When Resolving a Symptom Does Not Fix the Problem
How returning to school reactivated traumatic memories.
Posted December 20, 2022 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
- Short-term memory loss can be the result of a functional disorder.
- Subconscious information can be elicited in therapy without conscious awareness.
- Interactions with the subconscious can allow patients to better understand themselves.
In part one of this blog series I introduced “Nolan,” a 15-year-old who developed vocal cord dysfunction (VCD) as a reaction to having had suicidal thoughts a year before I met him. He suffered from the resultant daytime breathing problems for the subsequent year. Through my interactions with his subconscious, Nolan learned how to think differently about the events that led to his suicidal thoughts. Immediately thereafter his breathing became normal.
The Forgetful Boy
When Nolan returned a week later, he said his breathing continued to be fine. He had returned to school, and was able to play basketball for the first time in a year. However, after the game, while he was sitting with his friends, he reported his friends told him that he had twice “zoned out” and did not respond to them for a minute. Nolan said he had no recollection of these events.
Later that evening, Nolan doodled while he was talking on the telephone with a friend. He asked his father if they could hang his illustration, but when they were in the process of doing so, Nolan expressed confusion regarding who drew it. He said he could not remember having done so.
His parents invited Nolan to sleep with them in their bedroom, as they were unsure why he had become forgetful. Nolan agreed to do so, but on three occasions during the early evening he asked why he was sleeping with his parents, as if he did not remember what they had told him.
The following morning, his parents decided to keep him home from school because of the forgetfulness. When he tried to do his on-line schooling he kept forgetting what he was writing about. Also, he forgot that he was going to see me that day, even though his parents told him this on multiple occasions. His long-term memory appeared to be intact.
At my office, we decided to again talk with his subconscious through typing. These are the key excerpts from that interaction. (Nolan's subconscious responses are in italics):
What is going on?
Nolan starts to remember his thoughts, so I DON’T WANT HIM TO REMEMBER SO I MAKE HIM FORGET THAT HE JUST LEARNED WHAT HE JUST SAID I MAKE HIM FORGET EVERYTHING THAT JUST HAPPENED
Do you remember when Nolan zoned out at the basketball game?
Ya he zoned out multiple times
Why did he start remembering yesterday?
He started to stress over a test at school then he remembered what happened at school.
What happened at school?
Someone killed themselves at school.
OK. So, now we understand why he has been forgetting. It seems like we need to come up with a different solution than having him forget what happened at school since he can’t function very well without remembering, right?
Can you tell me why you want Nolan to forget?
Because if he remembers his suicidal thoughts he will get bad breathing.
Thus, it appears that Nolan’s memory of a student at his school who had committed suicide had rekindled the fears related to his own suicidal thoughts.
We continued our discussion in typing, and Nolan’s subconscious expressed that in order to maintain normal breathing he would have to continue to forget his bad thoughts. I suggested a few hypnotic ways that Nolan could deal with the bad thoughts other than forgetting: we discussed shrinking the thoughts or turning down their volume, but this did not help. Just before coming out of hypnosis his subconscious allowed Nolan to remember his bad thoughts, and his abnormal breathing recurred.
When Nolan alerted, he said he was unhappy that his breathing had worsened, but acknowledged that his short-term memory had returned. In answer to my question, he said he has no current suicidal thoughts. He said that he preferred to lose his short-term memory rather than deal with his bad thoughts. He agreed to retain his memory for that evening as long as his breathing would become normal again the following morning. Indeed, his memory remained intact that evening, according to his parents.
As we had planned, the following morning Nolan awoke without breathing difficulties. However, his family became extremely distressed that again he was unable to retain any short-term memories. His father told me that the family would prefer that Nolan live with breathing problems, rather than memory loss. I explained that it appeared that we had not fully addressed the psychological issues that led to Nolan’s VCD, as he had developed a substitute symptom of forgetfulness. Therefore, I suggested we again type with his subconscious, as excerpted:
Suicide Essential Reads
How are you today?
Tell me why.
Nolan hates his bad breathing with a passion and rather have his memory loss and his parents want his memory loss over his bad breathing but Nolans parents don’t understand how happy Nolan was without his bad breathing and now that his bad breathing is back is very very stressful for him.
Got it. So, as I explained to Nolan, there is something else that is bothering him/you that is behind his symptoms. Does that make sense to you?
I encourage you to be as open as possible. Nolan won’t remember it, and no one will tell him unless you decide the time is right to do so. Does that make sense?
Are you OK with this plan?
What were the suicidal thoughts last year? Did he think of how he might kill himself?
I cant answer that.
I respect that. Is that because you don’t remember, or because answering that question is a problem.
Answering that is a problem.
Please understand that this is a clue as to what Nolan is hiding from himself… Perhaps I will ask you about that again later… In the meantime, can you tell me what you know about the other kid who committed suicide?
He was happy just like Nolan until something happened to him that made him sad and could not get happy and started to get bullied so he decided to kill himself.
Do you know how he killed himself?
Does Nolan think that his suicidal thoughts had anything to do with the other kid’s suicide?
Nolan was thinking about hanging himself at night so his breathing gets worse at nights and at school his parents don’t understand how much hell Nolan goes through with his bad breathing.
As we continued our typed interactions, Nolan explained that in addition to knowledge of how his classmate had committed suicide, he was also “scarred for life” by having watched a disturbing video related to the subject of suicide during the previous year. He did not want to give details of what was in the video. He said he worried his suicidal thoughts might recur.
I explained that we could work to heal his mental “scarring.” He agreed to maintain his breathing problems so that he could retain his short-term memory. I recommended that he temporarily not return to school, in case his memory were again to be triggered by thoughts regarding the classmate.
Nolan’s memory came and went over the next two days, until he returned to my office. When we typed again with his subconscious, it explained that his father had told him two years ago that if someone commits suicide they would go to hell. Therefore, he was scared that he might go to hell because of his contemplation of suicide. I suggested to Nolan that thinking of suicide is different from going through with it.
Over the next three days Nolan told his parents more about the events of the previous year. While talking with them, he often consulted his subconscious to verify some of the information he conveyed. He told his parents that the video he had watched related to hanging oneself. He said that he had decided to end his life the previous year because he felt so miserable, and had tied his phone charger around his neck and then attached it to the vent in the ceiling of his bedroom. He stood on his bed for an hour before deciding that part of him still want to live.
Nolan explained that his memory of the events was now hitting him hard, which is why he was avoiding being in his room alone, seeing vents or cords and wanted to sleep on the floor in his parents’ bedroom. He had no further breathing problems or memory loss.
I suggested to Nolan that as he was dealing extensively with his memories of the traumatic events for the first time, rather than being protected by focusing on his breathing problems or through memory loss, I expected that soon he would be able to accept what happened more easily.
In the next blog post I describe the further surprising events over the subsequent few weeks and discuss some of the lessons learned from the encounters with Nolan.
If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
More information about the subconscious and how it can be accessed to gain insight can be found in the 2021 book, "Changing Children’s Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center," by Ran D. Anbar, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.