Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Vortex

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 26, 2010

      Dawn, sixty, a long-term patient,  suffers from crippling anxiety, seemingly unrelated to any external stress. When I ask her about her childhood, she repeats  three stories from her childhood. They are interesting and poignant tales of parental insensitivities. I hear these stories, not as the child who had to endure inappropriate parenting, but as stories which Dawn holds on to to prove to herself that her pain is valid. It is as if Dawn is trying to convince me that she had a lousy childhood. One session, I respond to her story “I think it is terrible how you were treated, but I wonder why I hear only three stories. I wonder about all the other stories from your past. Maybe you do not tell me other stories because you are not sure how I would respond to them. Maybe you do not want to explore your childhood in more depth because you are afraid that there would be no way back.” Quickly, Dawn replies “the vortex; I don’t want to go there.”

      Exploring the past is a scary journey. Looking backward with an adult lens could create fear, sadness, anger and/or resentment. Unpleasant feelings could bubble up to the surface, leaving Dawn with greater anxiety and tumult. Dawn’s three stories of her childhood are like old friends; she knows how she will feel after she tells them. She knows how most people respond to them. There is a security in the repetition. There is the feeling that she will have convinced her listener that she came from “utter chaos.” A new story, an untold story, could cause her audience, in this case me, to perhaps feel bad for her mother, or worse yet, it could cause someone to minimize her pain. My look,  or my twisting in the chair, in response to a vignette might make her feel like I do not think she had it “that bad.” In order to avoid this uncertainty, she holds on to three childhood tales.

     Dawn’s guardedness lets me know how much pain Dawn suffers from. Behind those gates, I suspect that there are a lot of feelings of deprivation which are hard to articulate.  She cannot allow herself to relate her current crippling anxiety to her past. At the moment, she cannot entertain the possibility that the past relates to the present. The fact that she responded to me so quickly with the word “vortex” let me know that she is aware of how scared she is to open old wounds.  This was a hopeful moment. Identifying the vortex allows us to reframe it as a pit; one that is deep, but one that she can climb out of.  As she climbs out of the pit, her crippling anxiety will transform into a self-confidence that she has never experienced before.  I hope.

6 Responses to “The Vortex”

  1. Mimi Lind said

    As usual – great post. As a therapist with over 20 years of experience I still always learn something or am reminded about the intensity of our work! Thanks for being a terrific teacher and amazing therapist!!!

  2. It sounds like you have a good handle on Dawn’s issue, Shirah. I’d like to suggest another dimension of the problem, though, that might also be useful to consider. As a Feldenkrais Practitioner working with self-awareness and body organization, I’ve found intimate interconnections between anxiety and a poor sense of support from the ground. Feeling the ground under you provides the most basic sense of security that there is. One of the ways that we manifest insecurity and anxiety from any source is by tightening our pelvic floor and pulling ourselves up and away from the ground. The resulting instability and lack of support is anxiety-producing in itself, and it serves to express, maintain, and amplify the original anxiety.

    The physical support from ground is still there, of course — it’s our awareness of that support that’s disrupted. Learning to reconnect with that underlying sense of support isn’t going to make the anxiety go away for someone like Dawn, obviously, but it can make her anxiety more manageable. If you think of anxiety as analogous to having a bunch of alarms going off around you, having a greater sense of ground is a way of turning off some of those alarms, thus making it easier to deal with the others.

    • Shirah said

      Thanks Ralphs for your thoughtful comments. I agree completely. The mind/body connection is endlessly fascinating and as such, an alteration in one’s sense of one’s body changes one’s sense of one’s mind. I would like to check it out for myself one day. Intuitively, Feldenkrais makes so much sense.

  3. Shelly said

    Everyone has something from their past that they wish had been different. Why open the vortex or the Pandora’s box? Why not simply focus on the anxiety itself in the here and now? Was it because Dawn seems stuck on these three stories? Why not give Dawn the tools to overcome the anxiety, and explore how to become a healthy and happy adult?

    • Shirah said

      It is not that I want to open the vortex; I just found it fascinating that she picked that word to describe her fear. Focusing on the anxiety in the here and now is very useful, but in Dawn’s case, that has not helped us. Getting stuck with the here and now makes me want to delve into the past. If the tools for here and now worked for her (medication, meditation, yoga, cognitive shifting), then I would be less motivated to look backwards.

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