Facing (bodying) the fragility of life

Image by eklektik2xs on FlickrToday I returned to my other job after two weeks away, and discovered that one of my coworkers – a gentle, pleasant soul I did not know well after a month and change at the company, but whom I’d decided I liked – had died over the weekend. He was climbing with friends near a waterfall in the White Mountains, and fell 40 feet. He was 29 years old.

It is hard to know what to do in the face of such shocking news. I came into work this morning and one of my supervisors took me aside to tell me about it, which he did, sensitively and quietly, as I have observed to be his way. I noticed that he hadn’t shaved today. When he said the name, I had trouble placing it; I am still learning everyone in the office. But a brief description made it clear, and I found myself struck by a strange and nonspecific sadness, nearly the same feeling as I’d had after the Sandy Hook shootings: a shock and slowness and weight of grief over sudden death that could have been prevented, but that isn’t that close. And in this case, the strange regret – guilt? – that I never got to know him well, that now I never will. I’ve been near tears several times today, but never all the way to breaking. Some part of me seems to say, What right do you have?

The office is subdued, though the QA team still chats about random geekery, the engineers still play video games at lunch. One coworker with whom I work closely has tired eyes this morning, and is the second unshaven face I see. The stoic and kind manager who works at the desk behind me looks like he has been crying, and brings extra chocolate for the edge of his desk. He doesn’t quite make eye contact with me. We joke that there’s very little that dark chocolate sea salt caramels can’t fix, but the unspoken, more bitter than the chocolate, rings out.

Flowers arrive and fill my nose with a lilly smell I can’t abide, and his boss and I start a small shrine amid the team. Last night, before I came back, a few people went out for drinks, apparently until late, to raise a glass and remember. It is unclear what else we are supposed to do.

Move slowly, keep up the good work, and remember seems to be the answer so far. I want somehow to reach out, to let people know they can talk to me if they want, confidentially, that I’m trained for this. But like everyone else, I don’t know what’s appropriate. How do we listen to ourselves, to each other, after such a loss?

Owning yourself fully: Bessel van der Kolk and healing trauma through the body

Image by Run Jane Fox on Flickr

Image by Run Jane Fox on Flickr

The big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully.

-Bessel van der Kolk

In the course of thinking about Rubenfeld Synergy Method in the context of trauma, I’ve been looking at the marvelous Bessel van der Kolk, known by many in the area as the head of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, MA. Krista Tippett interviewed him for On Being late last year, and the result is a remarkable look into the man’s life, work, and personality. He has been working with trauma since his time with Vietnam veterans at a VA hospital during his training as a psychiatrist. It was there that he first became fascinated with the idea what trauma is and what it does for us: a soldier refused to take the drugs prescribed for nightmares, because to him, the nightmares were a way of keeping the memory of his friends alive.

His recent book, The Body Keeps the Score, is being cited more and more in the healing circles I travel in. It is an exploration of a lifetime working with people who have become living memorials in some way: their bodies unchanging testaments of traumatic events. Trauma, he says, happens when the mind is unable to synthesize a narrative about what has happened, and the events get “stuck” in the body, replaying themselves. Even Darwin, as early as 1872, wrote “how emotions are expressed in things like heartbreak and gut-wrenching experience. So you feel things in your body. And then it became obvious that, if people are in a constant state of heartbreak and gut-wrench, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body.”

I have seen this phenomenon in my practice, where clients often cannot feel what is happening in their bodies, or are unaware of what their bodies are doing, or they “leave the room,” in essence, dissociating whenever their awareness is called to their bodies. The experiences that they have had there are too intense to be repeatedly endured, and they have found ways to disconnect from their somatic experience. And so the process of addressing trauma somatically starts with helping people reconnect with their bodies in ways that can begin to feel safe.

van der Kolk has worked with yoga, eye movement therapy, and other somatic practices to help people return to their bodies. “It was very striking in our yoga study,” he says, “even during the most blissful part of the yoga practice called Shavasana, what a hard time traumatized people had at that moment to just feel relaxed and safe and feel totally enveloped with goodness, how the sense of goodness and safety disappears out of your body basically.” In his work, as in Rubenfeld Synergy, van der Kolk has found that “something that engages your body in a very mindful and purposeful way — with a lot of attention to breathing in particular — resets some critical brain areas that get very disturbed by trauma.” It can take a while to help someone reconnect with their own breath, to have a sense of their skin and bones and muscles, to have a relationship to their own sensations and emotions that is not simply another way of triggering the trauma. But the research is clearer and clearer that returning people to their bodies is a clear route out of the cycle.

One of my favorite bits of the interview was about stress hormones and their value, and how what really prevents overwhelming experiences from becoming trauma is movement:

“The stress hormones are good for you. You secrete stress hormones in order to give you the energy to cope under extreme situations…What goes wrong is, if you’re kept from using your stress hormones, if somebody ties you down, if somebody holds you down, if somebody keeps you imprisoned, the stress hormones keep going up, but you cannot discharge it with action. Then the stress hormones really start wreaking havoc with your own internal system.

But as long as you move, you are going to be fine. As we know, after these hurricanes and these terrible things, people get very active and they like to help and they like to do things and they enjoy doing it because it discharges their energy.”

This links back to a post I wrote years ago that continues to be popular, about trauma and streaming. When action is possible in a moment of crisis, it is less likely to become “stuck.” But when trauma is repeated, or when movement or action isn’t safe, then the event or events can become “frozen” in the body, stuck in a repeat loop until we can return a sense of safety to the body, and a sense of consciousness to the ongoing experience of being embodied.

Except for a small number of practitioners, the connection between trauma and the body is a minority voice in psychology. Luckily, it is expanding, but it has taken some time. I am hoping to connect with Dr. van der Kolk and the Trauma Center soon to talk about how Rubenfeld Synergy can contribute to this process of healing from trauma. For now, I recommend listening to the whole interview here , or reading the transcript here.

Tsarnaev, heartbreak, and the violence borne of suffering

Image by Rebecca Hildreth on FlickrLast week, the federal courts sentenced young Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his crimes in the Boston Marathon bombing. I don’t talk politics much here, but I will say on the record: I was hoping against hope that it would be life without parole. I hoped – and even believed – that we were better than this now. That we would give this young man – hell, this boy – a chance to grow up, to reflect, to be alone with his thoughts and out of the public eye for years – and perhaps, to find redemption.

But we’re not so good at that, as a species. Even though Martin Richard’s family, who had the ultimate loss in this tragedy in the death of their young son, said that they did not want the death penalty. Apparently, our sense of revenge was more important than responding to that family’s plea to not take another child away from this world.

I read an article by Parker J. Palmer a few days before the verdict, in the amazing On Being blog. Entitled Heartbreak, Violence, and Hope for New Life, it is built around the repeated refrain, “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”

It tracks the idea that as individuals, and indeed, as a nation, we often don’t know what to do with our suffering, and so lashing out feels like the only option. It happens with the cycle of abuse, when a child who was beaten up grows up to beat up her own kids. It happens when we turn violence against ourselves or others in response to grief and pain. As Palmer writes, “We turn to noise and frenzy, nonstop work, or substance abuse as anesthetics that only deepen our suffering. Sometimes we visit violence upon others, as if causing them pain would mitigate our own. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and contempt for the poor are among the cruel outcomes of this demented strategy.”

We do it as a nation, as when after the few weeks of solidarity and heartbreak that followed 9/11, we went to endless war.

And we did it this week, when we decided that our response to the suffering we experienced after the Marathon bombing should be the death – irrevocable and state-executed – of a a young man who could yet, with time, be healed.

Suffering breaks our hearts — but there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes and is sometimes thrown like a grenade at the source of its pain. Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.

I hope that if you are reading this, if you are suffering today, if your heart is breaking, that it is able to make room, to expand, to be supple and strong.