Onto book 2 by John Sarno, The Divided Mind.
So, the most challenging part of Sarno’s work is his referencing of Freud. Sarno objects to Freud being out of vogue, and champions Freud’s understanding of the unconscious. He brings back the term hysterical and contrasts it with the term psychosomatic or mindbody.
I am a feminist. Since I’ve been highly involved in multiculturalism and diversity, working to advocate for people of color and gays and lesbians for the past decade, my focus on feminist issues has fallen into the background. Sure, SLAMBoston always has a play about women, usually older women (though I often end up arguing with the director, who often wants to cast young). The fact is, the work of Freud is a feminist issue. Why? Not because he was wrong about the unconscious. Not because women didn’t present with hysterical and psychosomatic issues. Freud’s work was anti-feminist because he discovered fairly early on that the origin of the women’s pain was sexual abuse, that this abuse was very common; and, when he presented this idea, his prestige in Vienna and Europe looked to evaporate very quickly. So, he recanted, announced that the women were imagining that they had been sexually abused, and then came up with the Electra and Oedipus complexes.
At the same time, Janet, in France, made the same findings. He worked with women, believed the stories of abuse and guess what? No one has ever heard of him. Now we know that 1 in 3 women and and 1 in 6 men is sexually abused before the age of 18. Freud was just wrong.
I studied psychology in college for a couple years before turning definitively to the arts, and I was as fascinated with Freud’s ideas as I was with Wilhelm Reich’s or Carl Rogers’. But, I’ve pretty much hated Freud since learning about his betrayal of his almost exclusively female patients. He set feminism and psychology back decades.
So, I have resistance to Sarno’s work when he gets into praising Freud. It’s a challenge to accept that yes, Freud was a genius and some of his work was sound, even though he was a coward and cared deeply about recognition in favor of the truth.
I am ruthless about the truth, especially with myself. (Hence the rewrite of this blog in which I admit I didn’t enjoy at all my mother’s unconscious rage.)
So, I find myself, over and over again, thinking about my German mother. We used to joke that she couldn’t breathe without Dristan and couldn’t shit without Ex-Lax. She had headaches. She’d retreat to the bedroom, turn down the lights, and ask to have the washcloth on her head refreshed (run under a tap of cold water.) I could feel the pain coming off her in waves when I entered the room, and her voice grew young, childlike. “Please,” she’d say. “Get me a chocolate soda.” Or, “You don’t mind making dinner tonight, do you?”
If I’m honest, I have to say that I felt rage in the moment, at 10, at 12, at 16, at 22. Finally, at 28, I said, “Here’s a cup of Lipton soup. I hope you feel better. I’m going out.” (I came home to her vacuuming the house in a fury. Which was probably the unconscious rage coming out.)
I also felt sick. And scared. When another person’s doing that kind of weird unconscious dance, you know it, especially if that person is your mother.
Sarno says that we judge psychosomatic illness as hypochondria, that we believe the motivation for the illness is the secondary gain of being taken care of, or not having to work or be responsible. He refutes this strongly. He says psychosomatic or mindbody illness has a primary gain, which is denial of unconscious feelings of pain and rage.
I think of my mother, married to a man she didn’t love, who, in fact, frightened her. I think of my mother, with six children, money problems, nothing in her life secure. I think of her rigid ideas of what life should be, her perfectionism, the pristine cleanliness of our house, how carefully she dressed us for church, for gatherings, how much she cared about how things looked. I think of my grandmother, who I loved, drinking gin and laughing with complete abandon, then getting in her convertible and revving down the street. I think of the look on my mother’s face as she watched my grandmother drive away. “Call me when you get home,” she’d say.
My mother was angry. I imagine looking from the inside of her mind outward, all the high standards, the need to be perfect, the need to feel safe, in control, and everything chaos around her–as it had been in her family growing up–I imagine her seeing no end to any of it, and the despair and rage of that, I imagine she knows she is more intelligent than her husband, but has no power to change any of his decisions, no power to have a life in the world that is as big as his. And all she can do with the rage is demand things she can never get, because even children are uncontrollable. So much of the pain of her life has to go underground–if she admits the pain of her situation, it will be too much.
And so my mother lies down, she turns the lights low, she sinks into headache, stomach ache, sinus problems, constipation. She has fatigue, she can’t take it any more. She must rest.
Of course, her children, including me, all inherited this way of coping. We absorbed it through our skin. “I don’t feel good,” we’d say, echoing both our mother’s words and tone.
No, Mom, you don’t. Your life wouldn’t make anyone feel good. You are not happy.
And, frankly, I’m pissed you didn’t do something to make it better, sooner. That I had to talk you into leaving, changing, that I had to help you get your first two jobs. I mean, really. In the 70’s, women were grabbing life with both hands, going to college, coming out, deciding enough already. Not everyone lay in bed asking for a damn soda.
I’m not supposed to say or feel this because I am spiritual, and a feminist, and I’m supposed to be over it. But here’s the thing–when I pretend that I’m so spiritual and feminist and over it, I have to go lie down and ask for my partner to bring me things because my F&*^ing back starts to hurt.
New Age spirituality, along with the major religions, tells us to forgive, to let go, to have gratitude for our blessings. My mother eventually left my father, she eventually fell in love, she found financial security and her children grew up, leaving her much less burdened. But the illnesses continued–her brain had tracked to this one way, and if she had found John Sarno, I doubt very much she would have believed his findings. In 1994, my mother was hospitalized for a heart attack that turned out to be indigestion. By then she’d remarried. By then she had all the security she could want.
The reality of our lives is held in our bodies and our emotions. Without volition, we try not to feel or know the truth. But perhaps if the back pain or sinus or whatever gets bad enough, we’ll be forced to pay attention.
So, here I am. I have a bigger life than my mother had. It has spanned four or five continents, the founding and running of businesses (however haphazardly I did this), activism, publication, performing, creating, creating, and more creating. I have found a greater measure of financial security in the last ten years (I know what it is to REALLY be a starving artist). And I have some of her frustration–no matter how much I have, I want more, I want bigger, I want impact. I am, like her, a perfectionist. I also need to change this legacy of focusing on physical pain so the unfaceable or unacceptable emotions don’t surface. I can’t keep telling myself I’m more grateful or accepting or spiritual than I am. Or, like her, I will end up in some hospital with an ailment no one can define or fix.
Anything can be used to avoid the truth of what we feel. And the truth is difficult, there is no doubt. Buddhism teaches that attachment and aversion are the root of suffering, but I can’t lie and say I’m unattached when the truth is I’m attached as hell.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Peace, peace, the real thing, without lies about a gratitude that is only icing on the rage cake. Peace and metta for those of us who struggle to know the truth. May we find peace with what is. Even if, today, we have absolutely no idea how that will come to pass.
PS–I am still meditating every day. I’m about to do that now. After I work on the rage list. I’ll need to meditate after that.