I spent last summer in America and one of my favorite things to do whenever I’m there is listen to audio books – there’s such an amazing selection of audio books in English. During that period, I was deeply involved in my studies of neuroscience, brain plasticity, and the power of the mind in trauma and addictions recovery. Some of my favorite audio finds of the summer included Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself, The Body has a Mind of its Own by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee, and V.S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human.
But by far the most shocking and life-changing read of the summer was the true story of a severely disturbed psychiatric patient named “Karen,” written by her psychiatrist of eighteen years, Dr. Richard Baer. Following the termination of Karen’s treatment, Dr. Baer in fact returned to graduate school to earn his master’s degree in creative writing, which allowed him to write a truly captivating, compelling account of Karen’s exceptional story – an unimaginably painful life and an equally unimaginable recovery.
In Switching Time: A Doctor’s Harrowing Story of Treating a Woman with 17 Personalities, “Karen” initially presents herself to Dr. Baer as an average wife and mother who is depressed and suicidal. But two years into treatment, Dr. Baer comes to learn that in fact, Karen isn’t just “Karen” – rather, sometimes she is Karen, but sometimes she is also a little girl named Claire, sometimes a Hungarian infant named Karen Boo who speaks no English, sometimes a mean little boy named Miles, sometimes a responsible and caring man in his 30’s named Holden, and at other times one of more than ten other “alter” personalities: Karen has a full-blown case of multiple personality disorder.
Her treatment with Dr. Baer slowly reveals the contributing factors of her condition: a childhood dominated by long-term severe cult-related sexual and physical abuse and the necessary “splitting” of her personalities that occurred for the protection of her psyche. Her story is, as described, harrowing, and I found it incredibly painful listening to her accounts of abuse. I kept asking myself, how is it possible for a person to suffer so greatly?
But then, on the other hand, her recovery is astounding. Through hypnosis and an extensive process of exploration, carefully and delicately facilitated by Dr. Baer, Karen is eventually able to integrate her various selves into one whole self. Their work is so detailed and experimental that I constantly wondered, how could one woman be so strong and so courageous? How could one man, Dr. Baer, be so patient and insightful? And how could Karen’s mind be so spontaneously creative and malleable to not only create this incredible condition, but to orchestrate her healing from it?
This book testifies to the power of the mind, and to the power of love and safety in the recovery process. So many of the pieces of the puzzle of my studies, my work with clients, and my own personal evolution were brought together through the reading of this book. Here I saw a truth emerge clearly:
If a mind can create a fragmented “reality” in the presence of unconscious hatred and abuse, then we have to consider that the same mind, in the presence of conscious, sustained love and concern from someone we trust, can also create a new, integrated reality.
In some way, it seems like we are all on this journey – fragmented by conscious and unconscious parts of ourselves, the conscious working to bring the unconscious to light, with ulitmate integration and illumination as the final goal. And I see this as the key: the presence of conscious, sustained love and concern from someone we trust.
The moment I finished the last track of Switching Time, I immediately returned to the beginning, pressed “play,” and listened once more. Bravo!