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Archive for the ‘Ilse Middendorf’ Category

Last Thursday, a dermatologist cut out a melanoma on the back of my leg just below my calf. It was a slow spreading kind and since I caught it early, I am told that it hasn’t metastasized. That’s the good news. I didn’t think the surgery and recovery were going to be a big deal. But I got twenty stitches instead of the projected seven, and I have to spend two weeks with my leg up on a pillow. And yes, it hurts when I walk. A much bigger deal than I thought it would be.

Here’s the part though that I want to discuss. As I lay down on the table while the doctor suited up, I had an experience that helped me understand how I coped with my infant surgery. The journal entry that I wrote shortly after the surgery explains it best.

What a gift that I was only given a local and so was conscious and aware of my body’s response to being cut. The old somatic pattern came raging back. When I lay down for the surgery, my jaw went through a series of unlockings–spasms of about twenty shakes until it settled down. In order for my jaw to relax, my bottom and top teeth could not be aligned; I had to let my bottom jaw slide out to the left.

My jaw spasmed once more–shudders of many shakes–and settled back down. The only way I was comfortable during the skin surgery was to let my bottom jaw slide left a half-inch, which made an awkward fit for my teeth.  Also when I lay down for the skin surgery, my right scapula (shoulder-blade) locked–a terrific force that gripped. I was eventually able to relax it.

All my life, my jaw has been misaligned due to gritting my teeth from the infant surgery. My teeth and jaw absorbed the pain. Gritting nightly stayed with me since that time. The pain must have been extraordinary to tense me up like that, to burn it into my brain, to create such an entrenched pattern. My gums weakened and made me susceptible to gum disease. As I got older, my molars became brittle and cracked. All my molars are crowned. And the scapula lock dates back to the early crisis as well. 

In my life, when I lay down for sleep, my body  goes into lockdown unconsciously. My jaw clenches and my right shoulder-blade locks, which has me breathing in a way that minimizes breath movement in the area of my infant incision. I became aware of this pattern years ago in my study of Middendorf Breath Work, which has helped me become aware of my outdated  somatic patterns and move beyond them.

I have come full circle: incision then, incision now. Let me move into a new future–no more cutting. Let my somatic pattern be released once and for all. Let me find a new way to hold my body in trust and in freedom. Let the old electricity and the old alarms be just that–old. Let me release the trauma buried so deeply in my body and brain. Let me be trauma free. Freedom calls.

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Dentist’s chair, twelve years old, East Orange, New Jersey: Dr. Salada calls my mother into the room to see the caverns I’ve bitten out of the walls of my mouth. He peels my lower lip down to show her the gouges. I, too am shocked when he holds the mirror up so I can see. I feel the canyons with my tongue to confirm how deep they are. I recall sitting in class, biting and chewing. I had no idea though what I’d actually done to myself. Treatment or recommendation?  None.

Ten years later, dentist’s chair of a tempero-mandibular (jaw) joint specialist, Central Park West, New York City: My chin is strapped to the back of the seat with a strong, thick band of elastic and my molars are being ground down by the dentist to make a better bite. In the 1970s, he is one of the foremost TMJ specialists in the world, and he gives me Valium, which he prescribes that I take four time a day and PRN (when needed), since it’s “just like aspirin,” to relieve the pain. He has also fits me with a bite plate that I wear to prevent myself from damaging my teeth as I grind all day and night. According to the dentist, this grinding has caused my jaw pain–the reason I came in the first place. Treatment for alleviating the broxing itself:  none.

15 years later, dentist’s chair, Berkeley, California: The dental hygienist berates me for cracking the fillings in my molars due to excessive broxing or grinding. She calls in the dentist, who similarly blames me. He warns that if I keep this up, I will have to have all my molars capped. Treatment for broxing: night guard.

1o years later, dental chair, Lafayette, California: The dentist jokes that my broxing is making her business lucrative what with all the crowns I am needing. Underneath her humor is blame. She hints that this behavior is controllable and that I should not allow myself to do it. The taunting stops when I tell her that my grinding is a result of infant surgery, something that I do unconsciously, and that I recently uncovered the root of the problem through writing autobiography. By the time I change dentists, all my molars are either crowned or pulled and replaced with a bridge. Treatment for broxing: night guard

5 years later, medical library, University of California at Davis: Researching infant surgery as I write my memoir, The Autobiography of a Sea Creature, I realize that grinding my teeth is a response to the excruciating pain I felt, having been operated on without anesthesia.  I have learned that lack of anesthesia was typical protocol for surgery on infants during the 1950s. I was probably given a muscle relaxer to keep me still and captive. Treatment for broxing: Middendorf Breath Work, a somatic therapy.

5 years later, in my home outside Sacramento: I am reading Peter Levine’s book Waking The Tiger: Healing Trauma:  I realize that I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD from the early surgery and that I’ve had this all my life. I was waking up every morning gritting my teeth, frozen in an old response to infant medical trauma. Treatment for broxing: visualization before sleep and affirmation upon waking.

Now, in my same home in a suburb of Sacramento, sitting before my computer:  I am wondering why dentists and doctors often treat only the symptoms of a problem when the body is crying out for resolution at the root?  Treatment: educate the medical profession and the public.


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for making a way possible for me to more deeply heal from the trauma of infant surgery. Because of your understanding of breath and your work teaching others, I am able to come to terms with the trauma within my body, move through it more effectively and ultimately, resolve it. Through this somatic work–breathexperience–I am able to live a life informed more by joy and less by fear. You’ve helped me see that the body, my body, is not to be feared but celebrated. My body is a place of trust where comfort and acceptance are found. My body is not a danger zone, and I do not have to injure myself constantly as a reenactment of that early wounding. My relationship with my body can be one of harmony and pleasure, where discovery is a constant and opportunities abound. My breath is a dear friend.

Ilse Middendorf died Saturday, May 2 in Germany after almost a century of life. She was dedicated to helping the individual realize that one’s relationship with oneself can be one of profound peace and deep joy. Breathexperience teaches not only a gentle and effective way to work through early trauma but shows us that when peace resides within us at the deepest levels, life is lived as an expression of that peace. The world would be a more wonderful place if more people allowed breath to teach them how to live.

I have come so far since I took my first workshop with Ilse about five years ago. At one point, she suggested that we do what is called “free work.” Through the freedom I experienced from the breath, I felt myself as a sponge in warm coral reef waters, my surfaces lifting and lowering with the currents. I began turning gently left then right, my arms spread wide. Life was far-reaching and limitless. My body could be supported by the medium around it. I sensed what living a large life felt like. This experience was the beginning my understanding that living largely was possible.

In breathwork, one does not will the breath, nor does one change the autonomic breath, but participants allow themselves to become aware of breath coming and going on its own without controlling it. We sense the presence of breath in our bodies and how it moves us. (Put your hand on your belly and feel it rise with breath. Well, breath movement also is in the hands, the thighs, the feet, etc.)

At the memorial Sunday, May 17th at the Middendorf Institute for Breathexperience (MIBE) in Berkeley, California, many breath students gathered to mourn and celebrate Ilse’s life. After breath meditation, we began to do free work. I felt as if I had become that sponge that I had sensed years ago; my life had taken on that largeness. Understandings rose from my core: I am whole and beautiful; I am at peace with my body. Breath– the movement of breath–invited me into my body, and I was in it–a large barrel sponge, filtering the fluid around me effortlessly and taking up lots of space. It felt good. This dance, if you will, was a tribute to Ilse Middendorf. My life has truly integrated that freedom and largeness that I sensed years ago in her workshop. How happy I am to have been able to show this to her!

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