Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Monsters Under the Bed:
The use of enchantment, fantasy, fairy tales in healing trauma
By Gary Reece, Ph.D

The results of trauma are often a very volatile mix of emotions: shame, anger, fear, guilt, and emotional numbing. The impact of overwhelming events is just too powerful to process all at once so that a common defense is to dissociate which is most often experienced as no feeling at all. These states then eventually begin to show up at unexpected times triggered by some sort of perceived threat. It occurred to me the other day as I was thinking about this and was reading “Where the Wild Things Are by Max Sendak: a wonderful children’s book about scary creatures who are often portrayed as “monsters under the bed.” I think this is a wonderful metaphor for our unconscious fears. One of my favorite lines from this book is “when you come across a monster, the best thing to do is to look him right in the eyes.” There are many ways to do that.

When I worked at a foster care agency a few years ago, I was often tasked with monitoring visits between birth families and their children. This is often a stressful time for both children and parents alike. One day I walked by the playroom in our agency and happened to glance in at a visit in progress. A 5 year old girl was busily engaged in an elaborate tea party. She had her dolls all lined up in the doll house and was serving them tea and cookies. It was fascinating to see her so engaged in this common childhood activity. An activity which allows for children to anticipate adult roles, practice behaviors they have seen adults perform, engage in fantasy, escape into another far away reality, try out various solutions to problems, creatively adapt their current reality to a more ideal one, and in this elaborate process they are lost in their own world of fantasy based play.

This is a common, ordinary daily activity performed by all children. Each day children transform their ordinary world of objects into a fantasy world and enter into it with full participation as if it were real. This transformation comes through the suspension of momentary reality by the use of imagination, play, and creativity. What is often not known by many adults is that this ordinary activity presents opportunities for entering a child’s world and gaining understanding at a deep level. It also affords precious opportunities to bond with your child and gain a valuable window into their fantasy lives as well as their fears and concerns.

Therapists have long known that play and story-telling can be the magic carpet through which we as adults can enter a child’s world and begin to understand the complex forces at work which stem from early trauma and wounding. It can also be a magic carpet for helping the child transform horrific experiences and bring them back to a place where they can be dealt with and hopefully healed. These experiences are one tool for facing the “monsters under the bed.”

Lenore Terr, a child psychiatrist writes about the function of play in working with children who have experienced many forms of trauma. Her work came out of her interventions with the children of the “Chowchilla Bus Kidnapping.
“Pretend is the most dramatic thing in a normal child’s repertoire. Pretend functions as a kind of scenario making, an improvisation deeply buried in metaphor. The playing child may never realize that his protagonist is really himself. Lost entirely within the metaphor of play, the ordinary, non-traumatized child will work things out. He does not have to know in his play that he is the hero of his game.. . . . .After experiencing a trauma a child becomes stuck having to play himself in his play.” (Too Scared To Cry, Pg. 240)

When children become stuck in their worlds because of a traumatic event, play and story-telling may become the key to unraveling the mystery, help the child to become unstuck, reattach emotions, reconnect memories, and integrate a shattered world. Stephen Larsen notes that most children are able to do this with little or no effort. “The children are playing. ‘I am a princess, and you are ugly goblins,’ says one. Suddenly the room is full of ugly goblins, hopping and capering, scratching their sides and making weird cries, while the princess recoils in mock revulsion. They are still children, and yet they are indeed goblins and a princess, in some immemorial drama.
With the conspiracy of the imagination, somehow our child mind knows we can fill the world with wonders. Do you remember how, in that time before the time when we all grew up, there were monsters and magicians everywhere?” (Larsen, Mythic Imagination, Pg. xx)

Bruno Bettleheim, a great believer in the uses of enchantment to aid child development also believed fairy tales have great psychological meaning for children of all ages, both girls and boys, irrespective of the age and sex of the story’s hero. Rich personal meaning is gained from fairy stories because they facilitate changes in identification as the child deals with different problems, one at a time. He wrote in his book the Uses of Enchantment regarding the vital role of fairy tales in helping children achieve maturity:
In all these and many other respects, of the entire ‘children’s literature’- with rare exceptions—nothing can be as enriching and satisfying to child and adult alike as the folk fairy tale. But more can be learned from them about the inner problems of human beings, and of the right solutions to their predicaments in any society, than from any other type of story within a child’s comprehension. Since the child at every moment of his life is exposed to society in which he lives, he will certainly learn to cope with its conditions, provided his inner resources permit him to do so. Just because his life is often bewildering to him, the child needs even more to be given the chance to understand himself in this complex world with which he must learn to cope. To be able to do so, the child must be helped to make some coherent sense out of the turmoil of his feelings. He needs ideas on how to bring his inner house into order and that on that basis be able to create order in his life. The child finds this kind of meaning through fairy tales. (Bruno Bettleheim, the Uses of Enchantment, pg 4.)

Transforming a personal world that has been traumatized has been the theme of much of my writing in so doing I have learned a great deal about how we as well as children can through a somewhat long and difficult journey become a hero in our own story by creating a convincing narrative. In the process of self-discovery I found that creating a convincing, integrating, coherent narrative by engaging our capacity for visualization is a powerful means of healing my own trauma as well as that of others. As a means of illustrating this I would like to use an example from my own therapy.

I was struggling with some issues related to dealing with my own abuse as a child which left me very dissociated from that part of myself I referred to as “little boy Gary.” I was telling the problem in a rather detached intellectualized manner when my therapist stopped me and said let’s try getting at this another way, a more feeling way. I paused; Psychologists often make very difficult subjects for therapy. I asked him what he had in mind. He suggested a “visualization exercise.” I with some trepidation agreed. He suggested that I close my eyes and visualize the following: You are going for a walk with little Gary in the woods. I began to visualize me walking as my grown self with a little boy following some feet behind (notice the distancing), then as the visualization progressed, a spontaneous transformation occurred without my willing it or thinking about it. First the little boy caught up with me, then he took my hand, then I picked him up and put him on my shoulders. That’s when the transformation occurred. There was a spontaneous visualization of the two becoming one, I and the little boy morphed into one person. I remember that as a turning point in my feelings about that part of me which had been shamed and abused: a part of myself I apparently hated, feared, and kept deeply repressed. (I had been taught by my father that it was shameful to be weak, dependent, and fearful. I was ridiculed if I cried or showed weakness. My father apparently hated that in me and so I did also.)

That became the impetus for exploring the power of imagination, visualization, and fantasy as a means of working with trauma. It had such a dramatic impact on the course of my therapy and was a real breakthrough moment. Jerome Bruner in his book Acts of Meaning describes the central process of being human as creating and sustaining meaning. This always occurs in a very human culturally given context. For example, the child in foster care is taken out of one context and placed in another. This disruption in an already fragile and vulnerable life creates pain. Pain, says Bruner, “obliterates our connection with the personal-cultural world and wipes out the meaningful context that gives direction to our hopes and strivings, it narrows human consciousness to the point…man literally becomes a beast.” (Bruner-p. 22) For Bruner what organizes—holds experience together is narrative. The child constructs, through the process of learning language in a very specific context, a world of meaning. The meaning is held together by plot and narrative. In other words, each child is a story, has a story, and lives a story. That is why I use “story” as a means of helping wounded children recreate their own story through the process of story, fables, fairy tales and fantasy. I believe there is tremendous power in the enchantment of story—the power to transform and yes, even heal.

Ellen Siegelman writes in her book Meaning and Metaphor in Psychotherapy, of the primacy of metaphor:

“Metaphor is a tool so ordinary that we use it unconsciously and automatically, with so little effort that we hardly notice it. It is omnipresent: metaphor suffuses our thoughts, no matter what we are thinking about. It is accessible to everyone: as children, we automatically, as a matter of course, acquire a mastery of metaphor. . . And it is irreplaceable: metaphor allows us to understand ourselves and our world in ways that no other modes of thought can. . . .Most of us in moments of strong inexpressible feeling, find ourselves cleaving to metaphor to communicate experience that is hard to convey in any other way. (Siegelman-p, 1)

Metaphor, the description of one thing in terms of another serves many functions, it helps us express strong emotions, and is a bridging operation that may lead to integration and awareness. It is Siegleman’s contention that metaphor can, when used skillfully, be one of the ways to create new realities. It may be a life giving source that is only the domain of fantasy, of play and creativity, but when used in a therapeutic context may facilitate healing. Children are particularly adept at using this skill in transforming their everyday reality, when aided by a skilled therapist it can be a way of helping them reconnect painful memories, deal with seemingly inhuman and meaningless brutality, and transcend chaotic family situations.

Children of trauma are a unique population. Children who have entered the world of foster care are even more unique. Not only have they experienced multiple traumas which resulted in their placement—abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, neglect and abandonment—they have also experienced trauma to their primary attachment bond, however unhealthful that may have been. Furthermore, upon entering the system they may experience serial trauma in the form of going to court, living amongst strangers, losing control of their lives, having a cumbersome and impersonal bureaucracy determine their fate, and then are handed over to total strangers who are responsible for meeting their needs for safety, security, and nurturance.

That all of this creates uncertainty, confusion, anxiety, and disorientation is a powerful understatement. I have long been aware of how troublesome, painful, and overwhelming the entire experience of placement can be and how it often creates wounds that last a lifetime. In fact it is out of this personal experience of having been raised in an abusive family and having worked with trauma victims that I wrote my book, Broken Systems/Shattered Lives. I concluded.
• That the results of trauma are complex and often long lasting if not addressed.

• That grief and mourning of losses cannot be addressed until the primary trauma is worked through first.

• Thatchildren need a safe and secure world of significant attachment with caring adults in which to recover from the effects of trauma and loss.

• That in order for healing to take place the trauma triggers must be uncovered, memories regained, feelings re-experienced, meaning made of the experience, and control restored. This is where the metaphor of looking the monster right in the eyes becomes a powerful tool.

In order for the above to take place it needs to be done systematically, carefully, and over a sufficient period of time for the child’s vulnerable psyche to integrate the experiences. Since the primary obstacle to healing is resistance to psychic pain, dissociation, avoidance, and repression. The techniques suggested seek to address this phenomenon through various exercises designed to stimulate memories, create opportunities for catharsis and awareness, while reconnecting and desensitizing trauma triggers, all done in the context of rebuilding a child’s story.

I believe awareness and insight are important, but much more needs to be accomplished in the healing journey. Research has shown that the quality and nature of the therapeutic relationships is foundational to the journey. Victimization is also a primary clinical feature and needs to be addressed through exercises which lead to empowerment. Overcoming powerlessness is essential to recovery.

Another feature of trauma and loss is the shame and humiliation that often accompanies abuse, intentional infliction of pain by a trusted adult, and the tendency of children to blame themselves for their misfortune. These powerful experiences damage self-esteem and create powerful obstacles to healing. We must find ways to help children regain a sense of worth, hope, and trust in themselves as well as others.

Finally, in order to live effectively each person must find ways to cope with the stress of life. Children of trauma, abuse and loss have been subjected to abnormal experiences long before they have the time to learn effective coping skills. As a result of this they are often less resilient to dealing with life stressors. An essential part of helping children deal with placement is to help them acquire new skills—often the coping skills they have acquired are maladaptive—learned from ineffectual adults or acquired as a response to immediate trauma. It has been my experience that once a child’s story is understood, the behavior—no matter how seemingly bizarre—makes sense. It is a normal response to a very abnormal set of circumstances.

Psychotherapy is always a creative adventure. It is largely dependent on the skill, imagination, and intuition of the therapist. Timing and sensitivity are always a matter of experience and judgment. Use of imaginative play is fundamentally a part of the process, to be used with skill and the therapist’s best judgment as to how much, how often, and when the child needs to back off, work, or have time to play.

What we do in psychotherapy is to constantly work at deep levels with the body, with emotions, and with many different elements of memory, to help children and adults make sense of their inner worlds and the world of people around them. It is making sense of the world that determines a person’s future. It is how you have come to make sense of your life that matters most. I believe fantasy, visualization, imagination and storytelling are powerful tools. In our work with children we want to help them turn a fragmented story into a “coherent narrative.” I also believe that this process is often augmented well by using it in a group format. This simultaneously augments the storytelling process while modeling it for other participants, and often leads to identification with one another, leading to a sense of having a shared story and belonging, as well as acceptance and support.

I have also found on a personal level that stories, myths, and other forms of metaphor can become surprising vehicles for entering our own inner worlds to explore and transform distorted and unhealed dimensions of distress and trauma. For years I read and devoured the stories told by Carlos Castanada and Joseph Campbell, these authors were immensely helpful in my growth as I groped my way toward a healing path toward integration and healing and the discovery that I was a hero in my own story. I can now haul the monsters out from under the bed, look them in the eyes and have a conversation with them. And so, I think it is only fitting that I close this piece by using one of my favorite examples of a magical story.
The Prince and the Magician
Once upon a time there was a young prince who believed in all things but three.
He did not believe in princesses, he did not believe in islands, he did not believe in God. His father, the king told him that such things did not exist. As there were not princesses or islands in his father’s domain, and no sign of God, the prince believed his father!

But then, one day, the prince ran away from his palace and came to the next land. There, to his astonishment, from every coast he saw island, and on these islands, strange and troubling creatures whom he dared not name. As he was searching for a boat, a man in full evening dress approached him along the shore. “Are these islands:’ asked the young prince. “Of course they are real islands,” said the man in evening dress. “And these strange and troubling creatures?” They are all genuine and authentic princesses.” “Then God must also exist!” cried the prince. “I am God,” replied the man in evening dress, with a bow.” The young prince returned home as quickly as he could. “So you are back,” said his father, the king. “I have seen islands, I have seen princesses, I have seen God,” said the prince reproachfully. The king was unmoved. “Neither real islands, nor real princesses, nor a real God exists.” “I saw them!” “Tell me how God was dressed.” “God was in full evening dress.” “Were the sleeves of his coat rolled back?” The prince remembered they had been. The king smiled. “That is the uniform of a magician. You have been deceived.”

At this the prince returned to the next land and went to the same shore, where once again he came upon the man in full evening dress.

“My father, the king has told me who you are,” said the prince indignantly. “You deceived me last time, but not again. Now I know that those are not real islands and real princesses, because you are a magician.” The man on the shore smiled. “It is you who are deceived, my boy. In your father’s kingdom, there are many islands and many princesses. But you are under your father’s spell, so you cannot see them.” The prince pensively returned home. When he saw his father, he looked him in the eye. “Father is it true that you are not a real king, but only a magician?” The king smiled and rolled back his sleeves, “Yes my son, I’m only a magician.” Then the man on the other shore was God.”

The man on the other shore was another magician.” I must know the truth, the truth beyond magic.” “There is no truth beyond magic,” said the king.

The prince was full of sadness. He said, “I will kill myself.” The king by magic caused death to appear. Death stood in the door and beckoned to the prince. The prince shuddered. He remembered the beautiful but unreal islands and the unreal but beautiful princesses. Very well “I can bear it.”

“You see my son, said the king, “you too now begin to be a magician.”
(Author unknown)

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