I remember so clearly the first day I sat in the therapist’s office after the accident. I think it was almost a year later, and it was my husband’s therapist, not mine. We needed to work on our marriage. He was working on it. I was there trying to work on it. All i remember was telling her I felt like I was dreaming most of the time. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to engage with therapy, I couldn’t seem to find a way to do so. I had no feelings, no emotions, no desire for forward motion…about anything!
Numbness is a common symptom of PTSD. When we can’t handle the pain, the stress, the fear, the anguish, our body, mind and spirit does what it can to protect us. It shuts down. Smart therapist that she is, Dr. B simply suggested that I close my eyes and focus my attention on my feet. “Feel the weight of your feet against the floor…the sensation of the firm, flatness of the surface holding them up, pushing back against them,” she said. “When you have a clear sense of this, move on to feel your thighs against the chair, your arms against the arm rests, your back against the back of the chair. Feel the weight of yourself being supported by the chair.”
The exercise calmed me that day. It also surprised me. I had not realized how physically and emotionally disconnected I had become. This is known as “dissociation” in the world of psychology and often accompanies trauma. Depending on the degree and severity of the trauma, dissociation can be as mild as staring mindlessly out of a window or forgetting what you just did, to isolating a part of yourself from yourself and others and withdrawal, such as amnesia, or flashbacks. Learn more.
There was no “therapy” to be done that day. I did not feel safe enough to begin the hard work of uncovering, unearthing, revealing, exposing. I was barely able to breathe, let alone trust the world with my hurting places. I remember thinking, “I can’t. I won’t. There is no safe place.” What lay just beyond those fleeting thoughts, and as yet unspoken was, “I am terrified and this is all I know how to do right now to take care of myself.” Dr. B. sent me home with instructions to do this little exercise every day, several times a day if possible and come back in a week. That I could do.
Recovering from trauma is not a simple task, nor does it follow a desired timetable. The healing process takes place only when we show up and cooperate with it. It must be undertaken at a pace that feels manageable to the individual, in a manner that is unique to each individual. It may proceed from the inside out or the outside in. We may learn to feel anchored again by feeling our feet against the floor, or structuring our days in a way that minimizes stress, or by finding a safe place inside of ourselves. For me this came later through guided imagery. First I had to reconnect myself at a very conscious level to the world.
The healing process cannot be accelerated by will, it can only be facilitated by cooperation, by learning to hear the signals the body and spirit are sending to us and following their lead. It is an intuitive, groping in the dark sort of process that we can learn to trust a little more every day. When we are wounded we must first and foremost learn, perhaps for the very first time, to be kind and decent and good to ourselves.
Dorothy Sander 2014 copyright