In order to heal from trauma, therapy is what we sometimes need. Someone outside ourselves to make observations, give feedback, suggest new ways of responding to life’s situations and circumstances, and offer emotional support. While I am a big proponent of self-healing, I have also been the recipient of therapy at critical junctures in my life. I’m not referring to talk-therapy–therapy based on verbal exchanges alone. I’m talking about therapy with a focus on emotions and the body as well as insights from verbal exchange.
Perhaps my former therapist, Lee O. Johnson, was very unconventional, but her strategies worked for me. On my first encounter with her, for example, she held me while I cried. Depressed and not wanting to self-harm, I had gone to a local women’s center seeking help. Lee saw my distress and ushered me into a private room where she suggested I sit on the floor. She sat behind me and invited me to lean into her. I told her how I had stitches on my belly from an operation when I was 26 days old. “I want to cry, but I’m afraid I’ll die. I know that sounds nuts,” I said, “but that’s what I feel.” “Don’t worry,” she said, “you are safe now. You can cry and your stitches won’t break.” No analysis and head searching. Just go for the gut and emote. I cried and cried, sobbed really, and she put her arms around me. I felt so safe, validated, and accepted. It was the first time in my life I had shared my real feelings, or any feelings at all, about the surgery I’d had as a baby with anyone. I was 26 years old.
I had spent so many years covering up or suppressing my emotions that I really was not able to identify them. It was simply a language I hadn’t been taught. Grin and bear it or chin up were my mantras. I learned to hide most feelings, such as enthusiasm, sadness, and anger. Though my parents were big proponents of the stuff-feelings philosophy, the biggest proponent of this line of thinking was my surgeon for pyloric stenosis. Just before I was to be released from the hospital, he called my mother into his office for a consultation. He told her that if she allowed me to cry or experience strong emotion or cough, I would break my stitches and die. Not could but would. She’d have to do everything in her power to suppress me. All through my childhood, my mother retold this story, citing the words of the surgeon, who was German: “Vee vill not be doing surgery again, Mrs. Villiams. If she cries, she dies.” Any question of where my terror of my own body and emotions came from?
Here’s another example of how Lee worked with me in locating my emotions. “You are gripping the arms of the chair,” she might say. I’d take notice, feel surprise at the power of my grip. “What are you feeling?” Lee asked. “I’m spinning. In my mind, I’m dizzy.” “Put your feet on the ground,” she suggested, for I’d been crossing my legs. “I feel pressure in my hands,” I told her, “like pulsing.” “Are you angry?” Lee asked. “Yes.” I’d sit with that response for a while. “What are you angry about?” Lee probed. Thinking about this lifted the dizziness–what I came to call the merry-go-round. Then I’d try to locate the source of the anger–whether it was something she said or something in the story I’d been telling her when she interrupted me with her observation about my gripping the chair arms. This exchange is the kind of somatic work I’m talking about–where emotions, the body, and intellectual insight are integrated. In this way, in life outside of therapy, whenever I felt the pulsing in my hands and the spinning in my brain, I knew without a doubt that I was angry.
Talk therapy alone, in my experience, is not enough. In Peter Levine’s latest book, In an Unspoken Voice, he states: “The thin sliver of brain tissue that makes us conscious is found in the prefrontal cortex, the forward part of our frontal lobes. In particular there are two loci. The one toward the side . . . makes conscious our relationship to the outside world. The second part, located toward the middle . . . is the only part of the cerebral cortex that apparently can modify the response of the limbic or emotional brain–particularly the amygdala, which is responsible for intense survival emotions. Th[is] medial prefrontal cortex . . . receives direct input from muscles, joints and visceral organs and registers them into consciousness.* Through awareness of these interoceptive sensations (i.e., through the process of tracking bodily sensations), we are able to access and modify our emotional responses and attain our core sense of self” (323). By going inside and feeling the sensations of our body, we can begin to locate the source of our discomfort inside ourselves. This step is the first in disengaging trauma.
Currently, I am investigating whether my insurance covers Somatic Experiencing therapy a la Dr. Peter Levine. I would like support to address the subtle signals inside that keep me tethered to trauma. I’ve released a lot but there’s more to go. When I worked with Lee, post-traumatic stress was not a subject of public discussion. I don’t think this term had even been constructed at the time. Now we have a phrase for the trauma and an acronym: PTSD. It’s time to consult the body for its wisdom. It’s time to listen to what the body is telling us–not just our actions but the signals from within that precede action. Levine writes, “With body awareness, it is possible to ‘deconstruct’ these emotional fixations” (322). We can leave trauma behind and learn who we really are. Sometimes, therapy is what we need.
*Starr, A., et al. “Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder after Orthopaedic Trauma.” Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection, and Critical Care, 64.