Once upon a time in Berlin I bounced into a medical doctor by the name of Hans (not his real name for reasons that will become obvious). Hans, 56, taught me a bit about ancient Rome, a bit about Berlin and a lot about trauma.
I met Hans at a breakfast joint where he was nursing a hangover, with two shiny tomatoes staring at infinity and fingers tapping Rachmaninov against a coffee cup. He looked like a well-dressed, charismatic man who had reached a melting point, but was somehow containing it. While I sat down in the neighboring table, I half-jokingly suggested that he should get a Fernet Branca. To stabilize.
“Was ist das?” Hans asked and signaled a waitress while I talked about mountain climbing monks who risked their lives for rare herbs that were needed to formulate this 78 proof stomach medicine. Within minutes he had inhaled a shot and ordered two more, sporting a fresh rouge on his otherwise grey cheeks.
“Großartige Scheiße,” said Hans and dropped another shot into his furnace. I realized I had thrown jet fuel on a gas stove. There was a distinct odor about Hans that I suspected was flammable. Inside the cloud shone a gentleman who carried grenades in his subconscious.
Hans ran his own clinic for the chronically ill. He enjoyed classical literature and history. He prescribed pharmacopeia for patients who kept getting worse. I asked him if he worked with nutritional protocols, but the idea of food as medicine fluttered past him like a distraught bird.
I lived in the same neighborhood and frequented the same pre-WWII cafe that was run by Fraulein Margarete, a beautiful yet sturdy hostess who also happened to be a brilliant omelette chef. Hans told me about the lifestyles of centurions and senators in first century Rome (they drank wine like we drink water), while I ate Margarete’s omelettes and tried to figure out what made Hans tick.
Or rather than tick, burn. The yellow tan on Hans’ eyeballs reminded me of a man I’d once met at the corridor of an emergency ward. He’d introduced himself as Forty-Eight, because a doctor had told him that he had two days to live if he didn’t quit drinking. Forty-Eight hid a vodka bottle under his jacket and took a swig. Soon after, two security goons carried him away in a guillotine choke.
Other than the tan on the eyeballs, Hans and Forty-Eight shared few similarities. One was wrapped in Armani Collezioni, the other in straitjacket. But something was pulling them both towards the same self-assured end, with an intensity that went deeper than chemistry alone.
Over the course of several encounters, I began to fathom Hans as an electric coil. That’s when I also began to understand him.
From a biophysical standpoint, the human body is made out of bones, tendons, muscles, tissues, nerves and other electromagnetic conductors that wrap around us like wires in a coil. An electric coil charges when it moves across an electromagnetic field, just as the human coil charges when it registers places, thoughts, words and emotions.
The charge creates a field of its own, which then interacts with other fields, using basic wave algebra that is applicable to all biochemical lifeforms. All wave encounters happen somewhere between a constructive and destructive interference. When we are resonant with another person (or place, or activity…) we relax, regenerate, energise. A dissonant encounter may beg us to abort or drown the nuisance in medication or various distractions.
A relatively strong field, like one created by being robbed at gunpoint, pushes deeper into the tissues than the average trip to the shopping mart. But weak fields also trigger biochemistry. A pebble (with the right temperature gradient and smoothness factor) can connect us to the dopamine buzz we felt decades ago as a kid on the beach. A particular tone of voice can flood us with stress hormones and shift our response from Aristotelian dialectic to pre-Jurassic survival mode, to the detriment of the perfectly kind person in front of us.
Some fields stick with us. Others get mixed, replaced, amplified or attenuated. And some are discharged.
The deer that shakes itself shortly after surviving a lion attack and then grazes on normally has its own individual discharge method for a bad encounter. It won’t need psychological guidance later on, as we do.
We suck at discharge, generally speaking. We don’t “shake’’ as well as other mammals. We have a peculiar tendency to personalize everything, including an attack. We try to handle stressors with logic, when the cause is energetic. We use pacifiers such as drugs and cable tv. We appear cool, even if we carry lightning bolts in our bones.
Medical jargon refers to this type of symptomatology as trauma. The standard clinical antidote to trauma is pharmacopeia, yet another signal suppressor.
Maybe it’s time look more at fields, rather than just psychological factors, as potential regulators of behavior.
In chronic stress, psychological stressors activate a survival chemistry as if the situation is about actual survival. The idea of spending afternoon with Aunt Annie can flood us with fight-flight-freeze hormones even if she never shows up. Same goes for the boss and the bank account alerts.
The stressors we choose to entertain define the field of our being, which then makes us sensitized to more of the same. We tune into signals that confirm our fears, thereby spinning a personal drama we call reality.
Repeated activation of the stress response causes mitochondrial wear and tear that leads to chronic disease over years and decades, says famed neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky. It whacks up the endocrine system, driving depression and anxiety. It triggers addiction when we attempt to suppress stressors with chemicals. Other symptoms include memory loss, cardiac disease, metabolic distress, early dementia, other forms of chronic disease and accelerated aging.
Trauma also shifts blood flow from the (conscious) frontal cortex to the (unconscious) hindbrain, allowing for faster, reflex type behavior that is driven by the programs we locked in place already as children.
Trauma tends to originate from childhood because that’s when we soak in 95 percent of our subconscious. Kids are superconducting coils of their environment. They record everything, especially the people they consider infallible creators – the ones who don’t ignore, abandon, or punish their creations without a reason.
Or at least that’s what the kid believed. And continues to believe.
The persistent psychological peculiarity of being human is that we tend to blame ourselves when things go wrong. The deer doesn’t take it personally, we do.
Hans’ deceased father was an industrial tycoon who locked Hans in a closet as a child. It was a ‘simple disciplinary measure’ among others, like having Hans stand outside in the cold or ‘motivated” with a swinging cane. Then there was the administration of fish oil. A lot of fish oil, full of Omega-3s, which made Hans choke.
For the father, fish oil was a medicine and the rest was discipline. For Hans, both were punishment for not being worthy.
Not Being Worthy dug deeper into Hans’ electric architecture, like a geological fault line that causes tremors and earthquakes when continents – situations, emotions – shift. The tremors propelled Hans into precarious situations which buzzed with the frequency of his emotional childhood.
Hans would get naked in an underground club where fans would throw garbage and pee on him from the second and third floors of a dark amphitheatre.
He would treat his wife in a way that made certain she would become as emotionally unavailable as his mother.
He would medicate a general sense of disquiet with a range of pharma and ethanol, enough to kill a horse.
Hans was a respected doctor with several books under his belt. His clients loved him. He made them feel like they were part of his family, even if they didn’t get better. The Prenzlauer Berg community treated him as a cultural icon.
Hans played like a perfect composition except for the one faulty note that he kept striking over and over again. Even when his body managed to discharge the “disquiet” frequency in some bizarre S&M ritual, his mind would make sure to recharge it.
The recurring journey to the fault line is not an uncommon occurrence. It’s an uncommonly common mythic journey. Everyone is pulled by the dominant fields of our subconscious in both constructive and destructive ways.
How do we discover the influence of our subconscious over our personal lives? It’s easier than we tend to believe. The subconscious is not a deep, dark place that only a trained professional can access in order to decipher behavior. The fields of the subconscious create our brightly lit environment and relationships in real time. The world outside is largely the world inside, with a slight delay, thanks to the dominance of our subconscious in our behavior and choices.
The perfect map to our deepest fears and desires, therefore, is the world wrapped around us.
Take a 360 degree mental snapshot of the present. Which repetitive interference patterns collectively triggered the creation of this field? Which parts are conscious, which subconscious?
Our present reality carries the fingerprints of electric magicians who hide in our sinews. We can only get a handle on them when we catch them in the act. Maybe then we can learn to feel and possibly steer the fields that steer us.
Margarete’s pre-WW2 cafe, the jolly 1920s photographs plastered on its walls, the colorful menagerie of customers, the chef, the owner, pet cat Pferrer and the man who ordered another Fernet Branca, were elements in the sandbox of my own subconscious, as well.
At least 95 percent of it.
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