Hypnosis as a way of forgetting or coping with loss

Angelika Zaworska talks to a mother who lost a daughter tragically and turned to an alternative form of therapy for help.

It is a cold Thursday morning in October and your reporter is sitting at a small table, in one of two chairs, while Elaine Byrne makes her order. We are in a recently opened Costa Coffee in the Lidl complex in Tallaght. She comes to sit at the table with a flat white in her hand.

“Are we ready?” she asks. To any passerby, we probably look like a mother and daughter spending some quality time together.

Fifty-something-year-old Elaine Byrne spent most of her life working in retail, at first Dunnes Stores for seven years, then Marks and Spencer for over a decade. She was happy with her life – she was married, had three children, had only six years left on her mortgage and did not feel like anything was missing. Then in 2007, tragedy struck.

While coming home to Walkinstown from a night out in Dublin’s city centre, her daughter Megan was involved in a hit and run, and sadly died at the scene. “A mother never stops worrying when her child is out of her sight. It doesn’t matter where she is or who with. She could’ve been over in her friend’s house; I would’ve been just as anxious, waiting to see her walk through the door.”

Only Megan never walked through the door again. Instead, Mr and Mrs Byrne were visited by the gardaí at eight in the morning and then had to make their way to the coroner’s office to identify their baby. It was that tragedy that changed Mrs Byrne’s life.

For months she felt completely numb and was not sure what to do with her life or how to go on. “I couldn’t go back to the old life; there were too many reminders and memories. At work I kept seeing her, like when she’d show up with her friends after school wanting a few bob for a chipper or something like that. We had to change everything.”

“I couldn’t go back to the old life; there were too many reminders and memories”

So they did. The family moved to Killinarden in Tallaght and decided to start afresh but that did not help Mrs Byrne with her career issues. All of a sudden every job seemed boring but in order to pay the bills and provide for her two other children, she had to get a job.

“These days you need two people to work to keep your family alive – especially when you’re on minimum wage.” She got a job working in a local shop as a cashier and continues to work there to this day. 

Then everything changed one Sunday when she was flicking through the televison channels and came across a show about hypnosis. “I don’t know what it was to this day but it connected with me and I knew this was what I was meant to do.”

She had found her calling, only she was faced with a big problem. She could not pursue this professionally or make a living from it. She did not have a degree in psychology or hypnotherapy and she was not in a position where she could afford to go out and get one as she had to keep her family going. So on her weekends off, when she was not working at the till, she started studying. “I must have read every book out there, watched every video, every documentary anybody ever made.”

She started attending comedy shows where hypnosis was an act – only she was not interested in the comedic aspect of it, “like when you tell them to follow the pocket watch while you’re dangling it side to side, clap your hands, and next thing you know you have them confused when you ask them to count to 10 but they can’t remember beyond four.”

She wanted to help people forget things, memories they no longer wanted to keep. The inspiration for this was of course her lost daughter. “You have to understand how the human brain works, and how memories are stored in our mind. Eliminate a certain part of that mind, and you can eliminate a certain memory. Wipe it. Clean slate.”

In general, hypnosis works with the subconcious, the part that acts but is not aware that it is acting. The other part of the mind is the concious and it is made up of four different aspects; willpower is the one that determines how long a certain decision you make is going to last.

“It’s like when you tell yourself you’re not going to bother with him any more. He invited you, made a promise, but then changed his mind and kicked you out. He hurt you, so you’re telling yourself you’re done with him. That’s your willpower.

“You want to mean it, but then your subconcious doesn’t let you because it’s overshadowed by the good memories you have of him, like when he gave you that nickname that nobody uses but him, or when he wanted to dance with no one but you. Hypnosis aims to eliminate those memories so they’re no longer painful to remember.” 

Hypnosis essentially heightens your imagination, puts you into a daydreaming situation. What about its effectiveness? Mrs Byrne says it all depends on your willingness to commit. “You have to want to get rid of the memory; it’s not good enough to say that you want to get rid of it, you have to actually mean it.” 

Hypnosis works by accessing your subconcious thoughts, the ones you did not even realise you were having. By accessing this part of the mind, it is also possible to help somebody remember things they previously did not. Normally you are aware of what you are thinking, for example, where you left your keys this morning, or if you forgot to turn off the immersion – that’s your concious mind.

Your subconcious deals with the things you act upon but do not have to think about, such as remembering to breathe or look in the rear-view mirror when driving a car. During hypnothrapy your typically subconcious thoughts are now exposed to the therapist, or in Mrs Byrne’s case a “self-appointed therapist”. That is why during a session, you are TOLD to breathe, inhale, exhale, close your eyes. The goal is to open up your mind and allow somebody else in there.

“Once I’m in your mind, the things I ask seem like they are actually coming from your subconcious state, not me. It feels like you’re on your own, relaxing. You don’t even notice me.”

How do you bring somebody out of the hypnotised state? Mrs Byrne said you keep your voice the same tone you have throughout the entire session and tell them to wake up. Sometimes you can count back from three and then tell them to wake up. “None of that dramatic clapping, or slaps across the face like you see in live shows – that’s just entertainment.” 

When it comes to phobias, she said she does not deal with such issues. She would not feel comfortable dealing with someone who had a fear of drowning, for instance. “That’s work for a real professional; for me this is a little passion. I could try getting inside your mind to figure out where that fear comes from, but you won’t find me throwing somebody into a lake, making them confront their demons, as that’s just sadistic.”

Most of the people that visit her are those who have been hurt by someone or an event, and now carry the burden of a painful memory. She does not bother with advertsing, worried it will attract the wrong kind of attention.

There is one thing in particular that she wants us to remember: “You can deal with matters of the mind, but the heart? That’s a whole other ball game!”


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