When I lived in California, the Big Sur coast was a favorite destination for rest and renewal. These nature oriented restorative visits always included some time at Nepenthe, a family owned restaurant and café established in 1949. Indoors or out this is a lovely place where one can contemplate the spectacular coastline along and above this stretch of the Pacific. Their outdoor terrace features an open fire pit and driftwood sculpture of a phoenix rising from a circular bed of red-orange torch lilies. Nepenthe, derived from the Greek (ne=no +penthes= grief) is the name of a mythical drug of forgetfulness believed to have originated in Egypt. As the story goes, the wife of mythical King Thonis gave this potion to Helen, daughter of Jove to induce forgetfulness and surcease from sorrow. Homer mentions this amnesiac in The Odyssey and it appears again in Poe’s, The Raven:
“Quaff oh quaff this kind Nepenthe, and forget the lost Lenore”.
Grief is a normal human response to loss and usually resolves over time. When it doesn’t, the loss often involves unresolved trauma, as well. Forgetfulness is not the solution. This view, however, is not shared by pharmaceutical and other companies actively pursuing the development of amnesiac drugs or other mind control techniques for the treatment of trauma. Any such protocol only serves to perpetuate the mechanistic and outdated Cartesian illusion that human beings are biological machines in need of fixing. The fallacy here is that erasing painful memories will heal trauma because trauma is only in the mind or located in some specific area of the brain. While this is partially true, it is also true that trauma is a psycho-somatic experience. The body remembers. For more about this reality see Peter Levine’s books, tapes and web site www.traumahealing.com and neurologist and psychiatrist Robert Scaer’s The Body Bears the Burden.
Amnesiac treatments would set up a situation where the body remembers something that the mind does not and this can create panic attacks and other serious disturbances. The downside of memory erasure as a solution to emotional problems was recently given a light hearted treatment in the zany romantic comedy The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Nevertheless, ethical problems involved with any such procedure are very serious indeed. Among those wary of memory altering drugs we find The President’s Council on Bioethics, an advisory group of physicians and scholars formed in 2001. In their report, the council expressed concern that dampening painful memories, or erasing them altogether might disconnect a person from the reality of their true selves. More about this viewpoint is available in Scott LaFee’s “Blanks for the Memories” (www.cognitiveliberty.org/02/11/2012).
Among the major consequences of trauma are dissociation and a profound sense of alienation. These “broken connections” represent a fragmentation within the self, in relation to others and the larger environmental matrix supportive of human life. Memory erasure by chemical or other means risks further fragmentation in an already fragmented psyche. This atomistic, seriously disconnected, view of human suffering has little to offer a suffering soul’s need for re-connection and wholeness. From my perspective, the essential goal of trauma work is to find ways to expand to include and then become larger than whatever has happened to us. It has been my experience that trauma is not something that can be “fixed” or that one can really “get over”. Overwhelming life experiences are integral to who we are and who we will become. In the natural world, for example, one can read the life of a tree according to the pattern within the rings or find a map in the shell of an oyster which tells the story of its life and relation to the sea. I believe that we are rather like tree rings and shell patterns in that what happens in our lives leaves a permanent record. Therefore, the goal of systemically oriented trauma work is not to erase or cure. If one thinks in terms of resolving rather than eliminating trauma, then there is a possibility of bringing the human organism, in all of its dimensions, back into some state of relative balance and resiliency.