One of the great blessings of my life is to have a Jewish mother and a Jewish family in Squirrel Hill. When I heard the news of last week’s massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill (the hub of Jewish life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), I was in Montana leading a clinical training in EMDR therapy, the trauma modality that brought Sharon Saul—my Jewish mother—and I together. Although the news revealed to me that the synagogue attacked was not Sharon’s, it is in close proximity to her home in a community that is very tightly knit. Until I was able to get to Squirrel Hill myself on Tuesday morning and give Sharon a hug, something was unsettled within me. Although Sharon and I remained in touch via text and telephone after she turned hers back on following Shabbat, seeing her was the balm my soul needed. In our communications, she relayed the multiple messages defining the vigils and prayers she attended: The answer to combating all of this hatred is to fight the darkness with light, and to increase our acts of goodness and kindness.
The connection that Sharon and I share is an example of how two very different people can unite in a spirit of goodness and kindness, which is why I feel led (with Sharon’s blessing) to share our story. On Thursday night we sat in her home, a place that's become a haven to me over the years when I offer trainings in Squirrel Hill (about an hour and a half from my home base in Ohio). We were both awestruck by the workings of HaShem in bringing us together. HaShem is a Hebrew name for G-d (literally meaning "The Name") that I’ve come to use in many of my references to Divine presence. Our friendship is, of course, a beautiful Institute for Creative Mindfulness story which is why I’m posting it on our blog. I hope others may also draw some inspiration from our message and our story.
I first met Sharon in Monroeville, Pennsylvania sometime in 2013. I was still working the national circuit for PESI, an educational company, teaching general trainings on trauma-informed care. In this 2-day course, presenting a live clinical demonstration in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), my method of choice for treating trauma-related concerns, was part of the syllabus. As I did dozens of times before and have done hundreds of time since in my teaching, I asked for a willing volunteer for the demonstration, inviting them to come up and see me over break for screening. This lovely, traditionally dressed woman raised her hand immediately. During our screening, as we talked about her background and the issue she’d like to work on, Sharon revealed that she is an Orthodox Jew. Although she seemed to be connecting to what I taught in the course, I experienced a bit of an internal struggle, wondering if someone so traditional would respond to what I had to offer. I’d long identified as rainbow flag-waving tattooed rebel dismissive of most things connected to organized religion or anything traditional. Yet something inside told me immediately that I loved this woman and her willingness, and I was delighted when Sharon responded so well to her work in the demonstration.
Afterwards, in amazement, Sharon declared, “I have to learn this!”
She went on to explain her frustration that every EMDR training she ever found took place over the weekend which would not work for her as an Orthodox Jew. Specifically, Sharon is a Hassidic Jew in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement with a strict adherence to Shabbat observance. Training over a weekend just wasn’t an option for her, even though other folks from religious traditions have missed weekend services before to come to trainings. Sharon began traveling to Ohio to learn from me as I developed my initial training models and ideas around teaching EMDR therapy, expressing only gratitude that she was able to engage in this study during the week and in a mindfully delivered, intuitive way that matched up with her almost forty years of experience as a hypnotherapist. The more she studied and consulted with me, the more I began to trust her as a clinician and to truly love her as a person. The questions she asked helped me to grow as a clinician, and I developed an even deeper sense of wonder about Jewish faith and traditions.
In 2015 when I became officially approved by the EMDR International Association to offer basic trainings in EMDR therapy, Sharon immediately courted me to come to Squirrel Hill where she practiced and lived. She said something like, “I can get you every Orthodox therapist in Pittsburgh to come to the training if you can offer it during the week.”
When one of Sharon’s colleagues first met me, I got the once over, punctuated with the commentary of, “You’re the Jamie, Sharon’s teacher? You’re so young!”
Although I’ve gotten my fair share of the “you’re so young,” comments throughout my career, this one did not impact me with any insult. Rather, it helped me to understand why I respect Sharon so much. She is constantly willing to learn something new, especially from those of us in the younger generations. I watch how her grandchildren teach her new ways of seeing the world, and I hope that I can emulate this spirit of hers to constantly be a learner as I grow up into the example she is setting. And although I started as her teacher, it’s safe to say that we have both been each others’ teachers as our friendship has grown.
Coming to Squirrel Hill to train was a good fit for all of us—for Sharon’s community of clinicians in the neighborhood and for the growing Institute for Creative Mindfulness wanting to establish a base in Pittsburgh. When I visited Squirrel Hill for the first time, some tears filled my eyes. There are moments here when I feel like I’m in Eastern Europe, where I spent a great deal of late teens and early twenties studying and working, primarily in my ancestral homelands of Croatia and Bosnia. There’s just something about the vibe of Squirrel Hill and its Jewish soul, beautifully blended with other cultural influences in the container of Pittsburgh, its own cultural wonder, the visceral epicenter of our region’s heartiness. Something magical happens here at this area around the intersection of Forbes and Murray Avenues. In the past three years I’ve adored working with the people of Squirrel Hill and I enjoy spending time here with both friends and Sharon’s family. Sharon has always taken great care to assure that a guest bedroom in her home that is set up to accommodate her large family for holidays is always ready for me when I come to town. I typically stay in one of the basement guest rooms and sleeping down there feels like I’m in a warm cave being blanketed by an entire house that’s full of tradition and love. I’ve said for several years now that Squirrel Hill is truly my second home.
Sharon has seven children and a slew of grandchildren (I can never keep count). I’ve had the privilege to get to know many of them and their spouses, including one of her sons who is now a budding therapist and has trained with me. I attended the wedding of her youngest son and considered it the greatest honor ever when Sharon began caring for me in a way that led her to declare, “I’m sorry, I can’t turn off the Jewish mother in me.” The first time is when we were leaving her house in Squirrel Hill—it was a rainy morning and we were crossing the street to my parked car, on our way to the training site. A car came unexpectedly whizzing down her street and she brought out the infamous “mom arm” to protect me. Later that year, Sharon and I roomed together at the EMDR International Association conference in Minneapolis. While I’ve enjoyed a wide array of roommate experiences as I’ve traveled for work over the years, Sharon’s attention to detail in making sure I didn’t forget things and that I had a sounding board for things going on at the conference warmed my heart. She once again said something like, “I can’t turn off the Jewish mother,” and I thought to myself, “Nor do I want you to.”
My entire life I’ve struggled with feeling accepted by the people closest to me, especially in my family of origin, because my beliefs and way of being in the world is so different from their traditional (Christian) views. Sharon’s acceptance of me, even as a religious woman, includes a full embrace of my soul and my questions, even when we disagree on certain approaches to life, faith, and identity. While I wish that more devout people from all faith traditions would learn from Sharon’s example of acceptance, knowing her gives me hope that the healing power of what St. Benedict called radical hospitality is possible. Sharon’s willingness to bring me around her family and feel the warmth of their friendliness and the candidness of their interactions with me—even though they are all religious and I am more of a liberal hippie, “spiritual but not religious” type makes me know in my bones that we all have more in common than not. Knowing Sharon Saul and having her as my Jewish Ima (mother) is nothing less than a corrective experience in attachment. And it’s restored my faith that getting to spend substantial time with people from faiths and cultures other than our own is a big part of the answer to bringing about the healing of the world.
So, it’s little wonder that I wanted Sharon to join our Institute for Creative Mindfulness team as both a consultant and a facilitator as soon as she was eligible. In the midst of this Squirrel Hill tragedy she referred to EMDR therapy as “God’s tool for healing,” and I cannot disagree! She is a fabulous educator and mentor and serves our EMDR trainees well. Sharon is responsible for building enthusiasm about EMDR therapy in Squirrel Hill, working very hard to find us good spaces to train during the week. So many of the therapists we have trained here are now on the front lines of working with the community this week and will be in the coming weeks as the people of this neighborhood seek answers and healing.
But even if Sharon didn’t work with me in this professional capacity, I would still want her to me my friend… and of course, my Jewish mother. Even in the midst of debriefing her own experience of this week’s tragedy with me, Sharon still offered me spiritually on point advice about my own love life and my career path, as any attuned mother would. As we sat together the other night in our moment of awe at the Divine dance that brought our lives together, it dawned on me that a friendship like ours and everything it represents is the answer to the madness in which we find ourselves in this modern world. This isn’t something, even as a writer, that I can put elegant syllables together to explain. I simply challenge you to experience it if HaShem ever gives you the chance, because HaShem will.
In her infinite, faith-filled, maternal wisdom Sharon declared, “HaShem, you have a view of the bigger picture. I trust you when I can only see the parts of that bigger tapestry.”
Sharon and I both had the opportunity to do trauma response work this week in Squirrel Hill and were amazed at how this tragedy is bringing other things to the surface for people that have long needed healed. This poses, once more, the age old question: Is tragedy’s hidden gift the sparking potential it holds to stir us into action, first within ourselves and then in our communities? The idea of changing the world can feel overwhelming and impossible, especially with the hopelessness and hatred that seemingly paralyzes our existence. Perhaps the real answer is to heal ourselves and then make a difference on a one-on-one relational level, as Sharon and I have done with each other. When the small pearls of these healings and interactions string together, we create a valuable and beautiful force that will transform the world.
After working together today at the Jewish Community Center here in Squirrel Hill Sharon continued with her teaching for me that began the night before on the importance of the bigger picture: “It just feels like the redemption really is at hand and all of us good people doing all the good we can and all the healing we can it’s our job to just tip it. It feels like we’re almost, almost, almost there.”
“I have to do what?!?”
My gut squelched as I voiced my protest in the form of this question. For years I yearned to take a full 200-hour yoga teacher training. Because of my hectic schedule with my own training work, arranging one never seemed possible. In the interim, I committed to taking many weekend modules in trauma-informed and recovery yoga, in addition to deepening my own practice. In 2015, I formally discovered the Amrit Yoga system developed by Yogi Amrit Desai, carrier of the Kripalu lineage to the United States. Having been invited to Amrit Yoga Institute (AYI) as a guest teacher in a recovery program, I immediately fell in love with the Integrated Amrit Method and knew that when the time came to take a full teacher training, it would be at AYI. Several amazing things fell into alignment and I was able to take the full 200-hour program in the Summer of 2018, split into two, ten-day modules. When I presented for the first module, my teachers informed me that when returning for the second module, I would be tested on the Amrit method script… and 70% compliance was required to pass!
After my initial question, more protestation flowed: “They can’t box me into a script!,” “I am anything but a scripted person, what the hell did I get myself into?!,” “I haven’t had to do this kind of rote learning since graduate school…what do they expect me to learn from this!?!” Then it dawned on me: the teaching methods employed by the AYI team are not too dissimilar from what I ask my eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) trainees to do. In EMDR therapy training, even in a system as mindfulness-infused as my own Institute for Creative Mindfulness curriculum, trainees are asked to stick to a script. In the heart of EMDR therapy, often referred to as the trauma reprocessing stages, the script is very precise as required by the EMDR International Association. While there is room to adapt in some of the other phases, we still ask our trainees to follow a prepared script as we have found this to be the most solid method for educating the majority of our adult trainees who pass through the program. A key difference is that I was being asked to memorize the Amrit Method script and we don’t expect memorization from our trainees, simply that they read from the prescribed script until it becomes second nature to them.
While my challenge felt slightly more difficult, I knew the process would allow me to step into the shoes of what I’ve been asking my trainees to do over the years. A key factor in what helped me to stay optimistic about learning the script is that I as the teacher was allowed to use my own words to teach what is called the second part of the pose in Amrit Yoga. The second part of the pose is the artistry—giving students the time to bask in the stillness of the pose after taking deliberate movement in the first part of the pose (what I had to memorize). A similar process occurs in learning EMDR therapy. There is room for bringing your own clinical judgment and artistry into the practice of EMDR; yet this ought to only come in the context of first assuring a solid technique in one’s set up.
In my several month process of studying on my own and then returning for the second module of intense practice before being tested, I threw every tantrum possible. In addition to the standard issue “I can’t do this” and “I’m incapable,” I found myself beginning to resent the yoga method that I really loved very much and credited with changing my life. I did not feel the same allegiance to Yogi Desai that many of my fellow students and teachers felt and the challenge to “respect his words and his language” didn’t particularly resonate. I did, however, resonate with an explanation given by a teacher that the scripted portion of the pose is designed for us to know how to get people into and out of poses safely. By learning time-tested language for this, the burden of having to grasp for optimal language was removed. As Kalindi, my small group mentor whom I resented many times during the process, taught: “When you don’t have to worry about the language you’re using, something Higher will come through.”
I fought the notion that using someone else’s words—granted words and concepts that I liked very much—would allow my Higher Self to come through in my teaching. By the end of the training process I realized that my dear Kalindi was right. The moment of realization didn’t even come when I took my exam. Although I got through it well and was even able to correct an error that I made with a reasonable degree of elegance, it was in our final class for the whole community that the magic happened. Each of us in our group got to teach a pose and at the relative last minute, I was assigned what I perceived to be one of the more difficult poses in the Amrit sequence: Warrior I. There are a lot of moving parts in the script for Warrior I even though this is a yoga pose I’ve practiced for almost a decade. Getting up in front of my entire cohort and other members of the community, I breathed into it and didn’t experience a shred of nerves. The pose just flowed through me and the experience in my body was one of the most powerful I ever felt as a teacher. And I teach for a living! By time the second part of the pose rolled around and I shared from the organic learning of my own practice, it clicked why Yogi Desai and the entire AYI team put me through this process. I felt a freedom within the structure, and it was glorious!
Throughout the process, and especially in that final class, I realized the power of why we have EMDR trainees learn from a script. For many years I bristled against this teaching methodology. Sure, I learned from the script when I did my own EMDR training in 2005-2006 because I had to. From that initial learning, I found myself resisting the technique of it and improvising a great deal. Much of this adaptation was clinically justified, artistic, and especially needed in serving the most complex clients whose processing work in EMDR therapy will not be very likely to follow a textbook flow. I had a fabulous early consultant who helped me to navigate the finesse around adaptation and modification. After I finished my consultation period, however, I was drawn to other approaches to EMDR therapy that were even more modified and less structured. There was a period of a few years where I taught and even advocated for many of these less structured approaches to EMDR therapy. In becoming an official EMDR trainer, a role that I resisted accepting for years out of fear that I wasn’t “technical” enough, I learned to fall in love with the scripts and the protocols of EMDR in a new way. I discovered that in working with the majority of adult learners that we serve, having the scripted core protocol as the base is the foundation from which a successful EMDR practice in built. As I discuss with my co-author Stephen Dansiger in my latest book EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness for Trauma-Focused Care (2018), the standard protocol is rich with mindful language and concepts, evidence of Dr. Shapiro’s own foundation as a mindfulness practitioner. Granted it took years to work through my initial tantrums about not being a person who exists well in a box to see the beauty in the technical aspects of EMDR. I learned to appreciate that the principles, techniques, and protocols were not the boxes I once feared them to be. Rather, they are tools like paintbrushes, paints, and canvases that allow my clients, with my guidance, to create works of art.
The words of Nirali, my lead teacher throughout the yoga teacher training experience at AYI, sum up what I’ve come to learn as both a yoga teacher and an EMDR therapist/trainer. In one of our closing classes she said, “Learn the rules so that you know how to break them elegantly when you need to. But if you don’t learn the rules you just come off as amateur.” For anyone currently struggling to learn any system that makes you feel boxed into a script, I encourage you to consider this wisdom. If years down the road you are still feeling boxed in and stifled there may be a larger issue to consider here about whether the approach in which you’ve been trained is right for you. My hope is that after an initial period of practice in any scripted or protocol-driven approach you will feel more liberated to be yourself instead of less liberation. This is the art of allowing your Higher Self to shine through in your work, in your life, and in all that you do!
I am a long-time fan of The Affair, Showtime’s riveting relationship drama created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi. I watched all three seasons to date and fell especially in love with the character Allison Bailey (played by Ruth Wilson). Her struggles with the death of a child, self-injury, suicidality, dissociation, and the impact of her developmental trauma on her relationship choices have been well-portrayed throughout the show. There were many times in the first three seasons where I cried along with Allison, at moments, literally feeling her pain. I would have placed The Affairon the top of my recommendations list prior to this Season 4 for rather competent representation of complex trauma and dissociation.
And then they introduced an EMDR storyline…
I wish to express my grave concern, as an EMDR therapy trainer and founding director of The Institute for Creative Mindfulness’ training program in EMDR therapy, about how EMDR therapy and EMDR therapy training is represented in Season 4 of The Affair. While I am used to Hollywood missing the mark with the portrayal of psychotherapy and other clinical issues, the training element introduced in the storyline of Season 4, Episode 4 took my disdain for Hollywood’s handling of such issues to an extremely new level. I want to assert, as an EMDRIA-approved training program director that the way in which EMDR training is depicted in Season 4, Episode 4 of the affair is nowhere close to accurate or ethical. In the episode, the character of Allison (working on what is assumed to be graduate level training as a therapist as she is employed as a peer-to-peer grief counselor) attends an EMDR therapy conference training run by a fictional organization, the East Coast Association of EMDR. I want to assure any potential, eligible consumers of EMDR therapy training that the way EMDR therapy and the methods in which it is trained in the episode is dangerously inaccurately and embellished for dramatic impact.
Aside from the obvious technical errors in the EMDR demonstration (i.e., using short eye movement sets where longer sets would be required; demanding the closing of eyes; mishandling of an abreaction; inaccurate description of mechanisms of action), the most problematic areas in the episode include:
The show, which relies quite a bit on the “flash forward” technique seems to suggest that the relationship Allison develops with her colleague/fellow trainee who acted in this manner will cause her to experience a major mental health relapse.
Yes, my heart breaks for Allison, a character with whom I connect, as a fan of the show’s artistry. However, I must address the layers of my disappointment as a professional in reflecting upon this episode. I am disappointed in Sarah Treem, the writer of the episode who I’ve long regarded as brilliant, for either not getting adequate consultation in EMDR techniques or receiving the consultation and choosing to embellish them for effect. I am disappointed and upset by the inaccurate portrayal of EMDR therapy in the episode, especially when those of us who practice and train EMDR therapy are constantly in a position of needing to defend its efficacy and responsibility against the widespread myths and misinformation that abounds. Lastly, I am disappointed that the show, which has always had great potential to shed a light on issues related to trauma, addition, alcoholism, grief, loss, and dissociation missed an amazing opportunity. The creators could have chosen to showcase trauma healing modalities in a more accurate light that could serve, and not just, entertain, the public.
The season is not over so I will continue to watch and notice if the writing redeems itself on this issue. In the meantime, if you are seeking to learn what EMDR is really about, please consider visiting these complimentary resources produced by The Institute for Creative Mindfulness:
Teleseminar recording on EMDR therapy by Dr. Jamie Marich: http://www.thebreathenetwork.org/emdr-therapy-and-the-healing-of-trauma-teleseminar
Overview interview on EMDR therapy with Dr. Jamie Marich: http://www.thebreathenetwork.org/integrated-trauma-healing-with-emdr-therapywww.thebreathenetwork.org/integrated-trauma-healing-with-emdr-therapy
Full Phases 1-8 Demonstration of EMDR therapy by Dr. Jamie Marich: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6UvKhLYf7w&feature=youtu.be
Interview with Dr. Jamie Marich & Dr. Stephen Dansiger (ICM Senior Faculty Members) on EMDR therapy and their latest book, EMDR Therapy & Mindfulness for Trauma-Focused Care:
Interview with Dr. Jamie Marich & Dr. Stephen Dansiger (ICM Senior Faculty Member) on EMDR therapy and their latest book, EMDR Therapy & Mindfulness for Trauma-Focused Care: https://www.thetraumatherapistproject.com/podcast/trauma-emdr-mindfulness-jamie-marich-stephen-dansiger/
Fighting Dissociation Phobia and Coming Out as a Professional with a Dissociative Disorder (Dr. Jamie Marich)
To access original piece with full comments published on 5-18-18, go to:
As you read the title of this article, I am somewhat scared about how you are judging me…judging us. If your information about dissociative disorders—or what the general public may still call “multiple personalities” - is from the movies (e.g., Split, Sybil, Primal Fear), we assure you, what you’ve learned about us is inaccurate. When I say dissociative disorder, it’s not lost on us that many of you reference these portrayals and maybe even assume that a deeply disturbed, murderous “alter” will pop out and get you. Or that, like in Primal Fear, our struggles are all an act to get us off the hook for bad behavior. What saddens me the most is the level of phobic responses to dissociation that we witness from other professionals in our helping fields—mental health and addiction recovery—even from those who claim to specialize in trauma treatments like EMDR therapy. Terms like Islamophobia, homophobia, and transphobia are now regularly used in public discourse. We assure you, dissociation phobia is a real thing and needs to be added to the list.
Every week we hear of or directly encounter stories like these:
This is a short list composed only of clinical examples. We can fill an entire book of tales on how family, friends, and the public are quick to label us crazy or defective when, in reality, the dissociative mind is one of the most beautiful constructs of creation.
Our minds are prismatic, multi-dimensional, and capable of solving problems that empirical science and its numeric precision can’t even begin to figure out. Many of us are extremely high functioning, creative, intelligent, and capable of bringing about real change in the suffering world because most of us can instantly respect and evaluate multiple sides of a story. Yes, we can be plagued by deep suffering and distress that can impair daily living, especially when triggered, invalidated, or negated. When we’re given the tools for healing—which must start with having our own experiences validated and our existence affirmed—the power of our post-traumatic growth may stun you.
The first client with dissociative identify disorder (DID) I ever treated with EMDR therapy expressed, “People fear what they don’t understand,” in attempting to explain his dissociation, an adaptive response to unspeakable early childhood abuse. Our own experience amends this statement slightly, “People fear what they can’t understand.”
The next phase of my work as a public figure in my field is to do my best to help you understand. It’s scary—we’ve been “out” as a recovering addict throughout our career and in recent years we’ve been fully out in all areas of our life as a bisexual woman. Being out as dissociative isn’t exactly a newsflash if you’ve followed my work closely over the years (I reference it in both of my books on EMDR therapy and disclosed my full diagnosis in an article with Psyched last year). However, coming out this boldly (to the level of using singular we pronouns…did you notice the fluctuation between I and we?) feels like the riskiest step I’ve/we’ve ever taken as a professional and a public figure.
We can hear our colleagues now—which include other writers and trainers in the field—snickering behind our back or in some cases in front of it. They have the potential to write me off as a crazy, unstable, untreated girl who loves the attention. Trust me, we’ve considered the reality that others may try to discredit us and we are remarkably okay with that; it shows just how significant of a phobia we are addressing. We fear that in the current political climate where such a fear of the other abounds, we’ll either be dismissed or targeted for how we interact with the world. A side effect of my dissociative mind has been a fierce love of diversity and pluralism, to the point where even our own liberal friends fear us for combating the cut-and-dry, us vs. them labeling that abounds in these modern times. Loved ones have even threatened or attempted to use my dissociation and its complications against me/us, threatening to expose how bad it can get to make me seem less credible.
I was diagnosed with Dissociative Disorder, NOS (now Unspecified Dissociative Disorder) in 2004 and I am one criterion away from qualifying for a full Dissociative Identity Disorder diagnosis (I have never been and am not amnesic about the experiences of my parts). Although dissociation was a mixed blessing of a survival response and a paralysis in my earlier life, the growth I’ve experienced through being properly diagnosed and treated has helped me to embrace how my mind works instead of resent it. You may be puzzled as to why I can be so candid about something that seems, on the surface, so dramatic. Here is the truth bomb—we all dissociate and we all have parts that compromise our internal worlds. I can come out so freely now because I’ve come to learn that I am not that much different from the rest of you.
Understanding how you personally dissociate and how your parts work is an important first step in understanding what those of us who surpass the clinical threshold experience. Are you ready for this? This may feel a bit daunting if you’ve never looked at it before.
Know Your Dissociation Profile
Have you ever daydreamed?
Have you ever drifted off or zoned out a little, especially when you were feeling distressed or bored?
Do you dive in to Netflix binges to numb out from life or imbibe in intoxicants, especially as a method of escape?
To overstate what may seem obvious, we all have. If you are a therapist, have you ever led your clients through a guided imagery exercise like the Calm Safe Place, prompting them to visualize “somewhere else” to relax? Yup—you’ve deliberately elicited dissociation, albeit a form that is adaptive for many. There’s a chance you may even like and make use of such an exercise yourself.
For those of us who dissociate regularly and tend to cross more clinically significant lines, the response to shut down or escape in our own minds developed early and became a bit more ingrained. It can be more difficult to come back to the present moment, especially if what we’re coming back to is highly distressing. Yet with the tools of recovery and wellness, especially those skills that can be learned in the realm of grounding and embodiment, we can.
As a kid, one of the abusive figures in my life routinely said, “Jamie looks like she’s been beaned in the head with a fastball.” Probably because I was daydreaming so hard to tune him out! My vivid imagination took me to some pretty incredible places and the hope I drew from these places made real life slightly more bearable. As I transitioned into adulthood, I experienced significant difficulties distinguishing fantasy from reality, which made coping with alcohol and pills (more tangibly dissociative methods) appealing. If these themes resonate with any aspect of your personal experience, you are well on your way to understanding our experience.
Many teachers describe dissociation as a continuum phenomenon. We all dissociate, some more than others, and the experience may manifest differently at different times depending upon the nature and intensity of stressors. Although the continuum is a good start if you can wrap your mind around this description, for me the idea is too linear. I prefer to think of dissociation as prismatic. Light flows through a prism to reflect a series of colors—the more angles on a prism, the more dramatically light splits as it comes through—resulting in fascinatingly complex and stunningly beautiful patterns and fragments. For a prism to be a prism, at least two angles made of material transparent to the wavelengths of light for which they are designed must exist. Some folks have two angles, others have hundreds. The more intense the light (which can be cast as a metaphor for life stressors in this case), the more radiant the reflection. For those of us who have learned how the angles of our prism serve us under stress, radiant is a great adjective. Prior to learning how they work, the dispersion of light can feel blinding and confusing, to us and to others in our lives. Hence, shutting down the prism altogether can become more appealing. When you notice us go offline in our affect, this could be what’s happening for us.
In discussing dissociation and its various expressions, it’s useful to discuss parts. Although the word “alters” may still be used in context around DID, parts has become a more widely accepted and less shaming term; particularly because even the most conservative, set-in-their-ways reader of this article can identify two or more of their own internal parts.
Do you ever reference having an inner child?
Do you ever see yourself as being one person at home and one person at work?
Are you calm overall yet notice certain things can trigger a rage response in you, like the Hulk popping out of Bruce Banner?
Congratulations—you have parts!
The same parts or internal experiences that shape the theater of your life are similar to what we experience. Ours just may be a tad more fragmented, to the degree that we’ve given them names, numbers, or colors in assigning their roles. Our parts regularly dialogue with each other and fight with each other, just like the discord that you may witness between family and friends. These parts generally developed at different times in our life journeys in response to traumas and other stressors to keep us safe and protected. Some of these parts may still show up as more pronounced when certain situations or triggers wreak havoc in our systems. When parts and their characteristics show up as more pronounced, if you are a therapist or loved one, it does little good to think in terms of, “What’s wrong? What’s happening?” Instead, try “What are you being protected from right now? How is this part protecting you?”
Many of our parts can be quite delightful and even serve us in our public lives and others have the potential to create more problems for us in terms of acting out or shutting us down. Telling those parts to shut up or go away is generally not helpful. They need to be heard. Moreover, placating any one part or even our whole systems with platitudes like, “You’re in a safe place” is generally not productive either. Listen to the part or the series of parts that are most activated and ask them what they need to experience more safety in any given moment. Yes, if you are a therapist some of the parts may scare you or cause you grief. That doesn’t mean that we love or value our parts any less or that integrating these parts into some homogenous alloy is the best solution. Even the parts that we tend to hate or resent for causing us more grief in our adult lives can serve a purpose and resent, maybe even more than the others, this suggestion of classic integration.
Think of the common metaphor of the melting pot that gets used to describe the American nation—i.e., these disparate nationalities coming together, melting down to emerge as “American.” This metaphor has been challenged by many scholars and thinkers because it suggests there is such a thing as an ideal American. Instead, the tossed salad or a pot of stew is proposed as a better metaphor because all the different parts or ingredients contribute to making a tasty whole. With clients who can seem more affected by certain parts reacting to stressors, get to know the composition of the stew or the salad and what it tastes like (or could taste like) when the ideal blend and preparation of ingredients are achieved. If one day there are more tomatoes (for example) than usual, there is likely a reason for it…and don’t assume that the excess tomatoes just need to be cut out. They may be meeting a nutritional need, metaphorically speaking.
The metaphors for understanding parts and how they interplay are various. Explore which ones may work to describe your experience and help clients to determine which ones may work for them. Some like to use versions of a conference or kitchen table, a van, a house, or even a bundle of balloons. My preferred metaphor for my dissociative experience can be explained through Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Besides my presenting self (Dorothy), I have three distinctive parts of various ages who serve roles like the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. There is also an older, sage/crone part who has more of a spiritual, ethereal presence within me like Glinda the Good Witch. (If you are a fan of Wicked, yes, this sage/crone part is a mixture of Glinda and Elphaba.) Dorothy needed all of them to tap into the vital truth and learning of the story: “You’ve had the answer in you all along.” Dorothy needed all of them to get home.
All of us who dissociate to the level that may cause you to be scared of us are just searching for that yellow brick road that will take us home.
Will you shame us on our quest?
Or will you help us?
If your answer is the latter, thank you for taking the first step by reading this article. May you keep journeying on in your desire to understand your clients, which happens by first learning more about yourselves.
Photograph by Dr. Jamie Marich (March, 2018: Dubai, UAE)
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.