Lifespan Integration. Unless you know the term, the words themselves don’t intuitively conjure any particular meaning. In fact, like much technical jargon, the phrase might just make you say, “Huh?” But when you know how it works – and, especially, when you’ve experienced how it works – you realize it describes exactly what takes place.

Lifespan integration therapy is a technique (or “protocol” as it is called in the profession) that was developed in 2002 by Peggy Pace, a mental health counselor practicing in Washington state. It has been used to successfully address dysfunctional behavior that has grown out of some kind of trauma. This is my story of how I came to know about it, and the benefits I gained from the experience.

Following the death of my mother when I was 29, I have been in therapy – intermittently – for nearly 30 years. I had some good therapists. I had some pretty bad therapists. I had, for a single appointment only, one really awful psychiatrist. I was diagnosed with dysthymia. I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder. I was on Prozac for a while. I was on Citalopram for a while. I developed some coping mechanisms and worked through some issues and, by and large, was generally better off having had therapy than I would have been without it. For instance, I did much less “inappropriate crying” – such as the time I began weeping when I couldn’t find ripe bananas – and had fewer moments when I wished for everything to just
be over. But after all those years, I still struggled with the feeling that the world was a dangerous place where I waited for the next bad thing to happen, and that nothing would (or could) ever get fixed. I was
wary, guarded, and – although I yearned to live my life with joy – a little bit suspicious of being happy. I felt it was safer – and much wiser – to expect the worst, and avoid disappointment. While Soren Kierkegaard might have declared that “life is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived”, I had concluded that it was neither of those things. Rather, it was an ordeal to be endured.

And while, in my head, I knew that life in general, and my life in particular, was filled with many wonderful blessings – and completely acknowledged that the presence of bad things is an inevitable part of life and, by its contrast, can even sometimes make the good things better – I couldn’t shake the feeling of hopelessness. Try as I might – try as my therapists might – my emotional response would just not match up with my intellectual reasoning.

To be sure, I’d been given some whoppingly stressful situations to deal with: my first husband had left me for my (then) closest friend; having relocated back home to be near my mother when her health started to fail, she died 10 months later (while I was on a belated honeymoon with my new husband) just after I had learned I was pregnant with my first child; a few months after having one of her legs amputated just below the knee, my sister died suddenly of a heart attack in her sleep at age 56; my middle child, a son, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and, after years of bouncing on and off medications, became homeless; my husband was fired from a high-salaried position, and four months later had emergency surgery for a
condition that has only a 30% survival rate; and seemingly on, and on, and on. Oh, yes – and my father died when I was nine years old.

I mention my father’s death as something of an afterthought, because it happened many years before, and seemed so removed from my present concerns. As long as I can remember, a summary of my childhood glibly included the matter-of-fact statement “and my father died when I was nine.” I had moved past that long ago. Hadn’t I?

Well, maybe not. After nearly two and a half years working with my current therapist, it became more and more clear that the language I used in response to negative situations shared similarities with that of a child. I wanted life to be fair. I had a hard time accepting things as they were. I insisted that dreams (at least some of them) were supposed to come true. (I could almost see myself, petulantly stamping my outraged little foot.) Positing that, in dealing with negative situations, I had become emotionally “stuck” as that nine-year-old experiencing my father’s death, my therapist had the great insight to recommend lifespan integration.

Here’s my recollection of what took place, interspersed with the text from a free-verse account I wrote about the experience, “Invitation to Myself”:

At the start of the session, I gave my therapist my memory timeline – a list of phrases, in chronological order, representing events (ranging from positive to neutral to negative) from each year of my life. These phrases would serve as verbal cues to assist me in recalling the various memories. He then asked me to identify a place where I felt safe and secure, and I named Lake Wingra Park.

Through his coaching, I revisited the clearest memory surrounding my father’s death – watching him being carried off on a stretcher, while I held my bike out of the way for the paramedics – and focused my awareness on the physical feelings in my body that the memory elicited. For me, it was tightness in my chest and churning in my stomach.

He then coached me, as an adult, to approach my nine-year-old self and, silently in my imagination, invite her to join me at my safe place.

Come with me.
Will you come with me?
Let’s put your bike back here in this cool corner.
You can let go; I’ll set it somewhere safe.
May I hold your hand and take you to the park?

When she agreed to do so, he coached me to take her to the park and help her become comfortable and relaxed, to notice the environment around us.

Here’s a quilt that we can sit on. It’s the one that Mama made.
Do you want to feed the ducks?
Do you see the babies swimming in a line behind their mother?

Let’s rest our backs against this tree and watch the lapping waves.
The sun is warm today, but there’s a lovely gentle breeze.
May I put my arm around you?
You can lean your head against me if you’d like.

Would you like a glass of lemonade? Or peanut butter crackers?
I brought a basket, if you want a snack.

I explained to her that I knew how much it hurt to have her father die.

I know you’re sad. Your daddy’s gone
And you stood by in silence while they carried him away.
I know you’re scared. Your chest is tight and someone’s
Turning somersaults inside you.
I know you are confused. You don’t know what will happen next,
And you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do.
I know you want to tell someone how much it hurts and how alone you feel.
But Mama isn’t crying, so you think that it might be better to stay quiet too.

I told her that, although it might be hard to believe, her father had actually died many years ago – and that she was really all grown up. In fact, I was her grown-up self.

But I’m here now. I came back, just for you, to tell you that’s it’s going to be okay.
You’re hurting now, because it is an awful, awful thing
To have your daddy die when you are nine.

But here’s a special message that I want for you to know;
It may sound somewhat strange, but it is true:
Your daddy died a long, long time ago, and
You have lived a life that’s rich with many splendid things –
Good friends, and handsome sweethearts, songs to sing that touch your heart,
And animals to warm your feet and cuddle by your side,
Adventures, and surprises, and children that have brought your life great joy.
You’ve had days when you felt beautiful and smart and oh-so-loved,
And saw harvest moons and autumn trees that took your breath away.
And there were sad times, too, because that’s just the way life has to be:
It’s made to be a mixture of the two – a blending of the good and not-so-good,
The way you need to add some salt so cookies will taste sweet.

I told her I could show her pictures of what her life was like. My therapist then used my memory cues, selecting one from each year, to carry me – and my nine-year-old self – sequentially through the passage of my life to date.

Here, look up in the clouds and I can show you:

See, it’s only one more year and you will run along the beach,
And find a perfect leopard-spotted shell,
Just resting in the damp sand sparkling in the morning sun.
And you will win a spelling bee and stumble into Betty’s arms,
As all your friends surround you with excitement.
And at your sixth grade graduation you will be so proud
In your pair of fishnet stockings – all the fashion at the time –
And your sling-back sandals with their half-inch heel.

You’ll spend six weeks in Europe, getting seasick on the way,
And ride a train three days to Santa Fe.
You’ll have a mint green formal that you wear to your first prom,
And fall head-over-heels for Severt Shands,
Eating tacos, you’ll tell Michael that you just want to be friends,
And be chosen a Prom Princess senior year.

With Tony, you will walk into a snowbank, kissing madly, deeply when you tumble down.
In Mexico, you’ll sleep atop a pyramid.
In the windmill, find James Baldwin in his briefs.
You’ll spend a summer mostly wearing Indian wrap skirts,
And, on some granite steps, you’ll meet Charlene.
See, here you are adopting Kelly Kitten:
You choose him when he pounces on the photos of some cats.
And look, there you are posing in your lacy wedding dress, taking photos by the Arboretum wall.

You’ll throw a bash for Tony on the day he’s twenty-five,
Wrap yourself in Ray’s blue jacket the next year.
He’ll give you a pearl necklace on your birthday,
And a pair of mice will top your wedding cake.
His dad’s sad eyes will silently reveal that Mama’s dead,
Long before he even speaks the dreadful words.

Your first child, a little girl, will coo when she is born;
At Circus World, she’ll ride the carousel.
Along with her new brother, you’ll make castles in the sand,
Creating flags from little twigs and leaves.
The next year he will kiss his newborn brother, stretching up on tippy-toes to reach his face.
On a beach in Manistique you’ll find contentment,
Watching as your children play while twilight dims.

You’ll admire the neat candy train that Kristen’s mother makes,
And ride the monorail to Disneyland.
You’ll hear Steven sing about a cowboy living on the range
And have Jeffrey tell you that it just won’t do.
On a family road trip down to Indiana, wallabies will mill around you at the zoo.
Your kids will hold frog races in the pool at Casey’s house,
And you’ll pull into the Badlands just at dusk.

You’ll cruise among the Painted Rocks one drizzly summer day,
And spend an overnight in Hampton Bays.
In Kentucky, Steven wins a Daniel Boone-type ‘coon-skin cap;
In Tucson, the sky turns a blazing red.
On the Mall, the family gets drenched in a rainstorm,
And the same thing happens touring Disneyworld.
Anita steals the show in Bye-Bye Birdie. Andy’s body’s carried out in a black bag.
You’ll drive with Muffin down to visit Morehead,
To take Steven there to make a college tour.

You will climb inside the giant musky statue,
And make friends with Pumpkin sharing an egg roll.
In the sunny garden of a Tuscan vineyard,
You’ll delight in all the pink and yellow flowers.
You’ll eat crab-dip-covered pretzels in Rock Hall.

You’ll hear Gordon Lightfoot at a college concert,
And receive the news from Ray that he was fired.
You’ll enjoy the tasty salmon Hannah cooks on Mother’s Day,
And celebrate the Beatles in DC.
And on a Thursday in mid-February, you will weather yet another winter storm.

And those are just some pictures from the life you’ve had so far.
Did you see them? Did you take the journey with me?

With my therapist’s coaching, I then invited her to my current home, showing her its various rooms and introducing her to my husband and our cat.

Let’s go now to the place I live; does that sound OK?
The balcony looks out over the pool.
There are two roomy bedrooms, and a cozy little den.
I like the Oriental rugs and louvered kitchen doors.
Here is Ray, my husband, and Pumpkin, our grand-cat.

I offered her a place to sit and asked her to let me know if she had any questions.

The sofa’s nice and comfy; would you like to have a seat?
I have a blanket if you want to snuggle. It’s the one that Pumpkin sleeps on every night.

Do you have any questions? Any thoughts you want to share?
I’m here to listen to whatever things you need to say.

She did. The first time through this process, she wanted to know why her daddy had died. I spoke this question aloud, and my therapist coached me how to answer her silently.

Why did your Daddy have to die?
How right you are to ask!
But there’s no easy answer I can give.
Sometimes people just get sick, and sometimes they do die.
And sometimes we just cannot see it coming.
And though you’ll always miss him, though no one can take his place,
I swear to you that you’ll have lots of people in your life,
Who will care for you and help you when you need it.
And you will love them back and learn from them.

We repeated the journey several times, using a variety of the memory cues. Each time my nine-year-old self had different questions, to which my therapist coached appropriate responses. I also continued to offer her opportunities to speak, encouraging her to let me know her thoughts.

Do I know if you’ll be happy?
You will! I guarantee it.
That’s exactly what I’ve come back here to say.
There will be many happy times – smiles, laughter, fun –
Mixed, as life will always be, with days when you feel sad.
And I am here to help you through the sad times, so they won’t ever have to rule your life.

Are there other things you want to say? I know you think you shouldn’t.
But I came back to tell you that it’s absolutely fine
To speak your feelings and your fears out loud.

Will your Mama be OK?
Oh, yes, she’ll be all right.
She’s an adult, and she knows that life isn’t always fair.
She’s sad, but she has people who can help her heal her grief
And she’ll have lots of fun adventures of her very own:
Grandchildren that she’ll adore, and students that she helps,
Houses that she fixes up, and travels that she takes.

Why did no one tell you that it’s really not your job
To make sure that your Mama isn’t sad?
Well, sometimes people make mistakes, despite not wanting to.
You seemed so well, and so grown-up, so no one ever thought
How frightened and bewildered you might be.
I’m sorry that I’ve been so long in coming back to let you know,
But this is the first time I had the chance.
I had so many things to learn before I was prepared, before I could explain it all to you.
But I’m here now, and you can ask me anything you’d like,
And I will try to help you understand.

Are there any other questions? Is there more you want to say?
When you need to speak, I promise I will listen.

You’re afraid that you might be a disappointment?
Then let me look into your eyes and tell you this:
It’s not possible for you to disappointment me.
I love you head to toe, no matter what.
Absolutely, top to bottom, every minute, every day,
From the winter and right on straight through the fall.
And if you sometimes make mistakes, that’s totally OK.
Mistakes are how we learn, and how we grow;
And I’ll be here to guide you if you ever feel unsure.

Between each journey, we took a short break to regroup and reflect. I began to notice that, after several journeys back, the feeling of a tight chest and churning stomach associated with the memory of my father’s death was decreasing. Instead of those feelings of anxiety, my nine-year-old self was experiencing a sense of anticipation, eagerly waiting for me, looking for me to arrive. The gremlins turning somersaults inside her were being replaced by tiny flitting butterflies; the vise-like grip on her heart was loosening.

In the break before my final journey back, I told my therapist that my nine-year-old self didn’t want to return; she wanted to stay with me. He asked if we could go back one more time, and I agreed. She had one final question.

Is there any special thing that I want for you to do?
Just be nine.
Play croquet and hopscotch. Play tag and hide-and-seek.
Play pick-up sticks and roller skate and jump rope on the drive.
Swing on swings and slide down slides,
And twirl around out on the lawn until you topple down.
Make dandelion chains and chew on clover.
Pick violets and buttercups and put them in your hair.
I’ll handle all the grown-up things. You just be nine.

Coached by my therapist, I created a space in my home for my nine-year-old self to sleep and invited her to stay.

So tell me, will you stay with me? May I take care of you?
I have a place where you can sleep.
And here’s your favorite Skipper doll and stuffed Quicks Draw McGraw.
There’s ice cream in the freezer and some Kool-Aid in the fridge.
And I can make your favorite meal for supper:
Pork chops and mashed potatoes with green beans and sliced tomatoes.

I then asked her if I could embrace her. When she said yes, I hugged her, and with my therapist’s coaching, she dissolved into me.

May I put my arms around you now and hug so tight we melt into each other?

It was one of the most profound experiences in my life.

At the conclusion of the session, my therapist asked for two words to describe how I felt. I said “relieved” and “reunited.” It may sound cliché, but I really did feel a sense of wholeness, of something having been restored. The process was intense, and not without emotional pain – I pretty much cried for a solid hour and a half. There was something of a sense of picking off a scab, of exposing a wound – but with the result of revealing, and applying balm to, a sore spot that could now be healed.

When my therapist proposed using this protocol, I was somewhat skeptical. I wasn’t entirely sure what we were intending to accomplish. I guess I expected that we would convey to my nine-year-old self that life had been a whole lot better than she had imagined it could be and convince her that the world was an OK place. Since, as an adult, I didn’t really feel that way about life (after all, that was the very problem we were trying to address), I wasn’t sure how I would be able to achieve that. But I trusted my therapist absolutely, and opened myself to the experience.

As we made journey after journey, I began to realize that I wasn’t trying to convince my nine-year-oldself of anything, at least not just by mouthing the same words my intellectual reasoning had been spewing out for years. I find it significant that, in going through the memory cues, my therapist coached me to “show her” each one. He did not say “tell her about” or “remind her of” them. I was not merely talking at her. Instead, I was pulling her into her present, guiding and moving her out of that place where she had become frozen in fear and confusion. Through the repeated review of the imagined visual memories of my lifespan, I was integrating her back into my current self. She was no longer stuck, as if in mud up to
her ankles, holding that bike, feeling powerless, afraid to express herself, and not knowing what was going to happen next.

Some people have asked whether, during the process, I felt like I was in an altered state, as if under hypnosis. I tell them that, since I’ve never been hypnotized, I can’t really draw a comparison. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it seemed similar to daydreaming – where, in your head, fully awake but not really present to your surroundings, you vividly imagine how something might be.

How does it work? There are some fancy explanations for what is going on, but I leave that to the experts to articulate in detail. Reading the exposition of the theory reminds why I decided not to major in psychology. Here is my layperson’s take, sprinkled with a few terms of art:

It is based on the hypothesis that many dysfunctional behaviors are caused by “insufficient neural organization” – that due to childhood trauma or neglect, separate “neural networks” are created in the brain that remain isolated from the rest of it. A neural network is an interconnected series of neurons, the nerve cells that transmit information through electrical and chemical signals in the brain and rest of the nervous system. It is in these neural networks, the theory goes, that thought and memory are embodied.

In the simplest terms, lifespan integration therapy aims to change the psychological dysfunction by a kind of re-wiring of the brain, and a reintegration of those neural networks. Studies have shown that the brain
is capable of reorganizing itself, that neural networks are dynamic and changing. They’ve also shown that active imagination about doing something can produce brain activity comparable to actually doing it. In
addition, studies indicate that changes in neural networks are more likely to take place when a person is focused and emotionally engaged. Based on these understandings of what the brain can do and under what conditions it can do it, lifespan integration therapy uses the repeated viewing of life memories through active imagination to help to create a new “neurological map of self.”

For me, specifically, this is what that meant: in reaction to the trauma of my father’s death, and the absence of adult guidance to process it, a “feeling state” was created – a kind of separate piece of myself that, overwhelmed by the event, basically threw the covers over its head and locked itself away inside me. Throughout my life, whenever a negative event, or a strong reminder of a negative event, evoked the same physical responses I had as that nine-year-old – a tightening in my chest and churning in my stomach – the feelings triggered the “source memory” of standing there, holding my bike, while my father was being carried away and the world as I knew it was crumbling.

As a result, every time something negative happened to me that caused those same physical reactions, that nine-year-old self re-lived the trauma of her daddy’s death. In a cruel, ironic twist, the very mechanism I’d employed to retreat and find protection from the trauma – creating that feeling state – became the thing that worked against me, ultimately becoming more detrimental than the trauma itself. Whereas I lived a life where grief and disappointment were balanced by joy and success and run-of-themill, ordinary, day-to-day events, she continued to only experience fear and pain and anxiety. That’s why, even though my adult, rational self had learned and understood that hers wasn’t an accurate view of the world, my nine-year-old self, experiencing only negative events, adamantly felt that it was. It was as though a broken record was playing in her head – “Life is sad, the world is bad…” – over and over again.

Lifespan integration therapy permitted three things to happen. First, it enabled my adult self – as coached by my therapist’s steady and caring message – to give my nine-year-old self the help and guidance she failed to get at the time her daddy died. I found the responses that my therapist coached me to give to her questions – the words that helped her make sense of and reinterpret her father’s death – to be one of the most powerful aspects of the experience. Each journey went pretty quickly, and he had to come up with, on the spot, the answers to whatever questions she posed, making sure that the answers would match my needs, and make sense to my nine-year-old self. The literature on the process states that, for the protocol to be successful, the therapist must be “coherent and emotionally attuned.” And that he was.

Second, by the repeated viewing of memories throughout my/her lifetime, it gave my nine-year-old self the chance to experience – enough times so that she could fully internalize them, so that she could feel they really belonged to her – the full spectrum of the life she had actually lived. As a result, she was able to see her life with more “coherence”, with a greater understanding of its true nature. The needle was no longer skipping on the record, and the lyrics “Life is sad, the world is bad …” could now continue on with the rest of the words – “… it often feels that way; But I have also found some joy in every passing day.”

Through that awareness, the process also allowed the final thing to happen: for that “feeling state” of my nine-year-old self to be reintegrated. At last, she could join the rest of me, and leave behind the only, awful feeling she’s had for 49 years. Now, with that feeling gone, with that “feeling state” reintegrated, negative events will no longer trigger that source memory. My emotional response can be in tune with my cognitive understanding; I can feel that the world is an OK place, as well as know it.

I’ve seen lifespan integration therapy described as re-constructing or re-writing your life script – as the brain and the body have recorded it – and that makes sense to me. In my case, I was able to re-write the story of my life when, at nine, I was left to my own devices to – inadequately – cope with my father’s death, as well as the story that my nine-year-old self had read again and again since then, which never had a happy ending. Instead, in the version re-written through lifespan integration therapy, that nine-year-old got the help she needed, she learned that there were more chapters to the story that didn’t involve catastrophe, and freed from the pain of her daddy’s death, she moved into the present.

Did it work? Well, it’s only been a few days, but so far I have evidence that it did. When I now recall my father’s death, I am no longer flooded with the same sensations of anxiety I had at the time. I can remember that I felt bad – I can even remember that my chest felt tight and my stomach was churning – but I no longer actually experience the feeling. In fact, my memory of that moment no longer has me simply standing there, immobile, tightly gripping my bike. I now see myself moving past that motionless state, setting my bicycle down in the garage – which of course I did, in actual fact, as well as in the imagining I did through lifespan integration.

And there is more practical evidence: the day after the session, I was cleaning out a spare bedroom and came across the bathrobe of my son, the one who has schizophrenia. Before the experience of lifespan integration, finding that bathrobe would have caused the same tightness in my chest and churning in my stomach that I felt when my father died. As a reminder of my son and his difficult situation, his bathrobe would have triggered feelings of helplessness and anxiety, and on a level I didn’t even realize, taken me back to the source memory of my father’s death. Through lifespan integration, I was able to help my nine-year-old-self work through those feelings – to give her the adult guidance and support that she didn’t
get at the time her father died, and, in addition, show her life memories that went beyond those feelings – and leave them behind. As a result, my son’s bathrobe brought no deep sighs and no teary eyes; it was just a bathrobe.

I used to wonder how anyone could exist in the world and not be thoroughly discouraged by it. I lived with the expectation of doom, always anticipating potential problems. I had become a believer in Murphy’s Law – “If anything can go wrong, it will” – and embraced the general Murphy Philosophy to “Smile … tomorrow will probably be worse.” I didn’t think of myself as a pessimist, but – based on my own life events – simply a realist. I recognized that I was certainly not an optimist – but why, I asked, would anyone possibly be an optimist? How could they not know they should constantly be prepared for life to smack them down with some new crisis, that another dire event was likely just around the corner, that – at any moment – the rug could be yanked from under their feet, that the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel was really just an oncoming train? Didn’t they see that there was no point in hoping and trying, when nothing was ever going to get better? Life just seemed so unbearably hard, and there were days when I doubted I had the strength to persevere through one more minute.

Now, I can barely remember why I felt that way.

Instead, I look forward to a future that has possibilities. I think – I feel – like I am ready to live the mystery, rather than endure the ordeal. Even more importantly, though, I feel good about my NOW. None of the problematic circumstances of my life have changed – my husband is still unemployed, my son still has schizophrenia, and on and on and on – but thinking about those circumstances no longer produces the same feelings of despair. While those situations are still of concern, and I hope can eventually be improved, I accept them as part of the story of my life. So, although nothing has changed, everything is different.

For example: I phoned my son a few days ago and, when he asked how I was, I enthusiastically replied, “I’m really great!” He paused and responded, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that before.” And another: in previous work with a different therapist, I was asked at each appointment to assign a number to my current emotional condition – where 1 was terrible and 10 was terrific. I usually came in anywhere between 3 to 7 – and one day it occurred to me I’d better tell him that 7 was as good as it was going to get, as good as I could ever remember feeling as an adult, except for a few isolated events like when I got married or the birth of my children. The other day – just some ordinary day – I assessed my feelings and ranked them as a 9.

And maybe one of my favorite realizations is this: in a session with my therapist prior to the lifespan integration therapy, I told him how I had recently seen a T-shirt proclaiming, “Life is good”, and the thought came to me that I could never wear such a slogan and feel like I really believed it. Now, I want to go online and buy one for every day of the week.

I used to have to talk myself into realizing the good aspects of a situation – and often that was only accomplished when my therapist pointed them out to me. Even then, it was with a reluctant, somewhat grudging attitude. Any acknowledgement was frequently tempered by an “I guess”, “I suppose”, or a “but….” It was both tiresome and tiring. Now, I find myself noticing all the time just how many great things there are about my life, without prompting and without qualification. What once took so much work and energy, now seems effortless. Even Prozac didn’t accomplish that.

I also keep testing the “doneness” of my new resiliency, with good results. A mention of something will remind me of my son’s schizophrenia or my reduced financial security and I do a quick check of my emotional response. Sure enough, just like a properly baked cake, I spring back; there is no sinking into the batter like I would have done in the past.

What now? I’m not sure. After nearly 49 years, it is a new feeling to be unstuck, to be liberated from the trauma of my father’s death, to feel a greater acceptance of life rather than a resignation to it, to have my
emotional response match my cognitive understanding. A burden seems lifted; a cloud has dispersed. I am, as one friend put it, breathing clean, fresh air. I have longed for it for many years – even though I never before realized that’s what I was seeking – so, right now, I am simply enjoying the moment.
~ Janice Peña
March 6, 2014