“You know me. You’ve known me for a lot of years. If anyone in this world is grounded, it’s me. And that’s not gonna to change. I’m telling you this in advance, Boris / David / Maria / Vanessa / Double-D / Rob / Isaac / Wels… (and you, too, Greg). I need to say it now because… If I go down some weird path and find out there actually is more to it all, I need you to stick with me, okay? I’ll need you to believe me. I mean, this is Gary speaking. Whatever it is I might discover up ahead, you know I’m gonna keep it real either way.”
To be precise, I did not literally have this identical conversation with every person in my orbit (but you know who you are). I also want to really emphasize the timing. This is what I was saying way back in February, before the Covid shut-downs, before therapy was even a thought in my head (much less somatic therapy), before I’d decided to sell my house in Austin, leave my job, and begin a new life in Spain, before the blog, and way too long before I ever knew childhood trauma even had a healing side.
For whatever reason, however, I had a strong sense then that something was on its way. Perhaps I would discover some curious insight from tripping on mushrooms or LSD. You know, mystical-realm type stuff. As it turns out, however, neither of these substances have had more than a tiny influence on me at all. I never actually did a whole lot of either, just some timid doses here and there. So far, my experiences on that front have given me nothing much to report. Hey! I am keeping it real!
And with that as your set-up, let’s start our fully-grounded mind-bending adventure towards understanding what it means to be blocked.
In this post and the one that will quickly follow, my goal is to make some keep-it-real-world sense out of “SE” -somatic experiencing- that freaky-ass voodoo stuff I’ve finally been able to access in my therapy sessions. Turns out there is a logical explanation for what goes on during a somatic experience. And it’s not voodoo after all. [Still pretty freaky though.]
I will be using a couple of fresh new terms that I’ll need you to grok (FULLY understand) for my thesis on SE to make sense. The terms are body-self and mind-self. What I am doing is deliberately simplifying the body-brain-mind package into having only two parts. Trust me, it will work for this purpose. The body-self is the primitive, nervous system based part of you that would still be there even if your frontal cortex, home to your mind-self, was removed. Throughout my explanation, body-self and mind-self will align with: nervous system and frontal cortex; ancient and modern; squirrel and human. You’ll get why adding “self” to body and mind is so important as my explanation unfolds.
There’s A Nerve Cell In My Soup
Imagine yourself attending a casual dinner party for eight where seven of the guests have been close friends since birth. It’s awkward immediately because you arrive late, but it gets even worse. Much of what goes on at the table- the inside jokes, the subtle digs, the knowing looks -will be lost on you.
Keep that feeling in mind, but switch out the characters. Let your nervous system be one of the friends that’s been there since the beginning, and your frontal cortex be the new guy, able to see and hear the conversations, but with scant ability to pick-up the unspoken queues and greater context of the stories being told.
I think this analogy is useful because… when we go diving into the body-self’s primordial soup, the stuff from which our nervous system cells got their start, all of the elemental forces of the universe were already sitting at the table. Inside the tiny little microscopic bodies of whichever multi-celled creatures eventually evolved into us, nervous system cells are there to aid in survival. These cells of ancient origin cut their proverbial teeth on all variety of invisible signals coming through the ambient that modern iterations of our brain are not specialized to detect or interpret in the least.
We observe examples of animal “intuition,” such as when they run for higher ground before a tsunami approaches. For the animals themselves, they are simply catching a vibe that says danger and heading somewhere they feel safe.
What does any of this have to do with SE? Hold. HOLD..! I’m getting there.
At the truly primal level of existence there is no seeing, hearing, or smelling, but there is feeling. And that feeling needs only two modes to operate in. As I’ve already hinted, I will label them Danger and Safe. I could have chosen 1 and 0, On and Off, Alert and Calm, Rupture and Repair, or any other two terms with similar import. But Danger and Safe are good choices within the larger context of my particular type of trauma. Also, in case it’s not obvious, 0, Off, Calm, Safe… this is the default mode we need to be in to thrive. Danger Mode is where we go when we need to survive.
To bring it all together… our nervous system (the body-self) knows danger and safety at the most basic level our universe has to offer, but that knowing can be overpowered and controlled (think suppressed) by the highly adaptive and ever-dominant frontal cortex (the mind-self). When I was a child “trapped” in that house on Creekwood, hiding under the bed, waiting to get a spanking from my father for reasons I could not make sense of, my nervous system was switched into Danger Mode while the rest of me was trying to figure out how to cope.
But here’s the clincher. That house on Creekwood was a breeding ground for suicide. I lived in Danger Mode. Even when my dad wasn’t around, I didn’t feel safe. What if I did something, broke something, for example? My dad might find out and then what?
It’s so funny to me seeing how a squirrel will bounce away at the most innocent change to their environment, i.e. me walking down the sidewalk. Their acorn-sized brains (so ironic) are dominated by the ancient nervous system where Danger and Safe modes are most of what they have to work with. But that’s okay. The beauty of the squirrel is not just its fluffy tale and oh-so-cute face. The brain of a squirrel has the effortless ability to scamper back and forth between “Danger, Will Robinson!” and, “Yeah, I’m cool…and cute.”
If only I could have switched back to Safe Mode. Instead, my adaptive frontal cortex had to find a way to tamp-down my nerves by controlling and suppressing the emotions I deserved to be feeling- particularly anger and sadness. In my childhood of 5,000 ruptures and zero repairs, turns out my body-self never stopped keeping score.
This left me blocked, unable to truly connect with people, to patiently listen, broadly see, and intuitively feel the universe around me and know my place within it. Fortunately for me, the story does not end there…
I feel like this is already a lot to digest, so I will stop here to give us all a chance to breathe. Look for the fascinating second half in just a couple of days, when I’ll go from Blocked to Open. It’s a supersonic ride!
Ethan and I stand towards the mirror. Dave is a few feet away, facing us. Covid keeps us all in masks as we begin learning the basics. First, Dave demonstrates exactly how to stand, shift weight over the feet, punch and protect. I’m watching with interest as Dave talks, but also eye the signed posters of boxers trained by Dave hanging on the walls. I make note of at least two yellowed newspaper clippings, encased in frames. I’ll look at them more closely later.
One at a time, Dave coaches us on how to take-on a stable boxing stance. I go first while Ethan watches. Red tape on the floor marks off a large “plus sign.” Being right-handed, it’s actually my left side that aims towards my opponent with my left foot placed in the top-left quadrant, my trailing foot planted wide to the back-right. I’m no fighter, but I’ve come into this gym today with the intention of facing all those moments of my life when I should have been. As best I can, I adopt the posture per Dave’s instruction. My fists are high, placed almost in front of my face, elbows-in to guard the body. In front of a wall of mirrors, I stare straight into my past and feel the enormous power in simply standing with my fists up. Dave and Ethan have no clue of what I’m feeling on the inside. I am bristling.
Never in my life have I set foot inside a boxing gym before. Same goes for Ethan, though he was on the high school wrestling team five years ago. The way Ethan is talking it seems like he’s trying to become an amatuer boxer. Me? My therapist suggested it could be helpful.
Dave owns the Front Range Boxing Gym, a minimally converted army barracks hidden at the end of an industrial office park. He is also the gym’s trainer. Every newcomer automatically gets a 60 minute intro-to-boxing lesson from the man himself. Dave is not a big guy, not very tall anyway, but he’s stout. You can visually see that Dave’s biceps and triceps have been put to good use throughout his 70 years. When Dave demonstrates how to throw a punch for Ethan and me, his strength, quickness and power have scarcely diminished since his fighting days.
When we learn how to combine punches, Dave shows us a combination of moves and then has us practice it through a few times. Ooof! It’s not easy. I’m struggling to get my legs to move and slide in rhythm with my punches. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Dave has to correct me several times, and starts speaking slightly faster and louder. It’s a left jab, right cross, then two more left jabs, with the feet moving in rhythm. I am trying to get it, but can never quite hit the mark. And Dave’s frustration ticks up one more notch.
After owning Dave’s attention for several minutes, it was Ethan’s turn. Oh nooooo. If I was bad, Ethan was 10 times worse. Since he used to be a wrestler, his stance is waaay off- his upper body’s too low for a boxer. Dave corrects him, once, twice. What am I seeing? A wave of familiarity washes over me. I see Ethan struggling to get it. In him I see my brother Bill, less coordinated than me, more nervous, not able to follow dad’s instructions. At one point Ethan steps forward when the combination Dave just talked about requires a side-step to the left. Dave’s frustration bursts into the open with an audible grimace, his full body twists around to the right as his arms move like he’s tossing a heavy weight. It’s a big gesture that carries Dave back a full step. His body has exploded with impassioned anger.
Much Needed Repairs
But then the most amazing thing happens. Less than a complete second later, Dave turns back towards us with one palm in the air, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” he says, bringing up the second palm. “I don’t mean to be hard on you.” One of his hands comes down onto Ethan’s shoulder. “You’re doing great. You’re doing great,” he says twice. I see Dave’s eyes above his mask, which has momentarily dipped below his nose because the elastic is getting old. His other hand comes to lift it back into place. Dave’s eyes- I see them smiling. His mouth, it’s covered. But his eyes…they smile with a playful warmth when he looks at each of us, apologizing again. He is genuinely embarrassed for losing his composure. It is Ethan and I that end up reassuring him that it’s no problem. We know he’s only trying to help.
In the parlance of psychology what I had witnessed is called a rupture. Dave’s frustration got the better of him when young Ethan wasn’t able to get it. Dave lost his patience. But what followed was an expression of regret, kindness and nurturing; something I had never seen from my own father. It’s called repair.
I talked about the incident with Gabe, my therapist. He gave me the language for what I’d seen. As he put it, “If there are 5,000 ruptures, you need 5,000 repairs.” I could easily glance back into my own childhood to see 5,000 ruptures from my father, the man whose flesh and blood produced my own….and zero repairs.
I don’t know much about Dave or his life’s story, but the compassion he demonstrated that day towards Ethan (and towards me, as well), was more powerful than any punch he’d ever thrown. Dave had the intention of teaching us the basics of boxing, but unknowingly gave me a lesson in something far more important– rupture and repair. I will never forget it now.
Maybe one of these times I visit the gym I will get the chance to talk to Dave about topics unrelated to boxing. If the moment ever presents itself, I would like to put my hand on Dave’s shoulder and tell him, “You’re doing great, Dave. You’re doing great.”
Give Me Just One More
Welcome to the first of five “final” posts of the 1 More World blog. Yes, after these five there will still be more down the road…since so much story remains. I am 55 years old and restarting my life in Spain; you bet I’ll be writing about it. But the central story of the 1 More World blog has been my 1000 piece puzzle, and that one is mostly solved, both externally (Search for the Pearl) and internally- as you will read about below and in the next posts.
Real slowly. There are some mind-benders in this one.
Childhood is a world unto itself. Blessed are those who grew up in a world of love and safety. Unfortunately, this is not the experience of many people. This was not my experience. As my childhood gave way to the next world, the one where we have to be adults– who I became, the decisions I made, the relationships I had, and the happiness and joy that I missed, all have roots that extend back at least three generations (at a minimum!). Uncovering truths, connecting dots, and healing from injury is the path that has led me to believe… After childhood trauma and the adulthood it shapes, healing has the power to open up one more world. And this one I will live on my own terms.
This post will have several embedded links in it. Use them to pick up the backstory, if needed.
What Has Therapy Done For Me Lately
The third Monday in September I arrived once more for my appointment at the Innate Path clinic on Holland Street, another of the weekly visits I’ve been going to for 5 months. Forty minutes prior, I chewed-up 15 mgs of cannabis in a form that closely resembled a Sweet-Tart in size, shape, and even the tangy taste. Gabe greets me at the door as always and I begin following him towards the room in the back-right, where all of our previous sessions have taken place. But today, Gabe suggests we try a different room, a larger one with a futon-style couch in it instead of a lounge chair.
Every session with Gabe since the beginning of May has been me doing drugs (either cannabis or ketamine), putting on an eye mask, lying back in the lounge chair, and attempting to access a somaticexperience. Despite my never having achieved this mysterious state, it was still true that interesting things were revealed by nearly every session.
Oh yeah? Like what?
In a plot twist everyone saw coming…. this blog you have been reading is the what– THIS IS the therapy, at least the non-somatic part of it. The central story-arc of this blog began with the sixth overall post- Puzzle of a Thousand Pieces -and a scene from my childhood where I find my half-brother Tommy moments after he commits suicide. It begins with these two short sentences:
“I cannot remember my brother’s face. I was six years old the last time I saw it, and blood was everywhere.”
With this for an opener I am clearly not writing a “travel blog.” From that post through to this one I have strived to pick apart the hidden forces that have shaped my life and share them with world.
I am also expressing my basic human need to be seen.
Rock On A String
In the week before my first somatic experience I’d been thinking a lot about a recurring theme throughout my life– not feeling understood. My relationship struggles with Jessica consistently centered around insurmountable failures in our communication. But the deeper, richer, and more troubling reasons for those failures stayed hidden from me until just a few weeks ago. The revelation I’m about to share with you may be the largest piece of the entire 1 More World puzzle. This idea, this thought, these dots connected, are closely related to a very specific an unwanted physical feeling, too.
When Jessica and I struggled to communicate, stress would show up quickly in my stomach. We didn’t even have to be actively disagreeing for me to feel it. It would just be there, hanging like a rock on a string inside my core. When I couldn’t communicate with Marianne (the neighbor), that same familiar physical sensation roared and rumbled. In truth, I can now look back at my entire life and recall the haunting presence of that rock hanging there within me, swinging and tumbling every time I failed to truly connect with someone.
I was out for a walk when the revelation hit me. [In the area where the above photo was taken.] The epiphany was so deep and profound, I stopped walking and put my hands on my head. Now it made sense- Jessica CAN’T understand me. There is much more, but please pause here and absorb that what I mean is quite literal. Look at my broken left pinky finger in the pic. After an injury I could no longer straighten it. If you ask me to….I simply CAN’T. My ability to extend it has been taken away by the trauma my finger suffered long ago.
Jessica has been a hugely important and special person in my life. We first met in our late teens. She was my first girlfriend (on and off) for about 2 ½ years, until we finally broke up completely and went our separate ways. For the next two decades plus two years we had no contact until one day the universe placed us back into each other’s lives. This time our (mostly amazing) relationship lasted almost 10 years. In the latter stages, when I knew deep down something wasn’t right, I searched in the darkness to explain the psychological bond that certainly existed between Jessica and me. I never found it until now.
Jessica’s elemental connection to my parents and to me is ironically disconnection. My dad was totally disconnected, unable to see the anguish of my brother’s six-year old face when Bill struggled to read the clock. My mom was disconnected, too. When her first son (and my older brother) Tommy committed suicide, my mom was both unable to see it coming or cry after it happened. Jessica, the most enigmatic character in the story of my life, for her own complicated reasons, was never able to see me. But OF COOOUURRRSSEE this is not just on her, attentive readers, nor is any of this her fault. I, Gary Breaux, was unable to see beyond my own protective wall, as well, and perhaps even more so than her. I was living my life just as disconnected and unable to love as either of my two parents. Holy shit! This is big stuff!!
And what about that feeling…..about that rock in my stomach that tumbles on a string when I am not being understood, not being seen, and not being loved? I will need to find that rock because it will be the key that opens the door to my first somatic experience.
I promise we’re getting there. But first please indulge me a rant on why somatic therapy is such a challenge.
Restricted Access Only
The brain and the nervous system are really one and the same, connected no less than the roots of a tree to its trunk. And imagine how the tree first begins to grow from a seed, it’s always the roots that emerge first. In a similar way, our nervous systems are the roots of our-selves. In evolutionary terms, the frontal cortex of our brains- the ivory tower where all that smart thinkin’ happens -is the youngest, and our nervous system is as old as the earliest trees.
To say our nervous system is buried deep within us is exactly right. From our towers on high, we tend to think of our bodies as being somehow separate from our minds. No way, Jose! Body-brain-mind, we are one organism. Of course it’s all connected!
The whole aim of somatic therapy is to access that primitive body-brain circuitry (the body-self) and let it do what it needs to do. That is the freaky-ass-voodoo part I still don’t get. But those sciencey types have figured out that when we experience intense threats to our safety, and fight or flight options are not available (like when we are kids), our body-brain-mind system devises alternative and usually unhealthy ways of coping. Cutting to the chase- when ruptures go unrepaired, our nervous system- our body -will hold on to that trauma until it can be dealt with safely.
Not So Fast
So, how exactly does an emotionally-restricted knucklehead like me access my body? The 1-2-3 answer is that I go to a clinic that specializes in this type of therapy, I ingest cannabis- a chemical compound that lowers the barrier to achieving this result, and then I try over and over again (for umpteen weeks) to close my eyes and mentally zoom-in on parts of my body that might be sending me vague “signals.” Meaning anything that feels tight, twitchy, colored, warm or cold, or pretty much any sensation that seems to stand out. From my earliest sessions in late April all the way up to when I finally had a genuine somatic experience the final week of September (next two chunks below), it was most frequently my right shoulder that seemed to have something to say. I can only imagine what could be in there.
Last aside before the good stuff. For all of my efforts, I still have no idea what the hell I’m doing! This is uncharted territory. Exactly what I am looking for when I descend into a meditative state is unknowable in advance. Am I doing it right? I don’t know. It’s an obstacle course in the dark. But perhaps the biggest challenge of all comes in realizing the best mental pathways into the body’s nervous system typically run through the emotions a lifetime has been spent suppressing.
Now let’s get rollin’….
On The Futon River
Today’s session begins like they all do with Gabe and I engaged in roughly 30 or so minutes of preliminary conversation. As we talk, I feel the edible sweet tarts begin to colour my brain and body. I’ve done 15 mgs worth of edible in previous sessions, but what’s different today is that I also add two 5-second draws from the vape pen. [Yes, vape pen. That’s a side-story I’ll be sure to circle back to in some future post.] This is the highest dose of cannabis I’ve ever done.
Ready to be settled, I place the eye mask just beneath my frontal cortex and fully recline my body, placing a small cushion under my head. Whoa! The cannabis is really getting strong. Gabe steps out of the room to grab a bluetooth speaker- a background of flowy music can sometimes facilitate this process. By the time he returns, my mind is already starting to enter my body. I say out loud, “Just to let you know…I’m really rolling right now.”
I distantly hear Gabe say something encouraging before he takes a seat. The music comes on, I take a few extra full breaths, and begin to go deeper….and deeper.
In addition to thinking and having memories, the mind-expanding powers of cannabis enable my brain to create an array of visual representations of my body based on the subtlest of impulses emanating from my tissues. Remember that 60’s era sci-fi movie where a shrunken crew of explorers goes on a journey inside the human body? Well, it’s sort of like that but with a random storyline and in color (and with faaaaar better special effects).
The physical sensation of not being understood (my rock on a string) was a challenge for me to mentally conjure up during a session. Gabe’s core function as a therapist is to see and understand people, so I wasn’t going to recreate the sensation by talking to him. I would have to use my mind.
Slowly, things start to happen. My mind begins to flow from the pebble I manage to find in my stomach up to something in my right shoulder. A muscle fires within it causing me to twitch one time. A few moments go by and Gabe checks in with me, asking where I am right now. I tell him I’m paying attention to my shoulder; it seems like something’s there. He says to keep watching it. It twitches again. And then again.
Cracking the Code
Holding a gaze with the eyes is easy, but directing one’s mind in a single direction for any length of time is not. But I stayed focused as best I could. Another, larger twitch, pulls both shoulders in for a blink. The spot within my right shoulder seems to be growing. Slowly, slowly… I allow myself to tense up.
There is a progression to what I am experiencing and my mission is to keep leaning into it. Starting also around my right shoulder, a low-level fizzy sensation begins bubbling up within my limbs. At a very hushed volume my body begins to quake and quiver, like trembling, but different. It slowly grows louder. Even in this state, I think about how I might express what is happening in words. [After all, I’m a writer.] The physical manifestations of my nervous system’s release of energy continues to grow until the random vibrations I’m feeling bring to mind what it’s like to ride a city bus as it rumbles and shudders down a old street.
It’s all getting weird but I’m intent on staying in the moment. I feel a growing internal pressure to take a deep breath, but I recognize it in real time and resist. That’s how I’d always coped with the emotions my trauma conditioned me to avoid. This is the critical moment- a big deep breath is how I would normally hit the reset button, how I would push the volcano back under the ground and avoid deeper emotions. My breathing quickens as I tense up, but I am able to consciously override the urge to make it go away. I remain on course; even thinking to applaud my own self-awareness while it’s happening. Holy crap! I am so fully present!
At some impossible to define stage in the progression it somehow feels like I’m all the way in. I’ve done it; I finally cracked the code. I am having a somatic experience. Gabe knows I’m in it and tells me I’m doing great. To be clear, all the while this physical stuff is taking place, I am still me. It’s not like I’m unaware of my condition. In fact, I am hyper-aware of it.
The number of minutes this goes on is difficult to say. Maybe between 3 – 10? Or was it 15? Guesses are all I have. Once I had “cycled through” the somatic experience and I was back into the room, taking my eye mask off, I felt mildly bewildered but also content. I had broken through.
Through to what, is an answer I don’t yet have.
I began this course of therapy knowing I had stuff to work on. The internal notion that something isn’t quite right has been with me all my life. In Life As Compost, I tell you about my brother Bill’s deep and desperate desire to remove the dark burden of trauma placed upon him growing up. He never got the help he needed to escape that burden and killed himself with a handgun 10 years ago.
For whatever reason, the universe had different plans for me and I’ve managed to survive; and even do quite well by some objective measures. However, I know in my bones I carry unwanted burdens. And I know there’s a love that is missing. I’ve never been able to maintain a healthy relationship, and worse…I have deeply wounded others along the way. For this I am profoundly sorry.
So, what of my therapy? Is it working? Have my burdens all been lifted? Am I a new man? Yeah right! You know as well as I do it doesn’t work that way. It’s a process with an undefined beginning and an end that never fully arrives. But, I will say this….
Take a second look at my broken finger. You see how it rises from the fingernail to a hump at the knuckle where scar tissue has formed around the injury. It then slopes back down to connect with my hand and the rest of my body. If my broken finger can be a stand-in for my therapeutic progress, sloping upward is the injured side, and that will always be there, but….
A few days after my first somatic experience, after I’d visited Austin and said goodbye to my house, after I’d come back home to Boulder and digested all that has taken place just in the past couple of weeks alone, the leaves of fall and I were changing. For the first time ever I caught myself wondering if I’d made it over the hump. Then a faint breeze swept through my interior. I know there is a lot more work ahead of me, but something within is telling me… I now live on the healing side.
I am super proud of the next three posts, especially. Forward!!