When I was a graduate student in psychology in the 70’s many of my peers were joining protest marches, getting their hands smashed, or going to jail to stop the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, I and my hippie friends were going to the beach or the forest to commune with nature.
I did, however, have a vague plan to help people: to relieve human suffering someday by practicing therapy. All the emerging trends in psychology were available to me and I learned as many as I could. Most of those approaches have been incorporated into “state of the art” practices today, methods like bioenergetics, Gestalt therapy, “primal scream” therapy (which fortunately vanished quickly), and Eric Bernes’s “I’m OK, You’re OK,” which forms the basis for inner family work. All of it was emerging in a crazy world where experimentation was respected and novelty had prestige. Back then even bodywork was considered new and experimental.
People of my generation wanted a world that was different from our parents’. Our own young lives were unfolding against the backdrop of a deadly war and a government that lied routinely to the public. Greed and avarice seemed to underlie everything we saw. We hated all of it and wanted to change all of it.
Now, years later, I’m sitting in my therapy office bearing witness to some of the unknown casualties of those times. While I was tripping and studying, people were dying, people were being maimed, people were being broken in mind and body, and the ones who survived are still here today.
Kim is an attractive middle-aged woman with dark hair and dark eyes and a slender figure. She speaks perfect English sentences, but she jumps around and seems unable to focus on any one thing. She was four when she left Vietnam, one of the last passengers on the last boat out of Saigon in 1974. The North Vietnamese had felt emboldened to cross into the south that year when the unpredictable President Richard Nixon was forced to resign.
Millions of people fled their southeast Asian homelands in the years that followed. The First Wave left in crowded boats. They stopped in Guam or the Philippine islands and lived in tents before finally landing in the US.
Kim’s family of eight was placed in a city in the Midwest, cared for by the Catholic Church and given a small house and welfare. She spoke no English, but she was put in a kindergarten class where everyone spoke only English. She spent most of that year sitting in a corner crying.
When I saw her for therapy, one of her issues was that she wasn’t sleeping.
I specialize in trauma therapy. I use many modalities, among them energy healing methods that allow people to release traumatic memories with a few simple procedures. Most of her memories of being on the boat were vague and dark and scary: lights and shadows, smells, bodies huddled together, crying babies, weeping adults and hungry, whimpering children–a world of people who were leaving everything behind…refugees from war.
Ironically, her boyfriend John, an American who was only 19 in 1974, was a kind of refugee from that same war. He was twenty years older than she and had been stationed in Vietnam with the Marines. He came home from his service there missing his left leg. He can never get that limb back, just as Kim can never get her childhood back.
That war is still wreaking damage, even into the next generation. There’s Alexis, for example, another client of mine: a slender, pretty, hard-working, smart and serious twenty-six year old. Alexis is suffering from the traumas that her mother Genevieve experienced escaping from Vietnam at the age of nine. The imprints of war, death and uncertainty left Genevieve unable to get along with others. In America, she lived an isolated life, with a husband who finally left and a child who couldn’t ask her for support because Genevieve herself was so stunted and nonfunctional. Alexis comes to therapy because she is confused about the unfairness of life.
When I look at my clients sitting across from me in my office—people like Kim—I sometimes wonder how I got here. And I realize I almost didn’t. When I went to graduate school, I was interested in nature and healing and finding inner peace. Some of my classmates were clearly trying to heal their own families by becoming therapists, but I was there, I think, to find a path toward healing myself.
In session Kim says “I just don’t know what to do, I’m not sleeping well. I keep waking up feeling upset.”
“Can you tell me a little more about the upset feeling?”
“I don’t know, it’s like I can’t get my bearings.” She starts to cry.
Crying is part of the emotional release that can happen in therapy. I sit silently present while she sobs. I know she is suffering from PTSD—post traumatic stress disorder.
In school, I joined a therapy group led by one of the faculty members. Dr. Needie, I’ll call him. He was a shaggy, gray-haired man who told us about the problems he was having quitting cigarettes which elicited much sympathy from the female students. Even more sympathy filled the room when he told us about the problems he was having with his “lover”, as he called her.
In our first meeting we had to close our eyes and walk around the room, touching each other’s faces. An exercise he no doubt learned from Fritz Perls, originator of gestalt therapy in the United States and an eminent psychologist of the time. Perls reveals in one of his books that he was guiltily preoccupied with all the young women available to him at his workshops at the Esalen Institute, even though he was already an old man.
My client Kim, stops crying, looks at me expectantly.
“I want to invite you to relax your body, feel your arms and legs. Be present in your body. Now find the place inside where you are feeling these sensations and we’ll clear whatever is still there from the time you were four years old. “
She does the exercise. I guide her through to the end. She takes a deep breath. Her face looks more relaxed. Her eyes still look glazed from crying, but then she smiles and I can see her face soften, see the fear leaving her features.
I almost didn’t become a therapist. In graduate school, I looked at those who had already made it through the fiery hoops of academia, and I didn’t like their smug attitude. As an intern, I worked in a clinic under the supervision of people whom we, the young eager students, considered old-fashioned. Or maybe it was only me. In fact, these older therapists knew from experience things we were just learning and didn’t always accept. For example, Renata, the cynical head supervisor, frequently asked us if our female clients had been molested. We thought she was obsessed with molestation. But of course, she was right.
Even though I didn’t know much, I had an intuitive feel for the emotional states of my clients. I think they sometimes got better simply because they could tell that I was present with them, that I cared.
For me, however, that was not enough. After I graduated, I took a hiatus from therapy and did a bunch of other things. What brought me back to it in the end was the study of hypnosis. I had been determined not to follow the status quo of “talk therapy” but hypnotherapy “lured” me back into the field by showing me the power of reaching directly into the subconscious and making “instant” changes that in some cases changed peoples’ lives dramatically.
The inner passion that I had for healing, helping and learning proved to be stronger than my personal likes, dislikes and immature biases. I managed to find my way out of academia, disillusionment with the world and my own family issues. In searching for ways to heal myself, I found ways to heal many others. It has been a fulfilling career.
Barbara Lynn Allen is a longtime Berkeley, California therapist specializing in Hypnotherapy. New and advanced methods she developed in the course of her work have become state of the art in her field. She lives with her husband in Berkeley, California, and is currently working on a book about healing and self-development.
Copyright 2019 Barbara Allen. All Rights Reserved.