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  • Toni Jo Coppa

How IFS changed my Life in a 50 minute Hour

Updated: Apr 8

The Story of how IFS Changed my Life

I need to begin with a little bit of background to help you understand better the aligning forces behind the moment I was hooked. In childhood, many things happened that were followed by explanations of why my understanding of them was wrong. I was told I was loved and yet violence and neglect were the norms. I was also in a graduate program for studio fine arts with a studio advisor I did not connect with.

The impetus of the story was that my father had passed away and I had just created the most talked-about art installation of my life. People were stopping me in the halls, emailing me and one person even stopped me on the street, all to go on about how impactful my work was! I was feeling kind of like an art star for a few days, full of pride and hope and belief that my core was ‘good’. Everything changed in a matter of a moment when I had my critique with my advisor on the installation. (In hindsight I wonder if my mother waiting for me off in another area had anything to do with my reaction.) She asked me to talk about the piece, which I am recalling I mostly talked about what I would change after seeing it installed in the space. Perhaps I was glowing and was trying to be modest, but I was still feeling pretty good about what I had done. After speaking about my work for a few minutes, my advisor replied with the most incongruent feedback for which I was not prepared. Again, in hindsight, I believe that with the death of my father and the history of expecting one thing and receiving another, I had an intensely visceral reaction to her words; “Obviously you do not understand composition, or color theory or anything about installations. Rhythm, intent, where the eye goes… I don’t believe you have any idea what you are doing.” As she spoke, I could feel a heavy medieval metal helmet form at the top of my skull. It then closed in and around my head and neck with articulated visor pieces that banged down like Mel Brooks’s television show’s intro to Get Smart. I got a terrible headache immediately; so bad I could hardly see. We ended the critique a few minutes later because I was pretty much incapacitated with bodily sensations. This began my two-month journey seeking help to rid myself of excruciating pain between my neck and shoulders.

I saw massage therapists weekly, an acupuncturist weekly, an osteopath sometimes twice a week, a western medical doctor, I took tons of Tylenol, Motrin, aspirin, used topical anesthetics, drank alcohol super-fast, did yoga, used hot pads, ice, and a Thera cane. I could not find more than passing relief. The only thing that seemed to ease the pain for any length of time was Valium, which I thought was curious, and with my history of drug use quite dangerous. I blew through all my scholarship money for school on trying to get rid of this pain. It would wake me up at night and bring tears to my eyes if I turned my head at all. Then something happened that finally broke the miserable cycle of fleeting relief and overwhelming desperation.

I was at my osteopath’s office laying on my back with my eyes closed while we talked, and she worked on me. For the first time, someone suggested that I stop running from the pain and ease into it. I told her I would do anything and was putting out to the Universe that I was willing to do anything. What happened next was otherworldly. She asked in an offhanded way (which later she told me she thought we were dancing around it), “Do you have a history of sexual abuse?”

Like the articulated helmet I described earlier, but this time made of glass, an egg-like pod sort of form started to envelop my body from behind me. It started to enclose my entire body because my answer to the osteopath was going to be “no”. I had had some sexual abuse, but nothing that I would have thought would be serious enough to do with what was going on. So in the very same instant that I was preparing to reply “no”, this clear capsule (like in movies when people do space travel for long periods they put them in something similar) started to surround and enclose my body. To this day I cannot identify what was happening inside me at that moment, but I leaped right off the table and ran across the room into the corner of the windows. I tucked my body into the corner, like a bird in a windowsill trying to get outside. I shook and trembled so badly I could hardly stand, and then I started laughing! There was no surprise when she told me I need some psychological help.

By the grace of God, I got exactly what I needed. I had seen counselors my entire life and never had any emotional healing that I could recognize. Desperate, I asked a friend who she was seeing, and that counselor was able to get me in pretty quickly. For that, I will be forever grateful, and this is what happened next.

When entering her office all I was thinking about was that “crazy” episode at the osteopath’s office. I was freaked out. I still had the pain, but now I was more upset about the jumping off the table and into the windows thing. I told her about the episode with tears, anxiety, energetic explosions, and expressive body movements. She was calm and intent, curious and confident. Finally finished with my tirade, she asked me to take some deep breaths and to, yes, lean into the pain. My heart still pounding recalling the event, it took some minutes to calm down and to focus on the pain. I had no problems finding it, but to clear my head of the thoughts pinging around and to focus on it, that was something new. She asked me to ask the pain if it would give me some space so I could get to know it better. Say what? She explained. The part moved from my lower neck and shoulder region out of my body. It hovered at my shoulder about two inches from my arm. Refocusing I saw an image of a little girl in a red hooded cape, just like Little Red Riding Hood! The hood covered her face in the darkness, but I had an intuitive knowing that it was a little girl around four years old and about 18” tall. I was amazed. My counselor asked me how I was feeling about this vision. Well, kind of freaked out that I was able to ask the pain to give me some space and now it was hovering nearby as a being! My counselor asked me if I were curious about the Part. Heck, yes! She asked me to extend my curiosity toward the little girl I was seeing and wait until something happened. Something did happen!

Who are you?

Anger girl.

Why are you doing this to me? Why are you causing me so much pain?

I refuse to be ignored any longer. You cannot ignore me anymore.

I understood.

I understood. My counseling time was up, but before I left, I discussed what happened with my therapist. I was always aware that I had some magical power to never get angry, but it never occurred to me that perhaps I was and was just stuffing or denying it. I believe this little girl, Anger Girl, was causing me all this pain because it was the only way for me to acknowledge her (my anger). She did what she had to do. It started at the critique because it was another occurrence of what I expected to happen and having the opposite occur. My father’s death somehow freed me to start looking at all the rage buried inside of me. Now I just had to start looking at that and stop denying Anger Girl existed.

I never experienced the pain again.

IFS changed my life in one session.





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