I had lunch a few weeks ago with John, someone I’ve known for about 12 years but haven’t seen much in recent years. He commented that I am a very different person now from when he met me, and that would not be apparent to people who hadn’t known me that long.
When we met in 2004 (I think), I seemed troubled to him, and I was. John said that now, I appear to be happy and “like a fountain” (which I love), and he was curious about that.
Other people have said I’ve changed more than anyone they know. Well, that’s probably because I was starting from a more troubled place than most.
So I’m reviewing my path in search of insights to share. This is for you, John, and I know that some of you are interested in recovery from trauma, and some of you are interested in personal growth, so this is for you too.
In 2002, I had been diagnosed with PTSD from a trauma that happened when I was 11 years old, in the 1960s. It’s difficult to come to terms with having PTSD for almost 40 years and not knowing it. I just thought I was depressed, mildly, and I just lived with it, although occasionally I had weird reactions that were completely a mystery to me.
When you have PTSD, and especially when you don’t know it, you often aren’t quite fully there, because dissociation keeps you safe(r) from frightening external events and from frightening internal events (or so you believe). I lived more from my head than from my wholeness. That’s half my life, not fully lived. It’s taken awhile to get some perspective, enough to write this, anyway.
For several years after being diagnosed, I did a lot of work on the trauma, with a therapist and without, remembering events I’d suppressed, feeling the emotions I was too shocked and numb to feel back then (much less have a name for), putting memory fragments into order, and meeting with a few people from my childhood to get their perspectives on the events surrounding my younger sister’s violent death.
During this time, I released a stuckness from my body while reading Waking the Tiger. I ended up with a fuller narrative of what happened back then, including what I could remember of my own physical and emotional experience, which helped me have compassion for that young vulnerable self, knowing that others besides my family were deeply affected.
When I met John, I was just starting to come out of that period of intense inner processing. I’m sure I still talked about it a lot.
One big unspoken key question for me then was, “How do I live with this history?” I was reeling. I didn’t know anyone else with a history like that. Where’s the model for moving forward? There wasn’t one. I couldn’t see very far ahead, and from what I could see, the future didn’t look very compelling. I was on my own.
I remember reading about the hero’s (and heroine’s and writer’s) journey, which helped me understand that moving forward would be a journey, and that I could expect a call to action, obstacles, mentors, thresholds, tests, allies, enemies, ordeals, rewards, and so on. But I sure didn’t know, and no one knows, just how their journey will unfold.
The first positive step was realizing that I can’t change the past, but I can change how I frame it. I chose to frame it as “It’s very likely that the worst event in my life has already happened, and now I can relax.” I really wanted to reclaim what was left of my lifespan.
I didn’t know how to do that, but life has a way of showing up with the experience you need. I was in a relationship, and his sudden change in behavior toward me in 2006 triggered stress hormones to flood my body almost as if the original trauma was happening, which happens with PTSD. I was full of shock and grief and hurt and anger. I broke up with him, ended the relationship, and went into a tailspin. I felt like I had nothing left to give anyone, living with this raw pain, and not much to give myself.
Important lesson: even though the worst had happened long ago, that did not mean life would automatically become a picnic (although sometimes it does, and it may help to believe that it does most of the time except when it doesn’t).
One day after several months of heavy emotional pain, I thought to myself, “I’m just going to sit with this pain and face it.” Because running from it, or trying to, wasn’t working. There was no escape.
That was a huge step and a turning point. I was beginning to understand that living in my body with what is would be my path to healing.
I sat with the pain, fully feeling the deep strong heavy sorrow in my heart center. By now it felt familiar, like a guest that wouldn’t leave unless acknowledged. I greeted it.
I discovered that the pain wasn’t even that much about the him or the breakup – those were catalysts. It was about me and my life so far and all of human life, all of our miseries, our sorrows, our losses, our suffering.
I’d been afraid if I faced it, it would be overwhelming. It wasn’t. In my 20 minutes of silent stillness, I realized that there was so much more to me than this pain. There were layers of awareness to explore. There was spaciousness. The pain was still present, but it had lost some of its intensity and could move to the background of awareness instead of staying at the front through my constant resistance to it. I truly began to meet myself that day. I started meditating, irregularly.
In the years between 2006 and 2009, I learned about my food sensitivities and changed my diet, eliminating gluten and feeling well for the first time since childhood.
In fact, I felt so well without gluten or candida overgrowth that my new key question became,”How good is it possible for me to feel?” I wanted to find out! I began making healthier choices.
I took all the Neuro-Linguistic Programming training available in Austin. I learned Reiki. I traveled. I practiced yoga a lot and did yoga teacher training. During this time, I also received craniosacral therapy regularly on an intuition that after trauma and head injuries, I needed it, and I also did brainwave optimization on a hunch that it would help my brain operate better. I wanted a better life, and for that I needed new and better life skills.
At the end of 2009, I was, for the first time ever, wanting to make the following year be “about” something. My experience with irregular meditation had made me wonder, “What would happen if I meditated every day for 30 minutes for a year?” I couldn’t see a downside to it. Making the commitment was stepping onto new ground.
I worked with a meditation teacher, a priest at a local zendo, meeting with her weekly. After assessing my current level of meditation skill and awareness, she gave me what I recognized later to be a koan: to experience “whole body awareness“.
Mostly before then, I had just paid attention to whatever part had the most sensation. I’d never consciously experienced my body, or myself, as whole, that I could recall.
I’d breathe and feel the breath throughout my body and report back to her. “That’s one way,” she’d comment.
“Oh, so there’s more than one way to experience whole body awareness? Hmm. How else can I experience this?”
I’d run energy from my feet to head and back. I’d try to be aware of the sensations in all of my skin at once. I’d visualize myself sitting cross-legged, like a mirror image. I’d find what felt like my center. I’d jump in the air to feel gravity bring my whole body back down to earth. I’d plunge into Barton Springs’ cold waters. I’d feel my energy body.
After months, during longer meditation sessions, I’d occasionally feel like I was being breathed, sitting on the bottom of the ocean with currents moving around and through me, as if my boundaries were permeable and optional. I now know that as a deeply healing state and work with it in my bodywork and changework practice.
Meanwhile, my job was stressful, and I’d been trying to think of a “retirement career”. Having never had this, I wanted to do work I loved so much I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid, and getting paid would be icing on the cake. And if it could be less than 40 hours a week and not involve sitting at a desk all day, so much the better. I wanted more free time, and I wanted to wear comfortable clothes. I wanted to be of service. What would that work turn out to be?
I’d gone to various alternative health practitioners since a car wreck in 1996 left me walking weirdly and in pain. I liked these folks. In fact, one of them helped me expand my mind about what was possible for me. She was not just an acupuncturist, she was a healer. She taught, and showed me, that it was possible to achieve radiant good health in mind, body, heart, and spirit. I wanted radiant good health! That helped me finally quit smoking, after numerous attempts. It’s great to be free of that addiction.
Getting in touch with my own inner healer has been important. What I know now is that we are always healing and will be until death, and too often we focus on problems rather than healing (the word healing has the same Indo-European root as wholeness). My dreams when I was facing my traumatic memories had been healing guides, providing insight and reassurance that this anxiety-laden, months-long process was leading me to a better place in life. In my dreams, I kept discovering enchanting new rooms in my home. Then, for several years, I dreamed I was trying to get home and couldn’t quite get there. Then I dreamed I finally made it home – and it was a place I’d never seen before. With a crystal and clear windows.
I had great respect for the healing process and thought that perhaps I could be of service to others in some healing capacity. That seemed like a worthy challenge and life purpose! I applied to an acupuncture school and was accepted.
Meanwhile, changes at my workplace, along with the changes in me from meditating daily for 10 months, made it impossible for me to continue working at my job. My inner self didn’t match my life in the world any more, and I strongly desired to live an authentic life. How could I live more congruently in the world ? I gave notice at my job and left. I put my house on the market.
Various things happened, and I changed my mind about acupuncture school and decided to go to massage school instead. I began in 2011 and started officially practicing in 2012.
I’m realizing as I write this that so many of the things I did involved increasing my embodied self-awareness: awareness of my body, the whole and the parts, awareness of the flow of energy, awareness of my emotions/thoughts/sensations, awareness of how food and exercise influence my well-being, awareness of the signature feelings of elevated stress hormones and of inner peace, awareness of the paradoxically full emptiness of meditation, awareness of my internal yes and no, awareness of wanting to move toward or away from people/places/things, awareness of layers of consciousness.
One other thing helped. I first got acquainted with the Enneagram 16 years ago. If you’re very familiar with the Enneagram, you know from what you’ve read already that I am a Five: fear-based, dominant mind, not naturally embodied, a bit geeky, curious, investigative, focused. Knowledgeable people back then told me I was a Five. I began to discern other people’s types and understand my own better.
All of us have a type, which means we have a primary fixation that takes us away from our essential self. We’re either born with this fixation or acquire it in early life. Studying the Enneagram helps you identify your fixation and see how it operates in your life, for the purpose of personal and spiritual growth.
Reading about my type’s healthy characteristics was comforting to me when I needed it. It gave me possibilities to move toward. I became more aware of when I was operating from my fixation and when I was operating from my essential self.
The characteristics below are traits of a healthy, unfixated Five.
I love being of service through my work and in my life, when I can. I feel more engaged with people now than I used to be, although I still spend a lot of time by myself, finding my healthy balance between solitude and community.
And there you have it, my experience so far of reclaiming my life.
Know this: It is possible to keep healing and keep recovering, to find meaning and usefulness, and to experience life so wholeheartedly that the traumatic, dissociated, difficult, unhealthy, incongruent, addicted past comes to seem almost like it happened in a previous lifetime or to another person.
Ha ha, who knows? To have changed so much, maybe I’m a walk-in! That idea is amusing, and honestly, I have no clue. Don’t take it too seriously.