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Archive for the ‘emotional health’ Category

I am psyched. I gave my first talk out in the world beyond the classrooms of The College of Alameda and it was thrilling. Eight women from the Women’s Motivational Meetup in Sacramento, hosted by Griffin Toffler, gave me their attention, listened to my lecture, and participated in a writing exercise at the library in Fair Oaks. Afterward, I felt so happy because I was doing what I felt I was put here on earth to do—tell my story, invite others to find out what’s holding them back, and share some tools that might help them to break through to their power.

Two major points keep surfacing when I think of what I want to discuss in this first post of the new year: belief and post-traumatic stress (PTSD). At age fifty, from my exploration in writing about my infant surgery, I learned that I was living my life from a false premise—I was broken and incapable of being fixed. This thought or wrong belief about myself sabotaged me at every turn. It had been unconscious all my life, operating below the radar, and so this lack of belief in my strength and power undermined me mercilessly. It’s difficult to write about this even now; grief surfaces, sadness. How painful it is to accept that I believed this about myself and acted from this false and destructive premise.

Writing about my infant surgery also helped me realize that I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had had it all my life since the operation for pyloric stenosis at 26 days old. Amazing!  I sensed that I might have it, my lover hinted that I might, but I was too frightened to investigate this possibility. In doing research for the memoir I was writing, I learned about the history of infant surgery and anesthesia, the nature of trauma, and the condition called PTSD. I read many books and scientific articles, which helped me realize what had happened to me. My hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, re-enactments, difficulty sleeping, jaw pain, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, self-harming, eating disorders, and delinquent behavior as a teen were all explained by this syndrome. What a relief to finally be able to identify these symptoms and pinpoint a cause. And what a relief to know that these expressions of myself aren’t really me; they are actually due to a condition that is caused by unresolved trauma.

So here’s what I wanted the group of women at the library to know or get support for knowing—that it is possible to ReStory Your Life. It is possible to identify a deeply held belief or set of beliefs that might be holding you back. Talking is often not the best way to discover it. Through writing, artwork, and/or somatic work, allow yourself to learn what belief is obstructing you from being all that you know yourself to be. This idea was never yours in the first place. Work with this misperception to understand it and then change it. You are a most profound and beautiful soul. You are a creation of the universe. What is your real belief about yourself? Discover it. Find freedom after trauma.

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One can always be more free. As the year comes to an end and 2013 is upon us, it’s a good time to let go of things one doesn’t want to bring into the new era.

As a baby, I got wired for trauma. Being operated on at 26 days old for pyloric stenosis, a blockage in the stomach, set the stage. As a baby, my belly was cut open and part of my stomach actually drawn out of my body to fix the problem. In many ways, I am still frozen, holding my body rigidly as I cope with a trauma that occurred 60 years ago. Amazing!  It’s called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

So earlier this morning, I was sitting in bed with my legs extended, preparing for meditation. I settled in, covering myself with a blanket, allowing my body to sink into the earth and be held as I listened for my heartbeat and tuned into my breath. I realized though that my face was stuck as if it was frozen from the cheekbones up, including my nose. My lips were pulled back and my nose and brow were literally numb. I was smiling a weird lips-pressed-together-and-pulled-back type of smile, more like a snarl, and breathing as shallowly as possible.

What was going on?  I tracked the tension in the rest of my body–my shoulders, hips, chest–and realized that I was straining against something. Flash! In all likelihood, I was straining against whatever hospitals use to tie down infants who are going to be operated on. Back then, my head was secured to the table and here I was in 2012 still fighting to free myself.

Often in my morning meditation, I’m so busy dealing with the somatic repercussions of infant surgery that it’s a challenge to allow a meditative state to kick in. Some days, I simply deal with what I call somatic freeze and other times, I break through to information that my higher self has to offer.

One way I work with this rigid state is to allow my breath into the frozen area. I don’t forcefully bring breath in by taking a deep breath but simply allow my natural breath to return. I invite a quiet breath movement. In this process, I actually began to feel my nose and to exercise face muscles that I didn’t even know were there.

Another strategy to cope with PTSD freeze is imagery. During my meditation, a liberating fantasy brought excitement and a feeling of power.

I am a baby strapped to a gurney before surgery, wanting to escape. I rise and break the bands holding my head, shoulders, hips, and feet and grab the surgeon’s scalpel. It becomes a sword. I’m standing on the gurney now, a super-powered baby swinging her sword, daring anyone to approach. Oh, what fun!  I love watching their shocked and frightened faces. They run out of the operating room and I smash up the place. Oh, more fun!  

So am I suffering from frozen rage?  Am I stuck in that moment of facing my own mortality and being unable to do anything to save myself?  Yes!

I may have been given a local anesthetic before the surgery. I may have had no anesthesia but received instead a paralyzing drug. In this case, I would have been awake but incapable of fighting. Still I would have tried to be free. Certainly, my nervous system cried out, escape! Perhaps before being administered general anesthesia, I fought against being tied down. Since I had been starving for weeks and weighed only four pounds, I was pretty weak. I doubt though that I was fully anesthetized; the level of tension and stress in my body suggests I wasn’t.

My body has been engaged in a lifelong fight with itself and for the last 10 years, through meditation and Middendorf Breathwork, I’ve been finding freedom from this struggle. I am discovering my power. I am learning that more freedom is always possible. For 2013, I am getting a new face–less startle, more real. More truly me.

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I was going to write about re-enactment, a psychological byproduct of trauma from exposure to danger, but I can’t stop thinking about the shooting at Sandy Hook school.  In articles in Huffington PostSFGate, and New York Times Online, I look for pieces in which a more in-depth understanding of the psychology of the shooter Adam Lanza is revealed, but all I ever see is the tired phrase “personality disorder” as if that explains anything.

In other articles, he’s referred to as autistic or Asperger’s. In one article, a high school classmate remembered Adam as a weird kid who ducked in and out of class, carrying a black attaché case. Someone else mentioned that he was ‘one of the Goths’. I just want to know why a kid whose suffering was clear to everyone wasn’t helped. How do kids become such loners?  Why does everyone know that Adam Lanza was different or “socially awkward” or “painfully shy” and obviously needed guidance or friendship but was just left to ‘go his own way’?  And why was an adult who was head of the high school technology club to which Adam Lanza belonged charged with watching out for the boy because he couldn’t feel pain?

Another question I have is, was Adam on medication?  If so, how long?  What are the side effects of these medications?  At what age was he medicated?  What part did a drug play in Adam Lanza’s behavior?

I remember the rage I felt at age thirteen and at twenty-two. I didn’t know how to cope with it and acted out. The school psychologist was worthless; in fact, he exacerbated the situation and increased my rage. The principal of the grade school acted like a bad cop in his dealings with children, further enraging me. When I was twenty-two, the counselor at the college I attended was a Freudian analyst who frightened me. Many times, we are having problems that our parents can’t solve. Sometimes, our family is the problem. We look to society and its institutions for help. Where was the help for Adam?

What do children do with their anger?  Are they given tools to cope and understand themselves?  Is there a space for mental health training in schools?  Was Adam Lanza filled with uncontrollable rage?  Perhaps he had experienced some early trauma that he was unconsciously acting out on?  Maybe re-enactment is a relevant topic of discussion after all. Adam could have been “re-creat[ing] the moment of terror, . . . in an attempt to undo the tragic moment . . . commonly, traumatized people find themselves reenacting some aspect of the trauma scene in disguised form, without realizing what they are doing” (Herman 39-40). Was Adam suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress?

Obviously, the situation is complex and all I have are questions and more questions. I am waiting for an article that honors the complexity of the human condition in its attempt to provide answers. In the meantime, I am praying that our society moves forward and changes in some big, brave ways in response to this enormous tragedy.

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Lots of good changes coming to myincision!  By January 2013, this blog will be part of my website ReStory Your Life. This website will not only house my blog but will announce my speaking engagements, workshops, and publications and showcase my poetry, prose and artwork.

I am excited to announce my first presentation of 2013, which will take place Saturday, January 5th at the Fair Oaks Library, 11601 Fair Oaks Blvd, Fair Oaks, California 95628 from 1 – 3 pm. Griffin Toffler of the Women’s Motivational Meetup Group is hosting me. Everyone is welcome, and I would LOVE to see YOU at this event. Please email me to RSVP at wendy@wendypwilliams.net.

Here are the details from Griffin’s meetup post:

ReStory Your Life ! 

What personal story holds you back?
What belief falsely shapes who you are?
What is the real story, the one that tells of your inherent worth?
Rewrite your Life Story the way YOU want it to be!.

In this interactive lecture, Wendy will tell how she reshaped her own story of despair into one of empowerment and freedom. Then it’s your turn to ReStory Your Life as she guides you through a brief writing exercise. Materials provided.

It is my privilege to introduce you to Wendy Williams, a writer, speaker and blogger whose blog, https://myincision.wordpress.com/enlightens the world about finding freedom after trauma. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and has published numerous short stories and poems. For over 30 years she has been speaking and leading workshops about Writing as a Healing Art. This is an amazing opportunity to converse up close with a phenomenal and talented woman. It’s all free! (but donations are accepted to help pay meetup costs)

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Here’s a photo of me at 13. I was called a hard girl or a hood, terms popular in working class New Jersey neighborhoods in the ’50s and ’60s. I’m mad as hell and I don’t know why. I smoke and carry a switchblade in my pocket. I glare at everyone I see in a dare and am constantly on guard. What’s the problem?

One day, my beloved, former fifth grade teacher, Mr. Rubin, stopped me in the grammar school hallway, just after I’d gotten kicked out of graduation practice, and asked me why I was making so much trouble. He told me that the principal wanted to expel me from school, making it impossible for me to graduate.

I thought hard about this question. Mr. Rubin had been my favorite teacher and I owed him an explanation because number one, he was going to talk to the principal and advocate for me to graduate and two, he cared about me and I felt his love. I leaned back against the wall and racked my brain, but nothing came. “I don’t know,” I said helplessly.

Of course I didn’t. No one even talked about Post-traumatic Stress in the ’50s much less knew about it. The closest people came was in discussing the hush-hush topic of shell shock that World War II veterans suffered. What I knew for certain was that as an adolescent, I felt vulnerable, terrified, and helpless. A gang, a switchblade, cigarettes, and a tall, strong boyfriend who protected me helped me cope. Drinking on weekends helped. I was drawn to the troubled kids. I was a troubled kid.

At this time, I was also cutting my arms with razor blades, trying to soothe myself, odd as this may sound. After slicing my boyfriend’s initials into my arm, I’d carefully wash the cuts, dab them with cotton balls, and apply ointment, feeling sorry for myself. I remember the satisfaction I felt covering the wound with a band-aid. Caring for my cut helped me have compassion for myself, a diversion from the messages of self-loathing and fear broadcasting in my brain.

When traumatized folks enter stressful developmental periods in their lives, the anxiety they already feel from PTSD is exacerbated. Since I didn’t know that I had PTS symptoms–hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, difficulty falling asleep, recurrent nightmares, anxiety–I didn’t understand my behavior.

When children are making trouble at school, PTSD may be at the root or be a contributing factor. In any case, blaming and/or stigmatizing the child or teen-ager is not the answer. Caring is the answer. A creative response is the answer.  Understanding and patience are required. Gangs are often how kids cope with PTSD when they aren’t getting help any other way.

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Here is a portrait of me that I drew May 15, 1976. I had left Synanon, a rehabilitation community, six months earlier and was living in East Oakland, California  with a small group of artists and students. In drawing this image with a magic marker, I was not aware of any issue regarding the trauma of my infant surgery. I was drawing because I felt depressed and hoped for relief and clarity.

What’s clear though is my inner knowledge of my pyloric stenosis surgery. The left side of my face is basically intact. The right side, however, is completely absent of facial features! Depicted instead is a series of sharp edges. The obvious one in the center is a meat cleaver and resembles exactly, hole in the blade and all, a knife that I used to juggle in my early teens.

My mother went back to work when I was eleven years old, and so often after school I was alone in the house. At that time, I engaged in some risky behaviors. I would take out the meat cleaver and a huge steak knife and juggle them. I wasn’t very good at it and once, believe it or not, I actually stuck my knee out to break the fall of the cleaver so I wouldn’t scar my mother’s kitchen linoleum. My body wasn’t real to me, in many ways; my feelings had hardened toward it and so, it was like an object.

The black mark below the cleaver on my face looks somewhat like a disposable razor and the shape above reminds me of a barber’s straight razor. In any case, all the images have sharp edges and are black. Something was excised. Something was missing. Something was troubling me of which I was unaware. This portrait is an example of the power of visual art: We know things that we don’t know that we know.

Interestingly, I titled the piece “Appreciation.” At the time, I was trying to validate myself. When this image arrived on the page, I felt mixed feelings. While I liked the depiction of the left side of my face in which I am focused, insightful, and authentic–not smiling, trying to please–the right side bothered me.  I eventually attributed the black spaces and absence of facial features to mean that I was still unaware of myself in many ways. I felt a bit of compassion for myself. Though I did not understand what my subconscious was getting at. I did not see the sharp edges in the portrait when I was 23.

Now I see the blades clearly and the message they were trying to convey: Your infant surgery–go back to what was cut away. Explore it and integrate what you find. It’s essential to becoming a whole portrait and leaving depression behind. Fill in those excised spaces with your story. Not the story that was told to you, the one that you adopted–your parents’ words, your pediatrician’s words–but your version, your truth. Then, you’ll be able to face yourself.  

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I was 25 years old, lying in sand by the Pacific Ocean. I had come to the sea to kill myself, depressed again after so many years of trying to make my life work since my suicide attempt at age 21. But I just couldn’t bring myself to harm; I had grown. So I drew words that bubbled up from nowhere. From somewhere. Pain from long ago. Ancient hurt buried until that moment where water meets shore and life called–a baby’s cry in early morning hours.

Pre-verbal trauma cannot be remembered in words. Perhaps that’s why this message came in a word picture, if you will.  There are many ways to release early pain if the brain does not get in the way. The brain that says, oh that happened so long ago, or you couldn’t possibly have felt that! That memory brain didn’t realize that it was shut off while the trauma was occurring. A different part of the brain recorded the experience, and talking and writing don’t access it. They can point the way to trauma, but they don’t release it.

Draw the story. Draw the message. Draw whatever it is that bubbles up. Begin the healing process.

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