Since this is the second half of a two-parter, you should read part one first, because I’ll be jumping right back into it without much in the way of chicanery. But perhaps one quick shenanigan…. I am one-third of the way through an excellent book called The Body Keeps The Score by some dude with four names and two initials- Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. The book does a groundbreaking job of demystifying all the different types of trauma including mine. To be clear, my explanation of SE (Somatic Experiencing) did not come from this book or any other, it came from me. I was never comfortable with the mysterious “voodoo” aspect of this trauma healing process, so I leaned pretty darn hard on my mind-self to figure this shit out….until I could put it into words I could stand by and present to the world.
(Props also to my therapist, Gabe Schneider- the dude knows what he’s doing.)
Look What I Can Do
The evolutionary distance between my body-self and mind-self will become crystal clear during today’s somatic therapy session. It is Monday, October 12th and I am back at the clinic lying on the futon once again with roughly the same amount of cannabis assisting my brain as the previous week. The music I have requested for today’s session is by minimal techno artist Boris Brejcha. [Good workout music, too. Sample]
Gabe sits in a chair nearby. The music plays. Here I go, back into the depths….
Even after achieving a somatic state on my two previous visits, tuning-in to the right meditative wavelength for my body-self to take center stage remains elusive; it’s like trying to throw a strike blindfolded. After I have been lying still for some time, Gabe gently checks-in with me. I think for a moment and conclude, “I think I might be asleep.” [(The metaphor was unintentional)]
That is the kind of mind-self / body-self separation I actually want to occur. It means I am closing-in on the sweet spot. If I successfully float my mind-self out of the way, my body-self will begin to express the feelings it has been holding onto for decades. I think about mentally “falling backwards” into a blank space. That technique seems to somewhat work for me.
But still, I remain engaged enough to listen and talk to Gabe when needed; and also keep a mind’s eye on any sensations in my body that feel interesting. I’m looking for buried emotions- a nonsensical concept for most. Where is my hurt locker? I don’t know. I watch and nothing comes forward. [This is what being blocked is.] I will have to tease it out of hiding. To the best of my abilities I relax my mind even more, leaving it open to see whatever memory comes to the foreground first.
From the family room, I am looking at the back door of our house on Creekwood. It’s the door my father used to come through after getting home from work. It was also the door he’d slammed over and over again after fighting with my mom. I tell Gabe where my memories are going, but also that I’m not feeling anything in particular. He asks me, “Why do you think that is?” I consider the question, picturing myself at the house in scattered scenes of me at home with my family. I sense where this is going and feel that sadness is nearby, but my mind-self holds on to its control. I hear myself speak these words as I might have thought them when I was six or seven years old, “Because I’m the smart one.” There’s a long pause that hangs in the air, and sadness comes closer. Gabe acknowledges me with a, “Hmmm,” then repeats my words aloud, ’Because I’m the smart one.’ My chest begins to shudder, and my breathing shortens. “Yeah,” I utter softly.
The body-self I can rightly call “I” speaks in the only language it knows and I begin to shake and quiver from head to toe. I sloooowly curl up my hands into fists and draw all my limbs in closer to my body. The atmosphere- the yelling, the anger. How wrong it all was, and scary, too. Goddammit! I tighten-up even more, my breathing, too. I should have been pissed as hell. I should have screamed back at my father, “Stop it, Dad! Stop exploding like a madman. I see you yelling at my mother. I see how you treat my brother. What the fuck is wrong with you?!” I protrude my jaw and tremble all over. But I am the good kid, I am the smart one, the angel of the family. I can never say ‘Goddammit!’ I clench my eyes hard beneath my mask. I’m 4, 5, 6, 10, 14….you thought I would NEVER yell and scream like you! Well, sure as hell I’M SCREAMING NOW!!! I squeeze down into my body as hard as I can, until I just can’t go any further. THIS IS FUCKING BULLSHIT!!! I finally give in and allow myself to breathe bigger, slowly heading towards a state of relaxation. I am safe now.
Holy frijole, what just happened? This is a somatic experience, folks. It probably lasted 1-2 minutes long. So picture me there on the futon, moving through all of this in super slow-motion….with Gabe nearby for guidance and support. Here’s the instant replay in case you missed it:
I begin to shake and quiver from head to toe.
[Gabe: “Stay with it.” “Let it build.”]
I slowly make my hands into fists and draw all my limbs in closer to my body.
[Gabe: “See the legs coming up.”]
I tighten-up even more, my breathing, too.
I protrude my jaw and tremble all over.
[Gabe: “Notice the jaw tightening. You’re doing great.”]
I clench my eyes hard beneath my mask.
I squeeze down into my body as hard as I can, until I just can’t go any further.
I finally give in and allow myself to breathe bigger, slowly coming back down to a state of relaxation.
I am safe now.
[Gabe: “Notice how things change as you relax.”]
Wait! What?! Where did all the other stuff go…? The part where I’m standing up for myself. Um, yeh…well, here is the real noodle-twister. The words written further above, the more “complete” version, that is me today speaking on behalf of my nervous system several days after the fact. And also 35-50 years after the fact. I am filling in the blanks based on memories of what it was like to be me…the smart child growing up in the breeding ground for suicide on Creekwood.
You see, during the somatic experience, none of that talking back to my father was ever said, not out loud, and nowhere in my thoughts either. My body-self nervous system is not capable of expressing itself in words, only in physical actions. Cycling-through a somatic experience is completely silent. My mind-self is thinking stuff like, “Okay, Gary, just let this happen. Don’t get in the way. Geez, this feels weird. Am I doing this right? How much longer? Can I stop now? Maybe I should hang in there. It doesn’t seem like I can squeeze much more. How do I know when this is over?”
(By the way, writing this section has provoked a somatic response. I am trembling inside.)
The experience I describe above was the first of three meaningful “hot waves” my body cycled through during the 2 hour session. Each wave is built upon a different realization, some thought that clicks into place and makes so much internal sense that my body-self feels liberated enough to give physical expression to whatever emotion it’s been holding onto (be it sadness, joy, fear or anger). For me, it’s mostly been bottled-up anger. Afterall, I had 5,000 reasons to be pissed off.
There is no need for me to detail every hot wave I cycled through. I don’t even think I can remember them all. But I’ll tell you that the third one sure seemed like it was extra-strong. So much so that when my body-self got through it and I was relaxed again with my frontal cortex fully back online- meaning I had left the somatic and meditative states of being and returned to the room. I sat up, removed my eye mask and told Gabe, “Whew! That was a lot!” He smiled excitedly and said, “Yeah, you did great.” My response back to him was something like, “Sure, but oh man! I kinda don’t want to do that again.”
In the immediate wake of a powerful session like this one, I’m aware that it’s waaaay too soon to be talking about future sessions. And besides, as I would soon find out, I wasn’t even done cycling through more emotions this same day.
Free Them All
I am still quite elevated from the cannabis as I gather up my belongings, say good-bye to the futon for another week, and relocate myself to the “recovery room” nearer to the building’s entrance. Driving home now is out of the question. I don’t even park my car in front of the clinic. Instead, I leave it in a lot next to some softball fields about 1 ½ miles away to ensure a logistical buffer for myself.
The recovery room is devoid of comfort. Maybe they don’t really want clients hanging around for too long; there’s not even a chair in it. The one thing it has going for it is a lumpy mechanical massage table. I’m not interested in turning it on today, so… with only two choices- massage table or floor- I lay down on the lumps to burn off some time. But think about it, a lot of big stuff just happened in my regular session. I have a lot to process and integrate- the term therapists like to use. I am both physically exhausted and still elevated like Cheech & Chong put together.
As soon as I lay down on the table and close my eyes, my nervous system says its game on; immediately I descend back into a meditative-somatic state of mind. While my mind-self coaches from the sideline, my body-self runs the plays. I have three additional hot waves.
Alright Alright All Right
Exorcising the burden of childhood trauma is a topic many Hollywood movies have depicted. It’s typically the most dramatic and pivotal scene of the movie where the main character visits their childhood self and tells them it will be alright. Good Will Hunting and Rocketman (the recent biopic about Elton John) are two movies that did some version of this effectively. But I don’t know, man. Seems so cliche to me, maybe even corny. I just can’t imagine myself crouching down and hugging my child-self. Sounds lovely, but I just don’t see it happening.
….until it happened.
On my third hot wave in the recovery room, and my sixth one of the day, I drifted down deep into my psyche, somewhere in between mind and body, and searched for little Gary. I looked for myself at different ages. I wanted to find him at just the right point in time, before he started to harden, before the person he was born to be had to become someone else in order to block out all the pain he was surrounded by.
One of my earliest childhood memories, vivid to this day, is sitting on the floor in front of our Zenith tv and watching the first moon landing. I was 4 ½ at the time so that’s around the age I needed to look.
Found him! Looks like he’s a smart kid ;-). I need him to be, because I want him to understand and hold on to what I have to say. In my thoughts, it’s like I was putting a hand on his right shoulder. I told him, Hang in there, Gary. You’re gonna make it through this. You’re gonna be alright.
Instantaneously, all time collapsed. What I said and what I heard, me- the child I was and the adult I am, the one now sitting up on the lumpy massage table, shuddering and crying out tears of joy and relief. Yes, the whole of me heard the words– Gary, you’re gonna be alright.
Thank you for this day, sweet universe. I don’t understand you. But now I am open.