Holding Your Opposite

Marilyn Van Derbur Atler

Which is it—grey or gray? Isn’t it fitting that there isn’t a black and white answer. Turns out they are both acceptable ways to spell my favorite color. Gray is a great color to represent ambiguity and grey is also a great color to represent ambivalence.

The fourth principle of awareness: Hold opposites and recognize that those qualities you may judge in others are mirrored in you. Seek common ground with others.

Learning to hold opposites includes developing greater comfort with differing points of view, conflicting emotions, the confluence of light and darkness, death and life, as well as contradictory qualities in everyone we encounter (including ourselves).

Don’t I have the best life, don’t I have the best life—I’ve been on the highest mountain and I’ve been to the bottom of the well. And because I’ve been to the bottom of the well and survivors know that, they come to me. Because they know I have and if I hadn’t been there they wouldn’t come to me. So, it’s a life of privilege, I love it.

This testimonial about holding opposites comes from Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, the tireless advocate for those silently suffering the shame of incest. I was working in Family Medicine back in 1991 when the former Miss America revealed her secret—she had been sexually molested by her father for 13 years. Her survival mechanism, she described, was a form of dissociation, the splitting of herself into “daychild and nightchild.” https://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/12/us/a-miss-america-says-she-was-incest-victim.html

During my doctoral training, and in the first decade of my psychology practice, I had read about, but never encountered, people with Multiple Personality. In 1991 that changed. At first one, but then a number of people, who sought medical care, presented in very different manners during their ongoing visits. As this was a training clinic we often videotaped the appointments. To my astonishment, I witnessed a woman “transition” from one personality to another as the physician left and then re-entered the room. The doctors were perplexed and often felt manipulated by what they thought were fictitious complaints. Remarkably, one personality had one set of medical and social concerns and the other personalities had other concerns (later in the mid 1990’s a number of studies reported that one personality could test as diabetic while another personality had normal blood sugar).

Once it was understood that we were treating people with significant dissociation, we asked about their histories and, over time, all of them reported either significant physical or sexual abuse in their childhood. Marilyn Van Derbur Alter not only came forward with her story, she also endowed the University of Colorado to focus on the prevention and treatment of sexual abuse and our physicians did rotations at the Kempe Center to further their understanding of the lifelong impact of childhood abuse. With our greater awareness of the prevalence of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, Multiple Personality, and other forms of dissociative mechanisms, are recognized, and proper help is offered.

Holding opposites as an awareness challenges us all to recognize our “split” off selves—those parts of us that we have not fully accepted and want to keep hidden. We may not want or be willing to see an “opposite” in us that feels unacceptable or produces shame. Marilyn Van Derbur Alter came to a place of integration. She was able to welcome the opposite of her day child and no longer need to split her off. When she could free herself of shame, she went a step further—she saw how that opposite could serve her to be a role model for others, could serve her to help heal others. And since then, she has dedicated her life to do just that.

My thanks to Dr. Barbara Kreisman, KE student, who shared with her class the following video this past week:

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