A few days ago, I finally started reading In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, by Peter A. Levine. This book comes full circle from Waking the Tiger, Levine’s first book, the book that changed my life.
It changed my life by giving me a new understanding of how trauma affects people and how to recover. Trauma is actually stored energetically in the body.
Levine, an ethologist, noticed the shaking that animals who narrowly missed being killed for dinner did, once free of their predators. That shaking allowed them to rejoin the herd not much worse for the wear.
When I read the book in 2002, I was skeptical but open. What Levine said was so different from what any other experts on trauma (psychotherapists) were saying.
One day, feeling exhausted from dealing with difficult emotions and memories, I flopped down on my bed and started to doze off. The next thing I knew, my body was moving spontaneously, and I knew from having read the description that I was releasing energy blocks from trauma.
In the new book, Levine describes his subjective experience of being hit by a car.
Importantly, he describes PTSD as not an illness but as an injury that can occur from war, rape, sexual abuse, assault, and the like, and also after surgery, serious illnesses, falls, abandonment, receiving shocking or tragic news, witnessing violence, and getting into car accidents. Major shocks to our sense of well-being, in other words.
Some excerpts from his experience:
I can’t figure out what has happened. How did I get here? Out of a swirling fog of confusion and disbelief, a crowd of people rushes toward me. They stop, aghast… Slowly I orient myself and identify the real attacker… A wide-eyed teenager bursts out. She stares at me in dazed horror. In a strange way, I both know and don’t know what has just happened… I sink back into hazy twilight. I find that I am unable to think clearly or to will myself awake from this nightmare.
A man rushes to my side… he announces himself as an off-duty paramedic. When I try to see where the voice is coming from, he sternly orders, “Don’t move your head.” The contradiction between his sharp command and what my body naturally wants — to turn toward his voice — frightens and stuns me into a sort of paralysis. My awareness strangely splits, and I experience an uncanny “dislocation.” It’s as if I’m floating above my body…
…I need to have someone’s comforting gaze, a lifeline to hold onto. But I’m too terrified to move and feel helplessly frozen.
…Finally, I manage to shape my words and speak. My voice is strained and tight. I ask him, both with my hands and words, “Please back off.” He complies.
After a few minutes, a woman unobtrusively inserts herself and quietly sits by my side. “I’m a doctor, a pediatrician,” she says. “Can I be of help?”
“Please just stay with me,” I reply. Her simple, kind face seems supportive and calmly concerned. She takes my hand in hers, and I squeeze it. She gently returns the gesture… I feel emotionally held by her encouraging presence. A trembling wave of release moves through me, and I take my first deep breath. Then a jagged shudder of terror passes through my body. Tears are now streaming from my eyes…
I am sucked down by a deep undertow of unfathomable regret. My body continues to shudder. Reality sets in.
In a little while, a softer trembling begins to replace the abrupt shudders. I feel alternating waves of fear and sorrow… I’m afraid of being swallowed up by the sorrow and hold onto the woman’s eyes. Her continued presence sustains me. As I feel less overwhelmed, my fear softens and begins to subside. I feel a flicker of hope, then a rolling wave of fiery rage. My body continues to shake and tremble. It is alternately icy cold and feverishly hot. A burning red fury erupts from deep within my belly.
I hear my shirt ripping. I am startled and again jump to the vantage point of an observer hovering above my sprawling body..The Good Samaritan paramedic reports that my pulse was 170… The paramedics are requesting a full trauma team. Alarm jolts me… As I am lifted into the ambulance, I close my eyes for the first time. A vague scent of the woman’s perfume and the look of her quiet, kind eyes longer. Again, I have that comforting feeling of being held by her presence.
Even though my eyes want to dart around, to survey the unfamiliar and foreboding environment, I consciously direct myself to go inward. I begin to take stock of my body sensations. This active focusing draws my attention to an intense, and uncomfortable, buzzing throughout my body.
…I notice a peculiar sensation in my left arm. I let this sensation come into the foreground of my consciousness and track the arm’s tension as it builds and builds. Gradually, I recognize that the arm wants to flex and move up. As this inner impulse toward movement develops, the back of my hand also wants to rotate. Ever so slightly, I sense it moving toward the left side of my face — as though to protect it against a blow. Suddenly, there passes before my eyes a fleeting image of the window of the beige car… I hear the momentary “chinging” thud of my left shoulder shattering the windshield. Then, unexpectedly, an enveloping sense of relief floods over me. I feel myself coming back into my body. The electric buzzing has retreated… I have the deeply reassuring sense that I am no longer frozen, that time has started to move forward, that I am awakening from the nightmare…
…I feel tremendous relief along with a deep sense of gratitude that my body did not betray me… As I continue to gently tremble, I sense a warm tingling wave along with an inner strength building up from deep within my body.
And it goes on. He gets the ambulance paramedic to tell him his vital signs: heart rate is 74, blood pressure 125/70. Normal. He knows from research that he won’t be getting PTSD.
Thank you, Peter Levine, for providing this fabulous first-person account of the subjective experience of someone who experienced trauma. The body and emotional awareness, the knowledge to tell the paramedic to back off, to receive comfort from the pediatrician, and mostly to allow his body to do what it needed to to — shake and make defensive movements and allow intense emotions to flow — is just brilliant.
I want to be able to witness another’s trauma and not be triggered myself.