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An Ex-Con Breaks Free, With the Help of Focusing Therapy

An innovative approach to redefining ourselves and living a better, more constructive life

By Jen Singer | September 12, 2013

Just as the jury foreman began to speak, cocaine flurried from Michael Palombi's nose onto the defense table. To steel himself for his sentencing hearing, the 23-year-old had slipped into a bathroom stall at the courthouse and snorted all the coke in his pocket. It was the only way he could face what was coming: seven years for extortion and terroristic threats, offenses he committed when he was involved with organized crime.
 
In prison, where he served three years of his sentence before being paroled, Palombi found God. Twenty years later, he discovered his emotions — and that is what finally turned his life around. Palombi, 53, now a carpenter and teacher in Spring Lake Heights, N.J., had always thought of himself as a perpetrator. But thanks to a form of psychotherapy called Focusing, he reached deep inside himself in his 40s and uncovered a victim.

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How Focusing Freed an Ex-Con

Developed nearly 50 years ago by psychologist and philosopher Gene Gendlin at the University of Chicago, the Focusing technique helps people access what its practitioners see as the wisdom held deep inside us in a mesh of memories, meanings, relationships, feelings and physical manifestations. Once we get through what Gendlin calls the "trap door," beneath which anything can come up, this innate wisdom can tell us things we don't already know about ourselves. There are more than 1,000 trained Focusing therapists worldwide, and Gendlin's manual has been translated into 17 languages.

For Palombi, who began the therapy in 2005, Focusing was freeing. Working with a trained therapist, he skirted under his conscious, cognitive level, where most of us operate even while undergoing psychotherapy, and into what Gendlin calls "the felt sense," a hard-to-describe sensation in which certain images and words arise, often to surprising effect. The felt sense is where our bodies register everything that happens to us, and according to Focusers, it's free of the mediating influences of thought, judgment or analysis.
 
The Focusing technique is meant to help patients access and maintain connection to the felt sense. The goal: transforming it from fuzzy background noise to concrete understanding. Patients often experience a series of bodily sensations, such as aches, nausea or pressure. Some sense colors or words; others access specific memories or images. The desired outcome of the process is what practitioners call a "felt shift" — a release that moves the patient forward to a healthier psychological state.

Reaching Bottom, Finding Himself

On Christmas Eve 2004, Palombi had just about given up.
 
He was thinking he'd be better off back in prison. It was the only place, he says, where he had ever grown as a man. He had separated from his wife, whom he had met after his release from prison and with whom he has one daughter, now grown. He was suffering physically as well, after two hip replacements. After prison, Palombi had struggled to find work, but he taught himself carpentry and eventually built his own construction business. Even so, now he was broke, having discovered a massive back-tax bill that he attributes to his ex-wife's mismanagement of his company's books.

Living alone that holiday season, sleeping on a leaking air mattress on the third floor of a construction site whose owner had allowed him to crash there, Palombi smoked marijuana and drank, thinking about what a waste his life had become.
 
When a friend reached out to invite him to church, he initially declined, but later changed his mind. He got up, doused himself in cologne to cover the smell of pot and alcohol, and set off. Later, as the pastor spoke of the trappings of pride and arrogance, Palombi felt like it was a description of his own dysfunctional life. It took him back to what he says he learned in prison: "You can be saved, but not delivered."

For deliverance, Palombi turned to Focusing, based on a recommendation from a friend's therapist. Still covered by his estranged wife's insurance, he began weekly sessions; they would continue for three years. For a long while, he left every session feeling worse than when he'd arrived. The carpenter in Palombi likens the process to renovating a house: First, you have to remove the rot. In his case, he says, "I’d never done anything to address the emotional injury in my life.”

In his Focusing sessions, a tightening of his chest or a twinge in his stomach eventually revealed to him a little boy in shorts and a T-shirt, sitting on his bed, waiting for the door to open. It was him, at age 6, dreading his father’s wrath, his father's belt. Staying with his Focusing, Palombi told his therapist that his jaw had tightened up.
 
"So, your jaw tightened up..." the therapist repeated empathetically, validating his felt sense. And then Palombi remembered: "I can’t make a sound or I’m going to get it worse. I can’t show any emotion, and it will be over faster."
 
"That was the moment I understood how abusive my upbringing was," Palombi says. "It had seemed normal until then."

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As with many other abused children, Palombi had long thought that his father hit him — once with a trowel full of Spackle — because he was "bad." In reality, the abuse was about his father's destructive behavior, not his own. Focusing helped him identify the hurt and the truth. "Once I understood why I didn’t think my life was valuable," he says, "I could heal it."
 
Palombi has come a long way since the day he was sentenced 30 years ago, when the judge told him, "It's a shame people like you even exist." He has remarried and devoted time to teaching carpentry to special-needs and at-risk teens, some from abusive homes, at two New Jersey schools, Chancellor Academy in Pompton Plains, and the Y.A.L.E. School in Northfield. He's giving them, he hopes, the emotional support he never had at their age.

Today, Palombi aspires to help launch similar regional programs in which ex-cons like himself can teach at-risk young men construction and life skills. Recently, when a boy who'd been the victim of abuse graduated from Chancellor Academy, he gave Palombi a plaque. It read: "Thank you for saving my life."

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