“Exhaustion is the body working to find comfort in a discomforting world.”

Two days ago, when I heard of the mass shooting in Orlando that has since then been an unavoidable theme in every waking moment of my life, my first response was that shot to the heart, punch in the chest sensation that then slowly seeps down into my stomach. The horror, dread, rage and sadness the news sparked in me slid down and settled like an unwelcome houseguest, and as with such a houseguest, I quickly became inured, complacent. Numb.

So many deaths and terrible acts have happened in the past few years. I’ve written here about the difficulty of facing the reality of such atrocities more than once, and found myself, after Sunday morning, again thinking about how to address this kind of event. This one, in particular, hits close to home: I identify with queer community enough to think of this crime as a strike against my larger sense of family. Yet I still cannot summon the pain and anger that are required to take action. In the face of such things, numbness – exhaustion, resignation – is one of the only tolerable responses available.

An article from Medium this morning, called “Against Numbness,” says many of the things I cannot say myself today. “Exhaustion is sensible,” writes Emma Roller, “it makes perfect sense. Exhaustion is your mind shielding your body from succumbing to a deeper horror, adrenaline numbing your pain.” Enough work with trauma – my own and clients’ – has taught me this: our bodies are very good at helping us manage overwhelming feelings by suppressing them. When our bodies are in a state of injury or illness profound enough that the pain signals are no longer of use as an alarm system to let us know we need help, our bodies go into shock. When an event happens that is so unthinkable that the emotions around it threaten to destroy us, we also say that we are “in shock.” When the trauma is repeated so often that the body no longer believes there is a safe place it can go to, the shock becomes embedded, becomes numbness.

As a nation, at this point, I believe that we are in this state. The same way that we all stared at our TV screens, transfixed, watching the planes slam into the Twin Towers over and over in 2001, we now refresh our Facebook pages, looking for more reactions to the news, more stories, more details. It is a deeply human response: looking for knowledge, for connection, for something to make sense of the senseless. But in practice it becomes an act of numbing, of self-soothing. It makes us feel like we’re doing something, when in reality we feel helpless. This, too, is extremely natural. But as Roller reminds me this morning, “Your exhaustion — your questioning if the pain is worth the gain — is the most effective tool the status quo has in its toolbox.” She closes with an imprecation to remember, and suggests a way forward out of our feelings of helplessness:

Lean into your pain. Don’t neglect it. Remember the feeling of numbness, but don’t succumb to it. The victims and their friends and families deserve not to be forgotten. The news cycle will wash over their stories, but you can choose not to abandon them. Be vigilant with your own feelings — not just for the victims, but for yourself. Never accept that this is how we have to live in America today.

I don’t know if I’m strong enough, on this day, to do this. But I like having it here as a reminder. As my partner goes to work at his queer-community-related job, where they have posted a security guard and locked the doors; as I resist the urge to refresh my Facebook page; as I go through the daily motions of my own life and try not to succumb to the fear that someone I love may be next, I will return to this. I will try to let my body move the pain of this instead of holding it, to feel the loss instead of shrugging it off, to move through exhaustion into action.

“So sometimes I need to be reminded that my body is mine.”

Today’s post comes from Return the Gayze, a blog I was alerted to by a Facebook post linked to me by a friend in a private message…you know how it goes. However I stumbled across it, I needed to share it with you.

The post is about massage, about pain, about buried trauma, about what we can offer one another as healer and client, as survivor and witness, as human beings who are made for touch.

Susan tells me that her job as a masseuse is not necessarily to get rid of the pain, but rather to bear witness to it. To recognize it. To affirm it. She says that we live in a country — a world — that teaches us at every level that our hurt is a story we made up. And we internalize that to our core and write it into every muscle in our body. “I am wrong, I am wrong, I am wrong.” She says that sometimes acknowledgment can be its own sort of antidote. That sometimes people just need to hear that what happened to them was not their fault. That people tend to know what is best for themselves, they’ve just been told over and over again that they don’t.

Read the whole thing, by Alok Vaid-Menon, here.

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?

Trying to manage pain? F*** it!

Research shows that swearing helps us to manage pain better. We’ve all had the experience of dropping something on our foot and yelling out a few choice Anglo-Saxon words. Scientists used to believe that doing so focused us more on the negative, and therefore decreased tolerance of pain. New research, however, shows that on the contrary, people who swore while experiencing pain were able to tolerate it for longer, and reported feeling less pain than those who repeated a neutral word.

swearing-294391_1280I’m reminded of a practice client I had a long time back, who was having an intense emotional experience in her life. Standing at her head, I asked her what she was aware of, and her answer was “F*** it!” Encouraged by this plainly authentic response, I mirrored it to her, encouraging her to allow that feeling to flow. Turned out that phrase was everywhere inside her, needing to get out, be felt, and be voiced.

This research brings a new dimension to that session: the idea that giving someone permission to spout profanity when in extremis can help not only release the painful emotions, but make doing so less painful. Anger, too – often associated with such outbursts – can be a powerful way to feel some control over something that hurts.

If the body speaks in metaphors, then swears are one way for the body to release steam. Nice to see work being done on how our use of language relates to our physical and emotional experience.

Rewiring your brain out of pain

When I was about 17 years old, I remember getting sunburned on my face. I particularly hurt on the skin around and under my eyes, but being out with family at the pool in the complex where my grandmother lived, I needed to hang out for a bit longer. I was reading a book – Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as I recall – and was having a hell of a time concentrating on it. But lying face down on a beach chair, I began a chant inside my head. It doesn’t hurt, I kept thinking. It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt.

I remember my astonishment when I realized, a few minutes later, that in fact it didn’t. I returned to my reading and, as I recall, the pain did not return.

People have been using the expression “mind over matter” for ages, but research is coming around more and more to the idea that this process is quite literal. A recent article in the Daily Mail sensationalizes it somewhat (it is, after all, in the Daily Mail), but the implications are clear: with practice, we can rewire our brains to ignore pain, so that it does not become or stay chronic.

One of the basic principles of neuroplasticity, as the ability of the brain to change and adapt is called, is that neurons that fire together, wire together. It is by this mechanism – the brain making associations, sometimes between seemingly unrelated things – that habits form, thought patterns become ingrained, some sexual proclivities develop, and trauma keeps hold of us over time.

With pain, the grooves in the brain can become very deep. “The role of acute pain is to alert us to injury or disease by sending a signal to the brain,” says Dr. Norman Doidge in the article. “But sometimes an injury affects the body and the nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. As acute pain continues, these neurons become hypersensitive, firing more easily with less stimulation.” Opioid drugs like morphine and oxycodone can increase this effect over time, driving the neurological grooves deeper until even a small stimulus can trigger pain, even in areas of the body that weren’t directly affected by the injury.

Another doctor who studied this phenomenon after his own severe injury, pain specialist Michael Moskowitz, “realised that many of the areas in the brain that fire in chronic pain also process thoughts, sensations, images, memories, movements, emotions, and beliefs – when they are not processing pain, that is.

This explains why, when we’re in pain, we can’t concentrate, tolerate certain sounds or light, or control our emotions well, because areas that regulate these activities have been hijacked to process the pain signal.

Working from the knowledge that two parts of the brain process both pain signals and visual signals, he developed a way of using visualization to overcome the pain when it arose. Focusing on an image of his own brain in pain, he then imagined the areas of pain getting smaller and smaller. By repeatedly telling the brain to process this visual image rather than focusing on the pain itself, he achieved a reduction of pain in 3 weeks, a major reduction in 6, and a near-pain-free existence after a year.

These findings, which he has begun putting into practice for patients for several years with surprising success, dovetail with the work that Synergists and other bodymind therapists have been doing for some time. Because awareness is the first key to change, getting clients to focus on different parts of their bodies, on their pain, on their emotion, or on whatever is happening inside them and describe it in detail can help the client regain some control over bodily responses to stimuli. By observing our state in detail, we can then take action to change that state.

I’m again remembering a certain demo session that Ilana Rubenfeld ran in our training, with a classmate who had been in a serious car accident more than 20 years ago, and sometimes still had pain from it. In that session, she helped him rewrite the memory: starting the process of rewiring the part of his brain that had built a groove around that event, a groove that kept saying remember, and helping him to remember it differently, to tell the brain that in fact it had been a near miss, to let those pain signals stop firing at last. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt.

I’m looking forward to learning more.

“Though that mark will never fully heal…as you grow, the scar gets smaller in proportion.”

This is a beautiful video by the great Ze Frank (yes, of “True Facts” fame), and young dancer Harry Shum, Jr. Using light, movement, paint, music, and voiceover, this video fully embodies what it is to be “painfully shy,” and what it is to come out of that shell at last.

If you, right now, are in a shell, you should know that you’re not alone, that there are many, many other people like you, and that there’s nothing wrong with you. It might even be necessary, right now, might keep you safe for a time. But after the danger’s gone, and after it’s exhausted its use, you’ll find a way out. You may need help. You might need to work pretty hard, and you may need to find some ways to laugh at yourself. Or, find a passion, or a friend. But you will find it.

To me, this beautifully elucidates the journey we must take, from within ourselves, to make contact with others. Sometimes through pain, sometimes through laughter, sometimes through brute force and at other times through slow growth.

Here’s to all of our healing.

"Though that mark will never fully heal…as you grow, the scar gets smaller in proportion."

This is a beautiful video by the great Ze Frank (yes, of “True Facts” fame), and young dancer Harry Shum, Jr. Using light, movement, paint, music, and voiceover, this video fully embodies what it is to be “painfully shy,” and what it is to come out of that shell at last.

If you, right now, are in a shell, you should know that you’re not alone, that there are many, many other people like you, and that there’s nothing wrong with you. It might even be necessary, right now, might keep you safe for a time. But after the danger’s gone, and after it’s exhausted its use, you’ll find a way out. You may need help. You might need to work pretty hard, and you may need to find some ways to laugh at yourself. Or, find a passion, or a friend. But you will find it.

To me, this beautifully elucidates the journey we must take, from within ourselves, to make contact with others. Sometimes through pain, sometimes through laughter, sometimes through brute force and at other times through slow growth.

Here’s to all of our healing.

Pain and pleasure as emotions

On a recent edition of Science Friday, I encountered an interview with neuroscientist Francis McGlone, whose research into touch-sensitive nerves has changed the landscape for how science understands touch in humans.

It was already known that there are what might be called fast nerves and slow nerves. The first carry sensation to the brain in milliseconds; these are the nerves that make you draw back when you touch a hot plate. The slower nerves carry the message over the course of several seconds: these are the nerves that process the burning sensation afterward.

What was a relatively new finding was that there are also slow nerves – called C fibers – associated with pleasant touch. These are known as C-tactile fibers, and convey what McGlone calls the emotional quality of touch.

When a person is stroked gently, these slow nerve fibers process the sensation as a feeling, transmitting to the brain a feeling of pleasure. These nerves, though, also work with the brain to interpret the feeling and put it in context: if someone you can’t stand is touching you, for example, the pleasant touch won’t be experienced as pleasant. Similarly, a painful sensation won’t be experienced as quite so painful when it’s in an expected or familiar context: for example, getting hair pulled out at the salon.

These slow nerve fibers, then, are the conduits that help our bodies translate the sensation of touch into an emotional experience of the world, from the breeze on our face to the sand between our toes to a reassuring touch on the shoulder.

A more detailed discussion of McGlone and others’ work in this arena is here, in an article from The Scientist.

What this research made me think of in the context of Rubenfeld Synergy was how developmentally, the type and amount of touch we receive as infants and children helps determine how our brains form socially.  In the above interview, McGlone calls the brain “a social organ,” and talks about how the earliest touch we receive helps us develop affectively. This, to me, points to how many people’s wiring gets crossed early on, and what is meant to be pleasant touch, received from inappropriate sources or in sexualized or otherwise inappropriate ways, may wire a person’s brain to perceive pleasant touch as unsafe or even painful.

One role that touching healers, like Synergists, can potentially play is in helping clients rewire their nervous systems to be able to receive pleasant touch, by exposing them to non-sexual, boundaried, gentle contact in a healing context. This is tricky and sensitive work, but I have hope for its healing properties.

My favorite response yet to the #yesallwomen thing.

In the wake of the horrific shootings this week, Twitter and other social media have been a-flurry with defensive remarks from men (hashtag: notallmen) and responses from women (hashtag: yesallwomen). The dialogue seems to be going past each other, in a way that neither increases understanding nor gets at the heart of why these awful things are happening.

In the midst of this, a therapist has written this marvelous article, about secondary trauma and how we might better understand all of this.

In short:

  • The women of this world express to men their experiences of what they go through on a day to day basis, living in rape culture.
  • The men of this world who are trying to understand, who want to help, who want things to change, feel helpless, depressed, and like part of the problem, and express these frustrations to women.
  • The women go, seriously, I just shared these horrible experiences with you and now you want me to soothe your hurt feelings? Screw off.
  • The women still feel unseen and unheard, and the men screw off, having nowhere to put their secondary trauma.

In the post, the author notes how men often don’t have a lot of emotionally intimate male friends, particularly if they are partnered, and that they get the majority of their emotional needs met by the women in their lives. When those women need to be listened to – witnessed, without judgment – about things that men by virtue of being men largely don’t experience, those same women cannot then be the witnesses for the pain men feel over what they’ve just been told. It’s like a therapist turning around to their client and saying, “What you just told me was deeply upsetting, and I think I need some support around how upset your experience makes me.” While the relationship is not analogous, sometimes witnessing needs to be one-sided. Which is why men need witnesses, too.

But Sarah O says this all better than I can summarize. Please, go read.

Working with Sexuality: Decoupling touch and sex

In a previous post, I mentioned how often, especially for men, touch can be linked up in their bodies with sex.  In our current society, unfortunately, we have a disordered relationship to touch.  When we are tiny children, if we are lucky, our parents and other caregivers touch us all the time.  We are carried, cuddled, rocked and patted.  But as we get older, we are touched less and less.  I remember very well when my father stopped carrying me in to bed when I would fall asleep in the car on the way home.  It felt like a terrible loss.  And in many of today’s schools, children aren’t allowed to hug each other, and teachers mustn’t touch the children at all if they can help it.

Once kids hit puberty, it’s true that touch can become complicated.  A whole new dimension is added to what touch might mean.  But prohibiting kids from touching altogether doesn’t allow them to develop the appropriate judgment and boundaries for determining what kind of touch feels safe and right to them, from whom, and at what time.

And once people are adults, the relationship with touch shifts yet again.  Women more often have access to casual, friendly touch with other women, but some do not, and as people get older and separate into isolated, nuclear family units, cuddle piles of friends tend to disappear, if they ever existed.  For men, this tends to be even more true: from puberty onward, or even earlier, boys are taught to tamp down sensitivity, to be tough, to not seek or need affection, and to play sports – the team variants of which are the only allowable outlet for men to touch each other.  (Have you ever watched a football game on TV and seen the incredible amount of butt-patting and hugging that goes on in addition to the tackling?)  As a large proportion of men and women enter exclusive relationships, get married, and have kids, their only source of loving touch comes in one of two ways: through intimate contact with their partner, or through loving contact with their small children – in the most literal way, a natural extension of that sexuality.

Never mind all of the incredible health benefits touch has been shown to have.  Even without the research, it’s fairly obvious: we are tribal monkeys at root, and what we do constantly to feel safe, comfortable, and right with ourselves and each other is to touch.  And the fact that our culture is so disconnected from that says volumes about our current sicknesses, pathologies and screwed-up behaviors as a society.

So it’s not at all surprising that when some people reach the table – whether it’s with a massage therapist, an energy healer, or a Rubenfeld Synergist, the loving, nonjudgmental touch they receive often triggers sexual feelings.  After all, there aren’t a lot of other contexts for receiving gentle, loving touch as an adult.  For women, this can be terrifying: a married woman may feel that she is being unfaithful, or that she is having inappropriate feelings, or that the healer is touching her inappropriately.  For men, it can be terrifying, too, or they – more often – may turn to inappropriate expressions of those feelings toward the healer.  For anyone, it can be confusing, can arouse feelings of shame or guilt or both, or can tap into memories of sexual abuse or incest.  For all of these reasons, touch can be like a match to dynamite, and treating it with the utmost respect is vital to the success of any treatment involving touch.

The truth continues, though, that what has happened to the body remains in the body, and must be healed in the body, as well.  Whatever trauma, abuse, neglect, memory, feeling, or story resides in the person I am touching, that thing must be eventually brought forth, and the trauma decoupled from the experience of receiving loving, non-sexual touch.  Unfortunately or not, the only cure for that is the touch itself: receiving, acclimating, and learning, little by little, that touch can be okay, that touch can be relaxing, that touch can be loving without it being about sex, that touch doesn’t have to demand anything from you, lead to anything else, hurt you, arouse you, wound you.  That you own your body, and that you can decide when and how it is touched, and by whom.

That decoupling may also be called a kind of re-pairing: taking apart allows for another kind of putting together, so that a client can pair up touch and love, touch and solace, touch and peace, instead of touch and pain, touch and sex, touch and demands.  Giving clients more options for how they might experience touch is incredibly healing, and opens up more options in their lives as well.