I was asleep for 17 years. I walked, spoke, I bathed like other human beings, but there was a part of me heavy and closed and unaware. I fed myself booze and pills. I drove cars. I stood thigh deep in the Atlantic in February until I couldn’t feel my toes. I bled like other people. Could read and cook and sew. But there was a shallowness, a kind of shell: if you opened my ribcage like a door, you’d find too much empty space. The blood got all tangled up. And the heart was bruised. I was living in Brooklyn. I was 31 years old.
And then I suddenly woke up.
Trauma is what they call it when a person goes through a moment of such danger they are overwhelmed by fear, sadness, or horror. But that is a poor way to explain it, because sometimes the horror doesn’t manifest until afterward. As I first read about trauma, it applied to Vietnam Vets. The source of their trauma, I read, was not necessarily their own danger, although that was there too. What overwhelmed these men was their own action, their own body. They couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance braced between what they believed, and what they found themselves doing. The dissoance was too much. The brain couldn’t incorporate it.
They were overwhelmed.
The sadness, or rage, or horror was simply too large for them, and so it didn’t settle. It became everything, like an ocean.
Or it floated away, unattached to the spinal cord, far into the sky where the atmosphere grew thin.
And then the people feel asleep, like snow white having bitten the apple. That’s how I think of it. They have faces, and skin, and eyelashes like everyone else. They marry and work on line in factories, drive cars in and out of suburbia. But there is something more like dream than life in them. They carry something unresponsive and deadweight in their bodies.
And since it’s sadness, and rage, but also love and laughter and patience that make a human, these people had something of the human taken away. Or some hand pressed over the mouth, where the voice is supposed to be.
It was with Vietnam Vets that studies of trauma came into their own, although there are references to it throughout time. But it was these studies that first brought to us the idea that the people themselves weren’t damaged, there was nothing crazy or degenerative in them.
What was crazy and degenerative was something that had happened to them.
Trauma is like a knife. If enough pressure is applied, anyone will bleed.
I was 31 years old. I was living in Brooklyn. One day my chest terrored like there was a live hawk inside of it. All the blood left my head and went there. I felt a hand on me, and suddenly I woke up.
I was in a yoga class. I sat down on my mat while the rest of them kept moving around me. I stayed in the room, laid in shavasana, listened to that wildness in my heart. I stayed until everyone had gone. I stayed longer, until the studio itself was empty. And when it was quiet, and the people were gone, I curled up on my mat and then I cried.
Maybe this is the first thing we do, waking up.
I can’t get over it
I believed people were lying to me, that the whole promise of happiness and resolve was untrue. I knew I had been hurt. I knew what this could do to people. I read, I went to counseling, I purged and I scrubbed and I overslept. Someday you won’t have to feel this anymore, people said. Someday this will be a part of your life, a small paragraph in a very long story. Someday it won’t define who you are.
But that wasn’t true.
I wasn’t crazy, or, if crazy I did a reasonable job of hiding it. I didn’t have PTSD, say, and it’s not like I remembered the nightmares, though I knew I had them. It didn’t sabotage my thinking and railroad it into one groove; I thought what I wanted and needed to think. But behind it, always, there was a sepia tint of brittleness. That was always. I figured out how to accept it always would be. I had ‘healed’ and gotten over it’. Done is done. There was nothing I could do.
Trauma survivors often say “I can’t get over it”. Thoughts or images from the event intrude where they shouldn’t be. Or the feeling, the sense that it’s happening again, will rise up like tide and drown everything, leave you stranded. They say it won’t define who you are, you’ll get over it.
But it does define who you are. It never goes away. You don’t get over it.
I wish, now, that I could give everyone that yoga. The kind that woke me up. It was like air, blown across the flute of my throat. Like fingers, thrumming my heart. There is intellectual healing, understanding, knowing and forgiving and grieving. But this is different. This is more like being born.
But “sudden realization” isn’t fair to say, either: first, I felt it. I realized – meaning, thought – later.
Traditional therapy has had to acknowledge limits in some cases: persons who have experienced truama, had traumatic childhoods, or have recurring mood disorders don’t often have a good prognosis.
Yoga, though, healed me in places I didn’ t know I was broken. It moved me where ‘therapy’ and ‘self-help’ couldn’t.
“Alternatives” to traditional therapy are on the rise, and yoga in particular has been recognized to have intrinsic theraputic qualities. I have heard countless stories of returned health and emotional wellness as a result of yoga practice.
But I would advise caution. What I experienced happened organically, and took much time. Had I been looking for the experience, or trying to ‘re-experience’, I think I would have done more harm than good.
There are teachers and schools that advertise as ‘theraputic’ yoga practioners. I believe that this is something we’ll continue to see. I think that the proof of the healing qualities will only become more and more obvious.
But yoga teachers are not trained psychologists and are largely unequipped to deal with trauma. There have been ‘healing’ yoga classes that sent students into flashbacks – that arguably made the situation worse.
This is true of my own experience as well: the first times I was brought to yoga – numerous times over many years – my reaction was extream discomfort and fear. It was a displaced fear that I couldn’t quite identify, but it was deeply real. Stress hormones were pumping, my pupils were dialated, and I was afraid for my life.
To this day, I need some time to be comfortable with a new teacher, males in particular. I once had a male teacher touch me in class, with the intention of helping me into a modification or deeper pose. I snapped to attention and out of the pose, left the room, and shook. Because we are deeply focused, moving our bodies in open and sometimes intimate ways, we are vulnerable as we practice.
Of course, this is probably what makes it work. We need to find that vulnerabilty to know the bigger strength behind it. We need to allow ourselves pain if we’re going to be able to let it go.
Symptoms of Trauma
PTSD is, of course, the label. There are millions who suffer it. But there are millions more who suffer from some of the symptoms, or carry some of the memories, without having the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. A recent study by the CDC suggests that the majority of adults had troubled childhoods. If we generalize about the number of people who have been in abusive relationships, combat, natural disasters, survived serious injuries, or in any other way survived a threatening situation, we’ve got to see ourselves as a wounded society.
How we are affected varies; in the same scenario, one person may develop trauma symptoms while another doesn’t. There is some evidence that previous traumas increase our risk. Our natural ability to cope with stress, our support systems, and how the event was treated in the aftermath all seem to have roles.
Trauma can make us feel crazy. We may think the trauma is our fault, or feel shame for not reacting well, or withdraw from others who don’t understand.
Following a traumatic experience, survivors may re-experience the trauma mentally and physically. This can hurt. It can be terrifying. It can, simply, overwhelm.
Because it hurts, survivors usually avoid thinking about it. Both the re-experiencing and the avoidance can lead to problems. PTSD is a specific set of problems recognized by medical and mental health professionals.
We may re-experience the mental, emotional, and physical experiences that occured during or just after the trauma. We may think about it, see images from the event, feel agitation, or have distinct physical sensations like those that happened. We may feel we are in danger, experience panic and a desire or need to escape, and feel threatened by others. Because of the anxiety and physical agitation, we may have trouble sleeping or concentrating. In extremes, survivors can’t control these symptoms or stop them from happening. Mentally re-experiencing can include:
- Upsetting memories such as images or thoughts about the trauma
- Feeling as if the trauma is happening again (flashbacks)
- Bad dreams or nightmares
- Getting upset when reminded about the trauma (by a sight, sound, feeling, smell or taste)
- Anxiety or fear, feeling in danger again
- Anger or aggressive feelings or the need to defend oneself
- Trouble control emotions because triggers lead to sudden anxiety, anger, upset or sadness
- Trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
PHYSICALLY RE-EXPERIENCING CAN INCLUDE
Trouble falling or staying asleep.
Feeling agitated or hyper aroused
Over reaction, quick startle response
Feeling shaky and sweaty
Heart pounding and trouble breathing
Sometimes we are aware that we’re avoiding reminders, but other times survivors don’t realize that their behavior is motivated by avoidance.
Actively avoiding trauma related thoughts and memories
Avoiding conversations and staying away from places, activities, or people that may remind you of the event
Trouble remembering important parts of what happened during the event
Shutting down emotionally and feeling numb
Trouble having loving feelings or any strong emotions
Finding things around you seem strange or unreal
Feeling disconnected from the world around you and things that happen to you
Avoiding emotional situations
Feeling odd physical sensations
What happened when Snow White fell asleep was that a kind of isolation fell around her and swallowed her whole. She lived in a snow globe, and things drifted and swelled in the air.
Forget “trauma” for a moment: remember simply what feeling is, and how it can sweep us away all unaware. This is something we all know; overbooked, exhuasted, burned out, drained, overworked.
One day Snow White felt a gush of air and heard a sucking sound. In her dream, she winced and squinted: there was a crack.
The snow globe broke, and the water drained out. Snow White tasted the air. She had forgotten it.
There is an idea in talk therapy of return, or getting back to normal, or being okay again. We may grow frustrated, because we can’t go back again; we can’t return to some innocent state. And we can’t forget.
Yoga taught me a different kind of return. It was returning as the prodigal son returns, a homecoming, a resurrection and reunion. I was returned to my senses. Perhaps not in a sane way, I never lost the brain. But I was overwhelmed again with the sensual, the taste of fruit, the strength of my lungs, the pumping of the heart. My whole body smiled.
It wasn’t that I was given anything back; it was that I, myself, returned. Blinking. It isn’t that the nightmares end, but that we’re now awake.
The symptoms disappear. Not willed, not fought, and not denied, but disappear. In awareness. In being present. In showing up, day by day by day. In learning where your feet stand, and how your ankles connect to them, and what your heart sounds like when you listen to it.