Recovering from Trauma: Finding the Words That Heal

The Scream by Gerald Scarfe for Recovering from Trauma blog post

 

Several weeks ago, I received an interesting chain letter. Instead of being asked to send money to the designated recipient, I was to send a poem and forward the chain letter on to 20 people. If everyone followed through, I would receive 400 poems in the mail in short order.

I usually trash these invites, but something about this one caught my fancy, and I complied. In return, I received a variety of texts, including a Bob Dylan song, a verse from children’s book author Shel Silverstein, a poem by someone’s mother-in-law as well as poems by the illustriously immortal. The range and scope of the responses heightened my awareness of how we often turn to others—poets, rock stars—to speak to our souls, forgetting that all of us have the capacity to bear witness to our experience and unearth words that reflect back our deepest understanding of ourselves.

Dante Drinking from the River of Light by William Blake for Recovering from Trauma blog postIn his latest book, Drinking from the River of Light: The Life of Expression poet, spiritual teacher, and cancer survivor Mark Nepo credits self-expression as the rope he climbed to emerge from his struggle with cancer and return fully to life:

“I’ve come to believe that the heart of awakening is the quietly courageous act of feeling and facing what is ours to face. And I’ve discovered along the way that writing—expressing—is one of the best ways to stay awake. It doesn’t matter how ‘good’ our expressions are but that they keep us in relationship to the larger Universe we are a part of.”

You may be thinking what this has to do with you if you are not a writer or poet. Please consider this excerpt from James Baldwin’s magnificent story “Sonny’s Blues.” The character speaking is Sonny, a heroin addict and jazz pianist.

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside…that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out—that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.”

That storm inside. Can’t talk about it. And sex won’t help. And nobody wants to listen. Sound familiar? By the end of the story, Sonny concludes that the remedy to his despair is that he has to listen to himself.

The poet Gregory Orr speaks passionately about his discovery of poetry and how it helped him survive his unbearable despair after he accidentally killed his brother. In a 2006 interview for NPR, Orr compellingly talks about how language helped him heal. “I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive. When I was 12 years old, I was responsible for the death of my younger brother in a hunting accident. I held the rifle that killed him. In a single moment, my world changed forever. I felt grief, terror, shame, and despair more deeply than I could ever have imagined. In the aftermath, no one in my shattered family could speak to me about my brother’s death, and their silence left me alone with all my agonizing emotions. And under those emotions, something even more terrible: a knowledge that all the easy meanings I had lived by until then had been suddenly and utterly abolished.”

Orr’s portrayal of his situation aligns with psychoanalyst and Buddhist teacher Mark Epstein’s description in The Trauma of Everyday Life of what happens during trauma: “the reassuring absolutisms (albeit mythical ones) of daily life—that children do not die, that worlds do not move, and that parents always survive—are replaced by other, more pernicious convictions: the ‘enduring, crushing meanings’ (of one’s aloneness, one’s badness, one’s taintedness, or the world’s meaninglessness).” Trauma, he writes, “forces one into an experience of the impersonal, random, and contingent nature of reality, but it forces one violently and against one’s will.” It also exposes us to our powerlessness, our helplessness. “The old absolutisms no longer reassure, and the newly revealed reality feels crushing.”

How do we cope when life as we know it breaks down and what we have counted on seem broken? How can we discover our strength and courage in facing challenging obstacles?

Here is the last stanza of the poem Gregory Orr wrote years after his brother’s accident in which he resolves his once unutterable grief and shame.

Gathering the Bones Together

By Gregory Orr

for Peter Orr

I was twelve when I killed him;
I felt my own bones wrench from my body.
Now I am twenty-seven and walk
beside this river, looking for them.
They have become a bridge
that arches toward the other shore.

Language summons a whole world into being, says Orr. His poem contains a trauma, but also stands outside and apart from the trauma. The bridge he mentions is the bridge language makes between our inner and outer worlds. As humans, we are continually seeking self-understanding, ways to know ourselves and make sense of who we are. Unlike other species that have language, humans are the only species that have metacognition, the ability to reflect on our own minds. This self-reflective capacity—Why did I do X? How did that make me feel?— is essential to making meaning of our lives.

Photo from The Miracle Worker for Recovering from Trauma blog postLanguage’s magical power is to make sense of the senseless. At the age of nineteen months, Helen Keller became blind and deaf. In her autobiography, she describes the dramatic moment when her beloved teacher Annie Sullivan helps her, at six years old, connect a physical sensation with its word.

“As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”

The writer Isak Dinesen famously said, “All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story or tell a story about them.” But writing from the heart isn’t just about the transformation of difficult emotions; to write from the heart is to engage with life at its fullest, in all its terror and splendor. In writing from the heart, we break our self-silencing and flex our muscles of courage to uncover our deepest truths.

Writing stories, poems, or journal entries may actually be the second necessary action required in finding our voices and uncovering our inner resources, the essence of who we are. The first action is deep listening. Hear Mark Nepo on listening:

“In many ways, writing is listening and simply taking notes. . . . Being still and listening allows us to behold what is before us. The deepest form of bearing witness is to behold another in all their innocence. This is the key to love. To listen until the noise of the world subsides. To listen until the noise of the mind subsides. To listen until the noise of our wounds subsides. To listen until we only hear the life before us.”

Miriam Greenspan in her powerfully helpful book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, offers three skills and seven steps in alchemizing difficult emotions. Our culture, she claims, is emotion-phobic, and encourages an invincible heroic ideal while often shaming those who do not live up to societal expectations.

Greenspan offers ways to regain balance and exuberance in the face of even the darkest emotions. The author uses the acronym ABS for the three skills she believes basic to healing: A for Attending, B for Befriending, and S for Surrendering. “When we can mindfully attend to, tolerate, and surrender to the energy of the dark emotions as it flows,” Greenspan writes, “we open the heart’s doorway to the magic of emotional alchemy.” But, after describing these skills and steps in detail, she adds a caution. “The three basic skills and seven steps of the alchemy of the dark emotions are condensed distillations of a process that is ultimately mysterious. This process cannot easily be reduced to a set of skills, ideas, or biochemical events. The systemization of any emotional process gives it an aura of scientific credibility. But emotional alchemy is an art, not a science.”

What the authors mentioned have in common is a deep faith in our capacity to handle and thrive beyond even the most troubling aspects of our lives and a conviction we are inherently courageous and loving beings capable of transformation.

When we practice deep listening—and try to find the words for what we hear—we may be surprised at what we find.  What we haven’t noticed about ourselves, what lies hidden within, may come as wonderment at the ignored riches and creative forces offering their help.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Recalling a Visit to Epidaurus Prompts Five Antidotes for a Toxic World

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I start with a question: how many of us in this post-modern, techno-dependent age trust that we are self-healing creatures? Sure, we know that broken bones mend, wounds scab over, and even the flu can be fought off by our body’s ability to amp up killer T-cells, yet in our over-busy lives don’t we proceed unaware of how to optimize our mental, physical and spiritual health? We’ve got our pharmaceuticals, our herbalists and acupuncturists, our shrinks and expert docs; got our yoga studios, our meditation mats and our mantras too. We gave up tobacco, tossed out the fried donuts and Jim Beam. We count our 10,000 steps, rise early to jog, pump iron at the gym. Still, we are an anxious lot, exhausted, depressed, and often overwhelmed. I know this from personal experience. I join the chorus. Me, too.

I’m a fiction writer, not a therapist, but like those in the field of human psychology, I am vitally attuned to the conflicts and sorrows my characters encounter. As in life, so in fiction: the challenges characters face and how they deal with them are always influenced by the clash of individual inclinations and collective culture. Is it any wonder, given the level of distress in public affairs, that dystopian novels are ever more popular, especially among teens? A writer friend suggests that young adults are fascinated by post-apocalyptic dramas because they are unconsciously preparing for the world they assume they’ll inherit. A frightening thought.

Like many others, I feel vexed by the sensation that time is moving too quickly and anguished that life on earth is evolving in unpredictable and damaging ways. A sense of helplessness ensues. But what if, by simple means, each of us could create a private restorative environment, a kind of personal sweat lodge where self-healing could occur?

A number of years ago I undertook a journey that, like many transformative events, continues to yield riches. Let me take you there.

temple_dreamstime_xs_50989913In 1989, my husband and I flew to Athens, rented a car, and drove around the Peloponnese. This was before Greece joined the European Union, before the tourist boom and the financial bust. The countryside appeared untouched by modernity: crumbling towns built into the hillside, goats and sheep wandering across the rocky switchbacked roads.

As we climbed into the mountains, towns shrank into villages. Shepherds dressed in traditional vests and pantaloons and carrying large wooden crooks emerged from stone huts; in the bare courtyards, in the blazing sunlight, crones in their black widow’s garb glanced up from their sewing to stare. The resonant clappers of church bells and the tinkle of mule harness bells punctuated the silence. Our tiny Citroen Deux Chevaux struggled up the steep inclines; the hypnotic fragrance of white oleander, wild thyme, and yellow broom was everywhere.

Please bear with me. This is not a travelogue. The description is important. We were ascending into another world, a transitional space marked by its embrace of timelessness, something akin to symbolic forests in fairy tales in which the hero or heroine must wander, lost and alone, until the soul is called into action.

Inhabiting transitional space changes one’s perceptions. As we drove into more remote areas, stands of cypress, eternal green against a flawless sky, drew our eyes heavenward. The wind-bent calligraphic pines now seemed to convey coded messages. Meaning rushed back into things and challenged our materialistic point of view.

Looking, apprehending, contemplating, reflecting—these are active verbs that describe the qualities inspired by liminal situations. Liminality, as understood by the anthropologist Victor Turner, means a threshold experience, an in-between place as when one passes from one stage of life to another, or when one is in a suspended state awaiting a transition. Liminality is behind the mystery evoked by closed doors, bridges, fences, walls, and windows, places that enliven us and invite the possibility of stepping into the unknown.

On the fifth day of our journey, we pulled into a graveled lot crammed with tourist buses. We had come to Epidaurus. Spin the wheel of time back to the fourth century BCE and here the Greeks built an asclepion (one of several, the other famous one on the island of Kos, dedicated to Hippocrates), a healing sanctuary in honor of the god of medicine and healing, Asclepius. Under serene blue sky, amid the ancient hardwoods, the ill, the infirm, the wounded and bewildered sought help and refuge in what might be the first holistic wellness center in the West. Refuge from the Latin refugium, a place of protection, a place to flee back to. The sages knew the necessity of solitude and sanctuary, a protected space in which the personality can shed its ego-bound perspective and experience the soul’s continuity with all living things.

dormitory_dreamstime_xs_53047157Throughout the ancient world pilgrims traveled to this site where every view shouted Beauty. The weary slept in the enkoimeterion (dormitory) awaiting the god himself to enter their dreams and bestow curative advice. The body too, was attended. Nearby mineral springs invited cleansing and purification. Altars to Apollo and Artemis provided outdoor cathedrals where one could connect the divine.

Next to the shrines and the hospital and the sleeping dormitory, the Greeks built a huge amphitheater where audiences laughed and cried over Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes. In his Poetics, Aristotle used the term catharsis to mean the purging and emotional release that spectators experience while watching tragedy. How wise those ancient Greeks to understand that catharsis, the physical and mental release of pent-up emotions, restores balance and harmony to mind. The day we visited, school children were reading Antigone on that stage.

I’d always been an eye-roller to claims of “sacred space,” words I equated with the Sixties lingo of “good vibes,” and yet I couldn’t deny the sensation prickling up my arms that day. It was as though I’d entered mythic time and something in my very mitochondria was responding. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower; Drives my green age,” wrote Dylan Thomas, his recognition of Eros, that enlivening spark that runs through the living world. To study the Self is to forget the self and be enlightened by all things, Master Dōgen reminds us. At Epidaurus, I was soon to step out of the lock-box of self, that time-bound, self-interested aspect of one’s nature that reinforces a feeling of isolation, what the MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle describes as loneliness caused by “failed solitude.”

Relief-of-Asklepios-healing-a-dreamerFor a long while I sat on a rock outcropping above the valley, my mind emptying itself of months, maybe years, of accumulated detritus. I did not want to leave the sanctuary and knew I must; I wanted to sleep with my bones on the earth where eons ago others had awaited the god. I longed to reconnect with parts of myself that had gone hidden, and that now, in this sacred spot, felt safe enough to return. But dusk was seeping down over the mountaintop, the shadows along the ground casting their darkness. Three weeks later, I was home in Wisconsin, but something in me had changed.

I have no foolproof remedy for ridding body or soul of their aches, but when I reflect on my experience at Epidaurus, now so far away, my mind conjures a list of more accessible antidotes to today’s toxic world.

  1. Cultivate a space apart from your ordinary world and create a ritual that marks the passing from the profane/quotidian to a sacred place.

This could be a patch in your yard, a tree in a park, a path by a lake. It could be an internal space achieved through visualization. The possibilities are limitless. Observe the three S’s: sanctuary, solitude, stillness.

  1. Seek and attend to beauty.

Beauty is everywhere but we forget to look and linger. We forget the sensation of wonder that accompanies the apprehension of beauty. Study the bark of any tree, or the throat of a morning glory. The philosopher Elaine Scarry suggests that an appreciation of beauty contributes to our moral self.

“It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede the ground to the thing that stand before us.”

—Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just

  1. Honor the images and messages that come through dreams.

Contemplate, write down, draw or enact your dreams. They are direct communications from the deepest layers of your psyche.

  1. Observe and respect transitions.

Transitions provide an opportunity to contemplate a readjustment of purpose and perspective. Think how quickly we race from our computer screens to yoga class, from yoga to the grocery store, then on to daycare and the bus ride home. We make many transitions during a day, mostly without full consciousness of the flavor, texture, or vision of each moment. Stop to savor moving from one activity to another, from one place or thought process to another.

  1. Let yourself be moved by art.

To stand outside a painting as a viewer, to analyze a play, to critique a novel is quite a different experience than to weep violently over Lear’s predicament.

This list is of course incomplete. These are not cures but suggestions that align with our deepest instincts: the need for silence and solitude; for beauty and self-expression; for exploring our spiritual nature. If I advocate for anything it is against the notion that we are helpless victims in an ever-maddening world. The Seventies adage has never been more relevant: the personal is always political.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at