I don't know what was wrong with me: a case of ill fit with the world, I guess. I suddenly kept being confronted by the fact of my own mortality, like a glacier in my path, and seizing up with panic.

I told my doctor and, as luck would have it, he was branching into hypnotherapy and wanted to try it out on me. He was quite the evangelist for the treatment. Hypnosis was no mere stage trick, he insisted: A patient of his had recently had major dental surgery -- I imagined pile drivers and a building site -- solely anesthetized by the doctor's suggestion. As for quitting smoking, why, the cigarettes virtually extinguished themselves. My panic attacks should likewise succumb to the powers of his mind.

On my next appointment, he led me to a room where he gestured for me to lie down on a very purple, soft leather couch while he took the armchair opposite. He put a CD of New Age mood music on the stereo -- some sort of ode to aquatic life-forms, I noticed by the cover -- and told me to focus on a psychedelic spiral pattern inscribed on a small piece of paper attached to the ceiling, while simultaneously concentrating on the sound of his voice.

Then he began to recount what, in the hypnotherapeutic lexicon is called a script. I was to imagine myself alone on the top of a high mountain. The warm sun was playing on my body as I floated on the still waters of a mountain lake or pond.

At this point an irksome thought intruded upon my nascent reverie. Where was I -- on a mountain lake or a mountain pond? My mind's eye swung from one to the other, unable to decide, creating a queasy tidal sensation rather than one of womb-like peace. The doctor, through all the sessions I had with him, stuck with this equivocal introduction to his monologue.

Which was it? I became desperate to know -- a damn pond or a lake?

The hypnosis was a course of treatment and was supposed to proceed through several stages. Its goal was to get my everyday, humdrum, conscious mind off guard and sleepy, and thus penetrate to the real, traumatized meat of my unconscious to apply the salve of suggestion.

That is its proponents' explanation. An alternative, uncharitable view is that hypnotherapy, if it works at all, does so by appealing to people's deep-seated slavishness, such that they will deny -- including to themselves -- great pain or even, placebo-like, achieve some kind of recovery in order to please the authority figure of the doctor. It is supposedly this same mechanism that causes the subjects of stage hypnotism to go along with pretending to be Elvis or a teapot, or whatever -- just in order not to rock the boat. A third view has it that hypnotherapy has no place other than on the traveling huckster's hoarding, next to snake oil.

Picture This

I found that the intensive relaxation -- or perhaps just being forced to lie still for half an hour -- did ease what had become an ever-present disorientation, nausea and anxiety. I would leave the doctor's rooms calmer, steadier and with a greatly enhanced sense of reality, though this feeling dissipated within a few hours.

After six or so sessions, following my imaginary stay at the Swiss mountain resort with its lakes or ponds, the doctor introduced a new scene into his script. Now I was walking through a forest, where sunlight dappled the ground's soft covering of fallen leaves. Birds sang near and far and, apparently, I had a little boy at my side, whom I was to take by the hand and comfort.

The little boy was a younger version of me -- my inner child, in fact -- but even so my suspicious mind again intervened. For as soon as I imagined leading this cherub through the forest, I pictured a great big cop stepping out from behind a majestic oak and asking me just what the hell I thought I was up to. The inner scenario then took a very different -- unpleasant, judicial and finally punitive -- path from the one that was intended.

Eventually my uniformed conscience disappeared -- perhaps to take my inner child into care, for I lost him, too. The doctor then guided me along a circuitous path that led back, through glades of calm and the odd thicket of Grimm menace, to where, I supposed, I was to recuperate before my next internal journey of discovery.

But the end of my psychic retuning was heralded by the interruption of a more worldly force.

Again, I was floating on the surface of a loosely defined body of water. The sun warmed me, and all around was silence except for the sibilant whispering of a clean, cool stream. Then, a terrible sound exploded in the room where I was lying. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat. Pretending to be still under the hypnotic spell, I remained prone, partially opening one eye.

The hypnotist was frozen in an exaggerated posture of alarm, his eyes wide open, his torso shooting up toward the ceiling and his fingers digging deep into the arms of his chair. There was the sound again, massive and penetrating, like the bombing of Dresden, like an avalanche, a collapsing apartment block -- like a jackhammer duet playing right next to me, which is what it was. On the other side of the thin, fiberboard partition separating the doctor's office and a drugstore, renovations were being cacophonously carried out.

The room began to shake, and I expected our shared bucolic fantasy soon to be demolished by a workman's boot smashing through the wall.

Instead, the doctor got on the phone to his secretary and shouted to her to go next door and halt the noise. "This has never happened before," he mysteriously added for her benefit, while I supposedly still gamboled about in the chalet of my mind.

Rude Awakening

I thought I would get that session for free, since it was terminated short of the half-hour, perhaps in order for the doctor to go and have a good lie-down himself. But I was charged and, to add insult to injury, the hypnotist called me "er, Steven" as I left.

I now doubted that he was ministering to my personal needs. I did not want this mysticist going anywhere near the traumatized meat of my unconscious if he could not even get my name right. I canceled the next appointment and forgot about the one after that. But by then the panic had begun to abate anyway, possibly to attack someone else.


Simon Busch is a London-based writer and broadcaster. To comment on this article, e-mail health@washpost.com.

Stare into the center of this image and . . . well, it's hard to say what will happen. The author was induced into a hypnotic trance by listening to his doctor's voice -- and concentrating on a picture like this one. Hypnosis is a state of focused attention that permits you to use your mind more powerfully, clinicians say.