Dear Diary

2/13/19  Thoughts Today

I went to visit my sister Tracy yesterday and while I was at her house I was really grateful to have her in town so I could just go to her house, sit on her bed and do what I wanted to do.  Yesterday I pulled my Spanish homework out of my bag and I just started reading.  She was on deadline, and she waved me to her room, told me to make myself comfortable.   She had a very comfortable bed and she also had some construction going on in her house. I was happy it was not my problem.   The landlord and her plumber were there and had the bathroom torn apart.  “The toilet is chupando agua,” I heard one of them say  (sucking water).  Maybe there is some kind of leak so they told her she can’t use it until it’s fixed.  They told her she could go downstairs and use the one in the apartment that is being renovated on the ground level. 

I was noticing some feelings: Admiration and also a little envy.  Tracy’s house is amazing. She has started to develop some really healthy routines and self-care strategies.  She has developed what seem to be some really healthy friendships in her neighborhood and she kind of “lights up” when she talks about them.  She brought me some nettle tea, I ate some grapefruit I had packed in my bag, and when she was able to take a break, she invited me to the kitchen so we could prepare some lunch.  She was so excited.  I noticed that when I was trying to talk to her I was having trouble finding my words.  I was stumbling, groping, grasping.  Place names.  People names.  They just weren’t coming.  And I wanted to share with her so much.  I wanted to be big and social and important like her.  And I also noticed that she was very attentive and very (as usual) very good at advocating for herself (a bit differently  this time, maybe), but really attuning to me and demonstrating her care and loyalty to me, regardless of my inability to express myself as fluidly as her. 

Digesting later, what that experience was like, I noticed some negative thought patterns that come up and tell me that she’s doing it better, that I should be different – that I’m behind.  All those things definitely irrational today (relics from her being 6 when I was 2, probably).  But they helped me identify the feelings.

When I give such negative thought patterns my time and attention I can see that I’m exactly where I should be.  I have so so so much support: human support, economic support, emotional support, physical support, divine support.  I have what I need and I have permission to ask for more.

I talk to myself gently: My house is simple and uncluttered because visually I need that.  My life is spacious because that is what I’m asking for.  My systems are still under construction.  I’m still developing systems because my whole structure is rearranging – with my diet – requiring things that are soft to eat.  Exploring – feeling my way through that whole process and having extra appointments to support the physical reconstruction and anatomical adjustments that are being made to correct my bite.  I’m grateful for exactly where I am right now.  There are so many things I’m looking forward to and the project I’m working on right now (which may not look that exciting; that doesn’t vibrate at such a social level), but is mine to do right now: fixing my bite so that I’m not in pain all the time!  And that is a project that has an end point to it.  I will be completing those physical things – the re-patterning of my muscle memory.  The fixing of my molars so that I can eat without pain and the application of my braces so that my teeth actually look like they have been cared for and that I have the means to take care of myself well.  And maybe even opening up my avenue of expression so that I can more easily and fluidly and confidently express my thoughts and ideas.

I think about why this was not taken care of before, in the “developed” United States, where I grew up and lived for so long.  More feelings.  And understanding.  Compassion for myself and for my parents.  I mean, how could I have taken care of all of this in the US?  A single mom with no insurance for dental care?  Making barely enough to get by?  How could my parents have taken care of this with nine children, aversion to credit and boot-strap values?  They couldn’t have.  And I couldn’t have while I was raising children either.  But that’s another topic.  That is what I’m thinking about today.

Ripple Effect in My Body

I feel like I have been following a trail of breadcrumbs to the diagnosis of TMD or Temporomandibular Joint Disorder, which I received with a huge sense of relief in November.  I followed one un-ignorable breadcrumb to another: the inability to chew because of pain and sensitivity, months and even years after getting dental work on several molars; developing what seemed like tendonitis in my right arm; chronic, never abating pain in the neck; one chronically constricted muscle along the right margin of my spine; the inability to sit for very long before experiencing back pain; difficulty standing without slumping.  My massage therapist and others had mentioned mouth guards, and how well they worked for a lot of people.  My chiropractor noticed that the pattern of lock-up I experience seemed to originate somewhere around my right neck/shoulder.  My CranioSacral therapist said that there was an irritated nerve in my molar, but that the tooth was healthy enough.  An iridologist in Missouri said that there was something significant going on in my jaw/shoulder area.  I clearly had a problem.  Now the breadcrumbs had finally led me to a solution.

Since I’ve been seeing a specialist recommended by my dentist, and have been wearing a mouth guard, I have been slowly recognizing that for many years I had been unconsciously clenching – not just in my jaw, and jutting it forward, but other places in my body as well.  Little by little I bring consciousness to places in my body where I had been unknowingly tightening my muscles.  And I am learning, slowly, how to direct my attention toward those places with love and care.  And even more slowly, I am learning what it feels like when I am truly relaxed.  As I do, the pain is going away as if by magic. 

I have been instructed to wear my mouth guard night and day.  Wearing it during the night was helping, but not enough.  Dr. Citlali, my specialist, explained that my jaw is so habituated to being in a forward position, that I will need some time to train it to be where it is supposed to be.  After having the guard and using it night and day (when I’m not eating), when I take it out, I notice that my teeth come together differently.  Now it feels a little odd because it will take a while for me to get used to having it in the right place after having it forward all these years (maybe +50?).

This makes me think about how that misalignment must have been impacting my teeth.  When I was always chewing using my molars in a way that they were not designed to be used, with the jaw jutted forward, they just didn’t line up right, which caused undue wear and tear on them.  They served me as best they could under the circumstances, but with time, they wore down, chipped and cracked.  Now I understand why I have always needed so much dental work on my molars.  Before this treatment is said and done, I’m going to need to raise the height of the molars themselves because form follows function; my teeth have changed to accommodate my jaw movement patterns over time.  As a result of my jaw being relaxed and in the right place, many muscles (that I had no idea I was clenching) begin to relax.  This one little thing has had an impact throughout my entire body. 

The good news is that in response to the treatment (ongoing work with Dr. Citlali via the mouth guard) my body is relaxing and settling into its new normal.  I am noticing a ripple effect.  My arm (I couldn’t use that arm without pain) is back to normal.  My back feels somewhat improved, but it’s all the way back there and I still can’t really tell for sure.  The brittle feeling I was having in my feet and ankles is gone, and I sense my feet as newly supple and responsive to the demands I put on them.

With ongoing care scheduled (I have an appointment with the kinesiologist and two massages with my favorite massage therapist in the next couple weeks), I hope to bring even more awareness to those places so that my new normal will be relaxed, stronger and even more resilient than before. 

With this kind of care, education and support, I can learn to notice when I am clenching or drawing in, and anytime I tune in, I will more easily and automatically be able to return to a healthy, relaxed state. 

Through my healing process, I am bringing loving, conscious attention to obviously affected places, and my body in general, and am definitely feeling results.  Over the years, my legs did not really seem to be part of me, and it felt precarious to move through life in a fluid and grounded way.  By comparison, I can look back at times when it felt as though I was walking on tree stumps.  What I experience now is so much more fluid and integrated.  Like my right leg – my shins – my heels.  They are now parts of me.  I walk with more connectedness/awareness, more fully inhabiting my feet and lower legs. 

So, the journey continues.  I am super excited about this, and I am interested to see what happens next!

Anxiety as a Substitute for Grief

Anxiety and Repetitive Repeating/Looping Neurotic Thoughts.

These are coping mechanisms designed to protect you from pain – Deep. Terrifying. Buried. Pain.  So it’s really a very adaptive coping mechanism whenever you’re a child and you don’t have a parent or older mentor you know you can go to for help or support.  Whenever you are a small one, dealing with the pain of facing the world and your emotions is just too much to do alone, when you don’t have adequate support.  But as adults, we can begin to see that these repetitive/looping thoughts as they really are when we are all grown up.  They are just lies.  With just a little guidance, we can do the work of exhuming these buried hurt feelings and letting ourselves put words to them.  Then they can become harmless stories.  By reconstructing the stories, we can gather all the pieces together in one place, so it’s no longer in the shadow, and when it’s not in the shadow, it’s not so scary anymore.   Feeling grief is work, but it’s quite do-able for an adult.

You already have what it takes to parent yourself well.  Check out my online course if you’d like more information on how to parent yourself as an adult.

Difficult Women – Book Review

Roxane Gay’s title, Difficult Women, speaks to any woman who has felt difficult to love.  I had long since owned that title and studied the qualities that made me “difficult” in relationships.  I had searched tirelessly to identify the conditions to which I might attribute this unfortunate state of affairs.  So when my sister, the day before her wedding, gifted me this book and began to explain her intention, maybe for fear that I would feel labeled or defensive, I waved her off.  Thank you!  I told her.  I love it already.  Gay’s writing pulled me in from the very first paragraph.  Her voice captures all the ways women might be considered difficult in intimate relationships yet at the same time looks deeper at who they are and why.  We come out of this reading experience so much richer for having explored these stories with her.  They are fiction – products of Gay’s imagination.  But for me, each is a window into a rich and ornate chamber of its author’s mind.  This book leaves me so much richer, with a stronger sense of how a woman might be loved well, even if temporarily.  It leaves me with a broader vision of how a woman can allow her difficult self to be loved and why that might add value to her life.  It leaves me with a clearer personal understanding of the complexity of myself, love and relationship and the natural grit and beauty of coupling in its infinite forms.

And I feel a little less difficult after having read this book.

 

Other books by Roxane Gay I plan to read:

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

An Untamed State

Bad Feminist

Ayiti

& several comic books in Marvel’s Black Panther: World of Wakanda series

 

“I vigorously encourage women and people of color to be ambitious, to want and work for every damn thing they can dream of. We’re allowed to want, nakedly, as long as we’re willing to put in the proverbial work….I am ambitious because I love what I do, not simply for ambition’s sake. Ambition is what allows me to take creative risks and try things I never thought I could do. Ambition makes me a better thinker and writer. Ambition makes me.”                       — Roxane Gay

Horse Therapy – Living Without Defenses

Three weeks ago I had a Horse Therapy session with Tonya Crady in Festus MO.  It took some coaxing for me to do it, but I finally agreed, having been called in many ways to find out more about this mysterious healing modality.  This was my chance.  I knew Tonya, and I knew she was good people.  The therapy itself gave me plenty to chew on, with Tonya’s support in assigning meaning to each of her three beautiful horses and seeing what they did when they encountered me.  During the session, Tonya gave me a task to complete and watched how I went about doing it, and took pictures of me throughout the session.  She also instructed me to pay attention to the other animals that showed up in my life on the day of the therapy, during the therapy and afterwards.  Days after the therapy we went through the pictures she had taken, which told me a whole lot about myself, what I’m up to on a social and emotional level, and a whole lot of other things I could have never learned in traditional psychotherapy.  Today I am arriving at some very exciting new realizations about defenses I have used against intimacy and what the Universe is trying to tell me about it.

The therapy session itself was kind of puzzling.  Trying to figure out what it all meant, trying to do it “right,” trying to do it efficiently, as my mom was kind enough to wait for me in the car while I did it, circumstances as they were.  We were there anyway, she encouraged me to do it, so I did.  After it was over, we all got into Tonya’s jeep and she proceeded to drive us back to her house where Mom’s car was.  It had gotten quite dark and when we were about halfway to Tonya’s house we all saw the possum with his gleaming eyes staring us down, there in the middle of the road.  Tonya slowed down to a crawl in her jeep, assuming that the creature would run and save itself, but when we got to where the animal was, we heard a sickening bump as the vehicle struck the animal.  Or did the animal strike the vehicle?  Tonya looked at me with an agonized grimace.  It had not been her intention to kill the little guy.  During the next several days, more dead possums showed up along with Skunk and Armadillo. Armadillo is said to represent armoring as a defense.  And Skunk also showed up representing defensiveness.  They all showed up as carrion, though.

What I’m coming to believe is that this phase of my life is about living without defenses.  The primary defense that was put on the chopping block that night was Possum, followed by Skunk and Armadillo.

Possum freezes, plays dead.  His nervous system shuts down so that his predator thinks he’s dead (or gone), and often the predator will lose interest and leave him alone long enough for him to escape.  Freezing, playing dead, shutting down until the danger is gone, and then leaving when the coast is clear is exactly what I learned to do, watching my sister Tracy’s attempts at independent thought, questioning authority, or fighting for her rights in the family, which brought a whole lot of noise and resistance from our parents, and sometimes even what seemed to me like violence.  It all felt like too much.  Individuating seemed like something I, personally, would never be able to pull off, being 4 years younger and so much smaller, so I avoided all that and did my best to get along.  I had defenses at my disposal, like stinking up the place with stinging criticism or an unflattering “truth” when the opportunity presented itself or if backed into a corner.  And for sure I armored myself to the hilt.

This might explain why I was so shy and felt so generally unsafe to be playful or controversial or vulnerable around groups of people.  Instead I was serious and hardworking.  I was “the good one.”  I listened carefully and did what I could to offer support.

This also might explain why I am affected the way I am when a loved one escapes injury or experiences a close call – with my daughters in particular.  While talking to Tracy yesterday I was explaining how when my oldest daughter told me about a close call she’d had, and how thankful she was to be safe, I noticed that the image of the disaster she escaped was still stronger than the information I got with my eyes when I saw her, all intact and smiling afterwards (more than two weeks ago).

I don’t have much in the way of childhood memories, but I get a strong sense that when we were younger, and Tracy was being threatened with violence and when there was a lot of noise and angry discussion going on, I must have been terrified for her safety and mine, and probably dissociated, and didn’t ever quite recover from that.  Unlike Tracy, who was duking her way out, knowing what she wanted, and believing that she could cause a ruckus and still have a family and a home afterwards, she moved through the normal cycles of discomfort, vocalizing her discomfort, getting various reactions from our parents; sometimes getting her way and sometimes not.  In any case, she didn’t learn that resistance was futile, as I did.  She could feel the rewards of her small victories, which at my age probably didn’t make much sense to me, whether it was fighting to be able to listen to a popular radio station, watch a TV program, stay out an hour later with friends or get an allowance.

Through Horse Therapy, I learned that I can get what I want and need, I am way more powerful than I ever imagined, and I have not only adoration, but also support and cooperation from those around me.  What is required of me is to believe in my power and worth and ask for what I want.

Here are the other animals that showed up:

The support Tonya received to help her prepare for the session and set the foundation for the session:

  • Barn Swallows – sun rays and playfulness; showering home with love and protection
  • Frog – connects us with world of emotions; supports us in time of change
  • Turtle (with missing foot) – take it slow. Be gentle.  Abundant wisdom.
  • Groundhog – Ability to watch out for danger and move to safety; family, community.

The support Tonya received during the session:

  • Fly – abrupt change regarding lies, gossip, dirty; impurities

The support I received to help me prepare for the session and set the foundation for the session:

  • Deer (in a large group with babies) – Sensitivity, intuition, gentleness; fertility

The support I received during the session:

  • Lightning bugs – Illumination

During the night after the session, I spent some time lying in the bathroom floor with cramps.  I processed some old memories about an ongoing trauma from my late teens having to do with my first husband and how our relationship began.

The support I received after the session for processing and release:

  • Armadillo – helps you define your space; armoring
  • Skunk – defense mechanism; prudence, valor, awareness
  • Possum – protects itself by dissociating, playing dead, becoming immobile

My old, automatic defenses are useless to me now, they don’t really protect me.  I can’t armor myself, cause a big stink or play dead anymore if I want to get what I really want, which is deep and rewarding closeness with other people.  I release the need to use these defenses any longer.  I allow myself to move through life in my power, using my voice to communicate with others about who I am, what I want, and what I need.

The support I received even later, for processing and release:

  • Pooping Hawk – awareness; sharp eyesight. Release.

The support I received even later, for processing and release:

  • Pooping Squirrel – Don’t be so serious; have more fun. Release.
  • Baby bunny – fertility, innocence.

Another important thing to note is that the session was on Saturday, two days after the full moon.  Lots of planets were retrograde.  We were still in the very powerful activation of release, with a need to slow down and just be where we were.  All of this served to kick up what had been in the shadow, so that it could be released.

Animals that have visited since:

  • Groundhog – watch out for danger, boundaries, and hard work; helps us bring up stuff to work on
  • More squirrels – fun, playfulness
  • Cricket – cheerfulness, good luck
  • Grasshopper – good Luck. Trust your inner voice. Take a leap of faith and jump forward without fear. This has to do with change on a larger scale, and has to do with how you perceive myself.  You are taking the right steps to move forward in your current situation. Go ahead and move forward, to get past what is hindering you.
  • Blue heron – immerse yourself in the world of feelings and look for your own truths.  If you only ever look at yourself in a negative frame of mind, you never really understand your true potential or see the opportunities that come your way.  Heron tells us that we need to really reflect on our feelings and get to know who we are intimately to find our true calling in life. He tells us to claim responsibility and face the enemy that lives inside us all.    Sometimes he wants us to find balance with our truths inside, work on our inner weaknesses and develop the inner strengths we possess so that we really own our spirituality.
  • Deer – sensitivity, intuition, gentleness; fertility
  • Turkey (maybe) – a spirit animal closely associated with honoring nature and the Earth. Symbol of abundance, this totem animal encourages us to honor our sources of nourishment, whether they are physical, emotional or spiritual. The turkey reminds us to develop a harmonious relationship with the land and our environment and consider them as foundations to our well-being and sustenance. The Turkey totem is a powerful guide to unlocking the fullness of life and feeling content with what we have instead of accumulating material belongings to seek happiness.
  • Cardinal – in this case, cardinal symbolism is reminding you to be clearer with your intentions. Moreover, setting a clear and insightful goal for yourself will accomplish everything you are asking for and more. The key is to focus and set your intentions clearly to expedite matters.
  • Hummingbird – lightness of being, swiftness, independence, courage, sensitivity, determination, love, beauty, endurance, wisdom, vitality, hope, and enjoyment of life.
  • Owl – intuition, transition, wisdom, silence, observation, quick wit, independence, power, intelligence, and protection. Prophecy and wisdom.

You can find Tonya Crady here.  Drop her a line if you want to set up an appointment.

Meet Mariana

Mariana is my Spanish teacher, my friend, my translator and now my publisher.  Here she describes her publishing house, Ban Pang – Casa de Harina Editorial.

Thanks to Mariana, my book is going to be available to speakers of Spanish anywhere in the world.  Being In My Body (Estar en mi Cuerpo) is now available in Spanish as a PDF.  Read more about the book here.  You can get your copy here.  By August 18 it will also be available in paperback!

Life in the Fast Lane

The past several weeks, since I left Mexico in June, have been rather intense but 100% blessed and good.  Maybe I should just say that change is in the air, and I am going full steam in that direction.  I have been in Kalispell Montana, re-taking EMDR 1&2.  I stayed 6 days with a family who put me up in their pop-up camper, out back, took me in as family, shuttled me to and from class, and made sure I got a chance to visit Glacier National Forest and connect with their community in Kalispell.  Prior to completing this course, post re-training was a big blank, because I knew not what training would be like, or how these people would feel to me, or what the next steps would be.  I have a better idea of that now, and all lights seem to be green for me as I move forward.  As I have time to attend to it, I plan to complete my consultant status, which will involve building more of a professional relationship with the trainer, Roy Kiessling, and then communicating with him that I am interested in becoming a trainer (which I already have, but he’s a very busy guy and the time has to be right, and there are still things I need to do before I’m ready).  I absolutely love his approach, his style, and the content and organization of his training.  It is as different as night and day when compared to Francine Shapiro’s approach, and I heard so many stories from the other trainers about how it had also been difficult for them to feel supported and/or taken in by the larger, overarching EMDR organization given the relative rigidity and sterile feel of Shapiro’s style.

Sooooo, I will finish out my visit in Missouri, which will include my daughter’s and granddaughter’s birthday, watching my daughter and her partner as they turn their school bus into a tiny home that they will live in this winter, and as they move equipment and raw materials into some kind of a studio space in downtown Columbia; walk through my other daughter’s house since she has already left for Cyprus, and is gallivanting around in Portugal and will soon be in Morocco and Rome before finding a place to live in Cyprus!  I might squeeze some sessions in there, and some quality visits with family and people I consider friends.  And then back to Mexico, where I am committed to doing at least a month of intensive Spanish lessons.

Although the printing of my book seems to be delayed, I’m not at all worried about it.  There has just been so much movement in my life, all of which has been grace-filled and obviously in flow, that I know this timing is in divine order.

I envision my new life in which I am involved as a trainer in regular (maybe quarterly) trainings where I show up and teach and get paid by a well-run organization that takes care of the other myriad details.  I envision myself having consultees on a regular basis, and becoming a better and even more effective EMDR therapist.  I see myself feeling more and more comfortable in front of groups, knowing that I will have exactly the right words and experience, and that my clients and students will be enriched by this amazing modality, and grateful and empowered.

Whew.  I gotta be honest, I will not be bored if I just have a day to sleep in, to read, and not have a single appointment.  There are tons of details packed into this next three weeks, and I pledge to take it one day at a time.  Grateful for the richness of life.

I received some really great EMDR therapy during training, from a young man who was attending as a student in our 5-day training.  It was the most profound therapy I’ve ever had, and I’m still processing.

So at the moment I’m heading back to Columbia MO, where I will be for the next three weeks or so.  My sister Tami Brunk, who was bit in the ear by a brown recluse spider is okay, but it’s been a difficult journey.  She has had to postpone her travels to the Yucatan, where she is getting ready to launch a new phase of her life.  My other sister, Tracy Barnett, will be headed back to Mexico about the same time I am.  She’s babysitting my granddaughter while my daughter is packing all her stuff and getting out of her apartment before her lease is up in the next couple days.  My daughter and granddaughter will be spending 10 days in Portland with my other sister, Trina Brunk.

Tracy, my mom and I went to visit my brother, and we stayed at his home from Thursday through Sunday morning right before I left for Montana.  It was a priceless though intense several days, and we’re all glad, of course, to have had that opportunity to connect with him and his family.  He’s great, as he tells it.  His family is struggling.  And there is a lot of grace and love in that home as he navigates these last days/weeks/months/years? of his life, living it all to the fullest with a Stage 4 Cancer Diagnosis (as of 3 years ago).  We played some pinochle, we told some stories.  Mom asked him for his advice on some things she needs to handle on the farm that my dad would have helped her with if he were still around.  My step-nephew forged a blade out of a huge nail, and my brother was working on a vest of chain mail he was crafting with his step-son.  Our being there, obviously, kept their family from having their normal intimate moments, and taxed my sister-in-law, and a big part of this visit was her coming to us for support in telling the rest of the family that overnights were not going to be possible anymore.  Since we have such an enormous family, and lots of little ones, they have decided to protect their remaining days together “as if they were running a hospital,” as their pastor advised.  The rest of the family will have to observe visiting hours and restrict their visits to day trips, and/or find accommodations nearby.  The time they have left is truly precious, and should not be stressed by the work involved in hosting guests.  We are all so grateful for her willingness to approach this in her own way, and to give us this opportunity to see Scott as he faces this stage of his life.

So it has been truly intense, with the son of my youngest sister having a coming of age ceremony and my youngest daughter having a going-away camping Kaboodle at my mother’s farm, a niece adjusting to life with a newly adopted infant and navigating all those legal processes, etc, etc, etc.

I am still a bit dizzy from all that.  But absolutely grateful.  This is what having a close-knit big family looks like. ?  It can be exhausting at times, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I am wishing you a fun and fulfilling rest of your summer.

Te amo mucho,

Toni

Photo Shoot – Being In My Body (Estar En Mi Cuerpo)

This is what emotional work can look like!

This past couple days has been so interesting, as I wrestle with my body’s terror about being the center of attention and knee-jerk reactions to staying present in situations where resources are coming from others to me, specifically.  It’s really stretching my mind and my understanding and challenges the wiring of my brain.  Not always fun, and not always comfortable, but always held in love and gentleness and so much kindness and creativity.

Hope you like my photo collection!  Watch for more photos from the shoot which will be appearing on Facebook and other forms of social media over the next couple months.  They will make up the launch for Estar En Mi Cuerpo, but they will be professional photographs by Kitzia, who I am sure you are going to love.  For those of you who don’t know, Estar En Mi Cuerpo is the Spanish title for Being In My Body, What You Might Not Have Known About Trauma, Dissociation, & The Brain.  The other women in the photos are so dear to my heart – my translator, Mariana and her sister, Margarita.

Margarita, setting the tone for Day 1

Mariana, Shoot Director, Translator and Publisher

Kitzia, Photographer

Kitzia, Mariana, Margarita, at Bicycle Snack Station

Bicycle wheel table and reading the coffee grounds

Juice and coffee stop

Kitzia loves this pup

Photograph the photographer – What a love

It just doesn’t get any sweeter than this.

Aren’t I photogenic?

The Crew – Day 2

Toni Rahman Embodied – Mid-MO Tour 2017

After being south of the border for 4 years, Toni will be coming to Mid-MO in October to share two things:

1) Being In My Body: What You Might Not Have Known About Trauma, Dissociation & The Brain

  • Coffee & Conversation at Heart Body & Soul, followed by Book Signing on October 7, 10:30 am
  • Daniel Boone Regional Library – Local Author Fair on October 28, 10:00 am-2:00 pm

2) Pop-Up Clinics – a new way of networking and connecting with yourself and the abundance around you.  Read an article about Pop-Up Clinics in Ajijic Mexico here.

You can hear an interview with Toni on the Trauma Therapist Podcast here.

The Body Keeps The Score – Book Review

One of my favorite things to do is reading good books.  I finished reading Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score some months ago, but it has taken me a while to report on it.  Besides having gleaned 25 pages of quotes, I’m feeling the need to go back and re-read the whole thing.  This was a book of serious ahas.  Van der Kolk is himself a survivor of early relational trauma – a fact of which he was unaware until well into his professional career.  Currently the Medical Director of the Trauma Center in Boston, he is also a Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University Medical School and serves as the Co-Director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress Complex Trauma Network.  You can read more about him here.

“Trauma,” says van der Kolk, “drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past.”  Its effects are profound and lasting when it occurs before we have language to describe it or even hope to get the help we need.  But, “like a splinter that causes an infection, it is the body’s response to the foreign object that becomes the problem more than the object itself.”

I love this book because Van der Kolk gives me words for things I had no idea how to talk about before.  And he validates suspicions that have nagged at me for decades.  For instance, when I was 24 and had already ditched my first husband and abandoned my three-year-old son, I was puzzled by the lack of pain I felt.  What was wrong with me, anyway?  I had many explanations, some of which had to do with depression, being clueless about what I was going to do with my life, and feeling incapable of caring well for a small child while trying to do all those things that I had been taught that a husband was supposed to do.  Van der Kolk calls this “Numbing.”  In describing what one survivor of developmental trauma experienced, he says, “He desperately wanted to love his family, but he just couldn’t evoke any deep feelings for them.”

Numbing may keep us from suffering in the short-term, but long-term is another matter.  “…though the mind may learn to ignore the messages from the emotional brain, the alarm signals don’t stop.  The emotional brain keeps working, and stress hormones keep sending signals to the muscles to tense for action or immobilize in collapse.  The physical effects on the organs go on unabated until they demand notice when they are expressed as illness.  Medications, drugs, and alcohol can also temporarily dull or obliterate unbearable sensations and feelings.  But the body continues to keep the score.”

“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.”

The seemingly endless path of breadcrumbs leading me back to my own trauma included my status as “stimulus seeker.”  Though I am most likely on the mild end of this spectrum, survivors of trauma don’t feel quite alive if they aren’t in the middle of some kind of chaos.  Says van der Kolk, “Somehow the very event that caused them so much pain had also become their sole source of meaning.  They felt fully alive only when they were revisiting their traumatic past.”

“That is why so many abused and traumatized people feel fully alive in the face of actual danger, while they go numb in situations that are more complex but objectively safe, like birthday parties or family dinners.”

All of this is determined at a very physical level.  “If an organism is stuck in survival mode, its energies are focused on fighting off unseen enemies, which leaves no room for nurture, care, and love.  For us humans, it means that as long as the mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, plan, play, learn, and pay attention to other people’s needs.”

Among van der Kolk’s research-based conclusions (and things to think about as you consider this idea he’s calling developmental trauma):

  • Exposure to stress relieves anxiety.
  • Addiction to trauma may be characterized by the pain of pleasure and the pleasure of pain.
  • Immobilization is at the root of most traumas (your heart slows down, your breathing becomes shallow, and, zombielike, you lose touch with yourself and your surroundings).
  • It is especially challenging for traumatized people to discern when they are actually safe and to be able to activate their defenses when they are in danger.
  • All too often, drugs such as Abilify, Zyprexa, and Seroquel, are prescribed instead of teaching people the skills to deal with distressing physical reactions associated with repressed emotion.

Real healing, he says, has to do with experiential knowledge: “You can be fully in charge of your life only if you can acknowledge the reality of your body, in all its visceral dimensions.”  Here, EXPERIENCE, not UNDERSTANDING is what we need.

“…neuroscience research shows that very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention.  When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.”

Treatment

“Treatment needs to reactivate the capacity to safely mirror, and be mirrored, by others, but also to resist being hijacked by others’ negative emotions.”

“…the great challenge is finding ways to reset their physiology, so that their survival mechanisms stop working against them.  This means helping them to respond appropriately to danger but, even more, to recover the capacity to experience safety, relaxation, and true reciprocity.”

Mindfulness, or the ability to hover calmly and objectively over our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, is one of the primary tools van der Kolk teaches his patients.  This ability allows us to then take our time to respond,” he says, which “allows the executive brain to inhibit, organize, and modulate the hardwired automatic reactions preprogrammed into the emotional brain.  This capacity is crucial for preserving our relationships with our fellow human beings.”

Increasing “interoception,” or self-awareness, is another important feature of recovery, van der Kolk says.  “Because traumatized people often have trouble sensing what is going on in their bodies, they lack a nuanced response to frustration.  They either react to stress by becoming ‘spaced out’ or with excessive anger.  Whatever their response, they often can’t tell what is upsetting them.  This failure to be in touch with their bodies contributes to their well-documented lack of self-protection and high rates of revictimization.  And also to their remarkable difficulties feeling pleasure, sensuality, and having a sense of meaning.”

Noticing and then describing what they are feeling is a process van der Kolk helps his patients learn.  He begins the process by helping them talk about what is happening in their bodies, “not emotions such as anger or anxiety or fear but the physical sensations beneath the emotions: pressure, heat, muscular tension, tingling, caving in, feeling hollow, and so on.”  He also works on “identifying the sensations associated with relaxation or pleasure…their breath, their gestures and movements.”  He asks them to “pay attention to subtle shifts in their bodies, such as tightness in their chests or gnawing in their bellies, when they talk about negative events that they claim did not bother them.”

“…many programs (that try to help traumatized people) continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking,” van der Kolk says.  He provides some ways to engage this part of the brain in his book.  Among them are:

  • Yoga
  • Theater Programs
  • Breath Exercises (Pranayama)
  • Chanting
  • Martial Arts
  • Qigong
  • Drumming
  • Group Singing
  • Dancing

“Our culture teaches us to focus on personal uniqueness, but at a deeper level we barely exist as individual organisms.  Our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe….Most of our energy is devoted to connecting with others.”

 

A few more nuggets I thought you might appreciate:

  • While you need to be able to stand up for yourself, you also need to recognize that other people have their own agendas. Trauma can make all that hazy and gray.
  • (As infants) our most intimate sense of self is created in our minute-to-minute exchanges with our caregivers.
  • Children’s disturbed behavior is a response to actual life experiences – to neglect, brutality, and separation – rather than the product of infantile sexual fantasies.
  • Our lives consist of finding our place within the community of human beings.
  • Babies can’t regulate their own emotional states, much less the changes in heart rate, hormone levels, and nervous-system activity that accompany emotions.
  • Learning how to manage arousal is a key life skill, and parents must do it for babies before babies can do it for themselves.
  • Securely attached kids learn the difference between situations they can control and situations where they need help.
  • Kids will go to almost any length to feel seen and connected.
  • Traumatized parents, in particular, need help to be attuned to their children’s needs.
  • Dissociation means simultaneously knowing and not knowing.
  • Early attachment patterns create the inner maps that chart our relationships throughout life, not only in terms of what we expect from others, but also in terms of how much comfort and pleasure we can experience in their presence.
  • It’s not important for me to know every detail of a patient’s trauma. What is critical is that the patients themselves learn to tolerate feeling what they feel and knowing what they know.
  • Rage that has nowhere to go is redirected against the self, in the form of depression, self-hatred, and self-destructive actions.
  • Eradicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two-thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three-quarters.
  • Social support is a biological necessity, not an option, and this reality should be the backbone of all prevention and treatment.
  • As long as people are either hyperaroused or shut down, they cannot learn from experience. Even if they manage to stay in control, they become so uptight that they are inflexible, stubborn, and depressed.  Recovery from trauma involves the restoration of executive functioning and, with it, self-confidence and the capacity for playfulness and creativity.
  • In order to recover, mind, body, and brain need to be convinced that it is safe to let go. That happens only when you feel safe at a visceral level and allow yourself to connect that sense of safety with memories of past helplessness.
  • Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.
  • Antipsychotic medications such as Risperdal, Abilify, or Seroquel can significantly dampen the emotional brain and this makes patients less skittish or enraged, but they also may interfere with being able to appreciate subtle signals of pleasure, danger, or satisfaction.
  • As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself. Hiding your core feelings takes an enormous amount of energy, it saps your motivation to pursue worthwhile goals, and it leaves you feeling bored and shut down.

I highly recommend this book.

Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body In the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.