Diary of a Self-Primaler

by John A. Speyrer


"Kids . . . who had a traumatic birth will
find it difficult to go to school."

-- Graham Farrant, M.D. - Radio Talk Show,
WXYT, Detroit, July 27, 1987

"We now know what a nervous breakdown is.
Nerves don't break down. Defenses do."

-- Arthur Janov, Ph.D.


One of the earliest moments of discomfort I can remember was my first day at school. I was so frightened that my mother remained in the back of the classroom for awhile until I became less fearful in my new environment.

In my early childhood I was scared of the dark, of heights, and of elevator rides. Later, I had a fear of blushing and my perception of people looking at me intensely. (Movie stars, Virginia Mayo and Karen Black, were to become my favorite actresses. Because of their slight cross-eyedness it never seemed that they were looking from the movie screen at me directly!!) I hated being the center of attention. Because of this last phobia I had not attended my grammar school graduation.

I dated very little in high school. I did practically no dating in college either. A desirable girl turning me down for a date simply hurt too much. "If you don't ask them, they can't hurt you," was my motto. At the time, I attributed this reticence to bashfulness. During this time my most troublesome psychosomatic symptom, stomach pain, began.

My neurosis appeared in full bloom about two years after I was discharged from military service. I was 24 years old. What triggered the overt neurosis was my asking a woman for a date and her telling me that she was going steady and would not be able to date me. The rejection caused a series of typical panic or anxiety attacks. I had symptoms of sleeplessness, nervousness, fatigue, loss of appetite, heart palpitations and difficulty in breathing. My family doctor said my symptoms were psychosomatic. This was a diagnosis I would be hearing quite often in the future. Slowly I "reintegrated my defenses" and began to feel better.

Much of what I had read about neurosis (and I had read a lot!) emphasized early childhood trauma. I was certain that I had not experienced any traumas and that I had had a happy childhood. But since I was developing a fear of marriage, everything psychoanalytic I had read stressed the importance of the early mother/son relationship, so I soon decided that that was what my neurosis was all about. I thought I had become a victim of Freud's famous Oedipus Complex, that I was somehow over-attached to my mother. Often, the mere fantasy of my getting married would cause my stomach pains to begin. To my thinking this also fit in with maternal over-attachment.

In 1969 there was another girl and another episode of more severe anxiety, exhaustion, and insomnia which made me break the liaison soon after I had had a few dates. It had been like that when I dated a woman who embodied my concept of an idealized woman. If the object of my attention was not my idea of such a woman, I had no or minimum symptoms.

The more I would like/desire the woman the sicker I would get. Telephoning for a date left me breathless, flushed and nervous. When the woman would accept the date those symptoms would vanish. Returning with the woman to her home from a date would cause the symptoms to begin again, since believing that she might discourage my advances would devastate me and often I would forego advances rather than feel the hurt of rejection.

In 1969 a woman named Betty made me finally decide that I had to do something to ease my physical and emotional misery, so I was a patient of a clinical psychologist for just a few months. I learned during the sessions that my mother, somehow, had something to do with my neurosis since I was unable to discuss her with him. Early in therapy, the therapist had asked me to tell him about my mother. My reaction to this question was to immediately become flustered as my mind turned blank. At the same time I felt waves of heat coursing through my body.

With this reality and feeling that I was somehow subconsciously over-attached to my mother I decided at age 38 to move away from my parent's home. When I had returned from military service, fourteen years earlier I moved back home to live with my parents. Moving to another home or apartment never crossed my mind. Why should I have left my parents and the home of my birth, I reasoned, when I had always gotten along so well with them? But I thought that being less close to them would alleviate my symptoms so I moved to the city where I was employed and built a house. It was all confusing since I had not felt particularly lonesome for her while I was at college and in military service.

On October 16, 1974 I had been in transactional analysis/gestalt group therapy for six months. The confrontations which occurred at these sessions made me feel no better. I was uncomfortable in group and felt inadequate as a person. Anxiety and stomach pains were still present. I was concerned that this therapy would end as the others had.

Besides the four months of insight therapy I had gone to England to see an acclaimed Chinese acupuncturist. But his needles did not stop my stomach pain! Later, I had one year of hypnoanalysis. As soon as I was hypnotized I began sobbing but nothing else was happening. My defenses were stubborn. The physician hypnotist gave up on me after a few sessions of trying to get to the origins of my neurosis under hypnosis and used "positive thinking" tape recordings under hypnosis to relieve my symptoms. For awhile this light hypnotic re-programming worked.

My symptoms eased. But, then I met another woman, started dating again, and all of hypnotic-induced improvements were soon erased. I quit hypnoanalysis.

In group therapy we sometimes did gestalt experiments. Since I had problems with feelings of rejection from desirable women, that is the area where I sometimes worked. The results of these experiments showed that my mother had somehow rejected me when I was a child. The therapist never told me this. He was rightfully cautious and obviously wanted me to come to this conclusion myself. During this time, I was feeling more and more severe anxiety and stomach pain. I was subject to constant and daily triggers of my pain. My defenses were in shreds but still battling to keep me away from my unconsciousness.

During group evidence began to mount that somehow I had not gotten from my mother what I had needed, but since I had only conscious memories of love from her I could not and did not accept this conclusion. I knew that she had loved me and no amount of proof could have convinced me otherwise.

I religiously studied our therapy textbook, Born To Win: Transactional Analysis with Gestalt Experience by Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward and supplemented it with everything I could read about those two psychotherapies, including books by Steiner, Harris, Berne and Perls. My symptoms worsened even more. I was at the end of my rope. It was only with great effort that I remained employable.

The books stressed the importance of stopping self-destructive games. I discovered that I was a "Kick Me" player (inviting put downs) and that I would do or say anything for attention. I made serious attempts to stop these games with their accompanying feelings of unfair lack of appreciation. Stopping the game was very difficult, but I actually was able to do this a few times.

This continual attempt at refusal to play self-deprecating games with others and with myself in fantasy coupled with trying to be continually in touch with my feelings and doing the gestalt experiments, finally turned the tide and allowed me to began tapping into the store of my unconscious memories.

In the Fall of 1974, a few minutes before quitting time at work, I was typing at the office and began to daydream about a gestalt experiment. In my fantasy the therapist had used the "empty chair" technique where different ego states of a person confront one another. The fantasy experiment consisted of work on my problem feelings which seemed to be maternal rejection. The conclusion of my fantasy experiment had me saying: "Because my mother rejected me." Tears came into my eyes at the office and for the first time the possibility came to me that maybe I had been rejected by her. I felt moved emotionally as I prepared to leave the office for home.

I drove the few blocks home and as I opened the door, I burst into deep sobs as I said, "Mom rejected me." I did not know what was happening to me. I did not believe that this was supposed to happen in gestalt therapy. The spontaneous feelings began to intensify and continued to occur every few days. Access to my buried memories in my early days of self-primaling were incredibly easy. Merely visualizing my mother seated in a chair across from me was enough to begin the primal feeling. I could not wait for the next two weeks for the next session to tell my group members about my incredible experiences.

I had purchased a copy of Arthur Janov's The Anatomy of Mental Illness the year before, but I could not identify with the material and the case histories. I found the deep feeling approach to psychotherapy, he espoused, repugnant. It all seemed so hysterical and undignified! As a result I had only read one or two chapters of his book. I remembered the book I had skimmed over the previous year, read it, and realized what was happening to me had a name.

I had been having spontaneous primals which were an unexpected result of the gestalt exercises in group therapy lowering my defenses. That and my dogged determination allowed me to begin the primal process on my own. I read and re-read the book eagerly, looking for some clue as to when I would begin to feel better.

Janov wrote,

"The key to cure is the systemic opening of the [brain's] hippocampal gate. Each connection means less of a load on this structure. Each felt pain indicates one less weight to keep the "gate" closed and one more step toward producing a totally feeling human being. . . . The ultimate aim of psychotherapy must be to unblock this structure and release its storehouse of Pain-laden memories." [The Anatomy of Mental Illness, page 78]

I wondered when the "cure" would begin to happen. I wondered how much longer would it be before my brain's mysterious hippocampal gate would be open enough to allow me respite from my sufferings.

At group they had all seemed happy for me. But as time went on, taking up the therapist's cue, the group members told me that they felt this primal re-living was a gimmick. The therapist warned me that primal was dangerous. The primals continued to occur about once or twice each week and I began to feel more and more alienated from both the group members and the therapist.

Insights about the cause and effect of my neurosis began to occur spontaneously both during the primals and afterwards. For example: I had always felt a most uncomfortable anxiety when I saw an attractive woman. The more attractive she was the more anxiety I felt. The girl of course was a symbolic mother. Desiring the woman brought up the hurt of wanting my mother's love and not getting it. The repressed feeling was converted into anxiety and my multiple symptoms.

While in gestalt/TA therapy, we group members would often work on our individual issues. One day I worked on "anxiety," which was one of my most bothersome symptoms. On the blackboard the therapist wrote down certain advantages which would accrue to me as a result of the anxiety I was experiencing. It was a list of possible secondary gains from my neurosis, such as, anxiety might allow me to receive sympathy, anxiety might allow me to justify inadequacy feelings, etc.

After the list was completed, I pointed out that I thought the list was not applicable to me since I had always proceeded in spite of my symptoms. I was adamant so the therapist gave up, which left me feeling rather confused. I could not figure out what had happened. I thought I had reacted honestly.

Later, I had a primal and during the feeling I was able to figure out what had happened. This occasion was also the first time I felt my split ego. It seemed that my unreal self did use the secondary gains from my neurosis, but in the therapist's office that day it was my conscious self speaking and I honestly did not know how anxiety could help my unreal self do its job.

On another occasion the therapist said I was using the ploy of "Wooden Leg." By this he meant that I assumed the position of "What Can You Expect From A Neurotic?" It would be the case of using neurotic symptoms to justify one's "Not OK" position. The therapist was saying that I was using my neurosis as an excuse to justify my position of inadequacy. I could not understand what he meant. I spent literally hours trying to figure it out. During a subsequent primal the therapist's position became clear as again insights began flooding my mind. These two examples illustrate the division of mind or the blind spots which every neurotic has around his neurotic issues.

The connection in the primal brings together the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind. There is then at that moment an easy interconnection and the unconscious becomes conscious. Without experiencing the division of my two selves I could never have understood the point the therapist was trying to make. I imagine with enough explanation I might have acknowledged that it were possible that there were secondary gains or that I was playing "Wooden Leg," but, it would not have made any different if I had understood. Practically speaking, insight means very little. Insight cannot change the stored unconscious. Only sufficient primal regressions which make the unconscious conscious can do that.

So, after eight months of group therapy and a number of months after I began primalling, I quit group therapy. It seemed that I had taken an unorthodox and perhaps dangerous approach to mental health, even though it had been unplanned.

Gestalt therapy encouraged feelings and even some meager tears, but anything akin to the deep feeling of a primal would not have been allowed during the group session. It would have been called hysteria, and everyone would have rushed in to comfort me and take me away from my feelings because I had gone "too far" and needed immediate help.

The time period immediately preceding the primal was becoming more uncomfortable as I was probing earlier and earlier events of my childhood and infancy. I was still taking about 20 mgs. of the tranquilizer, valium, each day. The insights during the primals continued, but so did the anxiety.

One day I had a particularly deep primal involving the feeling that my mother had hurt me by not liking me. As I thought about this during the primal all of a sudden the puzzle as to why I had a marriage phobia became clear.

My mother had rejected me and the consideration of marriage by me triggered overt anxiety since my subconscious mind was equating the hurt from a woman with hurt from my mother. My phobia became clearer. The intimacy of marriage would be a repeat of the earlier intimacy of my mother's relationship with me. The thinking of marriage triggered the repressed hurt which I had received from the first desirable woman in my life. The repressed hurt was experienced not as hurt, but as severe anxiety instead.

In re-enacting the struggle of getting my mother to like me, I wanted women to like me and I placed them on a pedestal, a place where goddesses reside, and made them into attractive but unobtainable objects. It was the same way that I, as an infant, had felt that I would not ever get my mother's love.

But besides that, I had realized in all of its hopeless implications that there was nothing that I could do, now or ever, to induce her to love me. It was the most devastating and hopeless primal feeling I had experienced up to that time. This knowledge had warped me permanently. It had shut me down. No wonder I had had such a dread of rejection by desirable women, I would always withdraw so as not to feel the unconscious early rejection (anxiety) from my mother.

When one of these goddess-like women would reject me, I would feel inadequate and hurt exactly as I had felt as an infant when I did not feel that my mother loved me. To an infant, being loved is a necessary need. It is a feeling of life and death. With not enough love and care an infant will die.

The themes of my early primals were: "You Hurt Me, Mom," "Please Like Me Mom and "Why Don't You Like Me, Mom?" There were also angry primals directed towards her. In those baby primals I railed and cursed her for not liking me.

Finally, after having self-primaled for about six months (about 3 times each week), my brain's mysterious hippocamel gate was "working" and I began feeling better and was able to reduce my intake of valium from 20 mgs. each day to 10 mgs. each week. My excruciating daily stomach pains had practically disappeared but the bête noir of anxiety continued.

Since Arthur Janov's Anatomy of Mental Illness described how one's vital signs dropped after each primal, I obsessively began taking blood pressure, body temperature and pulse readings, both before, and after each primal feeling. After deep primals I experienced a consistent drop of over two degrees (sometimes three) in body temperature. Blood pressure also lowered from 160/115 to 120/80 and lower. Pulse rate changes were not significant. As tension built up again during the next day or so, then so did the higher elevation readings.

I began feeling better and better and really believed in the Spring of 1975 that by Christmas of that year I would be completely well. But then it happened. I soon began feeling more and more tense, and had more difficulty sleeping. After three months of continually mounting nervous tension the dam of another set of my defenses burst.

July of 1975, appropriately enough, was nine months after I had begun the primal process. That period of time gestated my first birth feeling. I had such a severe bout of pre-primal tension (mostly chest and stomach pressure) at the office that I was unable to continue working. I returned home, lay down on the floor in my living room and after some time the birth feeling connected.

At that time, Dr. Janov had begun writing more about birth traumas and how common they were in his patients, so I had checked with my parents to see what kind of birth I had had. They assured me that I had had a quick and easy birth. For that reason, I assumed that I would not be reliving my birth. My first birth primal was very mild and lasted only a few minutes. It was very mild and encapsulated version of many of the primals I would be having about my birth for decades to come.

Ever since I had begun the process, I had felt a compulsion to share with others what I was experiencing. I did so. But no one believed or seemed interested in my experiences. I felt as though I had voyaged to the planet Mars, and no one wanted to hear about it.

I found an advertisement for the International Primal Association Psychology Today. I immediately joined, attended a few conferences and have enjoyed the support and friendship from its members over the years. I also subscribed to Dr. Janov's Journal of Primal Therapy and Primal Institute Newsletter and ordered all back issues of each publication.

When I first began having birth feelings, I had a lot of difficulty in connecting to them. The feelings of discomfort would build and when it was socially appropriate l the primal would explode out of me. After the primal, the discomfort I had experienced before connection would begin to dissolve. After two months of having birth regressions, the pre-primal symptoms became particularly uncomfortable.

Over time, access to the birth material became easier, but my body's muscular spasms and its pressure needs, which helped connection to those birth primals, did not lessen. The number of birth feelings began to increase to about four each week. By November of that year, I could lay down almost anytime, mimic the movements and strains of the previous birth primal and slowly begin to connect. In minutes I would be deep in the birth feeling.

The movements I was making were completely out of voluntary control. It was as though a computer program in my mind was being run off which gave my body instructions of what was needed to re-live that particular aspect of birth.

Later, this was to change as my body movements in birth primals were more in a continuum as far as conscious effort to do the work was concerned. Some primals were one-hundred percent involuntary; with others my mind seemed to help my body in doing what the body felt it needed to do; and in others I intuitively "knew" what needed to be done and I intentionally did it. During this period (December, 1975), I began having birth feelings every day. This need for daily birth primals continued for many years.

Occasionally, birth primals, as well as some non-birth emotional primals, did not resolve much tension and I felt I had the same symptoms when I arose as when I lay down to feel. Most of the time during birth feelings, my body seemed to have an agenda of its own. It was like I was a spectator to the physical aspects of my birth-work and I was able to think of things completely unrelated to the birth-work my body was doing. This early birth-work was usually devoid of emotions as I was mostly re-experiencing the physical aspects of my birth. The more profound feelings of panic, fear of death and re-living closeness to dying and other negative experiences of my birth would not be felt until many years later.

I could listen to the evening tv news and even look up to watch something on television which interested me during the birth-primalling process. This was in the period between severe spasms or contractions. A few seizure-like contractions were so powerful that I would momentarily lose consciousness.

During the full-body vigorous thrusts and strainings, I feared that I might break bones or muscles and ligaments. However, it was impossible to restrain the force of the action. I strained muscles I hardly knew existed, especially in the deep sinus area of my face and the muscles below my ears. It seemed that certain muscles needed to be strained and I assumed some outlandish positions to accommodate my head which at times seemed to be completely directing the primal script. To strain my stomach muscles I used a broom handle. At other times I pressed against the wall or on/under furniture.

It was at this time that I began devising and building various objects to accommodate the differing needs to pressure or strain different parts of my body (See Resolving The Rotation Trauma of the Birth Process).

Fourteen months after I began primaling, the birth feelings were still occurring almost daily. The primals would often end with an emotional primal about my mother.

Some of my physical birth traumas which I re-experienced in primals included: difficulty in beginning the breathing process involving anoxia, coughing, choking and spitting up large quantities of mucous; guttural throat sounds; neck torsion pressures; facial pressures, including jaw, cheek bones, gums and head pain due to pressure and molding, feelings of being inverted, internal rotation, pressures involving the chest, all of rib cage, hips; pressures to collarbones, both upper back (scapula area) and top of shoulders, lower back; spine; hands turned inward, arms twisting; twisting of legs, pressure on legs; full body spasms, seizures and contractions, twistings, convulsions and vibrations; painful muscular strainings of the chest region, neck region, jaw muscles, facial muscles, stomach and buttock muscles, profuse body perspiration, strainings and pressurings of neck region, jaw muscles, facial muscles, stomach and buttock muscles; droolings; shakings; tremblings; head standings (mimicing pressure against the cervix); head pushings; asthma; excessively flowing saliva; burning of eyes, wailings, etc.

Many birth primals involved a lot of head rotation and profuse perspiration. At that time the longest lasted over three hours. The most time I spent in birth work during one day was seven hours.

I was able to connect some of the muscle groups traumatized by birth with previous neurotic symptoms. For example, as a child of ten or twelve, I had a tic involving neck cracking. It was embarrassing to both myself and, I am sure, to my parents since it often occurred during church services. The tic lasted for a year or so.

While undergoing vigorous neck strainings and torsion neck pressure, I remembered the childhood tic. Tension later in life also showed up in muscle pain in my left clavicle region. This was a muscle group which I strained a lot during my earlier birth primals.

I had suffered from a congested nose for many years. I kept a record so I know that one year I used thirty-three bottles of nose drops! I used to keep one bottle in my automobile, one at work and one next to my bed. The physicians I consulted said that the symptoms were caused by an allergy, but the medication they prescribed did not help.

After only a few months of primaling my life-long symptom of nasal congestion was gone and has never returned! In just six months my incapacitating stomach pains had practically disappeared! It had been quite a year, but it was only the beginning, since I still had a lot of symptoms. The others would be more stubborn.

I have not written a formal continuation but these four articles could be considered as further rhapsodies on my primal life theme:

  • Another Piece of My Birth Puzzle: My Mother as God, God as My Mother
  • On the Fear of Death: Dying in the Birth Canal
  • At the 1999 International International Primal Association Convention
  • Peri-Natal Agonies