Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
Dr. Gucciardi examines the conflicts between western “scientific” approaches to Dissociative Disorders (DD) and those of shamans and today’s spirit releasement approaches. She recommends that the task of therapists working with DD is to let their clients lead the way to “their own maps of their own psyches,” whatever that map might contain, because it is only there that healing can occur. Dr Gucciardi appeared in last year’s Journal.
Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), now called Dissociative Disorder (DD), has only recently been recognized as a separate disorder within the field of modern western psychology. When Freud’s theories reigned supreme in this field, most cases of dissociative disorders were misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially established the legitimacy of multiple personality disorders and defined a separate diagnostic category for dissociative disorders. Since that time, there has been increasing research and clarification of the major differences between schizophrenia and dissociative disorders, including multiple personality disorders. The APA’s diagnostic manual of 1994, DSM-IV, recognizes dissociative disorders as psychologically-originated mental disorders, originating from psychological reactions to trauma and the stressors of life while schizophrenia is considered an organically originating mental disorder due to brain/nervous system chemical abnormalities.
However, the phenomenon of vastly divergent “personalities” or behaviors contained within one physical body has been described and understood in different ways in healing communities throughout time and throughout different parts of the world. One of the ways it has been most commonly understood is by shamanic practitioners, who view the phenomenon as a type of soul loss or spirit possession. One of the essential aspects of shamanic healing across all cultures is the shaman’s journey in search of these lost soul parts or for help in getting the spirit to move on. Krippner (1987, 1994), in the Journal, discusses the approaches of folk healers and shamans to MPD (DD) and other spirit-involved problems.
Michael Harner, in The Way of the Shaman, reports that it has been understood in almost all pre-industrial societies that a person’s physical illness or erratic behavior often has its roots in the loss of an essential part of him- or herself and the sometimes subsequent use of that lost life energy by non-corporeal spirits. This loss can be compounded by the fact that trauma, which is often the triggering event for soul loss, can also allow the entry of spirits into a person’s psychic space which can then play havoc with that person’s mental and physical health. It is generally recognized that soul loss takes place due to some kind of mental, physical or spiritual trauma. It is the shaman’s duty to find the lost soul parts, restore them to the individual, and perform the specific type of healing, such as depossession or extraction, which will supplant the occupying spirits which might be present.
This idea seems preposterous to many western minds, and many anthropologists reporting on the healing powers of shamans in pre-industrial societies describe the ceremonies associated with the restoration of soul parts and the depossession of spirits as a child’s game in which the participants take part in a silly mass delusion. In any case, these phenomena have always been associated with things religious or spiritual from the western point of view, and have found, until recently, no place of observation from within the realm of science or medicine from which the modern schools of psychology and psychiatry have grown.
Indeed, the manifestation of the miracles (e.g., a return to sanity or wholeness as a result of interaction with spirits) associated with this type of healing, of which no lesser a personage than Jesus was a practitioner, has been branded as quackery by some members of the western scientific community and rejected outright. This has left a void in dealing with spirits which the Christian church has tried to fill by charging priests with spirit exorcism or depossession work. By and large, they are ill-equipped to understand the nature of the reality the shamans and traditional healers operate in because their belief systems do not include the maps of healing used by traditional healers.
As a result of the divorce of healing from the realm of the spirit which occurred with the supplantation of pagan and other spiritual practices by the advance of Christian missionaries, the services provided by the shaman or witch doctor in retrieving souls and convincing spirits to leave are barely addressed by western cultural structures. Over time, Christian exorcisms have degenerated into little more than the authoritarian ordering of demons to leave, with any healing effect manifesting almost accidentally. This is because all pagan gods or spirits which might have assisted traditional healers in such practices as depossession are in most Christian theologies perceived as the work of the devil; this perception is held of spirits of any kind. This view precludes the assistance available from a shamanic perspective, which sees spirits as denizens of a world which can be known and understood and whose powers have an effect on our own world. The type of filibustering behavior displayed by many Christian priests in their exorcisms is an unfortunate and ineffective form of communication with the elements of the other worlds so well known and understood by shamans.
Given the nature of this ineffectual interaction with the spirit world by western religions, it was easy for scientific westerners witnessing these poorly-understood exorcisms to classify them by tossing them into the rubbish bin along with myths and stories whose powers are equally poorly understood by the western mind. William James, in his famous Lowell Lectures of 1896, spoke about the nature of possession and its perception by various cultures throughout the ages and the negative prejudice surrounding it in the scientific circles of his time:
India, China, Egypt, Africa, Polynesia, Greece, Rome, and all medieval Europe believed that certain nervous disorders were of supernatural origin. When the pagan gods became demons, all possession became diabolic and we have the medieval condition. The refusal of modern “enlightenment” to treat possession as a hypothesis to be spoken of as even possible, in spite of massive human tradition based on concrete experience in its favor has always seemed to me a curious example of the power of fashion in things scientific. One has to be “scientific” indeed to be blind and ignorant enough to suspect no such possibility.
The refusal to include the idea of spirits in a scientific world view is, as James and Harner both point out, highly unscientific. A scientist does not reject any possibility out of hand without careful observation and experimentation. Yet this is just what the western scientific community has done with the idea of spirits playing any role in mental health dysfunction. It is possible that practitioners working in the field of DD may never suspect that they are working with an entity or spirit possession. And if this were pointed out to them as a possibility, they would almost certainly ridicule the idea. Unfortunately, I suspect that this is why so many people suffering from the symptoms of DD, which so strongly resemble spirit possession, are not always helped in any lasting way in the usual psychotherapeutic settings today.
It is a pity that modern psychotherapeutic practices do not include the study of spirit involvement in their approaches to DD, because the model of spirit involvement has been well defined and used to great effect in healing in shamanic communities for thousands of years. Along with the failure to recognize or attempt to understand the nature of spirits within western healing methodology is the failure to recognize the existence of the soul. Because western healing approaches do not recognize the soul, they have no map or even the possibility of being shown a map that includes the entire nature of the individual’s experience. This map includes most of that which is hidden to the conscious mind and consists primarily of memories and experiences, some of which have been intentionally forgotten because they are too painful to remember.
These memories may arise from one’s own current life experience, including experiences while in the womb, or they may arise from past-life memories or even experiences between lives. In any case, most memories contained within the knowledge of the soul from other times or realities are re-kindled in this lifetime and may become troublesome issues. The entry point into the process of resolving these issues may occur at any point in the soul’s constellation of the issues or even through a spirit which is attached to any of the remembered events.
This attachment may occur during the process of rendering these memories or experiences unconscious, or in the process of the initial traumatization which leads to the blotting out of these memories. The entities or spirits known to shamans throughout time have been well described in modern terms by Edith Fiore (1987), William Baldwin (1992), and others. They can create havoc within the individual psyche. It is often the effects of the trauma such entities are creating that bring a person to seek help, and access to the issues they are “medicating” can often occur through the gateway of the spirit itself, especially in cases of DD.
Shamanic healers and psychologists working in the field of DD, whatever they may call it, do agree on one important element: The imbalance which presents itself and is called DD or MPD or spirit possession has its roots in some type of trauma. Most western psychologists only look for these roots within the waking consciousness of the client. The more successful use the tools of hypnosis to search for the traumatizing event beyond the reach of the conscious mind’s defenses. The most effective healers within the western context are those who look for the roots of the trauma in both the conscious and subconscious mind. If its source is not readily available in the surface areas of the either the conscious or the subconscious mind, they can trace the pathways provided by the subconscious mind by dreams or other non-ordinary states of consciousness to track the trauma’s roots to perinatal experiences, past-life experiences, and/or encounters with different types of spirit entities.
William Baldwin, whose work has centered around spirit releasement, defines three sets of entities: Human entities, dark force entities, and extraterrestrial beings (Baldwin, 1992). Shamans practicing the core, trans-cultural shamanism that Krippner and Harner define, outline three worlds: The upper world, the middle world, and the lower world. These worlds are populated by an almost uncountable number of entities, helpers, and archetypal figures, for which Jung is the best translator in western psychology. According to this shamanic model, most of the spirits which are causing problems in a person’s psyche inhabit only the middle world. Other spirits, more benign and most often from the upper or lower worlds, and with whom the shamanic practitioner has established a relationship, can be called upon to encourage the depossession of the client of the troubling spirit and begin the process back to integration and wholeness.
Western psychology has developed an exhaustive list of the characteristics of DD, although very few interventions exist beyond the administration of mind-altering drugs, which do not allow access to the internal functioning of the client or to his or her relationship to any spirit which might be caught within the psyche. The possibility of spirit possession is rarely, if ever, addressed. The DSM-IV states that “…the essential feature of the dissociative disorders is a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment.” The APA further defines DD as an adaptive response to acute trauma because it provides:
1) containment of traumatic memories and affects (amnesia barriers)
2) separation of normal conscious awareness (splitting off)
3) escape from the constraints of reality
4) alteration/detachment of self
5) analgesia (numbness)
Other schools of thought, including shamanism and past-life therapies, would actually agree with this assessment, although they might find it incomplete. These are all good reasons for the individual to opt for the alternate reality which can manifest in spirit possession, DD or MPD or other types of imbalances. The symptoms of MPD, DD, and spirit possession (although not commonly defined as such in western psychological circles) are defined by the APA as:
Depression, low self esteem, crying spells, flat affect, feelings of being overwhelmed or fatigued or mood-swings, difficulty in concentrating (fading out, detached, distanced), phobic, panic or anxiety symptoms, palpitations, sensations of choking or smothering, faintness, trembling, numbness, tingling, visual disturbances, headaches not relieved by standard analgesics, feelings of unreality, sleep disturbances or nightmare, misuse or abuse of sedatives, analgesic, alcohol, stimulants, gaps in memory, disappearance of objects, forgetfulness, periods of time loss, out of body experiences, sexual difficulties, fear of making mistakes, difficulty in making decision, extreme internal conflict between parts with different “needs” or “needs” vs. “shoulds,” self-mutilation, suicidal ideation, negative outlook on life, and suicide attempts.
These definitions are helpful as far as they go in describing external manifestations of internal states. However, when helping a client resolve these symptoms, one has to forget the definitions and remain totally present with the presentation of the symptoms in order to enter the internal processes of the client, which is the only place where true resolution can occur. Hypnosis is a very valuable tool in helping the client arrive at the moment these symptoms took root in his or her psyche and thus finding an internal “beachhead” where resolution of the problem can take place. Only by staying with the symptoms and guiding the client on his or her own journey through the psyche can the hypnotherapist cross the boundaries of western psychology and traditional healing methods and bring them together to assist in the retrieval of the lost soul parts or dissociated areas of the psyche.
It is clear that practitioners with the most detailed maps of the psyche and with the least prejudice to the presenting symptoms are the most able to help people come into an integrated sense of wholeness within themselves through this journey. The best way to use the maps defined by any school of thought is to put them aside or in the back of one’s mind and ask the client to guide the practitioner through the landscape of his or her own mind. This is done through a process of non-leading questions, which incorporate mental, spiritual, and physical reporting on the part of the client.
Speaking from my own experience as a practitioner, the background information I use in forming my own personal map to help clients with symptoms similar to those of MPD, spirit possession, and DD is expanding all the time. But the questions I ask to help resolve the issue have remained surprisingly stable and sparse over time. After hypnotic induction, my goal is to find out 1) what is the source of a particular presenting symptom; 2) what are the decisions or assumptions the clients made about themselves as a result of this situation; 3) how are those assumptions active in their present lives; 4) what needs to be done for a shift to occur in their relationship to the source situation; 5) how will that internal shift affect their internal lives; 6) provide suggestions based on the clients’ own solutions to create the engine to effect those changes.
The client and I may have to repeat these questions and the processes they engender for many separate issues depending on the degree, severity, and complexity of the imbalance. And we may have to delve into past lives, alternate realities of all types, including extraterrestrial realities (as defined by the client), and dialogue and converse with spirits to get the answers. But the answers and the resolution they bring with them do emerge.
The tools I use in helping the client uncover the answers to these questions vary depending on the client’s own needs. I don’t really care if a person has been diagnosed with a dissociative disorder by a psychiatrist or if a priest has referred someone to me for depossession work. The label is irrelevant. All that matters is the process and the process is defined by the client. Schools of thought which state the client is incapable of identifying the paths the journey should take denigrate the integrity of the client. Everyone knows what they need to become whole; it is just that they need guidance and support to have the courage to take the path to wholeness. Granted, I do not work with severely schizoid clients, so I cannot make that statement in reference to them, but I would not rule this possibility out.
When most people come to me it is because they have a habit which is the presenting dysfunction. Sometimes, the habit could belong to an attached spirit, and this usually becomes evident in following the course of symptoms as described above. All habit formation is really a development of a new coping mechanism for the base personality. Most people are dissociating from themselves in order to indulge their habits. Developing a habit can indeed facilitate the same type of “altered” behavior and fulfill the same need that developing a new personality to cope with unacceptable external elements in the environment does. Both serve the same purpose: Release from the unacceptable or the untenable. Within this framework, it could be argued that habit disorder and full-blown DD symptoms are just different points along the psyche’s continuum in dealing with what the conscious mind perceives as unacceptable. And spirit intrusion can happen anywhere along this continuum. In a way, the habit becomes the trigger for behavior which is unacceptable outside the realm of the habit to emerge. In the same way, DD alters, which may well be attached spirits in some cases, have triggers for their emergence.
For example, a normally mild-mannered man who allows himself the habit of drinking alcohol may use the alcohol as a trigger for the release of rage. An outside observer might remark, “He is just a different person when he drinks.” Indeed, he may well be: His excessive drinking may be inspired by a possessing spirit. This is an especially interesting idea because parapsychologists have suspected the usurpation of the body by spirits during drug-induced stupors.
Because the symptoms of spirit possession, MPD, and DD so strongly resemble each other and have much in common with other psychic phenomena in their presentation, it is important to remain open-minded when traveling through a client’s psyche, seeking understanding and resolution. Similar symptoms can also present as subpersonalities developed in response to an imprint of negative parental messages such as “you are stupid.” Or, they might present in strong, dogmatic belief systems about oneself based on decisions or statements received in moments of trauma or in an altered state or at the moment of death in a previous life. Similarly, identification or introjection of an abusive adult role model, usually a parent, can develop to the point where a true introject of the parent is present and actively using the client’s life energy.
All of these presenting symptoms can strongly resemble full-blown DD symptoms depending, in large part, on the degree and repetition of trauma associated with such imprinting, the age or place at which the imprinting occurred, and the degree to which spirit involvement is present. The degree of trauma is the main determining influence on how much of the individual’s energy gets subsumed by the dynamics of these types of dissociative processes. It is also the degree of trauma which often influences a person’s susceptibility to possession by other entities or determines how much of the person’s life energy becomes available to spirits to use for their own devices.
While it is important to define all the different ways in which the imbalance called DD by western psychologists can manifest and while it is important to develop a set of maps of the psyche in order to help the client, it is just as important not to allow these paradigms to interfere in the clinical setting. It is easy to get lost in the definitions without progressing toward any type of resolution for the client. It is too easy to try to place structural paradigms on clients’ symptoms just to ease the mind of practitioners so they have a sense of knowing where they are and what they are doing.
In fact, one can never really know exactly where one is or what set of imbalances one is ultimately helping to correct when one is surveying the landscape of the client. As Victor Hugo once stated, “There is something which is larger than the sea, and that is the sky. There is something which is larger than the sky, and that is the psyche.” To pretend, as many mental health professionals do, that we understand all the manifestations of the mind, is ridiculous.
Indeed, it is foolhardy to ever think one knows exactly where the client is going. The client’s experience is unknowable in itself, as well as because of all of the ways he or she has made the experience unknowable by rendering it unconscious until it is revealed through questioning in an altered state. It is important that the questioning take place while the client is in an altered state, because the trauma, spirit possession, or other involvement almost always is processed in an altered state at its inception. Even if the practitioner thinks he or she understands the issues, the creation of connections between the issues which lead to the resolution of the presenting symptoms are unique for every person. It would be arrogant, if not outright damaging, for any practitioner of any school of thought to make connections for a client between the trauma and the resulting behaviors. This danger and the damage a practitioner who indulges in such behavior can do has been proven again and again, most graphically by adherents to Freud’s flawed theory of female “hysteria.”
The client must make the connections between the trauma and the presenting behavior him- or herself in order for the integration and resolution of the symptoms into the larger self to occur. It does no lasting good to tell someone who they are if they have no coat-hook to hang that definition on within their psyche. It might make the person feel a bit more stable for the short term, but the stability is based on the perceptions of the practitioner, not upon the foundations of the client’s psyche. Clients can only find themselves in a different sort of trap when the practitioner attempts to resolve the presenting symptoms for them in such a way. And the practitioner is bound to fall into all the transference issues described in western psychology texts by inserting him- or herself inappropriately into the clients’ psyche in this way.
One of the most crucial things to remember in helping the client to integrate any of these presenting symptoms is that manifestations of multiplicity within individuals have been recorded across all ethnic and cultural lines for thousands of years. This phenomenon can be most easily observed by understanding shamanic approaches to healing, which have remained largely unchanged through time, and the techniques of which are remarkably similar across cultural and geographic boundaries. One of the key concepts in shamanic healing is the idea of soul parts which get separated from one another to create illness and the restoration of which creates healing; these soul parts have different functions and hold different experiences and can be viewed as multiple manifestations of personality within a single individual.
Even normative studies conducted by the APA indicate that we are “born with the potential for multiple personalities and over the course of normal development we more or less succeed in consolidating an integrated sense of self.” And: “With the occurrence of severe, sustained, and repetitive trauma there is a disruption of the developmental tasks of consolidation of self due to loss of the acquisition of the control over modulation of states, which leads to DD.” We must become comfortable with the possibilities contained within multiplicity in order to maintain an open mind long enough to locate the source of trauma and resolve it.
Once the task of redeeming the self from the trauma has been accomplished, it is important to allow the individual to continue exploration of the realms of the self. The task is not only to help in the integration of this multiplicity into a stable platform from which to interact with the world, but also to help the individual expand his or her sense of self once that stability is attained to include many types of experiences on many different levels. When one can maintain that sense of stability with as few defenses as possible to the marvelous multiplicity of life forms and expressions and experiences that we exist in, one can truly begin to understand oneself.
Naturally, one cannot appreciate the beauty of all the different expressions of life if one is trying to interact with them from a place where he or she has been crippled by trauma. Once the practitioner has assisted the client in “cleaning psychic house,” the client is then free to explore the many facets of life without fear of the loss of sanity.
Many traditional psychological paradigms only want to bring the client into a sense of self which interacts with the cultural norm without any eccentricity. The true journey to self does have this goal as one of its stopovers. But by helping clients flesh out their own maps of their own psyches, and by encouraging them to make their own connections between internal trauma and external behavior, we give them the tools to continue on the journey to the self which only crosses this lifetime on its way to all the lifetimes and all the worlds contained within the human psyche.
American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). Washington, DC: author, 1994.
Baldwin, W. Spirit Releasement Therapy: A Technique Manual. Falls Church, VA: Human Potential Press, 1992.
Fiore, E. The Unquiet Dead, New York: Ballantine, 1987.
Harner, Dr. M. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
James, William The Varieties of Religious Experience. The Lowell Lecture’s. New York: Harcourt, 1896/1975.
Krippner, S. Folk Healing Traditions and Past Life Therapies. The Journal of Regression Therapy, II (2), 81-84, 1987.
———. Past Life Report Therapy in the Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorders by Kardicist Healers in Brazil. The Journal of Regression Therapy, VIII (1), 5-24, 1994.
Moody, R. Life After Life. New York: Bantam, 1976.