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.
There is an article about Bessel van der Kolk with the title “The limits of talk” http://www.traumacenter.org/products/pdf_files/Networker.pdf
It explains clearly the limits of traditional therapy when you are struggling with trauma. van der Kolk is one of the leading scientists in the trauma field. He is also working as a therapist. He started to wonder why his trauma patients was in a more miserable state at the end of a session than at the beginning of it. His conclusion was that the session retraumatized the patient.
Ruth, Thank you so much for sharing this information. Can’t wait to read it! I’m sure other readers are grateful for this info as well. It’s so important not to become re-traumatized while getting help for trauma!
It is not easy to find good books and articles about trauma. It is easy to get lost. Maybe end up with a book too difficult for you to understand. A place like this is a good place for sharing, Wendy! Thanks for the good work you are doing. You helped me to find Peter Levine and Robert Scaer, I am very grateful for your sharing.
You are SO welcome. I am so glad that these resources are helpful. I am more than glad. I feel that my purpose here on earth is being realized. The story of my surgery and my coping all these years has meaning.
Ruth, Just want you to know that I absolutely LOVE the article and am going to make it available to my little trauma Meetup group that meets regularly. Thank you for keeping me educated! I’m going to blog about the article this weekend! You are the best friend.
You warm my heart Wendy! To share is a good way to get more wisdom in to our hearts, body and soul. I will not speak about the brain, it is overused and overloaded, I am talking about myself here. van der Kolk said what I have been feeling for years, but beeing unable to say until recently: Talking cure is no cure for trauma.
Oh, the poor brain. Yes.
i liked reading this. You were fortunate to have Lee for a therapist. i also liked what you wrote about the doctor talking to your mother about how you would break the stitches if you cried. wow i feel for your mother too. it must have been hard for her too.
i know it;s not funny but i like how you imitate his german accent. i had a german doctor who i have a feeling molested me. i feel lucky to get from day to day these days.
your reading sounded good.
Yes, I am lucky to have had Lee. And yes, it was hard for both my mother and me. We had a rough go of it early on. I’m sending warm thoughts to you. “Day to day” is sometimes how we must go.
This post is just what I’ve needed, Wendy: thank you so very much.
I am a very verbal person and am often slow or even “dense” in sensing and expressing my own and others’ feelings. This, plus my being male and living in a country where (as I have mentioned several times) therapy is not as mainstream as it is in the USA, have undoubtedly affected my own recovery from ptsd after my own infant surgery.
Your post is a corrective to me and an advocacy for wholistic therapy that I recognize as valid and valuable.
It seems to me that though I have sensed something of your continuing struggle to recover, I have been insufficiently aware that my recovery from ptsd is by no means the norm.
What a wonderfully sensitive therapist you have had in Lee, even though she was of a different era and I understand she is not longer available. How men like me would long for the kind of help you had; how sad that what you received seems largely “out of bounds” for half of humanity.
And I am sure that many people (and not only men) who have taken in this post are now not a little envious of you. I do hope that you can find in Dr Peter Levine or somebody else a therapist who can help you further along the way to fuller health and freedom.
The last months I have been reading Liz Kochs books “Core awareness” and “The psoas book”. Liz Koch have been working with releasing the psoas muscle almost all her life. The psoas is among other usages, like connecting the upper and lower part of the body, a part of the fight-flight respons. She call it also the brain of our abdomen. If you do not have access to a good therapist, to start to gentle work with your psoas and other muscles maybe a good idea. Just remember the psoas may contain a lot of feelings! For me, to get in touch with her view of moving the body, has open up a new way of seeing, moving and treat my body. Remember also, like Peter Levine says, to titrate your new ways of movement. Just a short time, then back to your normal life.
There are some good articles on the web of Liz Koch http://www.coreawareness.com/
Ruth, Your message is so helpful and hopeful. The articles look fascinating. Got’em bookmarked for reading. Incredibly, my psoas muscle spasmed entirely when I was in my early thirties–so badly that I could barely walk, the pain was that bad. I needed a cane in order to go anywhere. I started a program working with an acupuncturist and martial artist. He acupunctured me 3 days a week and designed a martial arts exercise for me to do every day. He also showed me that I was walking incorrectly and named it as a BIG part of the problem, my feet splaying out. After I regained mobility, he prescribed that I walk to work every day but in the new way he taught. I had to point my feet straight ahead! It was major! I had to concentrate on every step! Now, with your writing about it, I see there was a lot more to my psoas issue than I understood at that time. Maybe by reading some of Kochs’s material, I will discover new insights about what was going on. If indeed, the psoas is the “brain of our abdomen,” then no wonder I was out of step with it (pun intended) :). Thank you for all these marvelous resources you’ve been sharing. You are a healer in your own right.
I am so glad that this post was what you were asking for, Fred. I may do another post about this topic and give another example or two of my experience working with Lee.
I’d like to know more about how you recovered from ptsd. Would you consider writing a post about it? I know your process was entirely personal to you and so very different from mine, of course. I’m sure readers would like to see various ways that people go about healing from ptsd. I know that it would bring some people hope. It seems that often, folks who suffer from ptsd think they have to live with it until they die; that it’s just part of them.
In any case, yes, I feel so lucky to have found Lee. The timing was perfect, for I had run out of options as to how to go forward in my life. My surrendering was part of this process. I gave up what might be called my ego-understanding. I sat on the floor before a low, round table at the home of a very spiritual friend, put my hands together, and literally prayed for probably the first time in my life; I said to God or the Universe, however you want to view the power so much more than you or me, that I’d run out of ideas. Please help me. And sure enough, help came.
Thank you for these additional details, Wendy. They are all part of the healing that Lee opened up to you, and because we are all spiritual as well as physical and emotional beings, our total healing will follow a broadly identical path.
I will gladly write a post about my own path towards healing as you suggest.