Trauma, Triggers and the Myth about Time*

Trigger warning: this article begins with an experience of a car accident.

On September 29, 2011, I was living in California with my family. My mom had just come in for a visit, and my daughters and I were taking her to Big Bear Lake to spend the day. The car was on cruise control at 60 mph and Enya gently played on the radio. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw two round headlights of a truck. I said to my daughter in the passenger seat, “What is this guy behind me…..?”

I never finished the sentence. The white Toyota Matrix hurled through the air doing somersaults. The front end hit the pavement. The backend hit the pavement. Three times this happened until it skidded on its side and stopped at a mound of ice plant on the side of the freeway. Through the cracked windshield I saw my 11-year-old daughter, propped up against that mound of ice plant, bruised, bloodied, shocked. Our lives were never the same.

Some people’s lives seem to flow in a narrative; mine had many stops and starts. That’s what trauma does. It interrupts the plot….It just happens, and then life goes on. No one prepares you for it. ~Jessica Stern, Denial: A Memoir of Terror

We all survived the accident. Life went on. I resented that. I needed life to stop. It didn’t. It doesn’t. But trauma lives on in our bodies. In the book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, author Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. says, “After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their life.”

After a traumatic event, many of us move on. Life doesn’t stop, and the messages we hear from the culture around us is: move on. It’s over. You survived. Get over it. And, so we do. We stop talking about it. We stop thinking about it. We get back into our lives. But, really, we are just suppressing that “inner chaos” and in doing so our lives and our selves no longer feel the same. We may stop feeling safe or joyful or content. We may experience flashbacks, which disturb our day-to-day activities. We may have physical sensations that scare us. We may be jumpy and anxious. We also might start drinking more alcohol or taking pills that calm us down. All this can be happening without any conscious reckoning that our bodies are still processing the trauma we experienced.

After our accident, I had flashbacks. I felt my body in that car again. I saw my daughter over and over on the side of the road. I cried. And, sometimes I had this overwhelming urge to scream, but couldn’t. The scream and terror, trapped inside me. For a while, I thought I had Multiple Sclerosis. My hands and feet would go numb. I would wake up in a panic in the middle of the night scared I was dying. What helped me is I had some awareness that was this was trauma processing itself through my body. I was also getting a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which has shown to be effective in the treatment of trauma.

Recognizing trauma, and treating it is essential. So many of us have experienced trauma. Sometimes just turning on the news, especially lately, is traumatic. We see our fellow human beings suffering in the aftermath of hurricanes, floods, fires and mass shootings. Or we are those fellow human beings caught up in survival, with hardly enough time to consider our mental and emotional states. There are also groups of us suffering from historical trauma, which is experienced multi-generationally by a specific cultural group. Many of us were abused and neglected in childhood. And so many of us keep going through life as if time heals the wounds. Time heals nothing because as Van Der Kolk says, the body keeps the score. It remembers. It holds the trauma, and if not conscious of it, the trauma binds us.

In brain scans, during flashbacks, the right hemisphere of our brains is activated. This is our emotional, intuitive and visual side of the brain. What is also known, according to brain research, is that the thalamus, which Van Der Kolk describes as the “cook” within the brain because all of our sensations join together there, shuts down. This is why trauma is often remembered in snippets of sounds, images and physical sensations and not in a narrative format, with a beginning, middle and an end. Therefore, people experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may receive several of these snippets daily, or several times a day. If there is no conscious connection to the traumatic event, they may feel like they are going crazy. These experiences also make it challenging to focus, concentrate and have new learning experiences. Overtime, if not addressed, a person can begin to shut down, becoming numb and depressed.

Fortunately, there are several interventions, which can help with the symptoms of traumatic stress. According to Van Der Kolk, “The fundamental issue in resolving traumatic stress is to restore the proper balance between the rational and emotional brains, so that you can feel in charge of how you respond and how you conduct your life.” He goes on to say, that we are shoved outside of this proper balance when we are triggered and then, become “reactive and disorganized.” Therefore, we must become conscious of these triggers. For example, recently I was triggered when I saw a car accident on a television show. Immediately, my body felt anxious and I became distracted and could not focus. When I recognized the symptoms in my body, I connected the image of the car accident on television to my own real experience in the Toyota Matrix. Upon making this connection, my mind could orient itself back to the present moment. I took some deep breaths and my body began to calm down. This would be an example of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is simply a state of being aware. Self-awareness is the fundamental principle of recovering from trauma. We just begin to notice, notice what is happening in our bodies. Notice what we are feeling, especially when triggered by either an external or internal event. Developing a meditation practice can help facilitate mindfulness. Journal writing can increase self-awareness. There are also many therapies, as mentioned earlier. Some of them include: EMDR, art, music and dance therapy, Yoga, and Narrative Therapy.

The important realization in regard to traumatic stress, is we do not have to be bound by it. We can be free in our bodies, minds and emotions. We can feel alive again, and take in new experiences. It takes consciousness. It takes desire to understand. It takes support, and we can know the support is there.

*Originally published in The Volk, Winter 2017

 

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Practice your Inhaling.

“There is the in-breath and there is the out-breath, and it’s easy to believe that we must exhale all the time, without ever inhaling. But the inhale is absolutely essential if you want to continue to exhale.” -Roshi Joan Halifax

Before I read this in Brené Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness today, yesterday in the shower, I got irritated by the culture we live in. Equal to my irritation was concern for humanity. Brené says we are in a spiritual crisis. I’ve thought this for years and it’s origin is in the quote above.

This culture demands we exhale constantly, and continually. Are we healthier for this? Are we wiser? Kinder? Maybe we think we are more productive, successful and cool. But, so what. We are losing ourselves— and essentially killing ourselves with all the exhaling.

For a week now I’ve been inhaling. I have finished my fall semester of graduate school, and I am in a break before my final semester. I’ve been pushing for four years to earn a degree, and although I anticipate this experience giving me discipline, knowledge and growth I could not have had otherwise, academic learning only uses a limited part of my mind.

Believe it or not, there was a time, before these four years, where I probably did too much inhaling. I used a larger part of my mind for introspection and self-study. I dug deep into internal spaces, many of them dark. But, in these years of inhaling, I learned so much about myself— some of who I am, but mostly of who I am not. This kind of introspection is brutal, and also beautiful, and is absolutely necessary to our growth.

In these several years of exhaling, and holding my breath through graduate school, I have learned what the university wants me to learn. I have gained skills and knowledge from books, projects and papers. I have pushed myself beyond my comfort level to finish the readings, projects and papers. I have become an expert at organizing my time, or more accurate, obsessing about my time. And yes, I have been more outwardly productive, and I will see myself as successful and cool once I have two degrees on my wall. But— I am going to be working with people after I graduate. People who will be struggling with mental health issues, and essentially experiencing their own spiritual crisis. The books, projects and papers of academia will only take me so far. Those years of introspection is what will be the core foundation of everything I have to offer.

This past week, I inhaled again. Next week, I will do the same. That small part of mind gave way to the larger and time hasn’t mattered. Projects and papers and textbooks haven’t mattered. I’ve read books I want to read. I’ve worked on my projects and writings. I hear my inner voice again. She’s still here. I heard her in the shower yesterday. She is concerned.

Now, that I have experienced extremes on both ends of the exhale and inhale I see how important it is for balance. I see how I needed the long time of the inhale to dig through the past, to face my demons and come out the other side. I see how I’ve needed this long time to exhale— to throw myself into this external world and learn about it, and at times be horrified and frightened by it. Right now, as a culture we are off balance. We are doing far too much exhaling. Our focus needs to come back to the in-breath, the inhale. Winter is a perfect time for introspection. To take a break. To check in with ourselves: how are we feeling? What do we need? Who have we become? Where are we headed? What small shifts can we make to change directions? How can we love ourselves more? Love each other more? What is in our dark spaces that needs to see the light? 

sunset

One of the inhaling practices I did this week was to begin a new journal, and instead of venting through the pages as I often do, I pasted some images that expressed my intentions for the coming year. Next to the images I wrote in present tense about how these intentions will unfold for me. One of my intentions is to lean into, with full heart and vulnerability, two primary relationships. I have spent years blaming, resenting and essentially fearing them. I have put up my armor and said: you will not hurt me. I have used the weapons of self-righteousness, manipulation and victimhood. These once, so I believed, gave me power. Now, I see their truth— they only create more distrust, resentment and therefore, further isolation.

Over the past several months, I have added a small movement to my yoga/mediation practice. I open my arms, roll back my shoulders, look up and say, I am open. When I was a little girl, trick or treating with my dad, I took off my Cinderella mask and said to my dad: I just want to be myself. This has been my journey— twists, turns and tangles of unraveling all that I am not to become who I am. To open up my arms, roll back my shoulders and say, I am open. This is the wilderness Brené speaks about. It takes courage and a hell of a lot of commitment.

To know ourselves, we must inhale- even if it just starts with one deeper breath in. If we do this continually, we will tip the scales toward truth and light, and this spiritual crisis will transform into a spiritual revolution.

The Soul Reporter

What Space Are You In?

Do you ever notice if you are having a new experience with yourself? Are you aware you are having an experience with yourself?

I am having a new experience with myself. Suddenly, I find I don’t have much to say. I notice less chatter inside of my head. I notice I don’t have much to feel. The presence inside feels smooth, almost void of conflict. It kind of feels like death. But, really it’s just a foreign state of less inner conflict and disturbance and more inner silence.

 

WaterIsThereSomewhere

The Devil’s Kettle, Northern Minnesota

Sometimes, in this unfamiliar state I watch myself try and create drama and conflict within me. Sometimes, I question the silence. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s depression or sadness. But I know those states and that is not what this is. This state is not peaceful. It is not joyful. It is not sad. It just is.

The silence allows me to notice life outside of me, people mostly. I watch the drama people bring onto themselves. Then I watch them blame others or their environments. I think some of us don’t feel alive unless there’s drama and conflict. I think many of us fear the silence. I want to say to the people— you are creating this chaos and you don’t have to. This is the lesson to be learned.

But, how?

The Sufi poet Rumi said, “Work. Keep digging your well. Don’t think about getting off from work. Water is there somewhere.” I have dug my well in many ways. I dug through journaling, through reading, through therapy, through processing out loud, through walks in the woods, through crying my eyes out, through running in the streets not knowing where to run, through fighting, and most recently through a yoga and meditation practice I learned from a guru. In my digging I hit rock, branches and mud. I got hit, kicked, pummeled, bruised and I thought, broken. I also hit some clear spots, and rested. I cannot say I have hit water yet or if I am even close. What I can say is the current space is dark, unfamiliar, quiet and still. And for the first time in an unfamiliar space, I am unafraid. Instead I am slightly curious and mostly present.

Your how comes with desire. You must want to find the water. You must want liberation more than you want drama. You must keep digging even when it’s hard. You must keep working even when you think you’re not getting anywhere. You must want to be free more than anything else. And then, you’ll come to a space that feels different than all the others. You’ll wonder where you are, but you won’t be afraid. The space will be clear. Vacant, but oddly alive without any more limitations, without any more rocks to hit or stones to throw or vines to be caught in. You’ll be suspended in this space. I don’t know where you’ll go next, but water is there somewhere.

 

The Soul Reporter.

 

 

 

 

 

The Resistance Pattern.

I am in a fight with resistance. It’s a fight I’ve been fighting underneath the surface, probably since birth. Now it is a fight that is risen to the surface to which I am fully aware and very uncomfortable with.

A few weeks ago I went through an intensive program called Inner Engineering. It consists of learning practices like yoga, asanas and breathing/meditation technologies. For four days, two of them for 12 hours I sat cross-legged on the a floor learning the practices and listening to videos of Sadhguru, a man and a mystic with a mission to bring these technologies, as he calls them to “create inner wellbeing.”

After the retreat, I did feel well and for a couple of days after. I felt alive and free and large within myself. Then, I had to take all of that and fit it into my life, which right now feels small, constricting, dull and consisting of choices I made when I didn’t feel so alive. What to do? Well, of course- resist. Resist my small, constricting life. I resist homework. I resist winter. I resist my responsibilities. I resist my dog dying. I resist that he is still alive and I have to carry him up the stairs and clean up his pee. I resist Trump. I resist doing my inner engineering practices two times a day. I even resist my resistance. All of this resisting is making me kind of crabby, to say the least.

SONY DSC

And, here’s the beauty- the resistance is here so I can face it. So I can look at it. Feel it. Wrestle with it and eventually surrender to it. In the surrendering I will find there is nothing to resist. Sadhguru said over and over again, only this moment is inevitable. I couldn’t grasp it. I still really can’t grasp it. He says, if you only accept that this moment is inevitable “your aliveness will blossom.” This is because when we are only in this moment we are connected with existence, with life.

My resistance stops this inevitable moment experience. I resist this inevitable moment. I don’t know why. But, what I do know the reasons and the patterns are coming undone and I am doing my best to not resist this.

The Soul Reporter

 

The Month of September

fall

Once, many years ago, while going through a particularly difficult time I got this idea in my head I would die on September 16 (0f that particular year). I was reminded of this today, September 16, on my walk. Suddenly, I smelled something foul. I looked to my right and there was a dead racoon in the grass. Several steps later, once I arrived in the woods near my house, a dead squirrel on the path. The bodies were still fresh. Was this a sign?

I thought: death is all around us. I remembered all the death that has surrounded my family and myself since December. On December 11, just as my kids and I were about to watch A Christmas Story, my dad called. He was not himself. He said, Mary Lou died. Mary Lou was my step-mother. Then, in January my husband’s last grandmother passed away. It snowed in April when Price died alone in his elevator. June took Uncle Mel and then, his wife, my beloved Aunt on September 6.

September 6 is now shared with September 24, my father’s birthday, when my best friend from Kindergarten died in a car accident when she was only 27 years old. Along with September 11 and September 29. On September 29th, 2011 I was driving my white Toyota Matrix on a Los Angeles freeway. My mother and 11-year old daughter were in the backseat, my 19-year old daughter in the front seat with me. We were listening to Enya and playing the alphabet game. Suddenly, a large truck with glaring headlights was in my rear view mirror. Before I could finish my sentence about what I saw, that large truck hit my car. The car flew and flipped through the air several times until it finally landed on its side. I remember wondering, am I going to die?

car

The Toyota Matrix

I have told and written this story many times, and this year, five years later, I notice the story no longer holds the emotions and trauma it once had.  Now, what seems to be unfolding are the lessons and awakenings from that day that changed everything. Death is all around us.

But, what does this mean exactly? And, is it death or just change? Here’s what is becoming clear for me— life. I think I have been so afraid of death and that impending shoe drop (in my case a tow truck that comes out of nowhere) that life has been cumbersome. I noticed this heaviness after I returned from my aunt’s funeral. Prior to her funeral, I sat with her for four days while she went through the process of death, of change. I had never been this close to the death of another human being or for so long.

flo

Me and Aunt Flo

Before I entered her home, I was afraid of what I might see. But, all my fear went away when she opened her eyes and smiled at me (and my dad and daughter). All I felt was love. I knew I loved her, but those four days I felt my love for her. I was able to tell her she mattered. This experience is invaluable to me now.  But there is a physical, mental and emotional price, at least for me, when going through something like this. That price felt heavy. It felt exhausted. It felt sad.

After the car accident, I carried heavy, exhausted and sad for nearly 5 years.

I feel lighter now. Life is becoming more clear, but not because I have figured anything out. But because I’m not taking it all so seriously and maybe because the desire to live life finally outweighs the fear of living life. I am moving, once again, toward curiosity, beauty, wonder and listening. Listening, as I did on my walk today, that I needed to get grounded. This looked like me stopping in the middle of the forest doing tree pose and volcano breath. This means committing to creating a life that will match my desire to stay in harmony with my higher self and nature, and not the day-to-day grind of this current culture.

I also intend to move more toward what my aunt taught me—love. And, believe me, I am a newbie to love. It’s always been inside of me, but it’s the emotion or state of being that I resist the most. At the least, it makes me feel awkward. At the most, it frightens me as if I might be swallowed by it. But, while my aunt was in  hospice I had a new experience with love. As I stroked her hair, held her hand and kissed her forehead as I said goodbye and I love you, love comforted me.

Love is a comfort, not a burden I need to protect myself from. So yes, death, the unexpected, change surrounds us—not to stop us or scare us or burden us, although it can, but to notice it, wonder about it, learn from it and let it guide us to more clarity of life, comfort of love and truth of being.

The Soul Reporter