What has been one of the most challenging things that you have experienced, or are currently experiencing?
“The most challenging thing that I’ve experienced is recovering from childhood abuse. Which was obviously a long time ago. But it was really profound sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Recovery was intense, and long and painful. I think, I hope, in another generation that we won’t see this too much anymore. The abuse was so severe that I repressed the memories of it. Then, we didn’t have DCF to come and take kids out of their homes because they were hurt. There was just no protection. The choice we had for that age group was to repress memories. So I came to know my own life by a flashback.
“I had no memory of my childhood. I thought that was normal. I thought you just don’t remember. So in my twenties I started to recall certain aspects of what had happened. At first, having a sense about what was happening, but not remembering who. And later, the who came, who I was being abused by. And it was both my adoptive parents, and others.
“I was in a relationship at the time, during the flashbacks. And I became very depressed. I was suicidal. And I took to bed for seven months. I had two children, so my partner at the time took over care of the home and the kids, and eventually he left. He said, ‘I don’t know what else to do for you; I can’t help you.’
“So that was in my early twenties. I ended up suppressing all of that all over again for another two decades. And because I lost a man that I loved as a result of the abuse. I was in therapy. I would get up, put on my sweatpants and go to therapy once a week and come home and go back to bed.
“He had been participating in the treatment as well, but the therapist, she didn’t really know better, but she released him from therapy and just worked with me, sacrificing the relationship. So when I became a therapist I committed that I would never do that. People’s primary relationships are critical, especially in recovery.
“So it was another twenty years before it started to come up again. I functioned on top of everything. When it surfaced again, if you believe what Dr. Christiane Northrup says, ‘You enter menopause as a woman and the trauma will show up again.’ So I think that might have been part of what triggered it. It started to come up again, and it was worse than before, which makes sense. The easier stuff comes up first. Then the more difficult stuff comes up later.
“More difficult stuff started to come up, so I found my way into treatment again. Fortunately, I found a healer who was really good at trauma. But it was really painful. When you separate out what you felt and what you thought from the physical sensations, and you travel back through the experience to surface it and heal it, you didn’t do it on purpose. It was just bubbling up on its own. You feel all of it all over again.
“So it was a pretty tough six years of intensive treatment in that way. So what I realized was I was abused for fifteen years, and then I felt abused for twice a many years after. I don’t have an answer for that. We’re conditioned.
“There’s a whole list of correlates with sexual abuse: obesity, promiscuity, addiction, underemployment, difficulty with relationships. So you can check them off. So for thirty years I drank to cope. I don’t know how I would have gotten by without it. But once I started healing the trauma, the addictions went away. I guess I was in a place where I was beginning to achieve enough recovery and coping that I didn’t need that to cope or function. But it also started to be consciously something that I would do that wasn’t loving. It’s hard to explain that. But all of those things I did to hurt myself, really were an attempt to help myself.
“Getting toward the end of the treatment, I felt like I was starting to get free. Like the scenes from movies when a guy is in prison and he’s been in solitary, in a dark cell his whole life. You see him walk out the door and they hand him this little suitcase like, here you go. I felt like I was in this place of the sun is up, I can breathe, I was free. And then my son died. He was twenty-nine. He died in a motorcycle accident, fortunately suddenly.
“I get to this I’m free, and… I screamed at God a lot, and I surrendered to grief. There was a lot of grief in the trauma work. In my childhood, I never had grieved for the loss of memory in my own life. Grieving raising my children in their shadow. I didn’t know what happened to me, and I carried on when it happened to my daughter. I didn’t know. So anyway, I was really pretty pissed at God. I surrendered to this incarnation that life was about grief. I give up.
“That was the second hardest thing. Releasing my son.”
What were some of the darker times that you found yourself in, when you were without hope, without light?
“I remember when the memories were starting to come up. I was having a difficult time coping with learning what had happened to me. I remember one day sitting on the couch all day because I was afraid to get up because I was afraid I would kill myself. I just sat on the couch. The pain was so physical. I can remember it feeling like tennis balls being shoved up my esophagus. It was like one after another after another slowly traveling up. It was so excruciatingly painful. All I could do was sit and allow the pain to move through me, and not get up so I wouldn’t kill myself. That was a pretty dark time. But I also became aware that in this process, somehow there is this grace, there is this higher intelligence, this aspect of me that held the memories for me didn’t give them back to me until I could deal with it.
“There seemed to be a grace. Even though that was an excruciatingly difficult time and my partner left me as a result of it. He was terrified that he would come home and find me dead. I didn’t know it was that bad until he told me years later. I also see being held by something to be able to get through that.
“Another really challenging time was being diagnosed with cervical cancer when I was only in my early twenties. There was no reason for that. Nobody could explain why I would have cervical cancer, but one of the causes is frequent trauma to the cervix. So I correlate that to the repeated rapes that I experienced as a child from age four and up. That was scary, and I didn’t know the correlation at the time.”
After going through therapy and uncovering some of these memories, have you gotten to a place in peeling away some of those layers, where you can recall being present in your body in some of these experiences, and what you were feeling?
“That’s an interesting question. What I recall was the first full rape was when I was four. And from my recollection, that was when I left my body. We leave our bodies; it is a phenomenon. So I left my body and I could see what was happening, but I couldn’t experience what was happening directly. Bessel Van Der Kolk is well known for his work in trauma, and one of his patients is quoted as saying, ‘I didn’t know I was gone until I got back.’
“I didn’t come back until I was in my forties. I remember in a yoga class in an art gallery, I was in some sort of pose when my arms were up, and I could feel the room air. There was no fan or anything, but I could feel the room air move against my arm. It was the first time when I experienced sensation in my body. I knew I had come back. Most of the memories are outside of my body.”
When you were reaching for alcohol as a way of numbing, did you recognize at that time that you were doing that, trying to numb?
“I’m not sure I believe the whole alcohol and numbing thing. Because I didn’t feel numb. A lot of stuff was still coming through. I was fed alcohol when I was eleven, by my parents, my mother in particular. So it was just part of my life. I was going to school full-time, I was divorced, I had two kids, I had a relationship, and in order to function, I would come home, put the kids to bed, sit home with a jug of wine and my homework and when I passed out, it was time for bed and I’d start again.
“When my son died I was still drinking, but it didn’t seem to diminish the grief. So I don’t know how good it was at numbing me. Maybe I should have picked something else. It’s not good for someone who tends to be depressive. I’ve been diagnosed with depression and alcohol is a depressant. We all lean toward a drug of choice given what we are trying to balance in ourselves unconsciously. I wasn’t introduced to other drugs, thanks to God. Because maybe I would have done something else.”
How did those experiences of suffering sexual abuse as a young child shape the way you feel about yourself—as a teenager into adulthood?
“I always felt broken, but I didn’t have any memories of anything happening to me until I was in my twenties. I used to think maybe I had a brain tumor. There was something really wrong with me. In high school we had this term, FUBAR. I heard it’s a military thing, but in high school it meant fucked up beyond all recognition. I always felt that was who I was, I was just broken. I was just permanently broken and damaged. Then when I began to remember what happened, and my partner left, I believed I was not capable of repair. A lot of people feel like that, a lot of survivors do.”
What is your relationship like, or what was your relationship like with your adoptive parents?
“Until I knew what had happened, it was okay. I don’t know if you saw the movie, ‘Precious.’ I watched that movie finally. It took me a long time to watch it, but I watched it twice. The second time, along what was happening to her, I wrote what was parallel in my life. It was almost exactly the same in terms of events or incidents including a pregnancy by my father.
“But she was four and people knew what was happening to her, and there was a community. In my middle-class family, it was complete isolation. There was no knowing, there was no support. It was well guarded and protected. Nobody knew. Dad was a deacon at the church. Life looked okay on the outside.
“As a teenager, things always feel a little strange on the inside and screwed up, but I had this reality on the outside that didn’t match what was going on inside of me. I used to take to the streets. One of my therapists said to me, ‘That says a lot about your childhood. The safest place for you was on the street.’
“So even in a white, middle-class family, my relationship with them was okay until I began to remember what happened. It unfortunately was disclosed to them or said to them—not from me. So there was a flat denial or refusal, like nothing happened. You made that up, it’s not true kind of thing. So we had nowhere to go in that relationship.
“I was adopted, they adopted another boy and they had a child on their own. That boy just died in December, he was fifty-two. I did go to the funeral and saw them. They’re civil. We’re civil. But there’s no truth. There’s no way to connect. I’d like to be able to find a place with them, but I haven’t been able to.”
Have you been able to make peace with the fact that they are not acknowledging what happened, not apologizing or taking responsibility for it, and to release yourself from that prison?
“That was really hard, because up until my brother died, I was still pretty pissed at them. I couldn’t find a way to let go of that. And you know how they say if someone has crossed you or wronged you to imagine them in their innocence, in their childhood. Well I had a lot of spiritual practice, I know all this stuff, but I could not do it.
“When my brother died, he was the one who molested my daughter, their son. When he died at fifty-two, his wife found him dead on the couch. I immediately began to see him in his innocence. I saw him as a child. And he was a dorky, one of the first ADHD kids. And that’s what I saw him as. I thought it’s a good thing I’m not giving the eulogy because all I could see was Tom molested my daughter. That’s all that he was to me. At the beginning and end of his life, I had to dig really hard to find something more. I saw him in his innocence, and going to the funeral and seeing other people perceive him in a different way, it fleshed out a wholeness in him that I hadn’t seen before.
“There’s a gentlemen who wrote a book called ‘Just Mercy.’ It goes back to try to get men who are on death row retried and off. Most of them have committed crimes. One of the quotes in the book is, ‘We are not the worst thing we’ve ever done.’ So I began to see that for my brother. That immediately translated to my parents.
“So the answer to that now is yes, in December the answer would have been no. All of a sudden, I have been able to release my expectation that they would be different. I know that they can only pass on to me their unconsciousness and their program. I know that, but I wasn’t able to let go. Now I’ve been able to let go. So that was a gift, his death. ”
You mentioned losing your son and that moment when you felt released and free, like your wings were beginning to spread, and that experience came crashing down upon you. How did you begin to work through that?
“That’s a beautiful story. I was working in hospice at the time. I was working at an outpatient clinic, a trauma clinic working with kids that have been sexually abused. The engine in my car died. I had to pay the $7,000 off on the car and get another car, so I had to work a second job. So I ended up in hospice as my second job. I can’t even tell you how. And seven months later, my son died.
“These people that were my colleagues were all present and supporting and caring. It’s not because of what they do, it’s who they are. So I believe again it was a divine hand, like, you need to work with these people because I’m going to take your son. You’ll need help.
“I think one of the biggest things looking back was I somehow knew to let myself burn in the grief. Hold still and let it rage at you. Now I understand grief from a personal perspective. Whatever comes, comes. You can’t anticipate it. You don’t know. You think you’re going to fall apart on this birthday, but it’s ok. But you see a jar of peanut butter on the shelf at the grocery store and it takes you down. Grief will have its way with you.
“So I committed that I would let grief have its way with me. I would just burn in the fire of the anguish. I didn’t know what anguish was until Jeremy died. Now I understand anguish. So for fifteen months, I let myself burn. At the end of fifteen months, anything that wasn’t me got burned. There was ash at my feet and I just stepped out of the fire. There were other stages of grief and loss, but the intense processing of that was allowed to happen.”
How has going through these experiences been? Recognizing that you were sexually abused, overcoming cancer, losing your son; how have these stages in your life shaped who you are today?
“It’s my life’s work. My life’s work has been about understanding suffering, the roots of suffering and what relieves suffering inside the context of trauma. I’ve worked with trauma survivors my whole career in a variety of different ways. I have a specialty in child sexual abuse and war trauma and now, hospice and death and dying.
“I believe it is cultivated in me, the ability to be a hero for people. Sexual abuse is so pervasive, it infiltrates humankind internationally in subtle and in gross ways. Like relationships with men and women, our sexuality, how we express ourselves, how we relate – it affects everything. So I feel like I’ve come into this lifetime with the intention of facilitating healing and moving us through this period of ignorance and unconsciousness.”
What are some of the tools, coping skills that you have found most valuable over the years in moving through these stages of grief that you’ve experienced? What do you pass along to your clients?
“It depends on the stage, but one thing is to appreciate that whatever it is we are experiencing, it is normal given our story and what we’ve experienced. That doesn’t make ourselves bad or wrong. Even if we don’t understand what’s happening, or why it’s happening the way it is, to appreciate that it’s some aspect of our being that’s trying to awaken and heal us. So I guess it’s how we think about what’s going on.
“Most recently, it’s been doing anything that I can do to activate my parasympathetic nervous system to be calm. I advise people often to use the technique stop. Stop and breathe, stop and breathe. Because it lets our mind know that everything is OK. It resets the nervous system and lets us relax so that we’re not in that period of fight or flight all the time. We’re not in that anxious place and stressed all the time.
“Trying to turn that back and reset that is important. Having people around that are, choosing wisely who’s around us, who’s in close, so that they’re mirroring back to us our beauty, our magnificence, our truth, our light. That can love us until we can love ourselves. And not make someone bad or wrong that can’t do that, but not choosing to bring them in close. Really bringing love in close until we can get it ourselves.”
How did you learn to love yourself? What did that look like?
“Truth be told, I think it’s only been in the last year. In 2015, I call the year of radical self-honoring. I lost my jobs, so I moved into 2015 with no work. I gave myself this whole year to follow my inner guidance. Whenever my inner guidance said, do this, I would do that. If it said, don’t do this, I didn’t do that, and I didn’t ask any questions.
“It guided me into Kundalini yoga teacher training. Excuse me but, have you seen this body? This is not a yoga body. I thought, do you still want me to go to yoga teacher training? And the voice was like, yes, no argument, go. So I did, and on the second day we were told that it was a healing technology, and they used it to heal addicts in the seventies, and I cried. This part of the journey.
“I’m awakening to this discernment of what really serves me, what feels good and what is loving in this last year. Interestingly food was the last thing to come on board. I realize that, someone had written something about how food is prepared, we ingest that. If it’s prepared with love, we’re ingesting love.
“My mother was so rageful and angry and hateful that violence and food were one my whole life. Only until now have I known love and food in the same dish. That is huge, but that only started happening this year. I had no knowledge.
“My daughter-in-law said to me, ‘Food makes me so happy.’ It didn’t ever make me happy. So even that learning how to nourish myself—literally sustain my life—is brand new and integrated with what I now understand to be love.”
What have you learned about yourself over these years of going through therapy and coming out of the fire?
“The analogy that I use in talking with the kids that I treat that have experienced trauma, or anybody, it’s my perception that we’re all like light bulbs. Over time, mud gets kicked on the light bulb and sometimes to the point that it obscures the light entirely, or we think there is no light. My work is to help slough off the mud so that we can remember who we are. When I’m working with people, I see the true who they are, regardless of what their behavior looks like. It may be violent, it may be—whatever. But that’s not what I see when I look in their eyes. I see them, and I reflect it back to them until they can see themselves. And that stuff just falls away.
“What it has taught me about myself is that I was never broken. I am not FUBAR, I never was. It was a belief that I adopted about myself. I’ve always been light, I’ve always been full, I’ve always been denied. It’s just that I forgot. It’s a process of remembering. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to.”
What advice would you offer to someone else who has experienced similar traumas in their life and are maybe still stuck in the fire of the different stages of grief, not fully aware of the tools and the value that they have?
“If I had the opportunity to speak with them, to have them honor whatever it is they are experiencing. One of the things we do is diminish our experience, like it’s not that important. Worse things happen to other people. We just dismiss our own experience. So I would encourage people to acknowledge and honor their own experiences and let it be what it is.
“If it is causing them suffering, they should seek out people who will love them and support them and help them understand. I think a lot of the work that I’ve done is helping people understand what’s going on for them, what relates to what has happened to them so that they don’t feel like they are mentally ill or crazy. I think it’s just understanding that it all makes sense in context.
“So I think it’s about working on that acceptance part and seeking out support and not being shy about doing that. A lot of us who have been abused, we isolate. That was a really big part of my recovery is my therapist created a community and required me to find access to it and use it. So I had to crawl out of my cave, and that was part of the healing.”
What sort of role do you think shame plays in the process of healing?
“Huge. Linda Sanford wrote the book, ‘Strong at the Broken Places.’ I heard her speak one time and she said when she works with children, she asks them, she put her hand up, ‘Am I bad, or do I do bad things?’ She said if you believe that you’re bad, and so many of the trauma survivors that I’ve worked with, including myself, believe we are bad. She said, ‘When you believe you’re bad, it’s like trying to change the size of your shoes, or the color of your skin, or the color of your eyes. It is who you are.’
“Metaphysically on the scale of vibration, energetic vibration, shame is the lowest vibration. Lower than anger, lower than hatred, lower than fear. Shame is the most profound, most destructive emotion that people experience. It keeps us separated from others, but from ourselves.”
How important do you think a willingness to be vulnerable is in the healing process? Is it possible to recover from a traumatic experience without passing through vulnerability?
“Do you mean vulnerability in terms of being willing to risk truth, being truthful, open and honest? Yeah. My experience has been, when people are not able to be honest, it’s because they’re not able to be honest with themselves. So it’s not that they are being dishonest with me, it means that they can’t self-reveal to themselves.
I also believe there is an innate drive toward wholeness, which is our natural state. So for a lot of us, no matter what, we’re not willing to…we’re driving on our own freedom again. We have a place to go back to. We know it somewhere in our being, we know this place of freedom and wholeness and there’s this innate drive to get there again. So we’re willing to be vulnerable and to self-disclose. I don’t know how to answer that better.
“I’ve found people that I could work with that I could really be raw with that had so much more compassion for me than I had for myself. I think that’s the issue. I believe there are people who love us more, who can be more present to us than we are able to be to ourselves. So when we find those people where we can be raw and exposed.
“I know for a period of time, it was like I didn’t have any skin. All of my nerve endings were on the outside. Everything hurt. To have people in my life that had some sensitivity to that horrific pain, even though they couldn’t relieve it and they couldn’t do it for me, I had to do it on my own. But to be met with the eyes of love, and faces, helped me take the risk of being more vulnerable and open. There was this invitation.”
Do you have a favorite quote, or a mantra, that you’d like to share?
“I guess so. In the Kundalini yoga teacher training, Yogi Bhajan was the one who brought it over to the states, and one of his quotes is, ‘If you do not see God in awe, you do not see God at all.’”
What does that mean to you on a personal level?
“What it means is that we are all divine, that is our nature. Even my perpetrator, even the people who have hurt us are divine beings trying to find their way home again. So I aspire to see the divinity well enough in myself that I can automatically see it in all beings. Not just the ones that have two legs, but all of life and nature. Our four-legged and winged – that we can see the divinity in all creation. That’s what that means to me.”
How has it felt to open up and share these experiences with me today?
“Really awesome. I have no idea what I said, but I so trust you. It’s just been so comfortable and honoring and gentle. I think in the healing work that I do, intention is so powerful. It feels that there is right intention here, it feels like there is an energy of not just bringing horror stories into the world, but light into the world. So I feel very safe and guided and protected in that. It’s been an honor to be seen and heard.”
Do you think it’s possible that today, by sharing your experiences with me and people who will be watching and/or reading this, that you might perhaps inspire someone else to continue to move forward on their path through their grief and challenges?
“Yeah, I hope so because I remember for me, I wasn’t aware. It was like I had one foot in life and one foot in death. I didn’t want to be here. I felt like life was a wet finger in a live electrical outlet. It was dangerous. When you’re not safe in your home and you’re not safe in your bed and you’re not safe in your body, there is nowhere safe.
“I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t overtly kill myself, I just slowly did it unconsciously. But when I finally got to the place where I thought, I do want to be here, I chose to be here, I choose life. I felt like I had been living underground my whole life and I poked my head out at the grass level and it was like there was this whole life going on above the surface of the earth that I didn’t even know existed. It was like, wow, if there’s this, then there’s a possibility that there’s this. There’s more.
“I had no idea life could be good. I had no idea. Now I do. So I hope that it inspires people to learn that you can heal from anything. That is possible. We’re living in age where healing can happen more quickly. For me it felt like it took a lifetime, but we’re moving into this age of consciousness, and healing can happen so much more quickly than it has happened in the past. I want people to know that it’s altogether possible. Whatever stage they’re in, however long it takes, there are no rules. If it takes, twenty years, thirty years, it’s your path. It’s okay.”
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