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Recovering From Trauma
by D. Mathers
After a divorce at age thirty, ending a five-year confusing and abusive
marriage, I seriously began to question many situations in my life to
which I had previously been blind, and I began four and a half years of
intensive psychoanalytic therapy. A few months after the therapy
period, I felt there was no particular crisis, but wanted to keep
moving along in a positive way, and my introduction to the Intensive Journal method was an enlightening experience.
Although using the workbook privately at home was helpful, I found
participating in the group at seminars and workshops provided a special
kind of consciousness expansion. The feeling of belonging as part of
this community was validating and extremely supportive after being in
the individually focused process of psychoanalysis for several years.
"Intensive Journal" is a registered trademark of Jon Progoff and licensed to
Dialogue House. © Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Intensive Journal work allows connection with parts of the self
that are subtle yet powerful. There are moments when a flash of insight
occurs that can be caught, expanded and made meaningful in the
workbook. This kind of experience could probably only be done otherwise
by creating a significant work of art, which is hardly possible on a
What I knew about my life or my "self" until I was well past
thirty was similar to an iceberg. Only the tip was visible and
nine-tenths were hidden. There were several reasons for my situation. I
uncovered during many long years of therapy that in my early life many
of my family members had a pattern of non-communication and oftentimes
did not want to see reality clearly. I had learned these patterns and
developed my own intrapsychic noncommunication. This caused my analyst
to say at the beginning of sessions, "You don't know who you are." As I
look back, I think I was moving through life like a person blindfolded
walking on the freeway.
Psychoanalytic work allowed me to see a more objective view of
myself and how my ability to function in life was impaired. As I look
back now, I can see that not even the analyst completely understood
what was going on because there were so many matters that I could not
even verbalize. I understood only much later that it would have been
nearly impossible to pick up on them since I had dissociated so much
since early childhood and had learned to compensate in ways that made
many things appear "normal." My emotional numbness and inability to
integrate thinking and feeling caused a lot of confusion in
relationships and was not easy to comprehend. As I learned later, many
of the effects of the early trauma in my life had been somaticized,
taking their toll on my body as physical problems:
hypoglycemia/endocrine imbalance, lowered immunity, frequent viruses
and bouts of Epstein-Barr and mononucleosis that sometimes had
Many times in Intensive Journal workshops, I have
begun writing some thoughts about the situations in my life, and at
some point in the program an entirely different and much more
significant concept or idea will emerge. For example, at one particular
workshop I was trying to decide where to live. I had several choices.
After moving through some sections, particularly the Depth Dimension or
Steppingstones, I realized that the real issue was my approach to life.
Was I basically motivated by love or fear? Was I moving toward
something or away from something? The Intensive Journal process always seems to take me to a deeper, more intuitive and integrating place of consciousness.
When I was fifty-two years old, I was seriously injured in a
pedestrian/auto accident a few months after a major life transition in
which I had completed a master's degree program in Social Work.
Previously I had worked in financial research, business and writing.
The brain injury was so severe that I had many cognitive and emotional
impairments. My "life transition" process thus became a "life
reconstruction." I was unable to read functionally for more than four
years. I was not paralyzed, but my recovery was similar to that of a
stroke victim. With help from speech and cognitive therapists, I had to
learn to compensate and work out strategies to manage tasks, work and
emotions. Often, the effects of brain injury are referred to as "the
One specific part of the Intensive Journal workbook
that I turned to frequently during this time was the Dialogue
Dimension. For example, using the Dialogue with Body exercise made me
aware of what I was coping with and kept me grounded when I was
experiencing considerable numbness. At times when I experienced "body
flashbacks" of pain or trauma, dialogues allowed me to gain meaning and
integration. Therapists often say, "If you can feel it, you can heal
it", and with that I kept moving forward in my recovery process using
In rehabilitation from brain injury, one generally goes
through the process of being unaware (and possibly denying) what is not
functioning to acknowledging impairment and understanding what might be
done to compensate. As with skilled, intuitive therapy, the Intensive Journal method aids this process to allow healing at
one's own pace. The trauma and pain can emerge consciously in a
measured, controlled and safe way. Because I was always in control of
what I wrote, I could decide when I wanted to work on a certain issue
and if it became too difficult, I could stop and consider resuming it
at a later date.
An unexpected part of the post-traumatic stress connection
with my brain injury and trauma was uncovering the cumulative effects
of much earlier, but hidden, trauma in my life. They became evident
because my usual defenses and ways of coping were now no longer
available. When a severe trauma occurs, often the "trauma file" in the
psyche is opened and earlier traumas are linked together, creating a
feeling that all of life has been trauma. Perspective is lost, and the
ability to maintain balance is limited. The Intensive Journal method helped me gain perspective on my life
because the exercises enabled me to look at issues from different
angles. The structure of the workbook gave me balance because I was
working with many different areas in the context of my entire life, and
it gave me a broad scope and solid foundation with which to work.
In a psychotherapy session, when the subject of a molestation
by a neighbor's grandfather that happened to me at age three was
brought up, a distinct dissociation effect resulted. The therapist
noted that I was describing the situation as if I were talking about
someone else. Although I could sense and understand that I was
expressing myself in this way, I could not integrate the feeling.
Dissociation felt normal to me.
I had a sense that something else happened prior to the
incident with my neighbor's grandfather, but I could not remember
consciously. In looking at past information along with more recent
events that I had also ignored, some ideas came together. For example,
according to a neurologist, my brain scan showed a pattern that occurs
when a child is abused. Also, I remembered my grandmother telling me
that I occasionally had black and blue marks as an infant. Several
years ago an older cousin told me that when she visited me as a baby,
my sister, age nearly three, was sticking pins in me while my mother
ignored it. In the past, I had had periods of intense physical total
body pain that I thought were related to being depressed at times. It
was actually body flashbacks.
It was clear to me, as the puzzle came together, that my
mother had been abusive and was disturbed in several ways. She died
when I was eighteen, so nothing was ever discussed with her.
I had always known that my connection with my mother was
unusual, but because the whole family system worked around such
behavior, some very bizarre actions were accepted. It seemed alright
that my mother rarely spoke to me. I really cannot remember a
conversation of more than ten words with her in my life. She would only
talk to my sister or others about me. There was a kind of wall, and I
realized much later that I could never tell how she was, where she was
coming from or how she felt about me. She essentially treated me like
an object. I was not physically abused as an older child, but there was
serious emotional neglect and abuse.
The consequences of the emergence of these early traumatic
events were painful and required several years to fully work through.
It seems that a spiritual approach is useful and even required in
healing this kind of trauma. The Intensive Journal method is an example of such a spiritual
approach that allows validation of vague, unclear and confusing
memories to emerge often at random as they are triggered by some
experience. The openness of the method, which has no time limit, helped
make sense of the material I was developing in my workbook.
In life, crises do happen, and when an extreme trauma occurred in my life, the
Intensive Journal process was most significant in helping me to
maintain balance and unravel some destructive, painful confusion. The
program has also been a supportive and incredible motivator, as well as
an aide in promoting emotional and spiritual growth. I have been amazed
so many times at the effectiveness of the Intensive Journal work in weaving together the strands of
ideas, feelings, sensitive intuition and physical sensations into
meaning, understanding and healing of the real, authentic self while
Not only did the method get me through the mental and
emotional pain that resulted from my traumatic past experiences, but it
also helped me to understand the dissociation that resulted and was a
coping mechanism to deal with such pain. Dr. Progoff's program helped
me get past the dissociation on my way to recovery because it helped me
develop more functional and healthy ways of living. It enhanced my
ability to reflect on body and emotional states, feelings and fleeting
thoughts. Work in the Intensive Journal workbook provides a way to "reassociate" or integrate the disconnected parts of the self, mind or psyche.
I was a child who had no hope and very few positive feelings about
life, going through adolescence believing that only early death would
be an escape. I now see the survival and resilience of human beings as
truly amazing. I have had such unusual situations and conditions to
deal with, and what I am able to do and the way I live may not be
considered typical for many people of my age or circumstances. Despite
these difficulties and challenges, my life today feels more balanced,
fulfilling and meaningful.
I am at the stage of my life where integration usually
occurs--the paths taken in life are reviewed and either appreciated,
savored or regretted. Since I virtually passed over some entire stages
of development, I am now filling gaps that feel out of synch. I feel
that I am moving along with my soul's path more and more, and will
continue to do so.
When Ray Charles died, there was a story about his mother
telling him when he was a child that there are always two ways to do
things, and because of his blindness, he would "have to find the other
way." I feel that this is often what I have to do, and the method was
greatly helpful in giving me perspective in finding my way. I believe
that the Intensive Journal process can be used in ways that are
incredibly effective in so many aspects of life; from inner guidance
and integration for a fractured soul, to moving and inspiring a highly
functioning person forward to accomplish their best creative work.