I’ve done a lot of therapy in my life. When I was a teenager, struggling with my identity and drinking screwdrivers at lunch, my mom sent me to a therapist on Maitland Street. I didn’t get much from her, but I enjoyed missing school to read my creative writing to a stranger.
Before I got married (since divorced), I hiked up to Thornhill to a therapist who came highly recommended. I found her to be judgmental. When I told her about my drinking binges that ended in 4 a.m. hunts for cocaine, she basically put her hands in the air and told me I was fucked.
Since then, I’ve seen a specialist who had me act out Jekyll and Hyde versions of myself, moving to different sides of the couch to engage in conversation (an exercise that felt bizarre but was quite revealing); I had a doctor who prescribed me anti-depressants when I was going through a particularly tough chapter; an older therapist who loved making charts to show behavioural patterns; I even sought support from a tarot reader, who had me in tears. And there have been more than that, in medical buildings all across the downtown core. At times, I can remember the pattern and texture of carpeting in the hallways more than I can recall the conversations I had with any particular therapist.
After everything I’ve tried over the years (and been very privileged to do so), my most recent therapeutic experiment is with hypnotherapy. While other forms of therapy try to get you to see things clearly—be it your motivation, history, negative narratives, hot pressure points—hypnotherapy feels more like an efficient rewiring of the brain; pulling out an old code that isn’t working and inserting a new one that does. After just a few sessions, I feel it’s made a tremendous impact. Perhaps it’s because I’m at a point in life where I’m very willing to be recoded, or maybe it’s because this therapy has an influence over my unconscious mind, feeding me positive messages when my very loud and analytical left-hand side of the brain is turned down.
In his book What Is Hypnosis?, author Tom Fortes Mayer describes hypnosis as a mechanism that “enables you to let go of ideas and identities that no longer serve you and instead helps you to start to rebuild thoughts and feelings about yourself that will enable you to enjoy positive changes in your life.” Hook me up.
To paint a picture for you, each hypnotherapy session starts with a conversation before submerging into a hypnotized state, during which one is still very much cognizant. In my sessions, I put headphones on, recline into a big leather chair, and begin to listen to my therapist, Steve, as he guides me into the world I have chosen.
“You step inside the elevator and sit down on the comfiest couch. 100. You begin to go down. 99. You can feel yourself going deeper down. 98. You are very comfy, sinking into the couch. 97. Deeper and deeper you go.” While not verbatim (I’m not a sneaky reporter taping our session), Steve takes me on a journey down until we get to the place where I feel safe, grounded, at ease: my forest. The doors open up on the elevator, and I walk out onto cushiony moss, towering cedars, sweet dewey air, with the sound of a babbling brook in the distance, and views of tree-covered mountains.
Mayer also explains in his book that during a powerful hypnotherapy session, our brain waves slow down. “These [waves] are connected with deep daydreaming and experiencing raw emotions. They also stimulate intuition and creativity as a well as natural feelings of harmony and health,” writes Mayer. “Using deep hypnosis, it is possible to access this way of thinking while remaining completely conscious.”
While I’m in this daydream-like state, Steve feeds me the recoded storyline: “Your body is perfectly imperfect; it can take care of itself and regenerate like the forest. You will no longer take your nails to your face. You will be a good steward to your body and allow it to heal itself, trust in its magnificence.” As I listen, I walk through the forest, eyeing every rock, every fallen branch, the moist bark, the drips of water hanging from leaves.
As I wander—deep within the forest, deep within my mind—Steve says the most positive things to me, over and over again. It feels like waves of nourishment that roll through me. I am so calm that my limbs tingle, and it feels like I have blankets layered on top of me, weighing me down, keeping me warm and still.
Recently, I went to speak to my son’s teacher to get an update on his progress in school. She spoke about how his concentration and ability to focus is tremendous (feedback that made me and my partner beam with pride). She talked about how when kids find a project that really captures their attention, it’s like they descend into it, and in this space—of total fascination, discovery and concentration—their heartbeat slows, their breathing steadies, and it’s like the outside world doesn’t exist.
While I’m no expert, the way my son’s teacher described this “descension,” or deep sense of relaxed concentration, seemed awfully similar to what I’ve been feeling in hypnotherapy: a sense of calm I have perhaps not felt since I was a very small child.
Life is hectic. At any given moment, our mind resembles a messy desktop with twenty-six tabs open. Nowadays, with the pace at which we are inundated with news stories from social media, it’s difficult to find time, or space, to even quiet down and think. Even when we do pause to go for a walk, we’re bombarded with messages on billboards, sides of buses and store windows. This life, it’s fucking noisy!
Finding a space for deep concentration, a harmonized state of calm, is hard. But like my son, who, at the age of four, naturally falls into it while learning his letters and numbers in a quiet classroom, or through the various mysteries of the world that dazzle his fresh young mind, it is when we are in this state of calm that we can really soak up new ideas and learn (or, in my case, relearn).
So what is this all doing for my skin? I’ve been relearning how to think about my body, how to manage my anxiety. I’ve had four hypnotherapy appointments in the last month. In this time period, there have only been two mornings when I felt very itchy, and on those mornings, I did begin to scratch and irritate my skin, but I was also able to stop.
In the past TWELVE YEARS, stopping the scratching has been incredibly difficult, and about 40% of any given week has seen an inflammation on my face. But since starting hypnotherapy, I can feel a pause, and hear my inner voice shift. She is calmer, and she is feeding me new lines: “Be a good steward to your body. Your skin will repair itself, and anything you do to interfere will harm. Trust the natural intelligence of your body; it is perfectly imperfect like the wild untouched forest.”
After twenty-two years of experimenting with different forms of therapy, I believe what I needed was to have someone quiet my brain down—all the way—in order for my mind to hear what it needed to heal. Either that, or all the work I’ve done until now allowed me to find that quiet. Hypnotherapy, after all, doesn’t work on everyone. You must be willing to go to your quiet space. What is working now may not have worked at age eighteen, twenty-five, thirty-five. I’ll never know for certain, but I’m happy to be here now.
Jen McNeely has been sharing about her recovery journey from alcohol-use disorder since 2010. She’s proud to have recently celebrated eight years of sobriety, but also recognizes that recovery is a lifelong journey. In this most recent series, Jen’s been exploring her anxiety as it relates to her skin, and experimenting with hypnotherapy as a method of support. Check out the series here.