Trauma, vulnerability and moving into truth

A few weeks ago, I decided that when people ask me how I’m doing, rather than issuing my standard response of, “I’m fine,” I’ll tell them, “I’m having a full human experience.”

I thought I was being clever, but it turns out that may not have been the best idea. It’s been a bit of an overwhelming experience this past week or so. Perhaps more full than I bargained for.

I’m pretty open about having experienced abuse and trauma in my life. I don’t go on about it, but I don’t hide it. When sexual abuse and assault, emotional abuse, child neglect, PTSD and similarly light-hearted topics come up in conversation IRL or online, I’m open about what I’ve experienced if it seems hearing from a survivor might be helpful. Because it can be helpful to see someone who’s gone through hard stuff and now looks like they’ve pretty much got their shit together. Mostly.

When I talk with my students about meditation or opening up to your intuition and my own failures in those things at times, they tell me it’s reassuring to know that the person they look up to, the person teaching them, isn’t perfect. That the teacher is still learning. It makes progress seem more attainable.

So maybe I should talk more about this journey of healing that I’m on. Maybe I should go on about it, just a little bit more than I do. Maybe even sharing my feelings of frustration and seeming failure would be helpful. I’ve got a great life — loving family, great husband, smart kids, spacious house, growing career finally doing what I want to be doing. So you can have all that and still feel stuck and mixed up and unrecovered from everything that happened along the way here.

I went to the Terroir Writing Festival this weekend (which really should be held at a winery, rather than a community college, so we could appreciate terroir fully) and ended up doing sessions on memoir writing and writing after trauma. Both applicable to the feeling of stuckness that I have in a few areas of my life right now. It turns out they’re related.

I started writing about the years I spent in Barbados (age 10-14) because I got stuck in processing the trauma of my life. I’m a big supporter of mental health treatment and counseling and had been seeing a therapist for a while at that point, just to deal with the stresses of life, divorce and remarriage, and, somehow, attempt to face all the baggage I kept bringing with me. Talking about it only got me so far. And then I didn’t know how to move forward.

I believe that, when you take steps on the path of your highest good, the universe rises up to meet you, putting people, ideas and opportunities in your path and lighting them up so you see them, even if it feels like you’re stumbling around in the gloom.

It occurred to me to start writing. I was working through a book of writing exercises, taking one slow step after another on my treadmill desk in the basement, when a new story started flooding out. I realized it was a book being birthed and I kept at it. It was, overall, a healing experience. It brought up a lot of old stuff — much of which I knew about, some of which I didn’t. It allowed it to all rise up to the surface and say, “Hey, look at me. I’m still here. This still needs to come up and out and be dealt with.”

That’s a good thing. It’s healthy.

It’s also messy. And then it’s there, waiting to be dealt with, unwilling to get packed down beneath the surface again.

So I’ve been unpacking it, looking at it, deciding what I still want to keep and where it lives now, and what doesn’t work for me anymore. Beliefs about myself. Beliefs about life and other people. Beliefs about how and why things happened. It turns out that I learned a whole lot of lessons growing up, but I didn’t necessarily take away the right meaning.

Writing and revising an entire book’s worth of beliefs and ideas was worthwhile work. And then I got stuck.

But I have stamina, mostly fueled by determination (aka stubbornness). I used to think I didn’t have the stamina to finish writing a book. I’ve now written three and published two, so there goes another belief about myself that doesn’t work for me anymore.

My determination led me to keep looking for ways around my stuckness. Ways to process the trauma differently. Talking got me part of the way. Writing got me further. But if I want to take that writing and shape it into a story that resonates, then I need to take it further. I need to take myself further.

So I tried EMDR. Basically, it’s a type of “psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences.” My mental health counselor specializes in it and is one of the reasons I went to see her in the first place. And yet, I’ve avoided it for several years. Processing trauma is hard. EMDR gets it over with quicker than talk therapy, but it felt brutal. There were times during writing when it was hard to do that and maintain competence in anything else (like earning a living and getting dinner on the table). EMDR felt similar. I made it through two sessions, with a break in between, the first taking me through an ex-husband’s suicide attempt, the second through my first sexual assault. I’m made of some strong stuff, but even thinking about that second session makes me tear up.

Deep breath.

In the meantime, I’ve been meandering around on my professional path. What is it that i do exactly? I’m an…author…content marketer…medium…editor…freelance writer…teacher…musician? All of the above? Being all of those things means I have to keep refocusing again and again and again. (Basically, it’s like meditation, where your mind wanders down one track and then another and you keep bringing it back to your breath. But, in my working life, what is my breath?)

Once again, the universe rose up to meet me.

I took a business course with Heart of Business and it brought, not just clarity and support on what I was doing in my professional life, but a whole lot of unexpected healing as well. I also saw a local medium (an unlikely thing for me to do, but this felt right) who told me I had stored trauma in my body that wanted (and needed) to be released.

During that time, my counselor suggested I try TRE (Tension, Stress and Trauma Release Exercises) and taught me how to go through the exercises and how to allow my body to tremor. Once I did, my body started producing tremors and contractions so strong they irritated my lower back. I made my sessions shorter. And I went to see my chiropractor.

Something in the combination of stuck energy and an adjustment made my back muscles go haywire. Maybe they didn’t want to be told to release before they were good and ready. Maybe it was asking just a little too much. Instead of graciously accepting the adjustment, they went into protective mode and tightened up, fortifying the defenses to not release what wasn’t quite ready to go.

My back locked up. I was in so much pain muscle relaxers + narcotic pain meds felt like they barely made a dent.

It’s funny how life stops when our body insists on being paid attention to. I couldn’t drive (pain + pain meds). I couldn’t cook. I could barely get my pants on.

My goals got much smaller. Teach class on Friday. Go to the writing festival on Saturday. I rescheduled appointments, asked lots of favors (cook dinner, take kids to school, drop them home, fill in for me and sing on Sunday). That part was hard. I don’t like to ask for help. I realized that it’s because of all those times when I was younger and felt vulnerable and reached out for help, only to find none, so I had to suck it up and figure it out by myself anyway. I try and protect myself now by just doing it myself in the first place. But I didn’t this time. Not all of it, anyway.

I also realized that the pain — which was truly terrible labor-like pain — and my unprocessed trauma was, and always had been, connected. The back pain I endured for two decades before having spinal fusion surgery may have been technically caused by a car accident when I was a teenager, but was really the trauma trying to get my attention and get out. It wanted to be birthed and allow something new to live and grow and thrive.

I’m a lot better this week. I made it to my conference on Saturday, almost 2 hours away. It wasn’t a comfortable experience. But those sessions gave me some more tools to use as/when I revisit my first book. I learned a new word: autofiction to describe what I want to create from my memoir.

The sessions also gave me permission to approach the work in whatever way I need to, to be able to get close enough to get to the heart of it, without getting overwhelmed. That’s partly what stops me. I want to dig in, but I don’t want to be consumed by it. I want the rest of this life to keep working, for the kids to be fed, taken to where they need to go, to be scrubbed before bedtime and read books to, and for me to keep going with the rest of my writing and teaching life. I’m afraid of falling apart. And yet…it’s not going away, the need to tell this story.
So I’m going to follow my body’s lead. I’m trusting it to let me know how fast or slow to go. I want to do some more trauma release work this spring and into the early summer and then make space for myself to delve deeper into what’s going on in my memoir and craft it into the powerful I know it can be. The story of a girl, willing to travel across the ocean to find home and family on a tropical island, but who instead finds something very different from the promises of paradise in the shiny tourist brochures.