Ketamine, Transference, and Healing the Preverbal Wound
I grew up hearing the story of when I was born and my dad called his mother, my grandmother, to tell her the news. How her response with thick Southern accent was not what you’d expect. “Now, son, you don’t need to sound so sad. Every child born is a gift from God – even the girls.”
They laughed about that story. Over time, I learned to laugh at that story, too. They trained me to see it as funny.
Only now that story turns my stomach. The Mom-Me thinks of the little girl inside and how crushed some part of her must have been when she heard it. This story which makes it clear my birth brought my father grief, not joy. That the first feeling I absorbed from him was a crushing sadness. Beyond the matter of him not wanting me, was the glaring message that girls are inherently lesser in value.
I’ve carried that memory around with me all these 43 years like any number of shock value stories from my childhood that made me feel ashamed. I placed it on the shelves of my mind, right there in plain sight, totally amputated of emotion.
Now that I work in the field of trauma, I understand this is what people do to survive. This is what I did to survive. I disassociated from the memories and the pain. I glossed over it with a smile and an attempt to brush it off. It wasn’t that bad. Except that it was.
Apart from minimizing the hurt to myself I was regularly told, as are many kids in abusive situations, that I was too dramatic, too sensitive. That my memories were inaccurate or wrong. I was told I was lucky by comparison to my father, that my life was charmed. My duty as a good daughter was to feel sorry for him above all else, and that pity for him required all the oxygen in the air leaving no space for me to be me or feel anything for myself.
Like so many clients who come for support, I spent years trying to delete files from the hard drive of my mind or override them with a made up, more complimentary narrative. I told myself this was the essence of not being a victim, and I’d do anything to not be weak and fragile the way the abuse made me feel. I told myself modifying the truth was the essence of resilience, that this was what it meant to be positive and not wallow in self-pity. I differentiated myself from my dad by placing a happy spin on everything hard. I did this without realizing I was denying my own truth.
It is often said that therapy with sacred medicines dramatically accelerates the healing process. That one session can be equivalent to years of talk therapy. This is true. That being said, a critical message not named enough in the discourse is that acceleration doesn’t necessarily mean fast. We must contextualize the duration and scope of trauma to the duration of healing required so that people don’t feel demoralized along the way.
Even with power tools it takes time to retrieve a wounded child frozen in the past. To carefully find her buried, hidden, asleep like Snow White in some fantasy land she created in which to hide. It takes even more time to earn her trust, to help her heal and repair, to understand all the little pockets and corners inside her that got filled with junk. To extract that junk and replace it with love.
When I began my personal psychedelic healing path, I expected facing my father to be the first order of business. I knew he was at the center of my deepest pain. I don’t say that from a place of blame, but rather from a place of it being a matter of fact. He came from trauma, generations deep without access to healing or support, so he perpetuated what he knew. The surprise for me was how long it took to meet him head on once I began my pilgrimage to heal.
There’s much talk in the therapeutic world about transference and the tendency to redirect feelings from a damaged relationship onto the therapist in an attempt repair. I’d been practicing healthy, regenerative transference with women in therapy for years, but never with a man. That was a turning point realization four years into my psychedelic soul retrieval – that in all this deep, transformative work – there were zero men.
The child inside was still terrified and absolutely unwilling to be vulnerable in front of a man. But as a mother of two growing sons and a wife of a supportive, safe partner, this inability to soften in front of the masculine was a mounting concern. The lingering residue of fear and anger at my father was a bridge demanding to be burned. I knew this in my mind. I felt it in every cell of my body.
The ketamine spilled into my brain like a steady explosion of black paint covering over everything. Inside that bubble of being, I felt my body begin to melt and dissolve as it slipped down, down, down into what seemed to be the center most core of the earth. What lingered beyond this Salvador Dali-like melting experience was a cleaner consciousness, a Buddhist sense of being empty. Emptiness as a virtue in which attachment to anything was not only impossible but superfluous.
My narrative mind panicked and reached for a sequence, an arc, a transcendent thread – something, anything, to make meaning in the void. But, instead, there were just colors covering the walls of my brain and then slow, consistent movement like riding a carousel around dissolving pictures of pain from my life.
With every feeling that tried to come into focus, I got sucked deeper into the belly of the earth father away from my body and my brain. Until finally I gave up thinking and meaning making and surrendered to being not in control.
The ketamine continued to spill until no pictures or stories remained at all and what was left was an absence of thought and a primordial feeling of helplessness. Intermittently inside this dark, fearful ocean shards of light would pass across my eyes, light revealing some other world and existence.
From the belly of the earth, I heard a man’s voice, a distant echo traveling through a long tube. The voice was distorted, but familiar; close, but far. It was my father’s voice, and then the therapist. Back and forth they traded places for what felt like an eternity. One voice, hard and scary, while the other was gentle and reassuring.
I felt a sharp pain in my navel, and everything beginning to shatter. I was pushed and tugged through some tiny portal of one world into another where I heard the spin of a rotary phone, and my father’s cracking voice announce like a declaration of war, “It’s another girl.”
The ketamine began to peel back its intensity as I felt myself in a fetal ball shivering, struggling to emanate sound. Like a newborn baby, my eyes struggled to focus. My ears, unable to discern language. I was aware of a safe masculine presence beside me now, and maybe even a hand on my hand.
“Welcome back”, the voice said, strong but tender. “I’m glad you’re here.”
That dark, murky place the ketamine took me was my mother’s womb. The glimmers of light were the world beyond and Baby-Me attempting to acclimate eyes and ears to a harsh, external world. The masculine voice traveling through the umbilical tube straight into the center of my soul was my father. This was the origin of our epigenetic primordial ache, bound up in both being born unwanted, byproducts of regret and unconscious choice. Introduced to life in a womb surrounded by chaos. Welcomed to the world with rejection.
As I sat curled up under the blanket still unable to speak with my very safe designated dad-therapist beside me, I saw a tiny baby, reddish blue and naked with a little hole in her heart. The hole was stuffed with surgical gauze, packed in deep and thick. Gauze to keep Baby-me from bleeding out. Gauze that kept Grown-up-me partially numb.
Now it was safe to remove the gauze, to press on that little baby chest and invite her to breath life in and grow new cells. I pumped so much love into that hole in her tender heart until she finally seemed to relax. When she was sleeping peacefully, I woke up to the rest of my life feeling tiny, ancient and finally unafraid.
About the Author: Raised by evangelicals on a farm in rural Tennessee, Micah Stover is now far from home in Mexico where she resides with her family and works as an integrative support therapist with trauma survivors. Micah is currently writing and revising a memoir, chronicling the path to healing intergenerational trauma and PTSD with MDMA, psilocybin and guided psychotherapy. To learn more about her work, check her Website or Instagram.