We have found that many of the clients we provide holistic services for are suffering from extreme trauma histories. Often these people have got to the end of the road of conventional psychiatric treatments, having seen numerous psychiatrists, therapists, etc. In some cases they have been told that they are too traumatized and there is nothing more that can be done for them (!), which is a very disabling and disempowering message, especially when coming from a doctor. In other cases, psychiatrist after psychiatrist keep adding ever more sedating medications on top of multiple other medications, leading to what is called ‘poly-pharmacy’, a seemingly neutral term that is really a code among psychiatrists for their frustration at the lack of efficacy of the medications. (Note: There are almost no studies on combining multiple medications, so this widespread practice really can’t be called ‘evidence-based’, which is already a manipulative term, frequently invoked in an attempt to make psychiatric prescribing appear more scientific than it really is.) The heavy medication load most of the time results in complete numbness in the client and an inability to help themselves deal with their frightening symptoms at all. In many cases their trauma has been mislabelled and misdiagnosed as “Bipolar Affective Disorder” or “Psychosis” or “Schizophrenia”, because it appears that psychiatrists are more comfortable with these diagnoses than really beholding the severe traumas these clients carry. These ‘real’ diagnoses are like a spell that is cast over the client and they carry a life sentence in terms of diagnosis. “There is no cure and you need to be on medications for the rest of your life.” is what such clients are often told.
The most common symptoms that clients with heavy trauma histories complain of are: intrusive thoughts and memories, which are frightening and repetitive, circling around over and over; flashbacks, which can range from seeing traumatic scenes in your imagination to fully immersive reexperiencing, exaggerated response to triggers, although the triggers are often inocuous or not even noticed by consciousness; anxiety and panic attacks; insomnia and nightmares, which often lead to a client forcibly avoiding sleep; blaming oneself and deep shame; loss of hope and suicide ideation, sleep disorders and nightmares, difficulties regulating emotions, which includes explosive irritability, causing a lot of interpersonal problems and more shame; ultra-rapid mood swings, that often get misdiagnosed as bipolar. Some of these symptoms are among the criteria for PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), while others are only mentioned in discussions of Complex PTSD (or C-PTSD), which surprisingly isn’t in the DSM-V, another sign of the inherent bias and stigma in how psychiatry frames these conditions.
Florian and I use different forms of plant medicine depending on the client. Fundamentally, we hold space for the client and we use aromas to facilitate their process.
It is humbling and amazing to see how trauma works through a person when they are ready and we’ve created a safe setting. The problem with the conventional system is that there is too much reliance on medications and not enough time to really behold and hold the space for the client. I (Florian) have realized that most of the time, when a psychiatrist prescribes a medication, they are really unconsciously trying to treat their own anxiety about the client, by having the client take a pill. They are worried the client might call them in the middle of the night in distress and they are unable to witness or hold the space for this distress. But instead of owning this anxiety, they project it unconsciously and ask the client to take a pill. Furthermore, the current system is very money driven and time is money and it can be hard for a provider in the conventional system to fathom sitting with a client for hours holding the space for their sacred process.
In order to do this work, the healer must have become very intimate with their own trauma and experienced firsthand what it means to release traumatic memories from their own bodies. This is the only way they can hold the space and have no doubts or anxieties about being able to behold what the client expresses, sometimes dramatically, because this is the way true healing from trauma happens.
We get the patients we deserve!
My (Cathy) core wound is that due to my mother’s trauma, she couldn’t look me in the eye. She desperately wanted and imagined me to be her fantasy and definitely not a reminder of her roots. The fact that my mother didn’t ever really ‘see’ me is my wound. Through my wounded healer’s journey, my wound has become my super-power. I wasn’t seen and so I ‘see’ everyone. This ‘seeing’ of who the person really is and not the label or the symptoms is extremely important for the type of transformative work Florian and I do.
The client needs to be fully seen and beheld!!
The client also needs to be ready. Cellular memories are held in the body when a trauma happens during childhood that is too much for the child to bear or comprehend at the time. The mind would not be able to deal with or integrate the reality so the memory is kept away from consciousness, stored in the body until the time is right. This is why, often later on in life, people get feelings or hunches that something may have happened to them that they were not aware of. Siblings may talk about all the trauma that happened and the person may know they had a very difficult childhood, but do not have precise memories of what happened. It’s really a natural defense mechanism of the unconscious to hide the memories from consciousness. Yet we also know that our unconscious never gives us more than we can handle and we have to trust, that when traumatic memories come up later in life, our psyche knows we are ready, even if we feel overwhelmed and not ready.
The alchemical vessel, the ego, needs to be strong and mature enough to be ready to allow the body’s memories to rise. The role of the practitioner is to know that the client is ready and that releasing these memories will relieve their symptoms and that they will be able to benefit from releasing the energy that their organism has expended, often for decades, to prevent the memories from rising to consciousness.
“If the ego container is not strong enough, a psychotic episode could result from touching into the trauma too soon. In women where the primary betrayal was in the relationship with the mother, the loss may be so deep that it does not even appear in dreams until the dreamer has worked on the father complex for years…The psyche understands its own timing. The work must never be intrusive. Until truth is restored through gradual, cherishing work, the resistance is self-protective and must be respected.“ Marion Woodman ‘The Ravaged Bridegroom’
Essential oils are our major allies to help this work along. I feel extremely grateful and honored to be able to witness the way the oils work in these long, intense sessions. For example, the other day we sat for a woman who had one of the most severe trauma histories we had ever heard. She was at a stagnant point in the work and we both felt she needed something to move her on.
As she was processing deep trauma, from an age when she was pre-verbal, related to her truly horrible early parenting, we decided to begin slowly with our Rose Attar. Rose Attar reminds us we are safe, we are held and we are loved. This oil hugs our heart. It is extremely important for people to feel safe and held during these sessions, because trauma and especially childhood trauma causes profound mistrust of everyone, including healers. Something shifted in her and she allowed herself to feel the memories that were finally being released more deeply. She was able to let her guard down and embrace the transformative process. No amount of therapeutic talking would have allowed her to shift as deeply and rapidly, on a cellular level, in her heart, as the aroma of the rose attar.
When we felt she was ready, fortified and held by Rose Attar, we bought in our Labdanum. She was touching on the trauma, but still with her mind and not her whole body. We were hoping that the labdanum would enable deeper cellular memories to be released, overcoming the remaining defensiveness of her mind.
Labdanum acts like a scalpel, helping us to cut out and release the deep traumatic memories we have been holding in our cells, while simultaneously healing the areas they have been released from. It tends to keep going deeper until it finds what needs to be released. As deeply as it digs, it knows what is ready at that time.
Labdanum helped and got the process moving but still not enough for what Florian and I sensed needed to be done. After decades of being overwhelmed by the traumas and by her body’s reactions to the traumas, she was still reluctant and afraid. It was at this point that we introduced Galbanum, which really did the job. It was the right oil for the right moment. Galbanum pushes us to go in the direction of aliveness and in this case aliveness was in the releasing. It has no time for excuses or the mind tricks we play on ourselves in order not to grow or step into our strength. Galbanum shows us where we need to go, puts us into contact with the inner energy needed and provides the drive to commit and accomplish. We could feel its strength enabling her to release and to feel. It also puts us into contact with our ancestral strength and we could actually feel her ancestors supporting her in this journey.
It seemed that this important work was happening both for the client’s healing on an individual level, but also for the collective. Real healing and not just symptom relief always ripples out into the world and heals the collective at the same time.
At the end of the session, the client’s face had changed. She felt lighter, a big part of the load she had been carrying had been taken off, released by her own process. There was an aliveness and sparkle in her eye and she was recentered in her incredible strength, which had allowed her to endure her life up to this point. She was also much stronger in her voice.
We just accompanied her, she did the work. We feel honored to hold space for people and to be able to offer the oils that can help. The only way we can do this is by working on our own wounds and traumas and getting to know the oils intimately, as living allies that we partner with, not as ‘tools’ or ‘products.’ We have now worked with the collection of oils we share at Cathy’s Attars for so long that we do not rely our minds to choose the right oil for a client. It is an instinctive impulse that comes from having intuitively worked and communicated with these oils over a long period of time. We just need to listen to the oils, but that can only be done if you’ve really developed deep relationship with the oils, which you can really only do with a few oils, not hundreds.
I am so grateful that my soul guided me all the way to doing the work that it is meant for me to do in this lifetime. I am eternally grateful to my husband whose journey as a holistic psychiatrist has enabled him to hold the space for my own healing and allowed us to have the privilege of doing this work. And last but not least, I want to honor the oils that without fail show up and do what is needed to do every time.