Supporting a student recently, I was reminded of just how widespread trauma is amongst us, of how powerful its grip on us can be, and how empowering it can be to simply acknowledge it.
How many of us have not been through overwhelming accidents, embarrassments, abuses, or other assaults in our lives? Most of us have not had the so-called ideal childhood where every moment was wondrous and every interaction rewarding. Most of us were not adequately seen, held, respected, met and reflected as little ones. Research on PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) has found that those exposed to challenging situations, like war, for example, are more likely to emerge with ongoing symptoms of stress intolerance if they had a traumatic experience when younger. Our histories, our stories inform us throughout our lives as to who we are, where we belong (or don’t) and what our purpose may be. We define ourselves according to our experience, particularly our very early experience.
The student I talked with had been depressed, having lost interest in the work she had previously been so enthusiastic about. A shocking accident had left her in pain, unable to walk for months, and unable to perform tasks she had previously excelled at. As I listened to her, my heart opened. I felt the angst of her struggle and recognized it. As support, I shared with her a piece of my own history.
My Concussive Story
In 1979, I had a concussion. I was engaged in my favorite hobby – folk dancing. Supposedly a relatively safe activity, I had been dancing Scandinavian turning dances at a weekend workshop out in the country. There were too many dancers on the floor. Someone’s foot accidently became entwined with mine or my partner’s. With all the momentum of the spin, we fell. Had I been on my own, I suspect I would have stretched out my arm and landed on it, probably breaking it. Instead, I went straight back on the back of my head onto the concrete, with the weight of my partner on top of me.
The room went quiet. I now know that the stillness was a combination of both the shock in the room and the shock in my nervous system. There was a doctor at the workshop who came over and starting assessing my state. What is your name, she asked. Can you tell me your name? I knew why she was asking. I had been working as an Occupational Therapist on a Neurology unit. I had patients with recent head injuries who couldn’t remember their names. But I knew my name. Saying it was another matter.
I have no idea how long I lay there in shock, paralyzed, unable to make my mouth or tongue move to say my name. I only knew it took everything I had to make it happen. It reminds me of when a petite mother witnesses her child under the wheels of a car and somehow lifts the car to free the child. In my case, however, the muscles simply wouldn’t respond. The nerves could not convey their messages. Eventually, after what may have been a minute or an hour, my name came out of my mouth. Relieved, I began to laugh. The whole room joined in. They knew I was fine now and life, or at least dance, could resume.
Beginning A Long Journey
Life was not back to normal, however. I was helped to walk over to a mat at the side of the room to lie down while the others went back to their dance. I felt more lightheaded than I ever had before. As I lay on my mat, I slowly turned my head and there, to my surprise, I saw a newborn baby on the mat next to mine! Someone had brought the baby and left him to sleep while she danced. For me, however, this sight was miraculous. I didn’t know it then, but I, too, was starting a new life. At the moment, innocent like the babe next to me, I knew only what I saw.
For a few days, as my friends checked in with me through the night to make sure I was still conscious and alive, I felt a lightness of being. I felt ecstatic with all life being fresh and new. I wasn’t too bothered when, returning to teach folk dancing, I found I couldn’t balance on one foot to demonstrate a dance step. I simply asked a friend to come and hold my hand as I demonstrated.
Over time, however, the headaches and dizziness began to get to me. I began to worry about my memory. When I returned to work at the hospital, I was horrified to discover myself forgetting important things. One evening after work, I realized I had left a confused old lady on the toilet, having forgotten to go back to retrieve her and help her back to her wheel chair before going home. I feared I would lose my job if I told anyone. I didn’t know what to do. I was immensely relieved to see her happily in her chair the next day. I longed to have my own life fall back into place so easily. I began to feel depressed.
My hopeless feelings were enhanced by my inability at times to find the words I needed. Prior to the concussion, I had loved word games. My folk dance friends and I would spend hours when we weren’t dancing immersed in games of Scrabble and Boggle. I excelled at these games, easily coming up with obscure words that brought me more points than anyone else. Now, nothing came. I struggled at times to remember words even when speaking. A visit to a neurologist added to the growing gloom. Reviewing a brain scan, he told me what he saw in my brain would not come from a traumatic injury like my concussion. It signified a more deteriorative disease like MS (Multiple sclerosis).
This shocking news landed on top of the concussion shock, still lingering from a year earlier. Having worked with patients with MS, I had often thought this debilitating disease with no cure was the last diagnosis I would ever want. The neurologist wanted me to do a spinal tap to complete the diagnosis, but something in me rebelled. I had the uncharacteristic thought to not go through with the spinal tap and just think of myself as healthy. I never returned to the neurologist.
Guided into a New Life
I now believe something was protecting me, guiding me. Over the next few years, my life began to turn around. I found myself drawn to alternative therapies, leading me into my body and through my earlier trauma history. As I faced my traumas, they began to resolve, loosening their hold on me. The depression lifted. My life force strengthened. Eventually, led to Craniosacral Therapy, the remaining symptoms from the concussion began to diminish.
Today, I look back to that folk dance accident with immense gratitude. I don’t think I would be able to do the subtle therapies I do now had I not been knocked out of my old ways. Up until that time, I had essentially lived from the neck up. My body was just something I had to take care of so it wouldn’t bother me. After the concussion, I could no longer be as heady, intellectual or articulate as I had been before. It was a huge loss for me. Depression was a natural response.
Talking to the student, I described my story briefly, acknowledging how common it is to feel depressed after a life changing injury. I also explained that chronic pain after an injury can affect nerves up into the brain, repeatedly setting off a stress response. The person begins to feel chronically overwhelmed. Their resources are taken up with dealing with the pain. Their cortisol levels are high. They have nothing to fall back on when stress arises in their life. They feel exhausted, drained, losing interest in anything that takes energy.
The student was glowing more and more with each word I spoke. She felt heard and touched by hearing my story and knowing that others have similar experiences to hers. The next day, she thanked me profusely, telling me how helpful it was just to normalize her situation.
Our interaction inspired me to write this, wishing I could as deeply touch and reassure the many others with similar experiences.
Our Stories as Support
We are all unique. Our experiences are all different. But they are also the same. We all have the potential for compassion based on our own suffering. We actually understand much of how it is to be someone else, even though we can’t possibly understand how it is to be that person! We all share this human journey. Perhaps, the most important service our stories provide is the potential for that understanding. While it can be devastating to identify with our stories, believing they define us, there is profound healing and connectedness available when we witness ourselves in relation to those stories. Knowing we are more than what we have done or seen or experienced, and yet that we have been affected. Our stories are powerful and we can be powerful with them.
As Rumi wrote: "The wound is the place where the Light enters you." When we become our stories, we often cannot perceive or receive the gifts they have to offer us. It is when we step back and allow ourselves to hold our stories within the larger wholeness of our being that we begin to understand. Perhaps then, we even have the potential to embody and pass on the message delivered to us via our experience. The Light is then posted for all to see and share.