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Integrating Extraordinary Experiences
By Roberta L. Colasanti, LICSW
John E Mack Institute

At a mutidisciplinary meeting of academicians convened by the Center’s Program for Extraordinary Experience Research (PEER) in April 1999 at the Harvard Divinity School, PEER’s former clinical director Roberta Colasanti, LICSW, spoke about the people who seek clinical assistance in dealing with life-long alien encounter experiences. This transcript is excerpted from her presentation.

Dr. John Mack, with whom I have worked since 1995, has described the process of integrating extraordinary experiences into one’s life as being similar to a mystic’s journey, beginning in trauma and leading to transformation.

I’d like to discuss some of the stages that the people we have seen go through as they make this journey. As I describe them, I would like to underscore that these stages do not necessarily present themselves in a linear order in each person with whom we work. However, most people seem to visit these stages at some point.

Bear in mind that the experiences we describe as “alien abductions” tend to begin in childhood and recur for many years, possibly throughout one’s lifetime. Therefore at the initial interview my intention is to find out a bit more about why the person has chosen to come to see us at this time.

Many times they come because their day-to-day lives and their experiences have become compartmentalized. They deny their whole selves. It may feel like they are living dual lives, and that causes enormous anxiety and tension.

There are different ways in which people deny the experiences. One way may be to simply never talk about it. They maintain isolation regarding their experiences; they deal with night terrors and other after-effects of their experiences, or their recollections of them, on their own.

For example, one woman shared that at about the age of 19 she and a friend would drive the same route every day between school and home. Once on their way home in the afternoon they were getting off the highway at an exit by a lake. She said, “Within a matter of seconds from driving down this highway, the next thing we knew it was dark, and we were several miles down the road, driving off a different exit, and we were both looking at each other with a sense of fogginess.” Yet they never spoke about it, and she decided it must have been a dream. People will often speak about an experience as a dream, even as they are speaking about it as though it is happening in real time. The language often gets a bit challenging and our job is to probe the ways that they use language to convey their experiences.

In the instance of the young woman and her friend on the highway, it was an interesting choice of language for her to describe the event as a dream. “You were driving at the time?” I asked her, and she replied, “Yes, I was driving at the time.” So even though it is nonsensical to be driving and sleeping at the same time, holding the experience as “a dream” seems to make it more tolerable for the individual. Indeed, finding ways to tolerate and make sense of the experience is a key factor in all the stages that people move through.

Another way people cope is by deciding that they are crazy. They may say, “Given what I’m experiencing and given the way the world is supposed to work, the only explanation that fits is that I must be crazy.” The cognitive dissonance between what is happening and what the culture is saying to them is too great, so the explanation of mental illness presents itself as being more tolerable.

People will often come in after something has triggered a flashback or recollection and the dualism starts to fail. They have begun to put some pieces together and they need to come in to address that. At such a moment, the first reason they come in to work with us is that they have entered a stage of either terror or awe. They have usually just been terrorized by what they’ve been experiencing or remembering. The trauma of it is enormous, and they describe an immense sense of awe as they ask how this could be happening.

They are concerned about the implications for their lives. Many ask how they can return to living a life within the expected norms if a whole other world is now true for them.

Once people begin to investigate this, they will often say that it is as though they have permanently crossed a threshold. The reality they once accepted without question has been irrevocably changed. Once they have made a decision that this is indeed happening in their lives and they are having these experiences, the world as they knew it ceases to be.

There is a stage that I call transformation. Perhaps not all experiencers go through this stage, but people John [Mack] and I see do so fairly consistently.

Transformation is a stage in which experiencers will speak fondly of a sense of great connection that they feel with all life and the universe. They potently experience a massive sense of consciousness and connection, which many describe as God, Source, the Creator, or more generally as love.

People will regularly speak about their fear of the grey beings [a type commonly reported], while simultaneously describing how when they look into the beings’ eyes – or sometimes simply when they are with them and somehow manage to move past their fear – their sense of connection to the beings is incredibly transformative. It transforms who they are and how they see themselves as individuals in the world. They will often decide they are not victims of this experience but have in fact, at some point (they are not necessarily sure when) chosen this experience. Many suggest the choice was made “before they were incarnated into human form.”

At this stage there is often paradoxically great grief and depression. I work with clients who have on occasion become suicidal regarding the realization that their lives are not always at one with this connection to Source. Many experiencers speak about wanting to return to that connection and of the difficulty being in this human form. They may ask, what is the point of this human form? What is it that they want to do? What is being human all about for them? This questioning is quite an intense stage, and we work closely with people at this time.

This stage is about what meaning these experiences have for people, and in what reality they hold the experiences. We are very clear in our work with them that we can never say for certain what these experiences are. This is a mystery. But they need to integrate and understand how to bring their experiences into their world.

This integration takes different forms. I have been impressed by the amount of transformation that can occur within one’s professional life. Some people have left their professions to go into the healing arts. One gentleman, formerly a chef, is now an acupuncturist; one woman, formerly a special education teacher, now has a thriving practice as an intuitive diagnostic. Many people speak about a kind of vibration and energy that they feel during their experiences, and will then use this in a healing capacity to help other people.

Acceptance is a later stage. At this stage a person will say something to the effect of, “I don’t care anymore what the culture says about these experiences; this is happening to me.” They do not need verification from an external authority. There is an incredible relief and a sense of being securely grounded when they reach this stage and are comfortable saying, “I know myself, and what I know about me tells me I’m having this experience, and that’s good enough.”

They are now deciding the answers to the questions raised earlier: “What is my place in this human form? What am I supposed to be doing and choosing now?” Many times they decide they want to educate others about what they have learned from these experiences. It may start with only their own family, or their closest friends. Sometimes there are venues in which they may reach more people. PEER has provided some of these opportunities.

The voices of the experiencers may help others who are having similar experiences. Ultimately, their voices may help humankind reach a new level of understanding about our place and our potential in the cosmos.

Roberta L. Colasanti, LICSW, co-founded the Behavioral Medicine Department at Harvard Community Health Plan, where she worked for 14 years. She co-created the “Ways to Wellness” program at HCHP and has developed and led symptom-specific groups for ambulatory care patients. At PEER, Ms. Colasanti collaborated with Dr. John Mack by interviewing and working with individuals who reported anomalous experiences.

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