Sharing Space III. Honoring and Growing: Tools for Healing Perinatal Trauma
Publication Date:October 2000
This commentary focuses on my personal goal to bring ancient wisdom and current technology to bear on healing perinatal trauma. I begin by honoring three of the pioneers who brought perinatal trauma to the attention of the world, initiated the process of identifying tools for the healing of such trauma, and who have had the greatest influence on me: Thomas Verny, David Chamberlain and William Emerson. I then shift the focus to growing-how these original guts, invaluable in themselves, need to be transformed through the prism of each individual's personal experience and inspiration. I close with a description of my personal individuatian and evolution in the application of tools for healing perinatal trauma.
My first contact with pre- and perinatal psychology was the result of reading Dr. Thomas Verny's book, The Secret Life of the Unborn Child (1981). In an effort to learn more, I contacted Dr. Verny\"s office and he immediately sent information on the Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Association of North America (PPPANA) and the upcoming congress to be held in Amherst, Massachusetts. His generous, open response to my inquiry and willingness to help proved to be a common attribute of the leaders in the field of pre- and perinatal psychology. I wanted to create a self-study course for my Master's program based on the material in Dr. Venr/s book and hadn't decided on a title. It became a course in Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and included a research project interviewing young children about their birth memories (Rhodes, 1992). This project was directly inspired by my conversation with Dr. Verny at that 1989 Congress. His advice and encouragement also provided the basis for my graduate level course in Natalism in Myth and Fairy Tales, for which he served as a consultant. Dr. Verny continues to be an inspiration through his work and writing. His position as the founder and first president of the Association, his program of graduate work for those desiring to study Pre- and Perinatal Psychology, and his clear and concise writing secure his position as a leading figure in the field.
Just after starting my Master's course in Pre- and Perinatal Psychology I discovered Dr. David Chamberlain's book Babies Remember Birth (1988) in a local book store. It felt like synchronicity, exactly the additional inspiration I needed. Although I enjoyed his humor and warmth from the distance of the audience at the Atlanta Congress in 1991, when he became the second president of the Association, it was a few years before I became personally acquainted and experienced that warmth and humor up close. His willingness to extend himself by providing advice and encouragement contributed greatly to my Ph.D. program and to my development of a college level course in pre- and perinatal psychology. Dr. Chamberlain's leadership during the transition from the Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Association of North America to the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health demonstrated tireless devotion to the field. As editor of the website, birthpsychology.com, he is responsible for assuring that the information now reaching millions through this information medium is of the highest quality. His own writing and research adds immeasurably to that high standard of quality and excellence.
Completion of Dr. William Emerson's Level One training in Infant and Child Birth Refacilitation has provided one of the greatest and most rewarding challenges of my life. It is what led me to the discovery of my own blocks to creativity and self-expression. He taught me what pre- and perinatal trauma and healing is all about. His reputation for work with infants and children is what attracted me to a workshop at Pocket Ranch in California in the spring of 1993. Together with Barbara Findeisen, he guided a group of enthusiastic followers on a journey of self-discovery. Realizations from that very first workshop unfolded over the next three years of training. William's training, published and unpublished papers, and his video programs document a lifetime of work in healing pre- and perinatal trauma. All who have benefited from this work will never forget his unique and powerful contributions.
Revisiting the contributions of these three pioneers to my own work is the inspiration currently needed to become re-focused and continue a path that has been somewhat disrupted over the past two years. The pinnacle of completing my Ph.D. in Pre- and Perinatal Psychology was followed by diversion into work with a foster placement agency that, in a short year-and-a-half moved me from helping out a friend by seeing a few of her clients at the agency while she went to Switzerland for three weeks sandplay training; to being placement supervisor, therapy coordinator, and carrying a case load averaging fifteen clients a week in my \"part time\" job. Meanwhile, I was trying to establish a private practice and continue teaching at the community college. While I loved the work and was very challenged by it, I woke up one day last spring and realized how far off-course I had strayed. I didn't have the credentials to be a placement supervisor. Social work was not what I was trained for. And I had no time and energy to devote to my chosen career. But, loosening the human ties I had established was and is extremely difficult. I am confident that the lessons learned will contribute to future work, meanwhile I am in recovery (again) from my addiction to losing myself.
Six-and-a-half years ago, at Pocket Ranch, my major realization was the thought that came while processing a guided birth journey that my birth wasn't all that traumatic-it was all the \"stuff\" that followed. At the time I wasn't sure what that \"stuff' was. But later in Emerson's training program I came to know that my own path to healing pre- and perinatal trauma was complicated by the fact that I was spanked for crying less than twenty four hours after emerging from the womb. This very early, very strong message, that feelings were not to be communicated, made participation in cathartic work almost impossible. I became skilled at dissociation. Desiring to pursue my own path to healing with awareness, I sought out less evocative means of accessing and healing pre- and perinatal trauma. This process has resulted in my work looking very different from what I learned in William's training. This does not mean I honor primal regression forms of work any less. I only realize that my contribution would be compromised if I tried to practice a technique I could not fully utilize myself.
Two years ago I named my work Aware Beginnings. The current transition stage provides time for a review. Part of honoring, for me, has involved recognizing the contribution of others and, then being willing to allow the transformation of those contributions through the pain of my own beginnings to a more complete realization of myself as a contributor. An insight has come that I've been working much too hard to \"make\" this happen and am now ready to allow the fruition in whatever form it needs to take. My diversion into foster care resulted in part from my desire to find applications of pre- and perinatal work to populations who normally would not have access to work on this deep level. My personal path to healing also led me to focus on techniques that are very gently evocative. At this point, I recognize three major tools that have evolved as part of my work with others.
The first evolved from my previous commitment to yoga as a practice and foundation for my teaching and my life. Investigation into the psychotherapeutic application of yoga postures (Rhodes, 1991) led me to speculate that they might be foundational in diagnosis and healing of perinatal traumas. My Ph.D. research focused on this possibility and the results are still unfolding. One primary result was a connection between a front-lying arch (cobra) and circumcision trauma. My long-held intention to follow this connection with more focused research is finally being realized. The final months of 1999 saw completion of the research design. The therapeutic application of yoga postures has been somewhat limited by the nature of my work for the past two years. However, I have had the opportunity to use yoga postures with specific clients when that seemed to be the most appropriate tool. I would do this by introducing a few simple postures, noting which seemed to be a challenge and gently playing the edges of tolerance until the child was able to complete these more challenging postures in comfort. Foundational to this is use of Dr. Emerson's techniques of careful attention to the client's response to gentle interventions until a new level of comfort is established.
The second tool comes more directly from Dr. Emerson's work; the use of video reflection therapy, which I have coupled with a birth interview. Video Reflection Therapy involves close up video of an individual during discussion of emotionally significant issues. In my application of this technique, the child is the video subject while the birth interview is conducted with the mother. I have used this technique with individuals ranging in age from 5 months to 56 years. In all cases, it proved to be a valuable contribution to healing. For example, the youngest clients were twin sons of an unwed teen mom. I proposed the birth interview technique as a beginning phase in our work towards creating a deeper bond. That video has now become a valuable memory for the parents of the twins. One of the twins died of SIDS just a few months after the video was completed. In the case of my eldest client, a 56 year old woman whose 78 year old mother agreed to participate, the process paved the way for deep healing in their relationship. This technique has proven especially valuable in reconnecting children with mothers from whom they have been separated. In one case, the client was a twelve-year-old who had been raised by an aunt from the age of eighteen months. While the outcome can be unexpected with regard to whether or not the mother decides to become more involved in the child's life, healing for the client has been a consistent outcome. Knowing more about their beginnings seems to provide a deeper sense of self and more authentic way of being in the world.
The third tool is sandplay. Although the Kalfian tradition does not provide a focus on pre- and perinatal healing, I find the approach very valuable. The core is especially important: Creating a safe, secure space in which to explore. It might be thought of as recreating a womb atmosphere that is very calm, nurturing, and non-invasive. Sandplay, as developed by Dora Kalff (1980) has a three-leg foundation. Each leg has contributed significant aspects to the whole. Dora's close connection with Carl Jung naturally led to her inclusion of Jung\"s psychology as the basis for interpretation of sand trays. She studied with Margaret Lowenfeld and adapted Lowenfeld's World Technique to the smaller sand tray and added more archetypal figures. Her close ties to Buddhism are reflected in her philosophy and make up the third leg of the foundations of sandplay. The Buddhist concept of non-attachment to results is one of the more important contributions of this leg. One of the primary differences in sandplay (contrasted with uses of sand tray therapy) is the lack of direct interpretations, especially early in the process. The therapist serves as witness to the client's process, just as the mother is witness to the development of her unborn child. It is felt that too early an interpretation might interfere with the work of the psyche in revealing itself in the process of sandplay, just as the birth of the baby before its time would be damaging to full development. Interpretations are held as sacred knowing, not to be verbalized until long after the process is completed. With adult clients this may be one to five years after the completion of a process. With children, I have found it valuable to shorten the time, especially with children whose process may be interrupted by outside agencies. This often results in the need for a sense of closure to their work with me prior to moving on. In these cases, I may review slides of their trays with the client in the closing session. The sense of the sacred is very present in sandplay and is part of the healing process. Verbalization tends to feel inappropriate in this setting as communication takes place on a deeper level. Because sandplay is such a deep process, I have recently added a new tool to facilitate the process with some clients. It is a Somatron cushion, which is a body length cushion with speakers imbedded in it. Prior to engaging with the sand, the client can recline on this cushion and experience sound throughout the body. Music is selected specifically for or by the client for this process. Beginning an induction into a deeply relaxed state with voice instructions may precede the music. The resulting altered state facilitates a much deeper quality of work in the sand tray. If the client's intent is to work on birth or prenatal issues, this can be more directly facilitated through the verbally guided induction and the selection of music.
Early in my investigations into pre- and perinatal psychology, I could not help but notice the parallels in timing with Freud's work in the last century. Freud brought the message that what happened to children in the first three years of life was very important to a world that didn't recognize consciousness in very young children. We are now bringing the message that goes farther. Not only are the first three years important, but the nine months before birth and the transition of birth itself are even more important. We are learning to honor and respect all of life. This is appropriate for the beginning, not only of a new century, but a new millennium. Pre- and Perinatal Psychology will continue evolving into the new millennium. Some of our currently held cherished beliefs may be challenged and left by the wayside. But the core of this new knowing-that prenatal and perinatal experience impacts us and leaves imprints that may have lifelong significance-will survive.
Chamberlain, D. (1988). Babies remember birth. Los Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher; (Third edition, The mind of your newborn baby, 1998, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.)
Kalff, D. (1980). Sandplay. Boston, MA: Sigo Press.
Rhodes, J. (1991). Mind made visible, psychotherapeutic applications of yoga asana. Unpublished Master's Thesis, Antioch University, Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Rhodes, J. (1992). Children and birth memories. Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal, 8(1), 89-90.
Verny, T. and Kelly, J. (1981). The secret life of the unborn child. New York: Dell.
Jeane Marie Rhodes, Ph.D.*
* Jeane M. Rhodes, Ph.D. is the Director of Aware Beginnings, 611 South Simms Street, Lakewood, CO 80228. Telephone: (303) 985-3452. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org