In the years my mother had it, "cancer" was still a dirty word. There was no open forum, no family support, no grief counseling. The various stages of her illness were discreetly discussed only in intimate circles; it was not a topic for polite conversation. Outside of adult family members and close friends, her illness was ignored or denied, as the situation required. This may seem mean, but it was actually intended to protect rather than to harm. Cancer was a dirty disease, and anyone who got it was unclean, so why turn her into a pariah?
To her children, truth was never a reality, and our day-to-day reality bore no resemblance to the truth we could never grasp, As the disease progressed, we asked more questions. They were ignored or denied, as the situation required, so I was less than prepared when, one hot, sunny morning in August, my father came into my bedroom, pulled up the shade, and said, "Good morning. Mommy died last night." After a six-year private battle, the big C had finally won out over my mother's worn and mutilated body. I was 12 years old.
Happily, we've come a long way since 1959 in more ways than just cancer treatment. We have come to recognize the value of dealing openly and sensitively with illness and loss. We know the importance of allowing the family to participate and to grieve. For me, however, the taboo, the denial, and the secrecy worked like compost on the seeds of my fears and anxieties.
After my mother died, many years of my life were spent in fear and anger. As I grew older, panic attacks struck again and again, sometimes with "reason": I was alone; my body hurt or felt sore somewhere; I was in a strange situation; I needed to swallow a pill; I was in an elevator that moved too slowly or too fast. Sometimes there was no apparent reason: I ate food that could have poisoned me; I touched or ingested something to which I could have had an allergic reaction; my husband was ten minutes later than expected and was almost certainly dead somewhere; my kids got sick or were late...
The lists are incomplete, but you get the drift. My life was a constant battle for self-control to stop the fear, to diminish the fear, to get through the anxiety attack, to prevent the next one. Above all, my real life was private. Nobody would know how "weak" I truly was. I had learned well about taboo and the need for denial, and I knew how to keep a secret.
There was another part of me that searched desperately for support and positive ways to stay calm. I studied, practiced and read about energy work, meridian massage, herbal medicine, homeopathy, healing music and mantras, meditation, martial arts, shamanic journeying, and relaxation tapes (this is another partial list). These all helped. They not only kept me from crashing and burning; they became tools to help me to naturally become a holistic healer. My knowledge and skills allowed me to help to others along the way.
But I was still like lightning in a bottle, and a storm was always still lurking in a threatening sky. In retrospect, I understand. I was so afraid of my own issues that I kept running, hoping to outrun my traumas. I had had enough pain and suffering, enough loss, enough fear. I wouldn't be so foolish as to deliberately open that hornet's nest. Not me. Not to anyone. Not on your life.
Actually, it was not on my life, not on the life I was denying myself every day. It took me decades, but one day I found myself actually talking to a woman who I viewed as a psychic rather than a therapist, which made her safe enough for me to be with. It wasn't until almost the end of my therapy several months later that I realized that I had been working in a trance state, and often in a healing modality called hypnosis, or, more accurately, hypnotherapy. The changes were intense and enormous. The time frame, considering how long I had been set in my patterns, was amazingly brief. I was astounded at what came bubbling up. I was astounded at my ability to handle it. And I was astounded at how good it felt to finally stand firm in my power and face my demons.
I realize now that I brought to those sessions several positive attributes that contributed to my success. First was an enormous amount of personal pain and suffering, enough to make me willing to work hard at an alternative. I knew that I could have stopped at any time, but I also knew that if I did, I would never be free.
Second was commitment to the process. Once I had opened the door to my own private hell, I sensed a personal freedom on the other side. Even a whiff of what that could be like solidified my determination. I resolved to walk through that doorway and never shut myself in again.
Finally, although trust had been a major issue for me, I learned quickly that I could trust the woman I had chosen to work with. I felt her competence, and I felt safe. I found that with a professional, I could go back to the traumas I thought I couldn't face, and finally I could move, not past them, but through them.
In the years since that process, I have never had another panic attack. It also marked the beginning of an exciting path of self-discovery, personal growth, and career change.
Today, as a practicing hypnotherapist, I work with clients suffering from fears, anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias. I am struck by how similar the belief system is to the one that once prevailed about cancer. Anxiety is somehow dirty. People suffering from panic attacks are somehow at fault. They are weak because they structure their lives around exits and safety valves. Not only my clients, but society as a whole still talks in hushed tones about such issues. In so doing, we confine ourselves to a world of private suffering, steadfastly denying ourselves the ability to truly heal.
I remember a recurring nightmare that came at irregular intervals over many years. I was being chased. Each time I woke up before I was caught, grateful to have escaped, sweating, heart pounding. Finally, someone suggested that if I stopped running and turned around to see who was after me, I could stop the nightmare from coming back. The thought of stopping terrified me. In each of the dreams, I had only survived by running. Yet somehow, after that, the nightmare lost some of its power, and one time I finally changed the dream. I just stopped. I stopped running away, and slowly began to turn around. It was the last time that I had that nightmare. I never did find out who or what was after me, because the moment I turned to face my attacker, my fear, it was all over. I woke up.
I remain holistic enough to know that no one healing modality is right for everyone. But through hypnotherapy, I have felt the enormous healing power of stopping, turning, and facing the unknown.
Terrys hypnotherapy practice is client-centered and holistic. She offers healing and transformation through smoking cessation, weight control, regression, and parts therapy. In addition to her practice, she writes stories on her own healing journey and stories of myth and magic. Her office is in Ballard/Crown Hill. See the listing for her practice in the full-page hypnotherapy ad in this issue.