therapy, through the profound effect of confronting the trauma and pain I suffered in my childhood, that I was able to heal and grow to an extent that I had not imagined possible. Of course, the process of this therapy lasted far longer than three weeks.

After several years in therapy, equipped with a stronger sense of myself and feeling more confident and happy, I was able to continue my education, receiving my B.A. and M.A. degrees. I also entered the training program at the Primal Institute in Los Angeles and five years later earned my certificate as a Primal therapist. I worked for the Primal Institute for several years after that. As I became more experienced, I began to train and supervise trainee therapists in the Institute's training program. Eventually I became the resident director of the Institute in New York-City. In 1981 left the Institute and developed a private practice in New York. I now live and work in Northern California.

This is the story of my original encounter with my own deepest feelings. Although the details are unique to me, I believe many of the insights and realizations to be relevant for others as well.

The first part of the book comprises the sessions, reported as clearly as my memories and extensive diaries allow. They are presented from alternating perspectives: that of the patient, which I was at first, and then that of a therapist, which I later became.

The second part of the book presents the more technical aspects of Deep Feeling work. In my diaries and memories, my own thoughts and feelings are very clear, and are reported almost verbatim. Since my first therapist during the "intensive" phase of my therapy, Ellen Janov, died very tragically in a house fire many years ago, I was not able to consult with her as I wrote this book. Consequently, the voice, thoughts, and perceptions of the therapist are mine, based on how I do Deep Feeling therapy now.

I chose to use actual sessions and events from my own therapy, and to compose the therapist's reactions and interventions from my own experience as a therapist, for two reasons. First, though I considered using sessions with some of my own patients to illustrate this form of therapy from the therapist's view, I wanted to be certain there would be no regrets at the secrets revealed. After deep thought and discussions with a respected older colleague, I concluded that only by using my own story could I be sure I was not breaching my patients' boundaries. So I chose to reveal my own secrets, rather than those of others. Second, since my therapist is dead, I was absolutely prevented from using her as a resource in reconstructing her part of our journey together. Because dialogue is the format that best teaches how this work is done, I felt compelled to use the knowledge of the only other person in that room when my therapy took place, myself.

My further purpose in presenting the therapy sessions in dialogue form is to demystify the process of going into deep feelings. Though in recent years several therapists and psychotherapy practitioners have begun to write about the benefits of confronting and entering one's deep feelings, no one to my knowledge has presented the process as it happens moment to moment. In writing the book in this manner, my intention is to show the inner process of moments of deep feeling.

By reading and experiencing my account of this healing process, others who suffer as I did may recognize the benefit of having the courage to confront their own painful and traumatic past.

A childhood of abuse is not erased by reaching adulthood. Nor can it be forgotten or ignored. Some of its effects can be lessened and some of its pain eased by the verbal discussions, intellectual understanding, awareness of deep feelings, and connected relationship utilized by conventional psychotherapies. But I strongly believe that for some of us, especially those most severely wounded, true growth and healing can only take place through confronting and feeling those most awful memories that still lurk in the crevasses of the mind and heart. Denial cannot take the pain away, but mourning and insight can bring healing.

 

 

My own early experience in therapy at age twenty had a profound and lasting effect. Of course I wasn't "cured" in those short weeks of my initial intensive, as I had so naively hoped, but I was on the path to recovery. I had begun to turn and face my wolf instead of trying to run away.

Over time there was a change in the way I felt about myself, as well as a change in the way I chose to conduct my life. The key concept here is choice. Until I began to confront my pain and its resultant and continuing damage, I rarely felt I had a choice.

Driven by my needs and fears, I continually behaved in certain ways because I felt forced to do so and in effect sabotaged myself. This behavior and many other aspects of my personality, interaction with myself, other people, and the world changed as a result of confronting my deepest feelings and fears. Now I know I was not alone in enduring those feelings, but at the time I thought that no one else struggled with these issues. I believe that others can benefit from facing the wolf—that they, also, can become people with choices.

 

In more than twenty years of practice I have worked with people from many countries and cultures and learned my childhood story is not unique. Child abuse and neglect are not confined to the citizens of any one country or economic stratum, nor to those who practice any particular religion. I hope my book will ultimately help to lessen the pain children suffer in our society, since it is my belief that when adults allow themselves to confront the past memories of their own painful childhoods, they will no longer be insensitive to the needs and feelings of children in the present.

 

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