Shadow Work with Psychedelics: Recovering Traumatic Childhood Memories during the COVID-19 Pandemic
*A personal story by Sarah Rosenbloom
In early Indian philosophical traditions, deep contemplation about the nature of suffering took place. Suffering is described as recursive/endless and termed dukkha, roughly translating to “painful and unsatisfactory.” In the Four Noble Truths, suffering originates from desire/craving and is perpetuated by ignorance.
In our daily lives, we tend to distract ourselves from painful and unsatisfactory thoughts, emotions, and beliefs - such as our awareness of our death, relationship conflict, negative interactions, and traumatic experiences. Distraction can take many forms. For example, substance use, work, study, shopping, sex, food, and social interaction. Our bodies and brains have evolved these implicit/unconscious processes for good reason! How functional could you be if you were continuously haunted by past negative experiences or the fact of your inevitable death?
However, it is a fine balance. Distraction can quickly turn into addiction if one is not conscious of their habits. It takes time and effort to process and digest psychosocial forms of suffering, with the threshold naturally increasing as we experience more trauma.
As a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), I’ve been feeling a shift in our collective consciousness amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Isolated at home and free from distractions, many people (myself included) have been forced to sit with thoughts and emotions they had previously pushed away unconsciously. With these bubbling up, associated memories that had been locked away behind conscious awareness often surface as well.
Coined by the psychologist Carl Jung, the shadow self is the notion that humans have a shadow, the dark repressed side of themselves where these negative thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and memories reside. So, doing shadow work essentially means becoming aware of this repressed shadow and learning how to respond to it. Shadow theory also predicts that these unexpressed negative thoughts, beliefs, memories, and emotions will continue to be mirrored in the individual’s life the more they continue to ignore it.
I do not believe in deterministic just-world phenomena stemming from the oppressive patriarchy, so I don’t subscribe to the idea that shadow work entails “taking responsibility for one’s own happiness”, which can be found in some shadow work sources.
Rather, my idea of shadow work is integration. With awareness, we can integrate our shadows into our daily lives by Recognizing, Allowing, Investigating, and Nurturing it when it arises (RAIN method by Tara Brach), as if it were only a small child. I have been deeply connected to my shadow self from an early age, and it has been the core of my inspiration for finding my path in the fields of Psychology, Mental Health, Psychedelics, and Cannabis.
Before the pandemic hit, I was already aware that I had a somewhat dark past filled with traumatic events, but I wasn’t actively thinking about them. Why would I? I had endured the divorce of my parents, an intense fear of my father, witnessing family betrayals, as well as recurring physical and emotional abuse.
However, the combined experiences of using psychedelics and being able to be alone with my thoughts during the pandemic allowed me to gain more perspective on my traumas, particularly about how major and impactful some of them really were. The psychedelics let me re-experience some of those events with heightened perceptual saliency and see how my traumas had been unconsciously stored in my body.
The memories I share in this article are ones that were completely repressed before I uncovered them with psychedelics.
I am 3 or 4 years old. I wake in the middle of the night in my mother’s small one-bedroom apartment and gaze, paralyzed with anxiety, at the monster standing in the doorway of our bedroom, peering over me. It is one of the most terrifying creatures I have ever seen; a tall two-legged demon drenched in blood, with scabs all over its body. This is clearly not from my normal waking reality. Am I dreaming? Or am I awake and manifesting a concoction from my imagination? Or maybe it is real in some way, traveling here from an alternate dimension?
I was intrigued that I was able to recover such an early memory, and it gave me the inspiration to continue. That monster memory became a point of reference in the stream of consciousness and events that occurred during that period of time, leading to the recovery of yet another traumatic memory that was connected to the first.
Around the same time on another night, my mom - stressed with the responsibilities of being a young, low-income, single mother - had locked me alone in the dark in our bedroom while she couldn’t put me to sleep. I was terrified. I remember screaming, crying, and banging on the door for her to let me out. Recalling it, I can envision the details of the bedroom and almost smell it. I feel the hot tears dripping down my face. I could not understand why this was happening to me and it felt like I was being abandoned. As this was what I knew to be my experience, it was my reality. I learned that I could not trust anyone with my basic and emotional needs.
As an adult, I started a conversation with my mom about this traumatic incident to heal our relationship. She told me she still remembers hearing every whimper and my pleas to be let out, that she sincerely regretted locking me in the room. It helped me realize that she had no intention of abandoning me, but was merely highly stressed out at the time and didn’t know what else to do.
When I was around 15-years-old, I had another dark night of the soul and a particularly salient dream that impacts me to this day.
I am standing alone on the hot sand of a warm, pleasant, but isolated beach. I feel serene. I feel the sun beating down on my skin and hear the melodic crashes of the ocean waves. Out of nowhere, a majestic grey wolf appears in the distance, standing on the gradient between sand and ocean. I slowly approach the wolf. As I get closer to it, I am taken aback by the blood covering the wolf. It is cut up in scars and drenched in water. The wolf growls at me, exposing its sharp teeth. But as I look into the reflection of its eyes, I see myself.
The vivid imagery and underlying message stayed with me long after I woke. The dream was so vivid that I still contemplate if it may have been a memory of a past life. I believe that it was also a manifestation of my shadow self, where all the unhealed parts stemming from my painful past resided.
These memories symbolize the continuous hardships I had experienced. I grew up struggling with anxiety and depression at times and developed a fearful-avoidant attachment style. I faced many difficulties in intimate relationships, which I believe represented the surfacing of my shadow. I experienced a tendency to unconsciously seek out flaws with the people I loved, so that I could have a reason to self-sabotage my desire for connection and leave the relationship, thereby reinforcing my core abandonment wound.
With the help of psychedelics and mindfulness, I have become more secure. Now that I’m more aware of these patterns, I have the ability to recognize when this flaw-seeking tendency arises, and with the RAIN method, can ground myself back to the present moment and understand that it stems from a trust and abandonment wound.
As I continuously integrate what I learn in therapy, from my Psychology degree, and from Mindfulness exercises, I treat my shadow self with respect and with compassion. I have become more aware how these traumatic experiences affect me today, and where it is stored in my body: for me personally, shallow breathing and a tensed abdomen.
Psychedelics allowed me to realize that the monster and the wolf were parts of myself. They were never meant to be shamed, shunned or ignored. Integrating my shadow into my daily life has had many benefits. For example, along with recovering early traumatic memories I also recovered early memories of pure bliss and joy, I’m more secure in relationships, and I feel more at peace with myself in general. There is a beauty that lies in the darkness if we only stop to look.
“The cracks are where the light shines through” – Tara Brach
Did you recover any memories or traumatic memories during the pandemic? Did psychedelics facilitate that process for you? We want to hear from you!
Sarah Rosenbloom is a writer for MAPS Canada, a visual artist, and an enthusiastic psychonaut. She received a B.A. degree in Psychology from the University of British Columbia, and currently works at the British Columbia Centre on Substance use. She joined WOOP hoping to express her knowledge background in creative ways to shed light on the booming therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
She is passionate about social issues and social injustice, ranging from feminist issues to racial and economic inequality. She is particularly interested in applying a psychological and philosophical lens on these issues, and the ways in which psychedelics can help solve some of these problems. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. You can also check out her art page!