In Cold Storage

About ten days ago, just prior to what I expected would be a very difficult week — a re-immersion in a painful situation — I woke up remembering an image: a tiny bird flying out of a freezer in which it had been trapped. In the dream, I walked into the living room where it had flown after being released with frost on its wings and saw it puffed-up, warming itself, relieved to be out of the cold. This image immediately reminded me of a line from Donald Kalsched’s book The Inner World of Trauma (1996) and I knew that I was free from the stress of the past, not walking into more of it.

Kalsched wrote,

Rarely discussed by clinicians is… [the] animating spirit at the center of all healthy living. This spirit, which we have described as the transcendent essence of the self seems to be compromised in severe trauma. It is never annihilated completely because, presumably, this would be the literal death of the person. But it may be “killed” in the sense that it cannot continue living in the embodied ego. Or it may be put in “cold storage” in the unconscious psyche. (p. 37)

The bird is a classic symbol of spirit, a symbol I won’t explore at this point as it can almost be intuitively grasped why that’s the case, but the idea of “cold storage” is extremely fascinating to me. I was extremely intrigued by this line when I read it for the first time last year, recalling immediately dreams I had had for a long stretch in my childhood in which I would discover with enormous grief little mice or cats curled-up, usually in plastic containers like closed petri dishes, in the refrigerator. I would only quibble with Kalsched’s statement that the spirit goes into “cold storage” in times of “severe trauma.” The concept of what is severe to the inner life of an individual versus what is observably traumatic to others is a discussion for another time, but I would suggest that trauma to psyche of any kind — like I experienced for periods in childhood and several months ago — can cause spirit to retract, a kind of depression or lack of animation to take over, and evoke an inner image of spirit being shut away and put in the cold.

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