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The Burden of Trauma

16 Jul

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I have spent my entire life seeped in the landscape of trauma. After first-hand experience with it in my childhood and teenage years, I chose a career involving the study of it. I then spent two decades trying to help others get through similar experiences. And I now teach on the subject. Yet trauma still perplexes me. Every time I think I understand it, I’m struck by its tenacity and complexity. I’m surprised by how simultaneously fragile and resilient we are as humans.

I have learned that unless you’ve been through trauma yourself, people typically do not understand the experience. A person can say, “Don’t think about it,” or “be grateful,” or “don’t be so negative,” in an attempt to be helpful but when grappling with flashbacks, or emotional seizures that leave you in a state where you can’t stop crying, you can’t mind over matter the situation. Instead, you have to fasten your seatbelt and get ready to go on a ride. A ride that feels like death but that eventually comes to a stop- until you get thrust on the ride again.

The reason trauma is so damaging to the system is because the body registers it as the real or perceived threat of death. Whether violence, or an accident, or death, or a natural disaster, something heinous and uncontrollable occurs that warps our sense of stability and agency. Suddenly, we don’t have control. Terrible shit can and does happen and suddenly, all our thoughts of being in charge of our lives goes out the window. So much for “carpe diem” or “I’m the King of the world!”

I lost my mother to incarceration and suicide and my father to drug addiction. In the process of both situations, there was profound confusion, fear, abandonment, betrayal, shock, and abuse. Developmentally, I was young when these events occurred but when comparing these situations to children being torn from their parents at young ages or extreme poverty, I feel like my experiences reflect first world problems. Yet it’s all part of the same soup. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a school shooting or rape or incest or the Holocaust or poverty. Trauma leaves a scar that effects you whether rich or poor, privileged or not.

We all want to be connected; we all want to feel safe; we all want to experience love. Trauma threatens to wipe out these fundamental elements of human experience.

Humans crave stability, power, relationships, and control. Trauma obliterates all of that. And when you have few of those elements cemented regardless of trauma, a sudden tragedy threatens one’s sense of place in the world even more. Thankfully, we are incredibly resilient as humans. We can and do move on. We can and do thrive. We don’t stay stuck forever. Flowers can grow through a crack in the cement.

But even when doing well, the burden of trauma can rip one right back into the pain and the loss and the confusion. All it takes are a few elements that correspond with the original wound and ka-bang. Like ripping a bandaid off, we can find ourselves bleeding. Uncontrollably.

The only way through trauma is to keep tending to it. To respect it. And to connect with those who understand it. And when the moment passes, we have a personal responsibility to help someone else through the same tunnel because everyone has a story. Over and over, as I teach around the nation, I am shocked by how much pain and suffering there is in the world.

Recently, I had a philosophical cab driver from Nigeria remark to me, “The soul is meant to experience joy. When we cry, it is a moment of reflection.” Perhaps that is the essence of healing. May we use our tears as a period of reflection that brings us back to joy.

When Being Off Balance Is A Start

1 Feb

Last night while doing tree pose in yoga, the teacher suggested we toy with our balance by closing our eyes or swaying our arms. Tree pose, if you don’t know it, entails standing on one leg while the foot of the other is tucked above the standing leg’s knee, resting on the thigh. I find the pose relatively easy but as soon as I closed my eyes, it wasn’t. “They say one’s yoga practice begins the moment you feel off balance,” the teacher remarked.

I started laughing- not because the comment itself was funny but because it was so akin to what I’ve been experiencing lately. Normally, we think of being off balance as a sign of overload and stress, i.e. not good. In fact, a sense of balance is something people typically strive to create in their lives. But what if being off-balance was neither good nor bad but a sign of growth and expansion? A sign of taking on new forms and letting go of control? Obviously, we don’t want to be so off-balance that we teeter over and fall but is a little disequilibrium a thing to avoid?

Personally, I hate feeling out of control. I like structure. I like knowing what is going to happen. I like being in charge with a plan, Only life doesn’t work that way. Trying to make it so is exhausting and futile.

The teacher’s statement reminded me of my go to: “Confusion is a sign of learning.” However, for me, learning is productive so I’ll take a little confusion if I know I’m expanding my mind or learning a new skill. But do I really want to invite being off-balance for the hell of it? What “reward” will I get from being off balance? In my day-to-day life, won’t that drive me out of my mind?

Perhaps. Overload is overload and sometimes too much is too much. But I’m reminded that in acting, a similar phenomenon happens in terms of being off balance. There is often a point in rehearsal or filming when despite knowing your lines, your mind drops them. This happens when you’re so in the moment with a feeling or a connection to someone else that you get flustered. It’s a moment of being off balance; off kilter; not knowing what is going to happen that leaves you feeling completely vulnerable and like you’re falling off a cliff. Every director I’ve ever had has loved it when I drop my lines. “Keep going, keep going,” they’ll say. “What you’re doing is brilliant.” And I’ll think – actually, I’ll not think – I’ll keep going – feeling completely out of my skin in free fall and delight.

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So yes, I guess it’s okay to be off balance even if it feels completely weird and counter-intuitive. It might actually be spot on!

The tree can sway and still stay rooted. It’s a sign of being on the path.

 

 

Do You Need To Think Less And Feel More?

8 Sep

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The other day I was in a yoga class when the instructor encouraged us to “think less and feel more.” As my mind slowly let go of the endless hours spent answering email and making lists, I felt the peace of that intention. “Think less, feel more.”

As a therapist I often encourage individuals to pause from talking so they can discern what they’re actually feeling. Sometimes the feelings are incongruent with the thoughts, which people always find surprising.

Feeling gets a bad rap in a world where cognition reigns but Daniel Goleman dubbed the term “emotional intelligence” to make a case for the innate intelligence of our emotions. However, “feeling more” as the yoga teacher suggested doesn’t necessarily suggest affective registration or release. “Feeling more” can simply imply scanning the body’s sensations.

I would be completely ruined if I didn’t dial into my body. It is the only way I can regulate my mind, which often operates like a wild horse dancing in frenetic circles as if spooked. When I check in with my body, then the true power of the mind expands like a horse galloping freely in the wind.

The term yoga means union. When we slow down, think less, and breathe more, we start to unite body, mind and spirit. The bifurcation of these disparate parts mends. We feel integrated, whole and at peace again. Petty things stop mattering and what is truly of value rises to the surface. With calm comes clarity.

Embracing the Mystery

20 Dec

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I’m going to be in Venice for New Years. Not Venice, California. Venice, Italy.

When a friend-of-a-friend invited me to stay at her Venice apartment this winter, I was reminded to not turn away the gift horse. As Sheryl Sandburg wrote in her book, Lean In, “When you’re offered a space on a rocket ship, you don’t turn it down.” You jump in no matter what is going on in your life, no matter how inconvenient. The dance doesn’t alway come around again.

Going to Venice is not convenient. It’s sandwiched in-between the holidays, a writing deadline, and a teaching trip in Memphis immediately afterwards. I’ve also been gone for the last two weeks teaching. But when is boarding a rocket ship ever convenient?  You either say, “Carpe Diem!” and do it or you stay safe right where you are, never fully becoming who you meant to become.

I like order and control, particularly as the old year transitions into the new. I like to mastermind my goals and get my ducks in a row. I work on my taxes and await the New Year with quiet respect. I don’t party it up with horns, streamers, and confetti.

In Venice the locals drink champagne in St. Mark’s square. I’ll work on my tip sheet for the publisher while downing a beautiful cappuccino and I’ll map out my goals walking along the canals. But then I’ll drink champagne too, gesticulating like the Italians as we embrace the wild beauty of the night.

On the way out, I’ll pass through NYC where I’ll have an apartment to stay on 5th Ave. near the Met and the Guggenheim thanks to a friend’s sister who is a film producer. They are leaving museum passes on the counter and instructions regarding my stay with the maid. There will be two Parisians there too. Do not turn away the gift horse.

My expenses are maxed out at present but the trip was paid for almost entirely by miles. Do not turn away the gift horse.

I will be tired and jet lagged and discombobulated teaching so soon after it all but this is life. Instead of trying to capture, control, or manipulate the Mystery, we must learn to bow to it. When she beckons, we follow. We do not know where we are going. All we can see is the magic and mist and romance of it all.

*Photo credit – Laura Sousounis

Attitudes of Gratitude

22 Nov

This morning, I tried hard NOT to flail my arms out in African dance class as I had surgery last month and don’t care to rip stitches out prematurely. But how can one not feel joy when you hear a drum beat? Drums are akin to our hearts. They are the pulse of life itself – lub dub, lub dub. Years ago when music therapists and myself would bring drums into groups at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, even acute stage Alzheimer’s patients would tap a hand or a foot, despite being practically comatose and near death’s door.

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I have the privilege of taking African dance with a magnificent teacher. I studied African dance fairly extensively in college, so it’s part of my blood. However, the reason I love my teacher is because she understands dance as a form of worship. She practically radiates something higher than herself.

Dance is a way to express joy and praise; a way to mourn and rage.

I dance so I don’t forget I have a body that is often far superior to my mind. The body has its own knowledge and its own divinity. As Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric!” and as Hafiz waxed eloquent:

Every child has known God, Not the God of names, Not the God of don’ts, Not the God who ever does anything weird, But the God who only knows four words and keeps repeating them, saying: “Come dance with Me.” Come dance.

This is the week of giving thanks. Dance reminds me of the vitality inherent in gratitude. Often, thanks is pretty basic: I slept well last night. This coffee tastes terrific. Friends make me smile. Strangers can be kind. Let me give you a hug. The dog wagged his tail. I’m doing what I love. It rained in LA. Sunday is football. People still care.

Amen.

 

 

Battle Scars

3 Nov

I  had surgery on Halloween. Nothing like being told that the risks of surgery include that 1) you could never wake up and 2) you could sustain nerve damage. Talk about fright.

My surgery was preventative and minor. Thankfully, I am extremely healthy and well and for that I am most grateful. But to put your hands in the hands of another human being is probably one of the most terrifying things you can do. You have to give up control and you have to TRUST. The surgeon said to me, “I get it. I don’t ever want to lie on that table.” But they wheeled me in anyway.

A friend asked if I got to take home the golf-ball-sized clump of cells they removed. “Put it in a jar as a souvenir,”he suggested.

No, thank you, although they did put it on ice.

They called me yesterday and it’s benign.

I got what a wanted.

But I also got more than good news. I was reminded of people’s kindness and the preciousness of life. Nothing should ever be taken for granted for we simply don’t know how long we have on this planet. We struggle and have our issues and conflicts but at the end of the day, love and joy are all that really matter.

I was also reminded that when we go through experiences we incur battle scars. Thankfully, this one is going to heal very nicely.

Every thought and event of our lives becomes held in the body – for good and for bad – so removing actual tissue triggers contemplation.

“What’s being removed? What is healthy and what is pathological? Were there little pockets of negativity lodged in that lump that needed excision? What do our bodies carry in their consciousness? What do our bodies and souls actually need to thrive and transform?”

I recall a woman I once worked with who had had a mastectomy. She was experiencing phantom limb, plus an enormous amount of grief. To help express and understand her feelings of loss, I had her dialogue with her missing breast and actually give the breast a voice. I wanted to hear what it was thinking and feeling.

That breast held a lifetime of memories for her – sexual pleasure, breast feeding, and her beauty and identity as a woman. She felt lost without it but once the breast’s consciousness was respected and acknowledged, her symptoms abated.

Perhaps, at Halloween, we dress up in scary costumes to remember the mess that comes with being in a human body and living out the human experience. Yet El Dia de los Muertos is also a day to remember and honor the spiritual journey of souls.

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