My first memory is from when I was three years old. I witnessed a mass shooting at my hometown mall. My mom and I hid behind a bookcase in the bookstore. Later on in my life, I would read the newspaper archives and learn that something like ten people were wounded and three killed, including a two-year-old toddler shot right through the heart. The young woman who opened fire was described as a violent schizophrenic.
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I was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 Disorder in my early 20s (I’m 33 now). I’ve experienced six instances of what might be called “psychotic episodes” in my life, each lasting from three weeks to several months. These episodes may have been the most meaningful and the most misunderstood times in my life.
These surges from the unconscious, as I prefer to call them, contain mystical elements, biblical themes and eastern spirituality. One time in a few short hours I felt I experienced life through the lens of a deep variety of spiritual, religious and psychological systems, from traditions as ancient as Taoism to modern neurobiology, tapping into knowledge that I normally don’t have access to in an intense and confusing whirlwind. Also included in these episodes is a lot of nightmarish content, including descents into hell that are too painful for me to describe or comprehend now.
In this essay, I will focus on unpacking the content related to my family and my ethnic background and history. I believe that my surges from the unconscious contain an inner wisdom and force that has a tremendous capacity to encourage the healing of intergenerational trauma. This essay explores an energy that is especially potent and accessible during these periods of unconscious spelunking.
I first met the hostile energy and its larger-than-life ability to strike fear into my heart when I was in one of these states. The energy was attached to my father. I couldn’t even be in the same room with him, I was so paralyzed with fear. This bull-like energy was going to kill me, I knew it. My father had been very critical when I was growing up, and he did chase after me and hit and yell, but this energy was so terrifying that in retrospect it seemed beyond him. But at the time, in these states, it was how I perceived him. This would continue every time I had that surge from the unconscious – absolute terror at my father and the archetypal violent force I felt he carried.
Later, in these states, I would wake up in the middle of the night and the whole environment would become this hostile energy. Sometimes it was concentrated in something in my room. Even something as insignificant and inanimate as a cereal box seemed hostile; it was as if the entire environment was out to rape me. And I lived with these states of terror in the middle of the night, although thankfully they would eventually subside after a few hours.
Recently in therapy, my therapist, with my permission, encouraged me to revisit or lightly invoke the hostile environment-as-rapist state, because I had been experiencing it again. I did, and the environment in the therapy room shifted to extremely hostile. We only stayed there for a few minutes. Later in the session, while describing a dream, I found myself getting incredibly angry, like wanting-to-flip-a-table angry. My therapist let me throw a pillow. I seldom get super angry, and this feeling felt super uncomfortable for me.
A few sessions later I was describing being mildly annoyed with someone important to me, and my therapist asked me to repeat the words, “What the fuck, [this person’s name]?” As I did that, I noticed some anger and sadness. And then suddenly I went into a dissociative fugue for almost the rest of the session – totally lost, not knowing who I was or where I was but in tandem, having a light grip on reality.
When I described the session to my psychiatrist, she said it was indicative of suppressed rage, and indeed that night I had tried tapping into the anger around the person I was annoyed with. To my surprise and some horror, my face had started contorting into the most grotesque, angry expressions I had ever seen. My body was contorting too, so much so that I bruised my ribs. I was watching this happen on my computer’s live photo program. I couldn’t shout because I was at home with roommates, but I know if I had it would have been blood-curdling.
And I started talking about rape. When I did this, I felt a deep resonance with the mass rapes of women in Bangladesh during the war of 1971. This was not the first time that I felt I was experiencing, expressing and somatically processing rage, hurt and trauma associated with the war. 1971 was a genocidal time in Bangladesh, a time of mass rapes and murders. Over one million people were slaughtered. The 2011 Time Magazine article, Forty Years After Its Bloody Independence, Bangladesh Looks to Its Past to Redeem Its Future, recounts: “This was a past that could not be buried, at least not in a country where virtually every household can offer tales of parents lost or disappeared, sisters raped and children murdered.” My parents had come of age during this war.
The first time I got more information on the origins of the violent, hostile force was during one of my states. I had a vision where I saw all my ancestors from what seemed like the beginning of civilization, lining up back to back in rapid succession. Then I saw my mother and father laying in bed before I was conceived, and my father whispered to my mother, “What do I do with the pain that happened in Bangladesh?”
The vision then fast-forwarded to when I was a young child. My father took on that violent energy in the vision, and I stayed in a state of terror, knowing of this force’s impending desire to rape and kill me. My father is one of my role models, and he taught me so much – if not emotionally available all the time, he’s mentor-like and wise. This energy, I realized, was not my father. It did impact him, causing him to have a violent temper towards his two young children, but that energy was coming from the genocide. My father’s family was homeless for a year during that period in Bangladesh. His house was raided, and his family was lined up by a rifle squad but spared. My mother lost her grandfather, an altruistic doctor who she was very close to. He was shot and killed by the West Pakistani army.
I realized that I have the capacity to transmute this energy – to help it become embodied and move through me, so that it’s transformed in small bits. It happened that time with the contorted rageful faces and body postures. It is not easy to transmute this energy. Sometimes I think it takes people over. It is really hard work, with the added difficulty of being labeled crazy and pushed into the mental health system.
Another time that I felt I transmuted the energy was at a cafe called Borderlands (which I also personally associated with Bangladeshi civil war and the genocide, partly because of the name). The vendor outside had gifted me a little orange tourmaline crystal. At the cafe, I had this inexplicable desire to break it. Of course I couldn’t because it’s a hard stone, but I tried, and then I started shaking all over. My friend who was with me advised me to stop. When I got home, I tried it again and an earthquake went through me. It felt like a release of trauma, and afterward I cried and cried. I cried for my mom, who had lost her grandfather, and then I made a photo collage about her and her strength. Powerful forces and emotions coursed through me around this, and I felt calm, refreshed and even invigorated afterward.
Exploring these surges from the unconscious and the meaning of the violent energy, and even inviting it into a therapeutic setting, has allowed me to release trauma that has been stored in my body – and to energetically release trauma that has been stored in my family unit. These processes are akin to the practice of Somatic Experiencing developed by Peter Levine, which facilitates the release of energy and instinctual survival reactions stored in the body by allowing the body to involuntarily shake and tremble (for more about Somatic Experiencing, see: http://www.traumahealing.org/about-se.php).
After going through these processes of exploring and releasing energy, I noticed deep shifts in my family’s interaction patterns. My father and I had been distant for a long time, but connected to these releases and explorations of the violent energy, we started connecting and communicating on a very deep level – at a synchronicity level. I am a believer in animal spirit guides, and I believe that spirit animals come to me to teach me things. My father, an amateur photographer, uncannily started sending me his own photographs of the animals I felt called by, with the exact timing of when the specific animal or insect was calling me, without me ever mentioning any animals or insects to him. I was blown away by the strength of connection we started experiencing – connection on a deep psyche level.
Our connection is continuing to smooth out at multiple levels. And a similar deepening of communication and connection is happening with my mom. My family is entering a deep healing process, and I believe this is partially a result of the therapeutic, self-reflective exploration and holding of the violent energy that had permeated my episodes. By allowing the intense, violent anger to flow first through my father as a larger-than-life, numinous force during my episodes; to the environment as a violent threat; to violence and anger coursing through my body; to the release and realization of the connection with the intergenerational trauma that is present within my personal history; and finally to the telling of the story using self-reflection, mindfulness, and a curious and compassionate therapist and psychiatrist, I believe that historical trauma can be transmuted and lead to incredible healing for the person going through the process, and consequently their family.
I thank my ancestors and the sacred feminine creative source for aiding me along this journey. And I thank my friends and family. Sylvia, the woman who opened fire at the mall, I learned had been sexually molested by her grandfather. She was dealing with a hostile force too. One that had attacked her when she was a vulnerable child.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.