BACK STORY — THE ENGINE OF THE UNCONSCIOUS, By Art Smukler, author & psychiatrist

Remember how tasty and comforting it was to be breast fed? How you fought and yelled when you had to stop pooping in your diaper and had to use the potty?

You don’t remember?

No worries.

99.99 percent of us have no clue as to what happened before age 5. What’s left of that distant past are only shadows and vague innuendoes (psychiatrists call them screen memories), but because we’re walking the streets in our big boy pants, we can assume that toilet training was a rousing success. Also, as a well deserved aside, the male obsession with breasts is also connected with those early not-remembered experiences.

What if, like Joe Belmont, in Chasing Backwards, you had to spend a year in a pediatric hospital, or like Tom Wingo, in Prince of Tides, your father’s brutal behavior haunted you on a daily basis or like Henry Skrimshander, in The Art of Fielding, your father’s critical perfectionism almost ruined you? And what if all those traumatic experiences were only vaguely remembered or not remembered at all?

Most of us weren’t extraordinarily traumatized, but just average kids trying to survive a strange and unfamiliar world. But since all parents are imperfect, every one of us has been to some degree wounded.

Our forgotten past, the Back Story that occurred before we could think clearly, is often the real story. It is the engine that gives us passion or takes our passion away. It is the engine that drives writers to write, physicians to heal, teachers to teach, mechanics to fix and on and on and on.

Art Smukler MD is the author of Skin Dance, a mystery, Chasing Backwards, a psychological murder mystery, The Man with a Microphone in his Ear, and the blog, Inside the Mind of a Psychiatrist.


The mind is beyond sophisticated, but a little misguided. When events are too upsetting, it deposits the painful memory or feeling in a place that won’t disturb daily functioning, the “dreaded” unconscious.

Sounds great, right? If you don’t know it’s there, how can it bother you?

Wrong! The hidden memory can still send out subliminal signals that can cause nightmares, panic attacks, depression, anxiety etc. The symptoms are often so disturbing that you finally call your doctor who prescribes sleeping pills, tranquilizers or antidepressants so you’ll feel better. For a while, you do! Then it all creeps back.

“I’d like to refer you to a psychiatrist,” your doctor says.

“A shrink!” you say, more than a little insulted. I’m not crazy!

One tough, Italian guy, Joe Belmont, a 1st year medical student, who just happens to be the hero in my novel, Chasing Backwards, is in an even worse predicament. Whoever killed his mother and uncle are now trying to kill him, and the only way he can save himself and his girlfriend is to find a way into his own unconscious. The key to the whole mystery lies in his past, and Joe has no idea what lies buried in his own mind.

So unlike Joe, who has only days and himself to solve the problem, you can schedule a consultation with a psychiatrist or a therapist like a normal person. By now you recognize that it’s not just some intellectual or philosophical need. You’re sick and tired of feeling miserable and are ready to do what it takes. Figuring out what’s hidden in your unconscious is not psychobabble, as Joe in is his pre-psychological-minded days called the whole process. Psychotherapy is a treatment that can help make the unconscious problem conscious. Once you know what’s really going on, because now it’s out there for you to examine, you get the opportunity to deal with the issue and really feel better.

Please feel free to leave any comments and observations. If you were able to figure out what happened in your past, how did you do it? Did Joe Belmont’s experience mirror any of your own? Did understanding your own unconscious help you to have a better life?

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CHILDHOOD TRAUMA – THE INVISIBLE TYPE, by Art Smukler, author & psychiatrist

Often, childhood isn’t all that dramatic. No beatings, no sexual abuse, and no drunken binges with screaming and knife throwing. It’s quietly and confusingly more like a Chinese water torture — an intermittant trickle of devaluing words, missed chances to validate and unrecognized pleas for help. To others your life may look great, but not to you. Your pain is palpable, even though the cause is subtle and invisible.

You suspect that something’s wrong, but just can’t figure it out. You don’t know why you don’t love your parents like you’re supposed to. You don’t know why you’re miserable.

“What’s wrong with me?” you think. “Everyone else likes them. I’m a terrible person to feel this way.”

Then in 7th grade or 8th grade or college, you get depressed. You think, maybe I just need some Prozac. A pill should fix me. So arrangements are made and you see a psychiatrist or therapist. Hopefully, the doctor understands that in this case, pills aren’t the answer. He sees it as a chance to examine your life and really help you to get better. So with trepidation and more than a few misgivings you begin psychotherapy.

To use poetic license and a time travelers magic, I’ll quickly move therapy right along. You shed your guilt, become aware of your rage, and your depression begins to lift. It’s like bursting out of a quicksand pool and finally being able to spread the wings you never knew you had.

You can leave your troubled family on the ground below as you discover a world filled with adventure and new ideas. They may remain locked in their rigid, unchangeable world, but that doesn’t mean that you’re duty bound to continue to share that world. You can try to help them, but they have to be willing. As you’ve learned, it’s not easy to examine life from a foreign vantage point. Your family may be too damaged to change. But you’re not. You’ll never be the same again!

Do you believe that childhood trauma can be overcome? What started your healing process? What happened to your family when you changed?

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CHILDHOOD TRAUMA – DOES IT EVER END? by Art Smukler, author & psychiatrist

Childhood trauma is rampant. 5% of all American children are hospitalized for acute or chronic illness, injuries or disability. This doesn’t include all the millions of children who suffer trauma secondary to poor parenting.

Adults who seek psychiatric help have conduits to their past that are often hidden from their conscious minds. Whether they were ill, injured, abused, abandoned, ignored, devalued or suffered from a major psychiatric illness like Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder, they suffered when they were kids and they’re suffering now as adults.

According to statistics from the CDC (Center for Disease Control), victims of childhood trauma live 19 years less than non-victims. That’s an astounding number! If you think about the increase in alcohol abuse, drug abuse, poor decision making and years of chronic stress, it makes sense.

Medication alone can help decrease symptoms, but it certainly doesn’t deal with the hurt, low self-esteem and agony that adults carry forward from their past. To not deal with the bottled-up stress can lead to an autoimmune system that has been overwhelmed for years and at some point can no longer protect against illness and cancer.

Our lives are a continuum and we need to be in touch with how that continuum affects us now. If we don’t deal with our past in a timely fashion, our bodies may deal with us in a very unkindly manner.

For those of you who experienced childhood trauma, I’d be interested in how you dealt with it. What helped? What didn’t? What was it like being alone and misunderstood? Any experiences with childhood hospitalizations? Any ideas from professionals?

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