Trauma, Spirits, and the “I”

A clear, crisp, bright late January day, deep snow pack melting away at the edges.

Oh, wait! It’s March!

I’ve just finished reading Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. The “biographical” novel narrates the life of a Nigerian girl born with one foot in the physical world and one in the spirit world. As often happens to those born straddling the worlds, this young person, whose name is Ada, lives a childhood filled with trauma. As a result she finds herself host to spirits and “personalities” who interact in a complex, often conflicted, web of relationship.

From a Western frame of reference Ada clearly meets the criteria for Dissociative Identity Disorder. From a Nigerian frame things are far more complex.The book is narrated by Ada and her many “selves”, and offers a glimpse into both dissociative experience and cultural difference.

Reading this book set me to remembering. Almost twenty years ago I was visiting two of my teachers on the Rio Negro in Brazil. We spent one day with a lovely woman who practiced Candomblé. She was a trance medium who allowed a set of spirits to inhabit her body and thus speak through her.

That night, I developed a high fever. In a haze of howler monkey screams, jaguar snorts, and other jungle sounds the medium visited me. For what seemed hours she taught me what she thought I should know, a gift for which I remain most grateful, even as I continue to unpack the experience.

The following morning I awoke exhausted. In the days and weeks that followed I realized that my very Western view of self was inadequate. I found myself with the increasingly uncomfortable experience of being larger and more complex than I could either hold or know.

Jungians often speak about “the I” and the “Not I.” The medium was clear about which entities were other, about her boundaries. For her, the spirits that “rode” her were “Not I.” I was much less certain as to who or what constituted me as an I.

Many shamanic traditions share the belief that our bodies provide a container for multiple souls. One such soul approximates personality and may have many incarnations. Another soul is a nature soul and returns to the landscape after our physical death. A third type of soul is responsible for animating the body and returns to the World Tree after death, where it awaits reincarnation.  A body may contain a multitude of souls who, ideally, communicate and cooperate as a system that experience the world as an I.

Trauma complicates the experience of I, as the mind of the traumatized child fragments in order to compartmentalize traumatic experiences and make life bearable. Severe abuse, especially at the hands of loved caregivers, may enhance dissociation, resulting in “parts of self” that act as if autonomous I’s. For persons already living with “one foot in each world” this may result in a profoundly complex inner world, one that deeply troubles identity.

From the shamanic point of view we are each immense, multiple, and complex, and ideas of I and Not I are simply constructs that allow us to negotiate physical bodies and the world. Still, when one experiences severe childhood trauma, or when one lacks a social model for making sense of complexity and multiplicity, one may suffer greatly.

Good, trauma informed, therapy can aid parts of self to form better relationships and function more as a unified system, to become an “I” if you will. A compassionate, experienced teacher can help one build relationships with the spirits, to make a functional distinction between the “I” and the “Not I”. Sometimes, especially when one is born with a foot in each world, one may need both.




12 thoughts on “Trauma, Spirits, and the “I”

    1. Lara, thank you. I hope these things are good to consider and think about, difficult as they may be. I know they are important, as much ass many people would wish otherwise.

  1. This is very interesting, Michael. I will need to think about this from my own experiences due to trauma and the Western literature I have read on self. This pushes the boundaries of what I have learned about culture-sensitive psychological practice. But then I have never been one to believe that “knowledge” is static. The world seems to be so much more complex than my brain is able to comprehend. I hope that in death I will be able to understand more clearly.

    1. Pat, it seems to me that much cross cultural work is complex. We all have our cultural perspective, then try to make room for the perspective of others. Often, things end up both more simple and more complex than we imagined they would.

  2. Man Know Thyselves is not a misspelled word here, though my spellcheck function keeps wanting to correct it. In terms of your short essay, we do host a multitude, I think, and this becomes especially clear if you’ve ever tried writing fiction, i.e. one’s fictional characters are drawn in part from observation of the external world, no doubt. But more primarily I believe they arise from delving them out of the psyche. They are citizens one’s own mind, given a stage upon which to perform, having their proverbial moment in the spotlight. For example, all of Dicken’s characters bear his particular stamp, they channel his sensibilities, no matter if they appear as Pip or Wackford Squeers. Light side/dark side, you won’t see anything like them in Daniel Deronda.
    George Eliot has her own demons and angels to uncover.

  3. Having been diagnosed with DID, I deeply appreciate this perspective. I have been formulating my own beliefs around it, because I believe it has to be looked at not only from the psychological diagnostic view. Thank you for sharing this 🙂

    1. You are welcome. I find identity to be complex and enthralling. Those of us who experienced extensive childhood trauma come to know a bit about these things. Sometimes the diverse points of view that coexist in the world help us to make sense of the entirety of things, rather than settling for overly simple explanations for the complexity of experience. It is a good conversation to have, eh?

  4. I am a social worker with experience in mental health, and have just recently discovered my personal, true connection to the spirit world after a breakdown. It leaves me wondering now if my opinions around mental illness were/are too simple. Were so quick nowadays to assume someone is experiencing mania or delusions when they say they see angels, for example. What if they actually are? And psychiatrists medicate them immediately. Are we stripping them of their own spiritual journey?

    1. Sorry it has taken me so long to reply. I think we are too eager to reduce the world and ourselves to the simplest denominator. One does not need to be mad to see angels. People do it all the time; devils too! But you know that, and you know that your truth is more complex than we have easy, quantifiable answers for. Anyway, I will write more, and hope you will as well. These conversations about who we may be are much better than those about what may be judged to be “wrong” with us.

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