Two cases of Helleborus
By Krista Heron, ND, DHANP
I have long been touched by the simple wane-like appearance of the Hellebores. My mother had planted a hillside of them underneath the shadow of a dozen Douglas Firs. They would bloom at the beginning of winter and look pale and ghostly through the season’s rain and snow. Little else bloomed at this time of year in our garden, but the flowers of the Hellebores were hardly cheery, unlike the Snowdrops that valiantly rose out of the frosty ground near them or the eventual Crocus that would beckon Spring. Instead it was their lack of vibrancy that distinguished the Hellebores. Their subdued hues ranged from pale green to a muted purple. These are not bright vivacious colors but instead reflect the sensorial depression and dullness that is characteristic of these remedies.
The Hellebores belong to the Ranunculaceae family, which are divided into the subgroups Anemonean (Adonis, Hepatica, Hydrastis, Pulsatilla), Clematideae (Clematis Erecta), Helleboreae (Aconitums, Acteas, Aquilegia, Caltha, Helleborus, Staphysagria), Paeoneae (Paeonia) and the Ranunculeae (R. acris, R. bulbosus, R.ficaria, R. flammula, R. glacialis, R. repens, R. sceleratus).
The patients who need these remedies in the Ranunculaceae family have very sensitive temperaments. They feel a lack of inner strength; a kind of delicacy or an impressionable quality that allows them to feel slighted, fearful or timid. It is not only that they are passive and soft, but that they can be excitable, hysterical and touchy as well. It is this changeable nature that we are so familiar with in Pulsatilla, but that we see in the others as well. This malleability or capriciousness is characteristic of this family. They are sensitive to others and what others think of them. In their great sensitivity they can suppress their own emotions in order to find the comfort they are seeking.
Helleborus doesn’t just seem to suppress their emotions; they become dulled as a means to overcome the tremendous terror they feel. It seems that they can not process the sensory world. They may see and hear but they are befuddled and benumbed by the meaning of it. They experience apathy or a state of suspension. It is as if they are cut off from the world and themselves in this essential way, not being able to interpret or comprehend their own experience, thoughts or feelings.
Diane came to see me in 1994 when she was 44 years old. She had just finished her doctorate in Biology. Prior to Helleborus she had received Lycopodium and Opium, and experienced only minor improvement in her symptoms.
“The last 7 years I have healed a lot from a sexual assault and childhood fears. But I still feel vulnerable and helpless and I am not able to think clearly.”
Here we have the first clue that she is in the Ranunculeae family: she tells us she is vulnerable and helpless. Her first hint of Helleborus is revealed when she says she can not think clearly.
“I feel estranged from work. My last year at school I found comfort in the academics. I felt as if I was crawling into a hole. Now I feel a lack of motivation and self-esteem despite having more support and stimulation. I feel apathetic.”
“I can also be very sensitive and will at some point run into something or someone in my environment that will frighten and affect me deeply. It’s as if I was assaulted and it will burst the bubble. I can feel exquisite and delightful and then will be filled with doubts. I feel foolish, I don’t know how to lead my life and I have made so many mistakes. I feel fragile, frightened and vulnerable.”
“I feel anxious and hurried and I can no longer choose what to do, that I’ve lost the ability to choose. [I went home for a visit and I had all these] feelings about my father; he had attempted to sexually molest me as a child. I would stop breathing like I was trying to die and escape by killing myself.”
We can see in Diane’s symptoms the Helleborus state. She is vulnerable and sensitive yet she has become numb after a frightful childhood. She feels as if she was crawling into a hole, or that a protective bubble has been burst. Both of these exemplify the sensory withdrawal she uses as her strategy to survive. She doubts herself and feels she has made many mistakes. Helleborus too feels they have done some wrong. She feels hurried and irresolute and it is similar to the befuddled state of Helleborus where they feel confused, hurried and indecisive. But it is that they have a slowed-down mind, an inability to process, not their intellect that is affected. Diane has a feeling of being assaulted and this too is replicated in the remedy’s delusion of being pursued by enemies. We also see the alternating state of this family: the delight and then the doubts. And again she describes herself as fragile and vulnerable; a classic feeling of many of the flower remedies.
“I went to a meeting and felt emotionally weak. I drew a line as to what I thought I could do and was attacked by an individual. I felt upset, angry and I cried. I felt like hiding. I felt like I had been smashed, I felt unprotected, so hurt, and I lost perspective. I felt shame that I fell so far into this weak state.”
“Recently my roommate turned on me and I was blown away. I became terrified, afraid she would yell at me. I felt poisoned and blocked. This was just like how my mother terrorized me. I felt cut to the bone, like a beaten dog that is skittish. Now I am numb. My mother would have violent rages when I was young and would spit and curse. I was terrorized and would almost stop breathing and try to hide. I would tighten into a ball. Later I would drop out of life by getting sick. I feel I have no defense against others, I feel terrified and it turns into numbness.”
Here we have a further clarification of the Helleborus picture. She is terrified and as a result she becomes numb. She has no other defense but to “drop out of life”, to “stop breathing” and “to hide”.
“In January I hit my head on a metal bar. I didn’t pass out but a few days later I couldn’t walk very well, not because of my legs but because of my eyes. I couldn’t process very well. I also felt a pressure in my head. I didn’t accurately judge how bad I was. It was a distinct feeling of being disconnected from my lower body as if it was someone else. It was so strange to stand or walk. I would pass stool and it felt far away, without any sensation. My whole pelvis was some other place. I had to do everything not to succumb to fear. It was like drowning. It was a huge challenge to breathe. I feel confused, I don’t care about anything, and I don’t even know where I am now. No one will ever know what I’ve come through. I feel sad that I’ve isolated myself. I have no circle of friends or partner. How did I paint myself into this corner?”
Head injuries are one of the etiologies for the instigation of the Helleborus state. Here, however, we see it exacerbating this state. She becomes numb to her body; there are no sensations and poor perceptions. She “couldn’t process” the information her senses and mind were taking in.
“Right after the accident I had horrible nightmares with creatures screaming and wailing in agony. I felt like I’ve completely revisited my early experiences when I was violently raped 30 years ago. I felt that raw terror. I had been raped in 1968 after the Martin Luther King riots in Washington, DC. It was a very violent time. I didn’t know if we would live through it. Then I had a second trauma of an abortion after the rape.”
It is the terror, the frightful experiences that have time and again pushed her deeper into the Helleborus state.
“I feel like I’m in molasses or glue. Not only my body but my thinking too. It’s less nimble and it’s heavy. I speak so much more slowly. In the morning I just want to go back asleep. I don’t want to talk to anyone, I feel like hiding. They don’t care. I’m suicidal but what’s the point? What do I have to look forward to?”
Everything is slowed down, and Helleborus exists somewhere on this continuum of feeling hurried and moving and talking slowly.
“I like sweets. I sigh a lot. I have a slump around or before 4:00 p.m. and feel blank. It may start as early as 1:00. I tend towards right-sided complaints. I have problems with gas and constipation and take psyllium husks before bed nightly. I don’t drink enough water and I am chilly.”
The general symptoms of Helleborus are very similar to Lycopodium: both are right-sided remedies, worse at 4:00 pm, constipated, not very thirsty and chilly. I gave Diane Helleborus 200. She wrote and called six weeks later.
“Since taking the last remedy I have felt a marked shift in my sense of myself and my environment. I never would have believed it possible to have my life and aura restored in such a way.”
“Before, I lived in fear and now I experience everything differently. A shadow was revealed in me, something very ugly. It was a violence within myself, someone hard, uncaring, cruel, harsh and unfeeling. And that was what I experienced from my mother.”
“The world looks and feels different; I can hardly believe it; I feel I have “awoke” in some fundamental way. Now when I begin to slip into a depressed feeling, or have a thought of discouragement or helplessness, or feel like a victim, at the same moment I have awareness, a kind of simple witnessing as in meditation. I don’t need to spend a lot of time floundering or being lost in the murky confusion of doubt, fear or withdrawal. It’s as though I had learned some deep habit of contraction away from life for survival. And now a miracle has occurred and I have a chance to come to life, no longer crouching in remote corners of my soul. I feel so alive now.”
This was a wonderful beginning for the healing that I observed over the next few years. This remedy was repeated in March and September of 1995 and in September 1996. At last report the patient was still doing well.
A second case of Helleborus further illustrates the image of this remedy. Sally came to see me because she had been diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer and had completed traditional treatment including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. But the cancer was only part of her concern. She was back in school and wasn’t able to focus. This was not a new problem, but one that she had struggled with her whole life.
”I am very distractible, even small sounds draw my attention. I don’t have an ability to concentrate. My mind races and I am always on guard against all the dragons. I become immobilized with fear. I feel very unsafe. I struggle to not be afraid of people. I am afraid they would torture me or make me take poison. I feel a lack of safety, no defenses, invaded. [When I was a child] my mother threatened to drop me on the railroad tracks. I lived in absolute terror. There was no sense of comfort. I had no defenses. I would tell myself not to sleep.”
Again we see the vulnerability and the sensitivity with the underlying etiology of terror. It is also interesting to me that both women felt or feared being poisoned. Helleborus is a poisonous plant and in our repertories the twelve remedies listed under various rubrics mentioning poisons eleven are poisonous as well.
“In my dreams I would try very hard to do something right, but someone was always saying I did it wrong.”
Again we see this idea of doing some wrong in Sally’s case as well as Diane’s.
“I am having a hard time being in my body. I feel lightheaded, my eyes don’t focus. I have a lot of feeling in my head, but it is hard to think, so much processing going on inside but I can’t think clearly. I want to sleep a lot; I feel I am losing my connection with life. I am losing my ability to be in the world, like I am dying, like I am leaving my life. I am afraid to go out into the world. I feel defenseless, porous and separate. I haven’t wanted to grow up, to make my way in the world, to go out into the world. I want to connect with someone who has joy.”
Sally describes her dullness as “so much processing...but I can’t think clearly.” She too is becoming numb. She states she is “losing her connection with life” and her “ability to be in the world.” The childishness that we see in this family of remedies is seen in her desire to not “grow up.” Helleborus, Aconite, Epiphegus and Pulsatilla are all mentioned in this rubric Childish behavior.
“It is hard to think, hard to pull my thoughts together. Something is missing, it is an effort to explain, to pull it together to explain. I work so hard to think, I can’t access who I really am. This dullness is taking away who I am; there is nothing. There is no enthusiasm for life, an inability to go forward, to materialize my dreams, to live the depths of myself. I just feel like an old person. I could sleep until my life is over.
I have a slump between 2:30 and 4:00. I am chilly. I have a dry mouth so am thirsty.”
Sally can’t “pull her thoughts together,” the dullness is making her numb, “taking away who [she] is.” And we see the familiar generalities of feeling worse in the afternoon, and in Sally’s case, we see the dry mouth, also a symptom of Helleborus.
I gave Sally Helleborus 200 and she came back in six weeks.
“The very next day I felt different. Then two weeks later I realized how very good I had been feeling. I had a dream that I felt meant I was reclaiming my power, and another where a salmon was suspended in space and I thought ‘when it thaws out it will be okay’. It was like how I have been frozen my whole life. I don’t feel any dullness at all. I don’t feel tired anymore. I feel alert all day.”
These two cases illustrate the primary strategy that the Helleborus patient employs. These women experienced frightful and abusive childhoods as well as a continuation of traumas in their adult lives. In order to survive these difficulties; their vital force chose these strategies to help survive by becoming numb and dull to their sensory world. The pain they had suffered was too great to feel any longer so dullness set in. Both of these women are now living much fuller lives, they feel as if they have awakened from a kind of frozen state and are alive again.