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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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The Savage Past: An Anomalous Experience that Shaped my Life

Paul Kiritsis - Friday, March 31, 2017

Looking back over my own autobiographical history, one anomalous experience standing out like a sore thumb is a dark day in my early teens when I underwent a strange malady of unknown origin (Kiritsis, 2009). It began sometime during the summer of January 1992. I was twelve and had just returned from a family vacation in Adelaide and Mildura, reveling in the aftermath of excitement from the trip up north, which had spawned my first experiences of handling live animals at a farm. All nervousness aside, I was also looking forward to my first year of high school. But shortly after we returned, something quite inexplicable happened.

It came on gradually, perhaps over the course of a week. I woke up one morning feeling not myself. Suddenly, things didn’t feel right within me anymore. There was a wrongness where prior there had been none. Something had changed. I couldn’t put my finger on it; I didn’t know what it was—how could I? There was no tangible physiological measure able to describe the intrinsic qualities precisely so that it could be grasped by adherents of the biomedical model. Nonetheless, I gaged its presence because my premorbid inner life had been qualitatively different before its manifestation. If I’d been born this way I would have been completely oblivious of the fact; illness is a relational concept that can only be understood when the psychophysical states believed to embody it are juxtaposed with a consensual prototype of health and flourishing. An entity not normally part of oneself reveals itself through relationship. 

A few weeks later, I was watching the Australian Open tennis with my grandmother. At the conclusion of the program, I started flicking through the channels in the hope of finding something of interest for late-night viewing. What immediately seized my attention was a horde of individuals huddled together, holding candles, some of whom were being interviewed by a reporter. When I raised the volume with the remote control, I realized it was a program about people living with HIV, a blood-borne infectious virus which at that point in time was deemed an undisputed death sentence. It was engaging, so I decided to watch the rest of it.

You might imagine my horror when a young man of about twenty-five began describing what he called a wrongness inside him. This was after being diagnosed HIV positive. I felt the onset of gooseflesh, a lurching stomach, and the blood draining from my face. I must have looked like a starved vampire who hasn’t feasted in months. I vividly remember dashing into the bathroom and staring at my reflection in the mirror. Was this what was wrong with me?

Was I HIV positive?

I spent the next few hours crying and wondering what I’d done to deserve such a fate. Why had God condemned me to an early death? It was unfair, unjust. I lay awake that night, and many nights to follow, praying to the Virgin Mary that none of it was true. At one moment, I even tried to convince myself that I’d made it all up and it was nothing more than an illusion—that I’d never seen the show on TV about AIDS.

In hindsight, I’d rate it as the most traumatic event of my life. Explicit in my recollection of this event is the salvific act of dropping to the ground beside a Byzantine icon of the Virgin and Child, a humble posture reminiscent of a bucolic supplicant kneeling before royalty. Curled in this position for hours I would alternate between periods of being immobilized by fear and rage, begging for supernatural intervention and help. In the decade that followed there was an intense preoccupation with discovering an etiology for a nexus of polymorphous symptoms that included muscle fatigue, exhaustion, photophobia, and depressive states. Just as the moon is subject to the cosmic cycle of waxing and waning, so too did my agonizing symptoms undergo periods of alleviation and worsening. These, it seems, were all intimately entwined with a deep-seated intuition that something uncanny was unfurling within me, something for which modern medicine had no feasible explanation. Little by little feelings of disillusionment with the biomedical model and the domineering obsession with discovering the truth tore me from my existing web of interpersonal relations, and I withdrew from the social synapse into a spectral space of utter isolation. Was I suffering from an unknown pathology, something Newtonian-based medicine had yet to encounter in its several hundred year history? Was I standing at the treacherous precipice before decompensation? The answer to those questions still eludes me, and I often submit to the reality that I may pass over without having disentangled this idiosyncratic Gordian knot.

For a while, life seemed to return to normal, and I even found myself attending regular confession at the local Greek Orthodox Church. But years of having repressed my darkest fears finally caught up with me. Just before I turned twenty-one, my physical symptoms worsened to the point where I was left with no choice but to request a full blood examination. You can imagine the shockwaves when my HIV test came back negative. I remember being somewhat confused, and self-deprecating. Had I stupidly been living all those years with an irrational fear without good reason? Was the wrongness that I felt and that which the guy on the AIDS documentary had described just a blind coincidence? If it wasn’t HIV, then what did I have? What else could it have been?

It’s been fourteen years since my emancipation from this nightmare and I will openly concede that there’s a part of me, a very vulnerable and sensitive part, that wants to retract all those memories with their dark emotional inflections and pretend the whole thing never happened. But to do so would be an injustice, for it would mean rejecting the authentic dimensions of metamorphosis and the fertile darkness from which existential encounters with sacred realities spring forth; I would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We need to be dismembered, torn limb from limb by elemental forces acting from without, if we are to individuate in the classical Jungian sense (Kiritsis, 2014).

In hindsight the chronology of this anomalous experience lends itself to construal through the theoretical lens of interpersonal neurobiology. Save for reflecting the sociocultural milieus and encompassing blueprints for behavior, identity, and theoretical knowledge in all known cultures, narrative probably emerged, in part, as a mechanism of neural integration and coordination between the dominant and nondominant hemispheres of the brain (Cozolino, 2010). If this is indeed true, then a multilevel function of personal narrative is to facilitate neural connectivity in the brain, emotional stability, psychological flexibility, and psychosomatic health. Dan Siegel has much to say about this curious phenomenon; the integrative neural processes occurring during formative periods of development can be vertical, dorso-ventral, or interhemispheric (Siegel, 2012). The importance of the latter, according to Trevarthen, cannot be overstated because the anterior commissures and corpus callosum combined is, “the only pathway through which the higher functions of perception and cognition, learning and voluntary motor coordination can be unified” (Siegel, 2012, pp. 341). Associational neurons in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes are the modus operandi, linking intricate representational processes of the hemispheres together (Cozolino, 2010).

On a similar note the consensus amongst neuroscientists is that the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers interconnecting and coordinating the two hemispheres, doesn’t reach full maturity until early teenagehood (Galin et al., 1979). Concerning the importance of narrative in interhemispheric coordination, scientific treatises activate only the digital, temporal processes of the dominant left hemisphere whereas the combined visual imagery and linear storyline couched within real stories and fictional tales activate both the aforementioned and the holistic, analogic processes of the nondominant right hemisphere (Siegel, 2012). In light of this interdisciplinary schema, it appears that our genetic and neurological constitution come with in-built “attractions” for higher-order activities (i.e., reading and listening to stories or creating them) able to activate and hence integrate cortical and subcortical processing systems, the hippocampus and amygdala, and specific regions of the frontal lobes (Rossi, 1993). Moreover, creative storytelling stimulates denser connectivity between the language centers; the neural networks dedicated to memory, visceral, and emotional processing; and conscious awareness (Cozolino, 2010). Albeit unconscious, there’s a reason as to why we recourse to them when we’re suffering from self-perpetuated patterns of depression, anxiety, over-emotionality, or a sense of emptiness, meaninglessness, and languishing in our lives. From a neurological perspective, then, my proto-scientific attempts at ordering chaos by contrasting and comparing the quality of my inner mental life with that of another human being is a reflection of that teleological striving for psychoneural integration.

            This anomalous experience also lends itself to an existential conceptualization, given it spurred a radical life crisis and transition predicated upon an especially salient encounter with the four fundamental givens of existence–death, isolation, meaninglessness, and freedom (Yalom, 2005). Grappling with an illness of unknown etiology at such a young age and attempting to connect-the-dots on issues of symptomology was paradigmatic of nascent reality testing, however the constricted frame of reference I married and adhered to like gospel created a closed appraisal system which disregarded disconfirming evidence, permitting the perseveration of insidious beliefs for more than ten years. During that inordinate period there was a prodigious somatization of an internal conflict [tiredness, hypertension, problems in visual acuity] generated by the dialectical tension between a socially-mediated expectation that fulfillment awaited at the end of each phase of human development on one side, and a dysphoric disruption in the sociocultural system of meaning upon which each individual depends for effective self-regulation on the other (Ingram, 2012).

            This crisis of meaning inaugurated an internal existential discussion between differential aspects of self throughout my teenagehood. There was a sense of disconnection from consensus reality as I grappled with the “absurd”; there was an encumbering of the self-actualization process instigated by morbid fixation and “neurotic” anxiety about my impending death; there was a perceived separateness and lack of deep empathic attunement stemming from my unique situation; and there was the self-sacrifice of vitality and authenticity for a blunted, mundane routine of boredom, stagnation, and neglect of creative potential. Put differently I was preoccupied, emotionally unavailable, guarded, closed-off, contrived, disingenuous, lifeless, unaware of my true desires, and unreceptive to change. An incompetence to problem-solve creativity and work through the impasse manifested through the multisensorial channel of the psychic unconscious as a recurring dream of rotting cadavers and skeletons beneath my room. I bore witness to this dream for many years. Moreover, the choice to suffer and endure the grief cycle in silence and the consequent dearth of social support only exacerbated the dysphoria, the generalized anxiety, and the physical symptoms. Before that “eureka” moment could come, I was without a doubt the sole author of my own self-sabotaging delusional narrative. 

            There’s also a transpersonal dimension to this idiosyncratic anomalous experience because the polymorphous condition unleashed intense periods of self-absorption, self-reflection, and creative writing. Creative illnesses transcend sociopolitical and religious frontiers and are actually quite common across cultures and epochs. These phenomena seem to be especially prevalent among shamans, philosophers, and writers (Ellenberger, 1970). After an unusual neurosis that lasted between 1894 and 1900, Sigmund Freud emerged into the intellectual and scientific world with an inspired perspective on unconscious life, enabling him to write his celebrated The Interpretation of Dreams (Ellenberger, 1970). Similarly, Carl Jung underwent a creative illness between 1913 and 1919 which motivated esoteric works like the Red Book, the Black Book, and the Seven Sermons to the Dead and laid the humus for the sprouting of theories surrounding archetypes, the collective unconscious, and the actualized Self (Ellenberger, 1970). I, too, spent a great deal of time deeply preoccupied with the mysteries of the human soul, and emerged from my ordeal in an exhilarated state. The latter culminated with a three week period of incessant writing where I transcribed my screaming Shadow onto paper. Most of the poems written during my “creative illness” were published in Fifty Confessions (2009), probably my most personal poetic collection to date.

Looking back on the whole experience, it has occurred to me that the waxing of creative activity is directly correlated to the frenetic and ebullient emotions. When somebody writes, they are consciously exerting control over a phenomenal process and sublimating irritability, fear, rage, and other negative emotions into something more manageable and tolerable (Forgeard et al., 2014). Requiring concentration and focal attention, the task distracts the individual passive rumination and burgeons positive emotion (Forgeard et al., 2014). Writing may also be construed as an opportunity to find meaning in disquieting events, a chance to make sense out of nonsense. Each individual has their own way of achieving this feat.

I, for instance, do it by mythologizing and even exaggerating my pathos; in many of my writings these emotionally salient life events are described in the context of the Jungian Great Mother and son lover archetypal pairing, or exalted through Gnostic notions of a soul-spark rediscovering its divine origins through the trials and tribulations of a life-threatening ailment. In writing about the illness I endured, the most traumatic event in my life, I concluded that physicians, neurologists, immunologists, and psychiatrists couldn’t shed any light upon it because it was supernatural in origin, imposed by a higher order of spiritual beings as a way of instigating inner transformation and placing me on a hitherto unknown spiritual path. To overcome and gain mastery over any condition one must be able to shift perspectives and restructure cognitions into meaningful narratives in ways that are personally salient, cogent, and illuminate the self in the best possible light. Going through this “basic, adaptive psychological process which is also observed in artistic and scientific creativity” (Williams, 2012, p. 113) allows the ailing individual to transcend their existential impasse by moving through the paradigm-shifting phase of illumination [the interjection of novel ideas and solutions into conscious awareness] and continue navigating through the world. That’s the secret of posttraumatic growth, that’s what heals.

 

 

References

 

Cozolino, L. (2010). The Neuroscience of psychotherapy: Healing the social brain (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.

Ellenberger, H. F. (1970). The history of the unconscious: The history and evolution of dynamic psychiatry. New York, NY: Basic Books. 

Forgeard, M. C., Mecklenburg, A. C., Lacasse, J. J., & Jayawickreme, E. (2014). Bringing the whole universe to order: creativity, healing, and posttraumatic growth. In J. C. Kaufman (Ed.), Creativity and mental illness (pp. 321-342). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Galin, D., Johnstone, J., Nakell, L., & Herron, J. (1979). Development of the capacity for tactile information transfer between hemispheres in normal children. Science204(4399), 1330-1332.

Ingram, B. L. (2011). Clinical case formulations: Matching the integrative treatment plan to the client. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Kiritsis, P. (2009). Fifty confessions. New York, NY: iUniverse.

Kiritsis, P. (2014). The material mind: Unearthing our mutual inheritance. Unpublished manuscript.  

Rossi, E. L. (1993). The psychobiology of mind-body healing: New concepts of therapeutic hypnosis. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.

Siegel, D. J. (2012). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Williams, P. (2014). Rethinking madness: Towards a paradigm shift in our understanding and treatment of psychosis. San Raphael, CA: Sky’s Edge Publishing.   

            Yalom, I. D., & Leszcz, M. (2005). Theory and practice of group psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic books.

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