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Archive for the ‘tension’ Category

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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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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An article by Dr. Bruce D. Perry et al is a must-read for all those trying to understand the impact of infant trauma on a person’s life:  “Childhood Trauma, The Neurobiology of Adaptation, and ‘Use-dependent’ Development of the Brain: How ‘States’ Become ‘Traits.'” I became interested in this article because I believe that there are aspects of my character that, rather than simply being my personality, are actually qualities shaped by early trauma. These so-called “traits” are behaviors, somatic patterns, and thought ruts that no longer serve me. In fact, while they may have saved me long ago, they disempower me now.

The article is somewhat complex, so I’ve selected some quotes to help you see what Perry et al are getting at.

“Traumatic experiences in childhood increase the risk of developing a variety of neuropsychiatric symptoms in adolescence and adulthood ” (273).

“Ultimately, it is the human brain that processes and internalizes traumatic . . . experiences. It is the brain that mediates all emotional, cognitive, behavioral, social, and physiological functioning. It is the human brain from which the human mind arises and within that mind resides our humanity. Understanding the organization, function, and development of the human brain, and brain-mediated responses to threat, provides the keys to understanding the traumatized child” (273).

“. . . traumatized children exhibit profound sensitization of the neural response patterns  associated with their traumatic experiences. The result is that full-blown response patterns (e.g., hyperarousal or dissociation) can be elicited by apparently minor stressors” (275).

In this article, Perry et al make the case that “reactivated” fear coming from an oversensitized brain stem and midbrain due to trauma can cause hyperarousal: “hyperactivity, anxiety, behavioral impulsivity, sleep problems, tachycardia [abnormally fast heart rate], hypertension, and a variety of neuroendocrine [hormonal] abnormalties” (278). These conditions and behaviors are states NOT traits.

On the other hand, oversensitized brains can be  result in “dissociation.” For example, if an outside  stimulus evokes the trauma, a person may freeze or numb him or herself. A child may “disengag[e] from stimuli in the external world and attend [. . . ] to an ‘internal’ world” (280) as in daydreaming or fantasizing. As a result, a child may falsely be understood to be extremely shy or uncooperative. Dissociation and hyperarousal are “states” created by early trauma. In adulthood, many of us have wrongly come to accept them as our personality “traits.”

Another major point from the article is that traumatized infants and children do not simply get over their traumas. According to Perry et al, “children are not resilient, children are malleable” (285). In fact, to assume infants and children were not affected by the trauma or will grow out of it is not only incorrect but destructive. Perry et al leave us with this final point: “Persistence of the destructive myth that ‘children are resilient’ will prevent millions of children, and our society, from meeting their true potential” (286).

For me, I just want my real self back.

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After re-reading key sections of Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger, I conclude that it doesn’t have practical material that I can use to help me find relief from PTS (post-traumatic stress) symptoms while I sleep (see previous posts Parts I and II).  To heal from trauma, Levine’s advice is to work with a practitioner of Somatic Re-experiencing, a form of counseling he developed. Right on. His treatment seems awesome. However right now, I’m looking for ways that I can heal myself.

In meditation, an image was presented to me that is promising. Sitting quietly, I asked my higher self this question: How can I heal my nervous system so that I am always in joy and beauty?  The answer came in the form of an image and a knowing. The top part of a tube appeared. From the end came a wire that was coiled.  Pull the coil. There is plenty.  

When I wake up feeling tension in my neck and gritting my teeth, I imagine the tube with the coil. I picture pulling the coil and releasing the wire.  This work with imagery is a way of righting something physical that’s out of balance or stuck. I don’t understand how it works, but when I tried it, I felt relief. The best results came when in my imagination, I pulled and pulled and got a momentum going to the point where the wire was moving quickly and without friction against the sides of the tube.

I am hoping that by working with my post-traumatic stress symptoms consciously, the patterns that create this condition will change. This process is very intimate and subtle; it requires trust and belief in self. I may seek help if the tension I feel during sleep doesn’t diminish but for now, I’m trying my own techniques and trusting I can make headway (pun intended). Will keep you posted.

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