A tale of recovery: my path from traumatized to healer

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. Continue reading

Brainwave optimization follow-up, two years later

I received a phone call yesterday from someone who had read my original post about receiving brainwave optimization. Barbara in Houston was considering it. She’d read this blog and wanted to hear some follow-up. We had a nice long conversation, and I felt inspired by her courage.

This month marks two years since I underwent brainwave optimization — five days of twice-daily sessions designed to help my brain function better using biofeedback.

I have no regrets about doing it. I’m glad I took that leap of faith.

Of course it’s impossible to say how I might be different had I not received it. It’s also impossible to separate the BWO from the meditation, diet, yoga, and other work I’ve done. (I still think BWO is probably the equivalent of five years of daily meditation.)

What I can say is that when I compare how I experience myself now and how I experienced myself then, now is better. I feel more myself — I occupy my body and my life more fully and with more pleasure and serenity and depth and wholeness than I did before. I make better decisions. I am happier.

One of my reasons for doing it was that I had experienced trauma in my childhood that plagued me with ill effects for decades. Facing the trauma, healing and integrating it were turning points toward health in my life. I wanted to see if brainwave optimization could relieve me from any more dysfunctional patterns that might remain.

Last year, a year after undergoing BWO, I did get triggered by someone who didn’t recognize the extent of his own traumatic experiences and was unable to communicate responsibly about it. I experienced the flood of stress hormones and adrenal exhaustion that went along with being triggered.

The useful part of that experience was being able to witness how those stress hormones affected my thinking. I got a clear sense of what I’m like unaffected by trauma and what I’m like after being triggered. Day and night. Equanimity vs. fear and anger. Sunshine and butterflies vs. creepy shadows with hidden monsters.

The unpleasant part was that it took months to completely clear the effects of the cascade of stress hormones and return to robust, excellent well-being. During this time, I forgot that I could have gotten follow-up sessions of brainwave optimization, which are much less expensive than the initial assessment and 10 sessions.

In hindsight, it would have been really smart of me to experience just enough of being triggered to learn its lessons and then to shorten my suffering by going in for some follow-up work. I don’t know if it would have worked, but I believe that it would have made a difference, because when you make an effort on behalf of your own well-being, that commitment to action makes a big difference and amplifies the measures you choose to take. 

I regret now that it did not occur to me to do that.

It’s clear to me now that undergoing BWO does not give someone who’s experienced trauma a bulletproof vest against being further traumatized or being triggered. It does give you more resilience, because experiencing wholeness is so desirable. The brain is aware of its own well-being and likes it and will return to it as soon as it can. That’s a big part of how BWO works, in my understanding.

If you’re not sure your brain has experienced well-being because of past trauma, or if it’s been so long it’s hard to remember what well-being was like, I recommend getting brainwave optimization. It can’t hurt, and if it doesn’t help in the way you think it might, then at the least you’ve ruled something out on your path to recovery. You have not left that stone unturned.

And it might help in ways you haven’t thought of, so please be open to that. It’s hard to describe well-being if you’ve never experienced it. It’s hard to know what to expect before you do it.

Also, the brainwave changes keep happening for a long time after you finish the treatments. Hold your story lightly and keep a journal. I have been told by people who’ve known me for awhile that I’ve changed for the better more than anyone they know.

I also take the Buddha’s Brain supplements to support my post-BWO brain health, and I recommend that.

NYT: Response after trauma may be as crucial as trauma itself

This New York Times article presents research that suggests that what happens right after a traumatic event may be just as important as the trauma in determining how a traumatized person fares.

This may seem like common sense, but the world surely can use more of it.

Here’s the link: A New Focus on the ‘Post’ in Post-Traumatic Stress. And I really dislike the paywall where you can only see so many NYT articles per month for free. It’s early in the month, and I hope you can read it if you’re interested.

One of the damaging things that happened a day or two after my childhood trauma was telling an adult that I wanted to go home and being told I needed to stay where I was.

It wasn’t even that I wanted to literally go home. I can see now that I wanted reassurance that things would be or even could be okay again. I wanted the comfort of my mother’s presence. That’s what home meant then. And at age 11, I just didn’t have the right words to communicate what I needed so badly.

Was that the moment that trauma became PTSD? I don’t know.

Part of my recovery (after the big chunks were in place) was having a series of dreams for a couple of years in which I was trying to get home and couldn’t. I’d find myself stranded and making the best of it in some town miles away from Austin, but always looking out for a way to get home.

Then I finally had a dream in which I was at home, and it was a home I didn’t recognize, but it was my home.

At both ages, home was a metaphor for living in my body and feeling safe.

A note: The work of Dr. Peter A Levine spells out how important it is for a person to connect with and be tended to by a kind, calm person after a traumatic event. He recognizes that “the human connection” is critical in preventing PTSD after a trauma — in his book In An Unspoken Voice, he describes his own trauma and recovery in detail, including a bystander who offered a steady, reassuring presence.

He is one of the most renowned trauma researchers and writers in the world. It seems like an oversight to me for his work to go unmentioned in this article.

Intuition, microexpressions, hypervigilance, and trauma

When Intuition Is A Curse.

When people come into my office and tell me, very early in a conversation, that they are ‘intuitive’ and ‘can see into people’ I often wonder if they have had trauma. The longer I do this for a living the more I realize that some of us developed our insights into humanity as a protection mechanism. It makes sense. People who have experienced trauma tend to be more intuitive. We’ve experienced hypervigilance where we are constantly scanning our environments for signs of danger.

Have you experienced trauma, and are you intuitive, psychic, an empath, and/or clairvoyant? I’m curious.

This article reminded me that early this year, I witnessed some microexpressions, when emotions that someone is trying to suppress appear briefly on their face. Paul Ekman has done a lot of research into them. The TV show Lie To Me is based on his work. Reading them may have a lot to do with intuition.

I noticed hatred and contempt appear fleetingly behind a mask of apparent calm and reason on the face of a man I had dated for a couple of months as he spoke to me. He was unaware of them or that I could read them.

It was disturbing. I could not think of anything I had done to merit those emotions, and I felt hurt and puzzled. From that and other puzzling oddities, I suspected he’d been emotionally abused. He hadn’t mentioned it to me, but his behavior had been strange at times. A mutual friend confirmed years of past abuse. Apparently I had unknowingly done something that triggered his memories of being abused.

After learning of the history of abuse, I felt compassion for him. I also realized I didn’t want to be alone with him in private again.

Later he got his wires crossed again, in public, right in front of me. Curious (because he still hadn’t told me anything about the abuse), I then had a clairvoyant experience in which I “saw” that he’d been the subject of horrific psychotic rage repeatedly for years.

I had a major fight-or-flight reaction.

I rode it out with mindfulness as much as I could. Once the biochemical cascade was underway, there was not much to do but wait for it to fully subside and do what I could to recover my equilibrium. It took a few months for that to happen. I watched my fearful, self-protective mind at work, influenced by deep stress. It wasn’t pretty, and I’m glad it’s over. Although unpleasant and difficult, being able to witness my own experience was useful.

I learned a lot from this. A main take-away is that if I am relating to someone who’s been traumatized, I want them to be up-front about it pretty quickly, if they have any awareness of it at all. It leaks out anyway if they try to hide it, and they come across as untrustworthy.

Over 60 percent of Americans experience trauma at least once in their lives. It’s not that uncommon.

I gained compassion for my past traumatized self, before I had done any healing work. I didn’t know myself well enough to understand how much trauma had shaped me.

During that time of riding out the biochemical cascade, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. I am grateful for the healers who helped me recover, including the healer inside me.

I felt compassion for him. He was admittedly clueless, dissociated, and good at compartmentalizing. In my opinion, he seriously needed professional help.

I grokked his disappointment at leaving an abuser with hopes for a better future, waiting six months after divorcing and taking a course on building new relationships before dating, only to discover that the abuse had made him both easily disturbed by those with positive intentions and disturbing to them.

It was sobering to refer someone I dated to therapy. In hindsight, I think I showed him how a fairly healthy person responds when they are dating or befriending someone who shows signs and symptoms of mental illness, who is either hiding it, discounting its seriousness, or so injured he doesn’t even know he has a mental illness.

I let him know that I knew, told him that I would not have dated him had I known, and I ended our relationship until such time as he has recovered, urging him to get professional help to that end.

It seems probable that he needed to know how someone would do this. But damn, that was really freaky.

May his cluelessness become curiosity.

May his compartmentalization become wholeness and expansion.

May his fears become worthy of reconditioning.

May his dissociation occur only when useful, and may he learn to live in partnership with his body.

May his awareness include an appreciation of the gifts of the unconscious mind and a more conscious partnership with it.

May his contempt, hatred, terror, shame, and secrecy be transformed and his burden be lessened.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” ~ Joseph Campbell

And after I think of him and send energetic blessings his way, I dissolve all thoughts and images of him and bring my attention back to my own body and experience peace and gratitude.

But was my intuition working because I’ve experienced trauma myself and learned to be observant? I don’t know. Here’s a possibility: Apparently some long-time meditators are also adept at reading microexpressions.

From studies with thousands of people, Ekman knew that people who do better at recognizing these subtle emotions are more open to new experience, more interested and more curious about things in general. They are also conscientious — reliable and efficient. “So I had expected that many years of meditative experience” — which requires both openness and conscientiousness — “might make them do better on this ability,” Ekman explains. Thus he had wondered if Öser might be better able to identify these ultra-fast emotions than other people are.

Then Ekman announced his results: both Öser and another advanced Western meditator Ekman had been able to test were two standard deviations above the norm in recognizing these super-quick facial signals of emotion, albeit the two subjects differed in the emotions they were best at perceiving. They both scored far higher than any of the five thousand other people tested. “They do better than policemen, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges — even Secret Service agents,” the group that had previously distinguished itself as most accurate.

“It appears that one benefit of some part of the life paths these two have followed is becoming more aware of these subtle signs of how other people feel,” Ekman notes. Öser had super-acuity for the fleeting signs of fear, contempt and anger. The other meditator — a Westerner who, like Öser, had done a total of two to three years in solitary retreats in the Tibetan tradition — was similarly outstanding, though on a different range of emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust and, like Öser, anger.

I’m not nearly as experienced at meditation as these men, but even at my level, meditation can slow the experience of time down until there is only the present moment, which becomes vast, and awareness simply expands.

If you can experience time like that, microexpressions would be much more apparent.

That’s one explanation. Or maybe I’ve just been around the block a few times. Or maybe these long-time meditators had also trauma in their histories. The article didn’t say.

I do know that for years, I’ve been interested in people-reading, and I imagine at some point early on, there was a connection in discerning whether they were safe to be around. But once you realize someone is not out to murder you, there’s still a lot to learn. We humans are pretty fascinating and diverse.

If you want to learn more about reading microexpressions, Paul Ekman (link above) has a newsletter and online training.

Immobilization/shutdown/dissociation/frozen, a trauma response built into the nervous system

Back in March 2012, I posted that I had started reading Peter A. Levine’s latest book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. My post included excerpts from Levine’s description of being hit by a car and his experience afterwards.

His experience serves as a useful model for being and staying present through trauma and recovery. He knew how to allow his body and emotions to process naturally so that he did not get stuck in a traumatic state (i.e., PTSD).

Well, I am still reading that book. It’s very, very rich. Some parts are rather scientific. I’m taking my time to really understand it.

Levine uses polyvagal theory (I just posted an interview with Stephen Porges, who came up with the theory) to explain the states that people experience and can get stuck in from traumatic experiences.

Because Somatic Experiencing Practitioners and other therapists (as well as astute loved ones) who are helping someone recovery from trauma need to know which layer of the nervous system is dominant at any given time in a traumatized individual, I am going to describe them.

First, the primary job of our nervous system is to protect us. We have senses that alert us to danger. We may react to a perception of a threat in our bodies before it ever becomes conscious in the mind. That’s because the autonomic nervous system (which is not under our control) is involved when trauma occurs. We react instinctually.

This is good to know. It means that your trauma reactions are automatic, not something you can control, so there’s no need to feel shame or blame yourself. You were doing the best you could.

There are two defensive states that occur when encountering trauma: immobility/dissociation/shutdown (freeze) and sympathetic hyperarousal (fight or flight).

I’m going to write about them in separate posts to avoid being too lengthy.

The more primitive nervous system state is immobility. (Primitive in that evolutionarily it comes from jawless and cartilaginous fish and precedes sympathetic hyperarousal.)

It is triggered when a person perceives that death is imminent, from an external or internal threat.

Levine also uses the terms dissociation, shutdown, and freeze/frozen to describe this state. Note: If you’re an NLPer, dissociation means the separation of components of subjective experience from one another, such as cutting off the emotional component of a memory and simply remembering the visual and/or auditory components. (Source: Encyclopedia of NLP)

Keep in mind that Levine is talking about dissociation as an involuntary post-traumatic physiological state that trauma victims can sometimes get stuck with. There may be some overlap. According to Levine, symptoms of being in this state include frequent spaciness, unreality, depersonalization, and/or various somatic and health complaints, including gastrointestinal problems, migraines, some forms of asthma, persistent pain, chronic fatigue, and general disengagement from life.

Levine notes:

This last-ditch immobilization system is meant to function acutely and only for brief periods. When chronically activated, humans become trapped in the gray limbo of nonexistence, where one is neither really living nor actually dying. The therapist’s first job in reaching such shut down clients is to help them mobilize their energy: to help them, first, to become aware of their physiological paralysis and shutdown in a way that normalizes it, and to shift toward (sympathetic) mobilization. 

The more primitive the operative system, the more power it has to take over the overall function of the organism. It does this by inhibiting the more recent and more refined neurological subsystems, effectively preventing them from functioning. In particular, the immobilization system all but completely suppresses the social engagement/attachment system.

Highly traumatized and chronically neglected or abused individuals are dominated by the immobilization/shutdown system.

Signs that someone is operating from this state include:

  • constricted pupils
  • fixed or spaced-out eyes
  • collapsed posture (slumped forward)
  • markedly reduced breathing
  • abrupt slowing and feebleness of the heart rate
  • skin color that is a pasty, sickly white or even gray in color

Brainwise, volunteers in the immobility state exhibited a decrease in activity of the insula and the cingulate cortex. In one study, about 30% of PTSD sufferers experienced immobility and 70% experienced hyperarousal, with a dramatic increase of activity in these brain areas. Most traumatized people exhibit some symptoms from both nervous systems, Levine says.

I feel the deepest compassion for people in this state, because I have experienced it myself: the spaciness, depersonalization, sense of unreality, and passive, disengaged attitude toward life. It was many years ago. If I could, I would reach back in time to that injured woman and give her resources she just didn’t have back then.

I feel so grateful for the trauma recovery work I’ve done, both with a therapist and on my own. I haven’t experienced immobilization for years, except briefly.

Next up: sympathetic hyperarousal/fight or flight.

More about my trauma recovery process (my hero’s journey)

Whew. I am going through a period in which I am feeling rather slammed — commuting several days a week 30 miles for a temp job, pet- and house-sitting, running errands after work, trying to do at least a couple of massages a week, and get in a little bit of fun and socializing. I’m squeezing time to get this post done! Oh, the life of a blogger….

I was talking with some friends over dinner last night, and the topic turned to trauma recovery. I want to write more about what that process involved for me.

I don’t believe that everyone else’s recovery process is like mine. Each person’s is different. Some might be shorter or longer, depending on the level of commitment to healing, the quality of help available, how much/how long ago/how suppressed, your self-discovery abilities, and your available time.

I did the majority of my processing over about two years, with the first nine months being most intense. The trauma happened when I was a child, occurred once, and was suppressed for many years. I had access to a psychotherapist for the first six months, and she was not a specialist in trauma recovery. I ended up doing a lot of work on my own using journaling and reflection and talking to people, and I did the most intense work during a three-month period when I was between jobs when I could put all my resources into it.

Of course, the healing process continues even now, but it’s on an as-needed basis.

Today recovery would be faster because the tools have gotten better and I know more now.

During that recovery period, trauma processing was my biggest commitment, besides working to put a roof over my head. Which was good, because trauma recovery requires self-absorption. I had neglected developing myself in this way for years, in hindsight, and I was motivated because I did not want to have PTSD. I was engaged in the recovery process, sometimes emotionally exhausted from putting the pieces back together. It was gratifying and satisfying inner work.

My social life was sporadic while processing. I benefitted greatly from the support of my friends and family, who were tolerant that I was actively involved in remembering and reframing my past. I am still deeply grateful for this. They put up with hearing me say “When Margaret was murdered…” a lot when the revelations were coming quickly and thickly, and only one person told me she was tired of hearing about it. Bless her heart.

I was not interested in dating and would not have considered it during this time. It never crossed my mind that a prospective partner would have been interested in me while I was integrating some emotionally gruesome memories, and if one had been, it would not have been a balanced, healthy relationship. I simply didn’t have the energy to put into a new relationship while I was actively recovering from trauma, and I needed more from others than I could give back.

After, yes. I was a lot juicier after!

During those two years, I accessed a lot of suppressed memories, brought them into consciousness, re-felt the emotions, and sorted these memories into some kind of coherent chronological order, which people traumatized as children often must do. I reframed my life.

I filled well over a dozen composition books with my journaling, including writing down the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had. Those dreams kept me on the path, told me I was moving in the right direction even though sometimes it was difficult. They promised me light at the end of the tunnel, and so it came to pass.

I learned how to tell my story and include not just the dissociated facts, but also my actual experience — what my tender young self saw, heard, and felt. Some of the “felt” part of my experience, and some of what I saw and heard, had been missing from my story before.

I read a lot about trauma recovery and PTSD. The most significant book was Waking the Tiger. I’ve written about this book several times. I understood for the first time that trauma affects the body and mind, the heart and spirit, that humans really are animals no matter how we try to elevate or distance ourselves above the other species, and recovery must include releasing energy blocks in the body as well as cognitive work, social/relational/emotional work, and spiritual work.

I’ve mentioned before that I spontaneously released the trauma from my body one day after reading most of the book.

During recovery, I gained perspective that I had not had before. My view of myself and my life became larger than it had ever been. I understood myself in a new way. I made more sense to me.

I remember sitting on my front porch, journaling and experiencing what I call “brain clicks”. The best way I can describe them is that I was remaking my map of the world, especially updating the parts that had stayed frozen from when I was 11. I literally felt something happen inside my head that was like reality clicking into place. Maybe it was me getting congruent.

I contacted people who’d known my family back then and listened to what they had to say. It was good to reconnect and get a bigger picture of how it affected them.

I planned and held a long-overdue celebration of my sister’s short life.

One of the most momentous days in my life was the day I learned the name of the murderer and that he (as of 2002) was living in Austin, not that far from where I’d lived for 10 years. We could have stood in line next to each other at the grocery store and never known our relationship.

I grew up that day. I developed compassion, not just for him, but for myself. Neither of us were any longer the people we were back then, me at 11, him at 15. I understood that he’s had to live with knowing his young self murdered a little girl for all these years and devastated her family. Not an easy burden to carry. I wish him peace.

All this makes it sound like I undertook a deliberate process. That would be wrong (except for the celebration). Traumatic memories began erupting, I went to therapy, got a diagnosis and a start on processing, and from then on, I just surrendered to the process. I couldn’t have stopped it if I had wanted to, and it was very compelling to have those great dreams, to recover lost memories (even if unpleasant) and know more of my story, to experience those brain clicks, and most of all, to become more and more present, once my past was in order.

When I committed to recovering from my childhood trauma, I made a commitment to my health, which is still in place.

It’s not that I’m the healthiest person around. I am fairly healthy, although I can still be triggered, especially when stressed and presented with an unexpected negative surprise. I am committed to move in the direction of health as best I can, making the happier, healthier choice when I know what that is. Happier does not always mean doing cartwheels, either. It can mean letting go, and it can mean allowing the big picture to unfold over immediate gratification.

I am not a great person but a human one. I feel stupid after I realize I’ve been triggered. Embarrassed. Foolish. You are not that person.

Sometimes I’m at a loss as to what to do, if anything. I just wait, listening and looking for a clear sign. Sometimes needing a lot of space does not mean total disconnection.

I send support to everyone who finds the courage to face themselves and rewrite their story in this way. It requires great valor. It’s truly a hero’s journey, and I recommend learning as much about the hero’s journey as you can, through books and film and reflection on your own journey. Joseph Campbell, Carol Pearson, and Stephen Gilligan provide enlightenment about this process.

You are the hero of your own life, and I honor your path and your courage.

Namaste.

A model for experiencing and recovering from trauma: Peter Levine’s story

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.

What if there is no “normal” to return to after long-term PTSD? Be unfaithful to your sorrows.

I tagged a customer review of a book on Amazon because it moved me and I wanted to track comments on the review. It spoke to me.

(The book is In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness by Peter A. Levine, author of Waking the Tiger, a book that changed my life.)

Fred wrote:

I agree with the comments about this book. I have the book and a couple of his other ones and I learned from them, they were my first knowledge of what trauma could do. I want to make a specific trauma comment and since the author has helped me alot what better place to do it!

At age 60 I am finally and only recently past the terror of early, continuous and prolonged childhood abuse because of the healing work I have done on my own. I recommend books and techniques from Alice Miller, Peter Levine (of course!), David Berceli, Babette Rothschild, EMDR, EFT, PARTS/EGO STATES work, NLP. I am a little leery about unsupervised guided imagery and meditation because they can be so close to dissociation, I sure did.

My comment is that with early abuse in whatever form the child has to create coping and defensive mechanisms to be able to survive mentally. These PARTs then prevent the child from growing naturally like all children should. As an adult these PARTS drew me to abusers and perpetuated actions which continued to retraumatize me. I didn’t know any better.

People who experience trauma as adults can use the techniques the author describes and those listed above to get back to normal. I have come to the awful realization that I have no NORMAL to go back to! My former desires and reasons for living no longer exist. They were based on avoiding reality, lessening the pain and terror, and plowing through dissociation to be able to function. While I don’t have the terror anymore I am still trauma parallyzed (Freeze, surrender) as I have been for most of these 6 decades and I don’t have the NORMAL interests and motivations which would help me get past that. “I” do not exist.

My hope from this review is that this Catch 22 can be added to trauma discussions. I don’t know what can be done to create a resource or if there are even more people like me out there.

I guess a correlary is to emphasize the need to help children who do experience trauma, as early as possible. (Another of the author’s books.)

Fred says there’s no normal to return to because of childhood abuse.

I ask Fred and others who have experienced long-term PTSD who don’t believe they have anything like a “normal” self to return to:

What if “normal” is an illusion? What if there is no normal?

Really, if your trauma began at age 1 or 11 or 21, the “returning to normal” is returning to how you were before the trauma began. What would it look like for a 60-year-old healing trauma victim to return to being a normal one year old? It doesn’t seem to work like that.

Perhaps “normal” is a concept that the mind desires that doesn’t really exist. Even for so-called “normal” people!

If that’s the case, then I say you get to determine what normal means for you.

Maybe normal means being a more present, heart-centered, resourceful person.

Maybe normal means finding what you believe you missed out on: a sense of worthiness, love, inner peace, trust, self-respect, and so on.

Maybe it’s having a strong connection to an enlightened witness. Maybe that enlightened witness is an inner part, Divine Essence, or another person.

Maybe normal is being a valued member of a community and building close relationships.

Maybe normal is being playful and having fun. Maybe it’s setting the boundaries you need to thrive.

Maybe normal is feeling centered in your body and having your energy flow freely, and learning how to return to that state when you become uncentered or blocked.

Maybe it’s wanting to experience the most joy, connection, sanity, and love — both giving and receiving — as you can and having a damn good reason for doing so. Living really well is the best revenge and the best healing you can possibly do.

Imagine that you fully and completely have the experience of being normal. What would that do for you ? Let’s hear it! “Then I’d be…”

And what would that do for you?

Take it as far as you can and enjoy experiencing that staate.

There’s a Zen phrase “unfaithful to my sorrows” that I use on my About me page. To me, it means that no matter what your sorrows are, or how many or deep they are, or how long you’ve had them, there are at least moments when you’re unfaithful to them — times when you forget them and notice something else. A rainbow. Some music. A dream image. A dust bunny. A release of tension.

We tend to believe we’re defined by our sorrows and traumas, but we’re not. We can let these non-sorrow moments become large.

Krishnamurti put it like this:

What can be described is the known, and the freedom from the known can come into being only when there is a dying every day to the known, to the hurts, the flatteries, to all the images you have made, to all your experiences— dying every day so that the brain cells themselves become fresh, young, innocent.

My dear friend Keith Fail says it more simply,

We’re always bigger than we think we are.

The Universe comes through!

After seeing someone being triggered by something I did, days of emotionally struggling with PTSD memories, processing all that it brought up (hopefully being of some use to someone somewhere), and being ill, here’s what I find in my inbox this morning:

When you finally get that call, meet that person, walk that walk, and live that dream, MaryAnn, do you think you’ll even care that there were a few dark and scary moments in a journey that made them all possible?

Trust me, you won’t even remember.

The Universe

Thanks, Universe. The percentage of time that you are right on target is amazing. Keep up the good work!

My PTSD manifesto

Occasionally people who have been traumatized have gravitated to me because I’m open about having experienced a serious trauma and (mostly) recovered, but they don’t seem to realize how deeply their past still affects them. They haven’t done any trauma recovery work, and they show up in my life.

I believe they show up because their unconscious is seeking healing. Or perhaps angels bring these people to me so they can see for themselves that recovery is possible. You know, I don’t mind being a role model for recovery from trauma. I’ve come a long way in 10 years. I’ve worked at it.

It’s not like traumatized people wear signs stating that. The sudden discovery that a new friend or love interest has been traumatized can create a huge amount of distress for me. Even though in hindsight, their craziness now makes more sense (“oh, of course that weird behavior was a trauma response”), it can still really be a shock.

So I just want to put this message out there:

If you’ve been traumatized and feel attracted to me because I’m open about having experienced trauma and having done a lot of work on my recovery, first of all, please tell me clearly and up front (or as soon as you realize) that you’ve been traumatized, emotionally abused, get triggered, have flashbacks or nightmares, are shell-shocked, or whatever history or symptoms are affecting you. There’s no shame in it — you didn’t ask for it. I’d rather know than not, and I just might be able to prevent you from making a big mess when your judgment isn’t very good. I will help you find help and support you emotionally — in a way that is healthy and not co-dependent.

If that’s what draws you to me, just own it. Do not be asking me out on dates and withholding information about your untreated trauma. That’s creepy, and the thing is, you can’t really hide a trauma in your history until you are healed. You may naively think you can, but it seriously disregulates your nervous system and makes it stuck in either dissociation or hyperarousal, sometimes both. Your trauma-related weird behavior will show up in your most intimate relationships sooner or later. Having untreated trauma is like having an elephant in your living room whose shit is piling up.

Secondly, if you’re not getting professional help, please do that — get professional help. And let me know that too, because I’m going to worry about you if you don’t, and I’d rather be happy than worried.

Please do not look to me to help you beyond being a friend and a cheerleader for your recovery work. I am a blogger who’s open about having experienced trauma and having done a lot of work on recovery. This blog (read About me, and do a search on PTSD or trauma to find related posts) describes some of my recovery experiences. Please feel free to ask me about them or try them yourself.

There is absolutely no need for you to just show me your wounds without any warning. Seeing you suddenly be triggered by your past trauma triggered painful memories of my long struggle of not knowing I had PTSD and then finding out, and then spending long months doing some intense processing, healing, and putting my life back together in a new, healthier way.

Your behavior freaked me out badly. It took acupuncture, herbs, and therapeutic assistance to start to get over it (at my expense, I might add, which you have ignored, which also makes me think less of you), and I really don’t trust you now.

After I witnessed your triggering and saw empathically how damaging your experience had been, it hit me hard. I emotionally dropped, rolled, and came up ready for combat. I was so ready to protect … someone … from something! And you had something to do with it.

Recovery from trauma doesn’t mean being bulletproof. It means being more embodied, emotionally present, and energetically open than before recovery, while still being an ordinary person who cannot read your mind. I have more compassion now and am more of a whole person, and I need to set clear boundaries to take care of myself.

It breaks my heart more than you can imagine that the innocent gesture I made triggered fear in you. It’s not anything I take casually or lightly. It’s emotionally disturbing to witness someone with their wires crossed, whose mind mistakes the present for the past, whose mind mistakes someone who has never traumatized them with someone who did.

I wish you’d told me as soon as you knew instead of showing me like that. That would have been important communication. You scared me, once again.

With help, you can heal your poor damaged nervous system and experience more peace and stability and aliveness in your life. I am recommending Somatic Experiencing Practitioners to people these days.

Please find your way to help. I wish you well.

So this is for everyone: if you know that I have had PTSD and you have had untreated trauma in your life, and you come around seeking a relationship, please tell me up front, do your own recovery work (I’ll be rooting for you), and get yourself in decent emotional and relational shape before you expect any intimacy from me, for both our sakes.

I look forward to talking with the healthy you.