Boston City Limits: Ghosts and Shadows, Time, Neglect-Informed Psychotherapy 

The first time I heard Bessel speak must have been in 1988 or 89. It was at the grand rounds of a small, local hospital in Berkeley, open to the public. As ever, I went to everything I could find about trauma. There was so little information in those days. Nobody in my community knew anything about it or cared. Granted, I was in a largely psychodynamic world, so I was already kind of a dark horse being interested in somatics. Well, this was a panel of doctors, and this one young guy looked wet behind the ears, and as if his necktie was too tight, but when I heard his heavily Dutch-accented comments (and admittedly I was still somewhat reactive to Germanic accents back then), I listened. He was definitely onto something. 

In those days, what I knew of, was primarily the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) conference, which I began going to every year as soon as I learned of it. It was stuffy and academic, as far as I was concerned, mostly white men with complicated research. Not my idea of a friendly gathering, and I always felt like something of an invisible impostor there. Later we got the International Society for the Study of Dissociation (ISSD), which later became ISSTD (adding Trauma into the title) which was decidedly more female, and more comfortable for me.  

It was probably in 1990 that my friend Marie told me about the Boston Trauma Conference. I guess it was the second year after it began. She asked me if I wanted to go with her. I had never gone to a conference with another human, so that in itself was extraordinary, and I even shared a room with her which was even more radical for this self-reliant, hermetic child of neglect. Admittedly it has never happened since, (except on the rare occasion when my husband accompanies me to a conference.) 

The Boston conference as it turned out, was that guy Bessel’s production, and I loved it. There was plenty of research but there were also references to literature, history, art and music, and speakers spanned a wide swath. It rapidly became a staple of my year, to the point where every January, almost immediately after the turn of the year, I would start eagerly scanning for the announcement of that year’s conference, almost always in the first week of May. And I was probably the first to sign up every year because I could not wait.  

I loved flying to Boston, I loved the town. And I loved the conference. I was however so timid and shy, and shame-ridden, that I never spoke to a living soul but drifted silently, rather like a ghost, or even a billow of smoke, that could dissipate and vanish. I floated saturated off to my room with my full notebook at the end of the session days, settled down with my room service and a book, and read quietly. Got up at the crack when the hotel gym opened, this was before the days of the 24-hour gym, which I occupied alone, and made sure to hit the conference room early so I could score my front-row center.  

I was introduced to brilliant minds, people I would never have heard of like James Gilligan, Seamus Sinclair, Jaak Panksepp, and Jessica Stein. And heard luminaries like Judith Herman, author of the first important trauma book I remember, Trauma and Recovery, which has stood the test of time. And I could always say, “You heard it here first…” when EMDR, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Somatic Experiencing, Pesso-Boyden Psychomotor Therapy, Model Mugging,  IFS, Neurofeedback and then Psychedelic Assisted emerged in the trauma recovery world. That conference was always cutting-edge and always pointed me in the direction of my next important treatment tool. It became a mainstay of my professional development, and of my year.  

When I trained in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, I had the privilege of being in a group taught by Pat Ogden herself, and with the assistant instructors, of no less than the illustrious Janina Fisher and Deirdre Fay. Can you beat that? And it was in Boston, which really delighted me. I had an excuse to fly to Boston, each month for the four-day training, which lasted almost five years through certification. I loved that Every time I landed in Boston, my heart would leap, feeling myself to be in this hotbed of trauma healing ferment. Once back in the San Francisco Bay Area, typically ahead of the curve in so many ways, I continued to be a lone voice. But I kept at it, writing and talking about trauma as much as I could in the local community, and gradually felt a little less alone. 

Time 

It is hard to believe this year will be the Boston International Trauma Conference’s 35th year! I  think have been to most of them, and with immense gratitude, (and some pride I might add.) Many wonderful healing modalities, not to mention much of my treasured trauma and neglect library would not have been known to me, or not known to me until much later. I am so grateful. And so much better for it. Over time, I have gained much recovery, often through the methodologies I learned of there, not to mention studied and practiced with generations of clients who moved through my hands. Who would have imagined that I might materialize from the lurking, slinking ghost who first landed dizzily in Boston, to an outspoken, interactive and contributing, even social trauma and then neglect-informed therapist?  

In our healing journeys, it is so hard to imagine or believe that things will change. In the world of neglect, it seems like time rather freezes. Emptiness is so static and unmoving, especially for the very young. I remember cold, lonely winters sitting by the window, nose pressed against the chilly glass, fogging it up a bit, counting cars, and waiting for Daddy to come home. I don’t know why I looked forward to his walking in the door, with his jovial “ho ho!” I don’t know why he said that! I guess it meant “I’m home!” That was always what he said when he came in. And it was not as if he had any time or attention for us, of course. Simply some semblance of a grand entrance. But I waited for it. Hours yawned cavernously, emptily, bleak, glacially slowly. Like most neglect survivors I had a terrible time with those long days of depression. I remember the endless agony of getting through the day. Depression was like quick sand, movement seeming impossible, except for being heavily sucked downward. Anorexia made the days even longer. I would hungrily track the hours when meals “should have” been, like mile markers on a long steep bicycle grind uphill, surmounting them one by one, putting each small increment behind me. I hate to remember it.  

So besides the tremendous despair and loneliness that are the inevitable consequences of failed, absent and withdrawn attachment, for many if not most, is the accompanying barren hopelessness. No one has ever cared enough to change out of love for me. Anything that changes, will only be because I make it happen. And I can’t move… 

I go into such detail about the darkness of the past, because I can be incredulous that it has in fact changed so much. I remember sitting in groups and hearing someone who was out of the tangled woods of her eating disorder and was talking about the simple joy of eating one small slice of cake, and that being it, no drama, no more, no agonizing about it for the rest of the day or the next few. I thought, “Wow that will never happen to me…” And now, I eat whatever I want, and can barely imagine those decades where that was all I thought about. Now I have much bigger fish to fry! I guess I tell these tiring stories, to show that with our dogged work, these things change, and life can be pretty darn wonderful! 

Neglect-Informed Psychotherapy 

Here we are coming up on 35 years of Boston. Marie had said to me since the beginning, “You should speak here,” especially as I was hatching my work about neglect. I laughed longingly, “yeah, right…” Well lo and behold, it has come to pass. On May 1 (which happens to be International Workers’ Day and an old lefty like me can’t help but notice that!) I will be presenting my model of Neglect-Informed Psychotherapy. Perhaps you will join us!  

Sadly, I lost track of Marie. I tried to find her so I could tell her, but for whatever reason failed to locate her. My sister is so good at tracking people down using social media, finding people from all walks of her life. I should ask her to help me. I want to say, “Thanks, Marie!”  Meanwhile, I hope to see you in Boston! 

Today’s song:

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