content warning: domestic violence, assault
I write for a while, but then I begin to read and become absorbed in it. Hours pass, the light changes, I shift positions at the hearth–but I remain captivated and focused on Peter Levine’s words. I haven’t been able to focus like this since the end of October, when my radiant happiness gave way to my deepest fears in a single evening.
My own therapist uses Somatic Experiencing with me but I frequently struggle, as I have using EMDR, with shifting out of the fear/immobility cycle–I become overwhelmed by my sense of fear and helplessness. I struggle to recall or retain sensations of pleasure and competence. Rather than complete my failed acts of self-protection I associate with another painful failure. This is why those of us with complex trauma are notoriously treatment resistant. In reading Levine’s case studies I begin to more meaningfully grasp the direction I need to orient toward.
In a moment where I’ve put the book down to rest my eyes I remember the time I hit my abuser. He stood in ratty Army sweatpants, headband in his stringy long hair–between me and the bedroom door. He was rude and belligerent, so I told him I needed space to calm down before we talked anymore. He continued to rant at me. Increasingly incensed, I told him a second and then a third time that I needed him to back off. I can’t remember what he said but I know he refused–because faster than I could think I ripped a framed photo from my nightstand and whipped it at him, and when he still didn’t back off I stood up and punched him–in the arm. I’d been training Muay Thai for three years but I punched him in the arm. He left the room and I continued to shake. I immediately felt horrible–I’d hit my spouse. I believe in compassion. Why did I do that? He punched the giant metal gun safe in his office until his fingers bled and swelled alarmingly. I felt sorry and helped him tend to his hand.
I was angry because I was mistreated, cornered and intimidated. I disowned my pure, self-protective anger in the name of placating someone who was hurting me. It took a long time before I stopped being ashamed of that warning punch.
I close my eyes and feel the warmth of the fire, the hardness of the stone beneath me and my breathing, a little quick with recalling how I defended myself and then reneged. What if I’d done what I trained to do? I search for the feeling of extending a right cross into his nose, how my shoulder would rebound, how his head would snap back. I feel the faintest pulse of movement, a twitch in my pecs. Then, nothing.
I turn off the gas fireplace and the lights and go to sleep in the spare bedroom. I notice as I wait for sleep that my body buzzes with sensation. This is not the dull lifelessness of grief and depression I’ve been used to, not the panicked twitch of fear but something new. I don’t know what to make of it. I lie awake and turn over thoughts about things I could cook. I haven’t cooked anything since the night Kevin pushed me away; I’ve barely wanted to eat.
I see myself sitting quietly with Kevin as I’ve longed to do. At first I hear the words of a therapist friend about all my compulsive one-sided conversations; “It sounds like SE, right? You’re compelled to complete the unresolved action.” I feel his hand in mine and see him returning my gaze, hear myself telling him that I wish we could have had this talk earlier but I’m glad we’re having it now. There’s a sense of relief.
And then I remember when I felt the deep inexorable plunge into PTSD. I knew I was symptomatic and was getting treatment, but I still had some sense that maybe I could turn things around with a lot of help–until the weapons hearing. I remember looking wildly over my shoulder in broad daylight and how I would have panic attacks driving if I saw any car that even vaguely resembled his black Jeep Commander.
I remember the way I stood in court, livid and shaking violently as I read my statement. The table jumped beneath my hands as I glared and read, full of fury and fear. I read about the times he’d trapped me during arguments, repeatedly punched the gun safe when angry and threatened suicide. The night he’d handed me his loaded handgun at bedtime and told me to shoot him with it, the time he shattered a wedding photo a couple feet from my head with absolutely no provocation and how I was calling the police for escorts into work because I was so afraid of him. About the PTSD I’d never experienced before. I remember the way I felt like I was choking but I got those fucking words out to prove that if he was coming for me I was not standing down.
The paper statement is creased deeply and erratically where I crushed it in my balled fist when the judge ordered his weapons returned. I shook and cried and screamed with fear and anguish with my 9-month pregnant friend and my court advocate from the Compass Center. Sara took the shoes from my feet so I could feel the floor and I lost all sense of time and space. They had to move me further from the courtroom, so they scanned the route for my abuser and took me huddled, quivering and choking into a little dark room with children’s things where Sara held my hair and the advocate held a trash can when my choking turned to heaving. When I eventually calmed down enough to leave they scoped the route again. I cowered in fear knowing my abuser was just outside a door close by, so we fled out the back way.
What would my anger have done? I see myself in an instant, not cowering but advancing toward the threat. Everyone backs away as I raise my fist and swing at him, overhand right to the mouth. He falls to the ground and I stand and glare, daring anyone to challenge me–and then spit at him.
Three times, my chest, shoulders and upper back twitch abruptly–my right shoulder leads. The convulsion is substantial–I rise from the pillow with it, and then lay still.
When I wake, my vitality is gone. I am tired and apprehensive and I look outside to see snow and feel the pit of dread and fear in my stomach. Still, I am not alone so I face my fear and mobilize, ultimately returning to the hearth again with my book.
I read and read, and I actually stop and eat a few times. I notice an attraction to cheese and thick crackers and cranberry relish. I want to eat and I enjoy making tea in a thick, beautiful handmade tea cup. I can taste my food with no one sitting beside me.
As I read the final pages of the book I am alert and alive.
“Without a clear connection to our instincts and feelings, we cannot feel our connection and sense of belonging to this earth, to a family, or anything else.
Herein lie the roots of trauma. Disconnection from our felt sense of belonging leaves our emotions floundering in a vacuum of loneliness. It leaves our rational minds to create fantasies based on disconnection rather than connection. These fantasies compel us to compete, make war, distrust one another, and undermine our natural respect for life. If we do not sense our connection with all things, then it is easier to destroy or ignore these things. Human beings are naturally cooperative and loving. We enjoy working together. However, without fully integrated brains, we cannot know this about ourselves.
In the process of healing trauma we integrate our triune brains. The transformation that occurs when we do this fulfills our evolutionary destiny. We become completely human animals, capable of the totality of our natural abilities. We are fierce warriors, gentle nurturers, and everything in between.”
Tears roll down my cheeks and I’m still afraid, but here safely near the fire with the words of a clinician who’s seen 40 years of patients heal their trauma–I can also touch the courage and love which are my will to live.