Client Case, 1993 © Terra Wise
Catatonic disorders are a group of symptoms characterized by disturbances in motor (muscular movement) behavior that may have either a psychological or a physiological basis. The best-known of these symptoms is immobility, which is a rigid positioning of the body held for a considerable length of time. Patients diagnosed with a catatonic disorder may maintain their body position for hours, days, weeks or even months at a time. Alternately, catatonic symptoms may look like agitated, purposeless movements that are seemingly unrelated to the person’s environment. The condition itself is called catatonia.
Catatonia No More: Description of a Healing
A traumatic event from years prior remembered and proven to be true, confirmed from police sources.
I answered my phone and the man on the other end said he had just returned home from a three-month stay in a psychiatric facility. This is how he described his problem, “I go catatonic a lot.”
He was in his forties, experiencing frequent episodes of catatonia, and said he would fill me in on the details when we met for our sessions, including discoveries made while he was hospitalized.
He explained that he had been referred to me as an open-minded counselor and he was eager to explore holistic ideas, hoping to make sense of the fragments in his life and some difficult experiences.
I hung up the phone, recalling another case of catatonia from years earlier. I was studying with a teacher who often worked in groups. A woman had come for help, for a healing. She described frequent episodes of catatonia so severe that the Child Welfare Service had threatened to remove her children from her home. Her healing experience was both psychological and metaphysical too. It involved a number of us assisting in an elaborate counseling/healing ceremony held over the course of several long action-packed hours. We started in the afternoon and continued through the night and into the next morning. That details of that story are posted in this link to story. During subsequent follow-ups (days, weeks, and months later) we learned the woman was healthy, no more episodes of fainting/catatonia, her children were home allowed to remain with her, and all were doing quite well. She said she was at peace, the disturbing images, thoughts, and mysterious events had ended. That all-night healing is a powerful and complex one, it had been an adventure for all of us involved, and a story best left for another time.
My client arrived. During the initial portion of our visit he spoke of his love for his teen daughter, and then some disturbing memories that haunted him. His time in the hospital had not resolved his condition he said, although he had learned something very important connected to it. As he said that, talking about these events, he suddenly did indeed, ‘go catatonic’ to use his phrase…
He slipped away, disappearing from consciousness.
One minute he was all there, alert, aware, talking, and the next he appeared as comatose, limp, and lifeless looking a form as can be imagined. His lips lost their color, he did not respond to gentle touch or sounds, he did not respond to pinching, pushing, pulling, or my loud voice calling his name, calling him back. After a few moments in this catatonic state he returned from wherever he had vanished to. — I asked him to describe what he had experienced, seen, or sensed? His response was that he was aware only of a darkness growing and expanding, and that he felt intense paralyzing fear. He said it was as if the fear and darkness called out to him and wanted to draw him into it; more than anything he wanted to get away but felt paralyzed, unable to move or speak.
He was shivering with fear, unable to understand what was happening or why, unable to control or stop it. He said he refused to go back to the hospital, he wanted to keep going and learn what was happening, he said he couldn’t do learn anything if he was drugged with medications and other restraints.
I reminded him he was not alone. I was right there with him and we would learn what we needed to learn about this dark place he went to and find some answers. I explained that I noticed it happened right after talking about his daughter and the shadowy, uncomfortable images. I suggested something — simple as they may sound in hindsight — I suggested that the next time it happens to remember, for some part of him to remember, that he is not alone, he is in a safe place, and to imagine a bright lamp with him; a light so bright that he can use it to illuminate his surroundings completely in order to learn about this shadowy place he vanishes to. Or that like an archeologist or a miner he had a helmet with headlamp to light the darkness.
I encouraged him to notice the details of his surroundings the next time it happened, the light would help him gather information, to remember. Knowledge is power as the saying goes, he needed to know more and the more. We both sensed the next episode was coming fast now, once again I reminded him that he would be able to learn about this environment and would retain what he sees and bring it back to consciousness. – I asked and found out he had been in the military, I suggested thinking of it as a recon mission, this time he would return safely to report back what he sees.
Sure enough it happened again, suddenly he was gone. The color drained from his lips, body looking lifeless. But this time when he returned he was able to describe what he saw, he said it was much more than he had ever seen before and the light really made a difference…
He described a chasm of darkness all around him. Darkness eating away at the light, the land disappearing from underneath him. A voice was urging him to step away from the light and solid land underneath him and to step off into the abyss and into the darkness. He said the shadow was calling him strongly. He had a dark foreboding feeling that increased as the light ebbed. He said he felt the darkness wanted him to die, to take him away from the light and from life.
When asked he said the image was not familiar as far as he could tell, it was nothing he had ever seen in a movie, painting, or sketch anywhere–but it seemed the darkness knew him and was calling him in. He described the fear was not like anything he had ever known, it was beyond anything he could describe, it was overwhelming. I suspected another episode was about to happen soon.
Seeing how the imagery and strong intention helped once, I expanded on that idea. I asked about his heroes. Was there anyone he knew, a real person or a fantasy character that he associated with courage and combat skill? We were going to invoke this courageous person to be a protector to help him. To stand by his side. Someone or something whose courage, skill, and instinct to protect would match and overtake the fear, shadow, and dark abyss.
Imagine someone is ready to help you, an ancestor or more than one who loves you, the good guys you know who can protect you. Imagine they are be present with us. I asked him again, does he have an association with anything or anyone that represents courage and protection, real or mythic? He told me he did know a good man who was brave and skilled, a buddy from the military. He described him as very skilled swordsman. He had trained with different weapons. Swords had been a part of his life-long martial arts training–this man was the perfect model of energy for what was needed. He had the confidence, courage and ability to protect. And in addition, they had personal history together, they knew what it was like to have each other’s back. He was feeling stronger just thinking about his friend by his side.
And then it happened again, the catatonia crept in, he was engulfed by it and as he slipped away I reminded him to hold onto the knowledge that his courageous friend would come to his aid when summoned… He was being summoned right now! We both called on his protector by name. I continued to whisper in his friend’s name in his ear, like a hypnotic suggestion, all the help he required now to win this fight was with him, he was not alone, he was protected and would return safely with all the healing and wisdom he needed–leaving behind the pain and fear.
First Problem Handled, Now the Next
All was quiet for a few moments and then he returned from the interior place he had been. When he opened his eyes he looked brighter and lighter inside and out. He described “seeing” his sword wielding friend overpower the dark (his word was demonic) force — and as soon as he did that the light grew so much brighter and the land more solid. His fear waned. The land began to reappear, more light, solid land. The darkness faded as the chasm was closing, filling in with light. By the time they left the scene the shadowy chasm was all gone and the land beneath him felt alive with warmth, light and safety, he said. He described a sensation of peace that filled the scene and his heart too.
We had created the calm and spaciousness required to continue. With this first huge hurdle resolved–staying awake and aware without the fainting spells–we could move on. We were able to continue the sessions with the methods that enhanced his awareness and healing. It was like a treasure hunt, searching for clues and answers. His breath calmed, his energy improved. his nightmares eased, his physical strength improved. We had uninterrupted opportunity to talk without the catatonia snatching him away mid-sentence. We began to explore the threads of the a bigger tapestry, a bigger picture that was alluding him.
Reflecting on the fragments from his past that had haunted him, we delved deeper in to his past, his memories and experiences from his past. He was sure it was nothing to do with military service or issues with his parents. He sensed there was something really big and terrible that happened when he was younger. A trauma that occurred when he was a child of eleven or twelve, he thought it was more than one thing that happened at once.
The horrific background story
The root of the darkness and fear had originated from a very disturbing deeply frightening childhood experience. While he was in the psychiatric hospital for the three-month stay he told this story many times to his doctor. He said the story felt real to him a memory from his youth, but the doctors and staff thought the images and story were far too horrific and detailed to be believable. They never for a moment believed it could be true, instead they concluded that he was hallucinating, acting paranoid and delusional, they gave him anti-psychotic drugs to quiet him down, pushing the memory further away. Anytime a fragment managed to pop up he tried to describe it again, the scenes coming to his mind. He spoke with detail and specificity, he was getting nowhere until one day a different nurse overheard him and told the doctor it sounded familiar to her.
The nurse said it sounded eerily similar to a news story she remembered hearing years previously and that the patient sounded as if he was describing it from a first-hand witness perspective. Luckily, the nurse searched the newspaper archives and found the story, the facts did indeed collaborate what he had been saying all along. Once this became known the drugs were stopped, it was understood an entirely different approach to healing was necessary to manage his trauma and stress. A once repressed memory of actual events had been awakened, he was not delusional, he was remembering; understandably he was not too interested in working with that doctor. They took him off the drugs, he was released.
The Traumatic Event
He told me his story. As a pre-teen he went outside to play, he started out for a walk and decided to go explore past the field or ravine near his house, walking a little further away from his house into the denser wooded area. It was not all that far from his house, but it was a greater distance than had gone previously, it felt like unexplored territory. Shockingly he came upon a horrific scene — one in which he was able to get down low and hide his presence from the bad man. His reaction probably saved his life. He witnessed a rape, mutilation, murder, and continued mutilation of the woman after her death. He told me he knew to not make a sound, he forced himself to be as quiet as possible, holding his breath for fear to make a sound, he was completely fear-filled.
He said he swallowed the scream that had wanted to come out of him, he somehow managed to wiggle backward and when he could he got up and ran as fast as he could back to his house. He never knew if the killer was behind him, he was too afraid to look back, he just ran and ran. He did not know if he had been seen, he feared for his own life as he ran out of the woods making it home terrified, out of breath, and feeling sick from what he had witnessed. But before he could even tell anyone about it, before he could get a word out, he saw that his pet had died! His attention went to this new horror. Seeing his pet’s body was a shock, his fear and trauma had been redirected to the lifeless body of his pet… One ghastly scene had flowed into another, a trauma so huge immediately followed by another. He was in shock unable to speak or even cry. The two events became conflated.
His heart was broken he said. He told me from that moment of seeing his pet he did not remember what happened in the woods until years later. The events in the woods were forgotten, buried in his mind and repressed – until a third trauma occurred, an event that triggered the childhood memory, catatonic episodes and admittance into the hospital. The third emotional shock occurred only months previously when he learned his teen daughter had been raped. His descent began at that moment and the catatonia with it. He began to recall seeing the rape and murder of the woman when he was a child, but at first it made no sense, more and more of it came back to him the news of his daughter’s attack had been a trigger. And once we got to this part of the story we also got to his rage.
I was reminded of another story of catatonia and its connection to rage. I had been told this story years early by same native teacher/healer mentioned previously. He described how his own teacher, an elder had been called to help in the healing of a catatonic patient in a psychiatric ward. The doctor who asked for his help knew of him and of his success as a spiritual healer. Apparently the doctor had no insights and had run out of ideas about how to help his patient. As the story was told to me the medicine man arrived at the hospital, talked with the doctor to learned some background facts and then asked for ice water in a turkey baster or in anything that would allow him to drip the water on to the patients third eye (the spot between her eyebrows) on her forehead.
The native healer warned the medical staff that he suspected she would become increasingly agitated by the water dripping on her and that was a good thing, it was necessary because it would move her out of her frozen state. He told the doctor he believed she had layers buried inside of her, sadness and anger pent-up and ready to be released. He asked the medical staff let her express, to not sedate her when she became emotional. Underneath the silent disconnected woman he explained they would soon see the layers of all the emotion that the catatonia had bottled up inside of her, all the sadness and rage would be vented. He warned it would come out. He said his prayers, asked for his guides and hers, and began to drip ice water onto her.
He compared it to an infant or toddler in a bed crying. The cries when ignored become louder more intense, but the longer the call is ignored changes will occur emotionally and spiritually, until there is silence and disconnection. Something had happened in this women’s life that had repressed the sadness and anger… He asked the nurses and doctors to step back. As the story goes she went from a frozen disconnected state through layers of emotions sadness, sorrow, anger and her deepest rage came through at the end. The medicine man expected it and stayed present with her, eventually she quieted down and felt at peace.
Back to my treatment room and client…
He had witnessed a horrific event and described the horrors he had seen as a child, he had feared for his own life as he ran back to his house; the sight of his pet was another shock. Those events were buried in his mind, but years later the news that his teen daughter had been raped, filled him with rage and the cascade of memories…
I had a punching bag, I asked if he could manage to come to the bag, but that was too much, so I brought the bag to him and laid it down on the floor. I instructed him to get on his knees and by moving from his pelvis/hips he could use his full power and weight to punch downward on the bag on the ground. He was able to use both hands at once, and to use his voice too, to rage as loud as needed; he flattened the bag with his fury, pain, and suffering. He exhausted himself, until there was no rage left in him. He cried softly, and then he said he felt peaceful. He never had another episode of catatonia.
In subsequent sessions we continued to weave together the healing threads. We explored his night dreams, worked with nutrients to help balance energy and build strength, and enhanced awareness and fluidity between breath, body, and emotions. Eventually he said it was hard to believe he once suffered as he had.