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Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of The Trauma Vortex
There are some films that, no matter how many times I’ve seen them, I still seem to desire watching again once in a while, and I still really enjoy them. One such film is the third installment in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Alfonso Cuaron’s gritty treatment of the script is a refreshing change from the bubblegum feel of the first two movies and it perfectly reflects the growing angst in the main character as he turns into a teenager. Also, it is the first time we encounter the Dementors, those supremely spooky, ethereal, floating and tattered spooks of the Harry Potter universe.
Recently, when I watched this film again it came to me that Dementors are the perfect analog of what we, in the Somatic Experiencing world, call the trauma vortex. If you haven’t read or seen the Harry Potter books let me just briefly explain what these creatures do. For those of you are familiar, please bear with me for a moment.
Dementors are set to guard the wizarding world’s most dangerous criminals in the fortress prison of Azkaban. But the jail that they tend in the prisoner’s minds is even more imposing than the stone walls of Azkaban. Dementors feed off of every good memory, leaching away happiness until the prisoner is left with only their absolute worst memories and feelings. This sucks away their life and vitality, until even the thought of escape is unreal and they are condemned to live their life endlessly replaying the worst things that have happened to them.
This is EXACTLY what the trauma vortex does.
When we’re living with unresolved trauma and/or under the strain of chronic stress, our nervous system gets highjacked by the survival responses (Fight/Flight/Freeze) that have been mobilized to protect us from whatever the threat was or is. When trauma is unresolved, that means that this powerful survival energy is unresolved – in fact, from a nervous system perspective that is what our definition of trauma is – the presence of unresolved survival energy still trying to complete itself, still trying to find the source of threat, even though the threat may be long gone.
This whirling, swirling mass of frustrated energy trying to go somewhere, but finding no way out, is what we call the trauma vortex.
When this is the case we don’t have nearly as much access to our higher brain centers that enable learning, creativity and play. The survival energies, and the associated memories of the events that mobilized them, take center stage in the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious mind.
And survival energies are not meant to be ignored. They are meant to be irresistible forces that turn on for a little while to protect us from threat and then to turn off when the threat is over. Unfortunately, societal niceties, repressive parents, teachers or friends, lack of education, and our own big smart neocortex often keep us from allowing these processes to complete.
Fortunately, there is a way out. That’s what I do, help people to find their way out of the swirling, sickening mess of trauma, and we can look to this film for a useful tool in that process as well.
In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry learns how to use a spell that repels the Dementors, called the Patronus charm. The incantation is “Expecto Patronus!”, but saying the words on their own will do nothing. The way to make the spell work, the thing that gives it its juice is memory; and not just any memory – it has to be a memory that is both positive and powerful.
The first time Harry tries the Patronus charm he uses the memory of the first time he rode a broom and it doesn’t work at all. That’s because this memory, while positive, isn’t very powerful, merely pleasant.
Then he digs deeper, finds a memory that he feels will work, gives it another go and POW! A brilliant cone of light erupts from his wand and drives the Dementor away. When his instructor asks him which memory he chose, Harry tells him that he picked the only memory he has of his parents, of a moment when they were both looking down at him and smiling, shortly before they were both murdered by Lord Voldemort, the story’s arch villain. He says he doesn’t even know if the memory was real, but it was all he had left of them.
This gives us insight into a powerful tool that we can use when battling our own internal Dementors – memory, and more importantly… feeling. It was the feeling that was important, not the memory itself so much. In the story the instructor explains that when the wizard conjures a Patronus charm. the Dementor will then feed of the charm rather than the person. And it’s even possible to conjure a Patronus so powerful that it will essentially overload the Dementor’s circuits and drive it away entirely.
We can do this too.
It’s not magic, it’s the power of own minds and emotions. Again, it’s about the feeling.
So try this now… see if you can find a memory like this. It doesn’t even have to be “real”, what matters is that you recall the feeling. Some moment from your life that was extremely powerful and rich, a memory that is strong enough to make your throat thicken a bit with emotion, or that even brings some gentle, poignant tears. Find the feeling of that, really notice where it is in your body, how it fills you up. Make a kind of mental bookmark of that moment, that feeling.
Then, the next time you are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety or sunk low in depression, or just feeling blah, go back to that bookmark. It’s still there, even if it’s hard to find. Notice how you can summon that memory and that feeling – notice it in your body. It’s not about having that memory or emotion cover up the hardship you are currently feeling, it’s about letting it inform your current state. Go back and forth between feeling whatever form of yuck you are experiencing and the feeling of that powerful memory, let them talk to each other, notice each other.
Life isn’t fiction and this ain’t magic, the feeling of that memory will probably not drive away the blah completely, but it will take away some of the charge from that trauma vortex. It will diffuse it a bit, take away some of the energy so that the trauma vortex has a little less power.
Obviously this won’t work for everybody. Some people simply have no good memories or feelings available, and if this is the case, there are many, many other tools a good Somatic Experiencing Practitioner has in their belt that can be used .
This is just one thing to try and, over time, it can work quite well to take away some of the power from our own internal Dementors.
Now… wands at the ready!