In her book, Jung: A Feminist Revision, Susan Rowland (2002) begins, “A life story is a helpful way of approaching any body of ideas for the first time” (p. 2). The purpose of telling this section of my life story is to demonstrate how I came to understand the benevolence and intelligence within the cosmos through a profound psychological illness.
The lessons learned through my lived experience are woven inextricably through the theories and practices that have specialized my work with disordered eating, although I had no intention of a career in psychology. My plan was to stick to the solid science through my bachelors in health science and masters in nutrition science, yet my soul had other plans. This story demonstrates many levels of cosmic fate and destiny, including a spiritual satori-like experience described below that has kept my abiding faith that we are not alone, and that our lives are infused with powerful meaning which may be expressing itself through the coded metaphor of painful psychological symptoms.
The Early Years
I was born in 1956, the oldest of five children born in close succession, one right after the other, to a nuclear engineer father and a mother. This mother would lose her mind and be taken away by the time I was eight. My father’s parents moved into our San Fernando Valley home to raise us after the courts awarded him custody. The neighbors had testified that the oldest child, me, was raising the kids, especially the two-year-old. We kids had hoped for a rescue with our grandparents taking charge, but they had been raised with extreme physical violence, which continued in our home. Since my role was protector, I developed a sense of responsibility and an inflated sense of power and control. My outgoing personality covered what must have been terrible vulnerability and sadness.
I remember throwing up a lot from nervousness. What saved me was a tendency toward existential musings, whether sensing God from my forts in trees or wandering in nature with imaginary guardian angels. I knew to defy the Catholic school teachings which limited God to a judge in the sky. Somehow, I remained filled with curiosity and spiritual optimism despite what was happening in my outer life.
Fast Forward, the LSD Trip at 19 Years Old
After developing a wonderful group of friends and a succession of respectful boyfriends through my teen years, I fell madly in love at the age of 18. The following story relates to the illness I would get and the nature of the work I would do in the years to come based on that illness. My boyfriend and I took LSD on a surf camping trip, a trip that on many levels would change the destiny of my life. We hiked miles away from humanity to a beautiful cove, with its rising tide coming close to the 200-foot cliffs behind us. One moment we were laughing. The next, he fell over, foaming at the mouth and writhing in the sand dune with a grand mal seizure.
Reality shifted in less than 5 seconds from utter heaven to a total nightmare. The seizure seemed to go on for eternity, after which he stopped breathing. The aloneness of that moment is one of those experiences that introduces one’s soul to hell on earth. When he did finally come to, he was deranged; he could not speak, nor move well, nor was he “himself” at all. Never mind that the tide was beginning to threaten to drown us against the cliffs and I was still cursedly on the drug that triggered this unspeakable neuro backfiring.
We crawled at first to get back to the campground. He would stop, and I would push him and pull him, side by side with him, while the world around me appeared more and more like a sinister cartoon in the utter terror and survival trial that we were in. I intermittently bargained with God that I would never do drugs again if, by some miracle, we were saved from this hell. We got back to the camping site and hour by hour he slowly recovered, significantly better by that evening.
The doctor said the LSD was likely contaminated, but my boy–love ended up having a deeper neurological problem. He had several more seizures followed by a psychotic break in the weeks that followed. He entered a state of the art psychiatric hospital and, to his parents’ entire financial waste, stayed there for 3 full months. In there, lithium was the brand new experimental drug that brought him back to himself.
When Current Trauma Triggers Past Trauma
What I could not have known was that the trigger of losing him to a psychiatric break would mirror the loss of my mother, through her psychiatric illness. Knowing what I know now about the mystery of destiny, I think my mother’s mental health descent and abandonment of us kids may have activated something within my depths to attract this traumatic incident with my boyfriend, giving me a chance to hit “replay” and heal my core wounds. What matters is that I formed and repressed an utter terror of going insane. Having shoved this fear of losing my mind deep into the shadow of my unconscious, I could not have known that it began gaining strength and power there in the dark.
It took 6 months after he recovered and we had returned to our fairly normal life for the crack in my psychological foundation to rupture. In my thinking, some things rupture little by little with small quakes shaking things loose. Mine was titanic.
My Anxiety Disorder Erupts
I was working at my summer job in 1974. It was the day Nixon resigned. I remember looking at the face of a coworker as she talked when suddenly her face distorted at the same time a dissonant organlike musical chord went off in my head. Everything appeared to be melting. I sprinted out of the building in terror, flinging open the door to escape, only to confront a malevolent nightmarish perspective outside as well. I will never forget the way, suddenly and out of nowhere, everything had become visually, auditorily, and emotionally horrifying and ominous. It felt just like that unforgettable day on the beach, stuck on LSD.
These severe panic attacks, as they would later be known, always hit with vertigo and a sense of depersonalizing madness, while I remained painfully aware of it all from within in the eye of the storm. Fortunately, I was not truly psychotic, as I was well aware of feeling insane. I could not escape the eerie organ sounds, the alarming colors, and visual distortions that accompanied these attacks. My worst fear in life was happening, and that was that I had, in fact, lost my mind.
After each attack ended, I continued to experience hours of terrifying perceptual distortion. The attacks continued to occur, multiple times a day, coming from out of nowhere, for the next 2 years.
The Days Before Psychotherapy was Normalized
People in my world of family and friends did not go to psychiatrists. Diagnoses like panic disorder, depression, or psychotic breaks, like my boyfriend had experienced, were unheard of in my early 20s social group. Hence, my family and friends stayed away. I called my boyfriend’s psychiatrist, who knew me by then. “I’ve been expecting this,” he said, as he had observed my vigilance in caring for my boyfriend through his illness. He will never know what a relief it was to have even a remotely normalizing comment made. Our sessions began in earnest twice a week.
Things became much worse before they got better. I became phobic of the places that I had the attacks. Hence, I became phobic of leaving home, being in open spaces, flying, elevators, cycling, hiking, and watching sunsets on the beach. Everything had a sinister feeling to it. I could not find my way back to the psychological realm I had lived in all of my life, where I had been free spirited and adventurous, loving nature and being alone.
It turned out that LSD had somehow affected my brain in a way so that when my breakdown was due (and it was), my mental hardwiring reverted to the perceptual distortions of the drug. For months, several years actually, I would see trails, colors and patterns without the good mood that can accompany hallucinogenic trips. Throughout many of my undergraduate years, the campus grounds were either on a slant or felt like a mattress. I remember the background trees and landscape loomed into the foreground wherever I was.
These perceptual distortions were accompanied by a horrifying sense of abysmal doom. I lost almost all hope for my life. There remained only a small shred of possibility that some form of God or universal meaning could possibly exist in all of this. I had done this to myself and assumed this was my punishment.
My Quest for Meaning
Understanding the nature of reality and possible meaning of life was and still is at the heart of my own daily pulse. When the anxiety, panic disorder, and ensuing depression took my reality hostage, I tried to hold onto a shred of hope that the meaningless void I now lived in, this terrifying abysmal sense of the emptiness within my new reality, might lead me somewhere.
What I was to learn was that I was experiencing an internal split from the true interconnectedness and interrelatedness that we as humans normally experience in a cohesive, integrated psyche. The distorted appearance of my outer world was a manifestation of my inner life. I would later be shown that my false sense of strength and control of my former ego identity hid the pain and vulnerability of my childhood experiences. In building my barrier against personal weakness, I had gone too far.
All it took was the trigger of almost losing my boyfriend to insanity, and that tether which had connected me to the ground of fundamental reality snapped. I had no idea that the variety of symptoms I suffered with, would end up being a metaphor, a sort of coded message from my unconscious to my surface self.
Symptoms Became Coded Messengers with Meaning
Although I learned to adapt and function with the psychological symptoms as a full-time college student, getting excellent grades and eventually transferring to the University of California, at Santa Barbara, I pressed my psychiatrist for explanations about the unusual and persistent nature of my symptoms.
We started with my sense that the floor felt like it was tilted backward. He asked what it made me want to do and how it made me want to react. I explained that I had to grip the chair, tense my entire body, and hold on tight to keep from actually sliding backward across a room that I also knew was not actually on a slant.
He asked when in my life had I felt like that; for example, as a young child, how had this same sense of physical vigilance felt familiar? I scanned my younger life and realized that such a feeling was common. From 2 years old and on, as my mother was slipping away and chaos ensued, my tense, attentive vigilance kept everything from sliding away. At least that is how I experienced it.
We went through my fear of bridges. The psychiatrist asked,
“Why the fear?”
“Because there is nowhere to pull over.”
“What does that matter?”
“Because you can’t stop or slow down if you want to. You can’t just hold traffic up for yourself. You will be seen as crazy.”
I had assumed that my fear of bridges was related to a fear of heights, but in that moment I could see that I felt trapped on bridges because one has to push through and just drive at everyone else’s pace, instead of having the freedom to stop. In other words, the pressure to keep it looking together was driving the phobia.
A New Perspective on Abandonment – Self Abandonment
Worse still, I would soon learn, is that when we try to hold it together, to appear cool to the outside world, we are fundamentally abandoning ourselves in that moment. In other words, when we are so worried that we might appear terrifically foolish in front of others, and we do everything we can to hide what is happening, what is most critical to our inner life, is that we turn away from the part of us that is screaming in shame or terror. We turn our attention outward, to the world, to hold our head high, while not attending to the inner being that is actually experiencing trauma in that moment. Such was the case when an anxiety attack would start up, like on a bridge or in a classroom and I would do everything possible to grit my teeth and look as normal as I could.
The Universal Language of Psychological Symptoms as Messengers
The particular means of inquiry that the psychiatrist led me through, where a particular symptom would be broken down and expanded, to reveal levels of unconscious fears, would later become a process I did with my own eating disorder clients, before eating disorders were understood.
For example, with eating disorders, many people think that their fear of being fat is truly a fear of being fat. What I learned is that the psyche speaks in metaphors. My terror on the bridge was just a symptom of something much broader, just as people’s phobia of donuts is not about the donuts. I would come to discover and teach that the loud symptoms that distract us can often act as a cover for a psychological dilemma, one that we do not know how to face. It turns out that being trapped on a bridge, suppressing a panic attack, was a metaphor for my life as a four-year-old. I was trapped with a mother that was slipping away, a father that became physically violent, and children that seemed dependent on my stoic strength to make everyone happy, organized, and safe.
My psychiatrist and I de-coded each of my symptoms to uncover their direct metaphorical interpretation. The psyche’s use of metaphor to communicate would become a concept that I utilized in the new theories about eating disorder treatment. I did not know yet that Carl Jung described the language of metaphor, and that Jungian analyst and author Marion Woodman would also tie together eating and body image fears as metaphoric guides through the feminine psyche. Instead, I started with my own strange, specific phobias, one at a time, that, when decoded, pointed toward specific memories from childhood. The phobias both distracted me from the memories while also holding a mysterious key to unlock them when I was ready.
Examples of What We Can Learn Through Symptoms
From the phobias, I learned that there was younger me, alive within my then 20 something self. In fact, I discovered that she was the one throwing nuclear bombs at me in the form of panic attacks. She seemed to be about four years old, and for such a young child, she was inside of my young adult self, driving the attacks and imprisoning me with irrational phobias. This discovery became astounding good news. It meant that instead of at 27 being permanently broken, I was being honored in a strange and terrifying way by a presence from the past so that I could heal it.
Now there was another side to the coin of this anxiety nightmare—a brutal yet numinous intelligence was seeking wholeness and integration. This astounding experience of finding a presence within myself, which had more or less bottled up a concentrate of emotions from long ago and converted those emotions to severe panic attacks and strange perceptions of reality, would fuel my former cosmologic optimism once again.
This astonishing phase of therapy would also inform a technique that I summoned almost a decade later when no one knew what to do with the droves of disordered eaters that entered my nutrition practice seeking help. I could not know yet that fate would ask me to blast through the ceiling of my dietitian license and dive in with psychotherapists to figure out what the baffling symptoms of self-starvation or a routine of bingeing and vomiting meant and what to do about them.
Beneath the Metaphor Work, A ‘New God’ Emerges
As time went on, I decoded each symptom and pieced together most of the story that had been hidden within my inner life. I was becoming less anxious. That was the good news. The bad news was that the panic attacks did not stop. They would hit without notice, much like an earthquake explodes out of nowhere.
One day, in complete and total exasperation, I looked up and asked God,
“What the hell do you want from me!?”
I went on to claim my rights as a hardworking, generous person, who did all sorts of good deeds, demanding to know what the point was of getting better and then going out in the world and doing all sorts of good deeds for others, only to get sick again. Here was the deal. As my symptoms abated, I automatically returned to the post-Catholic co-dependent, good-girl, the one who didn’t hesitate to abandon herself in lieu of doing right by others. I was yelling at God about why, when I went back out into the world of good deed doing, did my symptoms return with a vengeance. Some reward!
I stood there and demanded an answer.
An answer came through. “I am not that God.”
I had never posed a cosmic inquiry before.
I had not expected an answer. I both heard and felt the response, “I am not that God,” I somehow knew exactly what was being communicated. Whatever or whoever this inner soul God was, it was saying that the system does not work through racking up points by following rules, then being rewarded. How it works is that we are to align ourselves with self-care, taking responsibility for our own peace, joy, rest, and experiences that creatively nurture ourselves.
I could not believe it. The schema I had known involved earning my right to joy. I had never considered for one moment that whatever the source of all life is, that I was mandated to enjoy it, or more importantly, that my symptoms would not abate until I created a life in which self- care was central.
I was to forget this principle repeatedly, working way too hard at times with a career and family and relapsing with anxiety. Still, through a rather direct association to overwork triggering my symptoms and self-care releasing me from them, I began to invent a set of theories that I would eventually name psychological physics. The first psychological physics theory was that self-care was directly related to the abatement of many psychological symptoms, a psychological premise that was self-evident in the therapy field, decades later, and central to disordered eating recovery.
Another key treatment tool involved self-inquiry. Just ask. Ask who? Ask whoever they are deep within us, those gods, goddesses, guides, inner children, and other selves within our interiority. As this story progresses, this inward-directed inquiry became all the more powerful a tool.
The Place Where Love and Universal Consciousness Stepped In
Once I started taking better care of my creative interests, by reading, relaxing, and working to stave off the guilt I had previously associated with having fun, my anxiety attacks lessened. I was getting the lay of the land of my inner life, and I began to trust the coming and going and nature of my symptoms. The more I did so, my former hell was slowly becoming heavenly at times.
Then came another turning point. My growing trust that this anxiety disorder was a mysterious intelligence paralleled a growing trust in the cosmos as a whole. My inner life wasn’t just a psyche, it became an inner cosmos, infused with information that was both helping me but was also universally applicable. If this vast inner territory organized itself toward powerful meaning, it automatically entangled meaning, purpose, and consciousness within the whole of existence.
Although the panic attacks were less frequent, they still erupted, and one day I had a particularly bad one. Once again, exasperated, I summoned the question, both to the outer cosmos and echoing through my inner life,
“What do you (anxiety disorder) WANT from me?”
The answer, which I did not expect, took about an hour, whereupon I experienced the following communication:
“Love me no matter what.”
“Love me no matter what?” I asked, sort of pretending ignorance. I had learned to love myself to such a great degree. What did my psyche mean by this answer? Then I thought about driving over bridges, which was still a terrific phobia. My psyche, answered my question by showing me in a type of flash of insight, a vision of myself, trying to drive across a bridge, white-knuckled, with a reeling sense of vertigo, and containing the urge to scream bloody murder in terror. What became clear through this flash, this video clip that was ‘shown’ to me, was that I was so focused on not making a fool of myself on that bridge that I totally abandoned my inner child. Instead of being inwardly compassionate to myself, I was rigid with terror that I would humiliate myself in front of everyone.
“Ohhhh”… I thought. “So, love me no matter what means staying connected to my inside self, lovingly. It means actually talking to that four- year old, soothing her since the bridge is triggering a memory. The memory in this case is being trapped with mom and my siblings, paralyzed with stress. I’m supposed to talk to her about that memory, with understanding and compassion for her terror instead of yelling at myself to pull it together.”
I was being shown a means of self- relating that never occurred to me. That is, to soothe and truly love myself while the attack is actually happening.
Self-Relationship Would Be a New Level
This insight was to be a deeply coded forewarning for future clients and for myself about a sort of psychological-cosmic law. Most people have a condition in which they judge themselves so deeply and feel so much shame that they inadvertently abandon themselves. For some, it is getting fat; for others, it is being weak, not intelligent, or going broke. For me, it was going insane. In this way, I posit by having one’s worst fear happen, in my case, by actually going insane, one gets a shot at a miracle.
What became clear to me through my experience and central to my future theories on healing mental health problems, was that insight alone is not transformative. Insight just ponies us up for the real work, the action. I would later develop a series of stages of recovery, where I teach that the second stage of recovery, simply named insight gathering, leads to the third stage, the fork in the road. In this third stage, one has a choice between real action or just going on with life with the insight but not acting. It is only through the fourth stage, defined as the action stage, that real transformation occurs. I still had to put the action of loving myself, no matter what, during an anxiety attack to work.
Based on the need to take action with regard to loving my younger, inner child-self during an actual panic attack, I decided to drive straight onto the Golden Gate Bridge to confront the phobia. My goal was to do so without abandoning my inner child. My plan was to stay deeply connected to my vulnerable, younger self, as though she were a real, separate child that absolutely needed and deserved my full love while I was smack in the middle of a full-blown, sustained panic. I would maintain that connection as the sickening terror mounted, no matter what.
I drove onto the bridge with escalating vertigo, sweating, and encroaching sense of abysmal terror. As these feelings flooded in, I started talking to her (myself), validating her (my terror). I reassured her (me) that I understood that our current panic made total sense based on how it was when we were little, that we, together, were feeling what it was like to be her, back in time. It was like she was showing me through the current panic attack what she (we) had gone through at 4 years old.
Next, a deep, deep sadness began to take me over, while at the same time a powerful empathy emerged for my younger, abandoned self. While this sweet connection was going on, my inner critic was rolling like a hyena in the corner of my mind, mocking my connecting efforts to this younger me. I had to pull my attention away from this heckling critic, forging forward. “They can haul us off in a helicopter if need be.”, I said to us. I was not budging from my focus on caring and connecting with her despite seeming trapped in my car, way high in the sky on this bridge. Thankfully I had a friend with me, who courageously volunteered to take the wheel if need be.
I think I started bawling. Deep forces within me were reuniting.
The White Light
Then suddenly, all around me, an explosion of light filled everything. With the explosion of light came the most powerful blast of love I have ever or could ever imagine feeling. I experienced an opening for several electrocuting seconds of lightning bolts of love from all directions, hitting me. I cannot accurately describe this. The force of it, the feeling of it, and the light that came with it was totally and completely astounding.
It was as if some kind of barrier broke. The barrier that keeps humans organized in their little space–time nervous systems with their little thoughts, separated from what must be a field of love surrounding them, had just shattered. The blasting love and light shook for probably 3 to 5 seconds. This was nothing like the LSD high. This was more real than anything I have ever experienced, in fact, more real than the steering wheel under my hands felt at that moment.
The next thing I knew was that all fear of being on the bridge was gone. It was gone. I felt utter peace and total freedom, and, in fact, I had a wildly joyful release that made me laugh out loud with delight. The whole phobia was gone!
“Love me no matter what” had to be one of the keys to life on planet earth! I knew if this had happened to me, it could happen to anyone. I knew from that experience that, surrounding the structure of our nervous system, love exists in a boundless sea of benevolent light and that we can align with it. This love was from out there, to in here, whatever out there and in here even was.
This direct experience made clear to me that universe was, in fact, conscious after all. And it was this miraculous experience that was to ignite a fire underneath my work with others, where, I have witnessed and now believe that our science paradigm and epistemology of our culture is limited to what is considered real through objectifiable evidence.
The implications of my experience connect subjective and objective perceptions of reality. It became quietly unquestionable to me that the nature of reality includes a force of consciousness through each and every one, one that illuminates the cosmos with creative intelligence. I also know through firsthand experience that this earth school can be brutal but that we are here to transform. After four decades of using these ideas with clients seeking help with disordered eating and the many mental health struggles that come with a journey of recovery, I completed my PhD in consciousness and transformative studies.
Self-inquiry and spiritual inquiry continue to open windows to astounding awe and wonder in my life, just as physics and other sciences continue to stumble forward into the incredible inquiry of a conscious universe, the same consciousness which spoke to me through my anxiety disorder.