The soul in silence : reflections on solitude, trauma, wounding and healing

All the beautiful responses to my recent post/poem Trust in Silence have really got me thinking today of how important silence is to being able to be with and connected to depths of our soul.  When we are struggling or suffering often we can be abused by being told we need to ‘get out of our own heads’, “get off our pity pot!’, (yes readers I have heard this one many times in 12 step meetings) or that we are ‘isolating’ and at times there can be some truth to that, sometimes when we need the loving touch or support of others or look for the gifts or message in a painful experience,  but in world that find it hard to stomach or fathom certain truths, is it any wonder we learn to turn more and more towards the silence if we can, deep in that silence, find an inner source of soothing, calm and healing?

I know for myself the healing to be found in the warm of the sun, in sitting in a shady spot with doors open, Jasper at my feet just feeling the sense of connection with the moment that is awesome, magical, healing and mysterious and beyond words to fully describe (though I make stumbling attempts in poems).  Then there are the times when the silence is more like a deep dark indigo ocean that almost squashes me, I feel myself subsumed or I feel the cresting of a wave of anger or grief or sorrow that wants to rise up and sweep through me, possibly even sweep away some debris from inside, memories or feelings I buried long ago, and if I just allow myself to surrender than I can expand rather than contract in response to that and feel the beauty of having touched base with my soul.

And lets face it, for many of us who have endured depths of loss and trauma others do not, have not and could never know the depths of we are not going to find that recognition or acceptance and allowing of our process from most people and my personal feeling is that therapists also don’t always know the territory themselves.  I was told by astrologer Melanie Reinhardt 13 years ago after my last major accident which was a repeat of my near death one at age 17 that most therapists would not be able to fully understand the deeper spiritual dimensions of the wound of nearly losing my life as well as all the deeply Plutonian experiences that followed over the next 30 or so years for me.  She directed me towards the work of Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron and said a soulful meditative practice would be the best therapy for me.  Sadly I got into another relationship two years later with someone who saw my need for solitude as pathological.  According to him I had agrophobia!!!!  Anyway don’t really want to go back into the relationship today, it was a learning curve for me and I got some good things out of it and deeper understanding due to all the pain we both acted out on each other.

Lately I am learning to accept and validate more my need for soulful solitude.  It is where I create from.   It is where my deepest healing happens.  I don’t feel that level of connection in may relationships in the world, in some I do.  I feel it here because I feel here other trauma survivors and people in recovery are on the same page.  Just connecting with you brings me SO MUCH HEALING.  I was blown away yesterday by the love shown to me on a really tough day, coming out of a painful and challenging week.

I wanted actually to post another Thank You blog too as I was so grateful yesterday and today to open my page and see all the comments and love on here.  As well as responses to other comments of mine where I am trying to support others going through trauma and meeting misunderstanding and woefully inadequate response to their Complex Trauma.  I really see my life purpose to be as a Wounded Healer and it is what Melanie Reinhardt teaches about in her work on Chiron.  Its really only us who have navigated the depths of trauma that fully understand and since all traumas are also different in some ways we wont understand everything as we all have our own unique journeys, but in time I want to set up some kind of site to offer help.   If my journey and suffering and losses and gains can be used to help others that is what really makes me happy, it gives me a peace and feeling of wholeness that really lays so far beyond words.

But as I read this back I am mindful too that the healing for all of us lies both in connections with others, but more paramountly through the healing that comes from connection to our deepest soul.  I feel collectively we are trying too, to heal a deep split from nature and instinct and the divine feminine.   It is hard to articulate this in a post but there is a source of power that to me is Goddess like,  I don’t find the concept of a male God as personally healing in my own journey unless I think of the Frank Lloyd Wright quote in which he says he believes in God but his God is nature.   We are part of this mystery and so is our deepest soul and many of us are on a journey now to connect more to that source both within and without in order to find peace and love after years of separation, fear or trauma.  And to recognise more deeply our essential kinship with all living beings as well as the deep silence.


Sick of blaming myself

“Shame is blame turned against the self.”  Our parents were too big and powerful to blame, so we had to blame ourselves instead.  Now, however we are free of them we can cut off the critic’s shame supply by redirecting unfair self blame back to our parents.

An inner critic that has dominated us since childhood, however, does not give up its rulership of the psyche easily.  It stubbornly refuses to accept the updated information that adulthood now offer the possibility of increasing safety and healthy attachment.  It is as if the critic has worn a flash back inducing groove in the brain the size of the Grand Canyon.  Now any (toxic, critic induced) thinking patterns… can hair trigger an amygdala-hijacking that dumps us into the abandonment melange…

With enouth healthy inner self defence, the survivor gradually learns to reject her unconscious acceptance of self abuse and self abandonment.  Her healthy sense of self protection begins to emerge and over time grows into a fierce willingness to stop unfair criticism – internal or external.

Pete Walker

I haven’t yet had the courage to write the post I have in drafts on internalising a ‘bad’ me yet.   I think I am making progress though because today with a genuine friend when I shared some of my neglect trauma history she was visibly distressed by it.  She made me realise those three serious injuries which happened due to parental neglect were not right by her response and she stated how genuinely hard it must have been to return home to Australia after my father’s death to find my mother had gone into a rebound relationship to get married and run from her pain (Something she admitted to me in later years) and have to move to another town where my God parents tried to step in to be there for me.

Lately I am seeing how my ongoing battle inside myself is waged by an internalised inner critic and when I was listening to the Radio National All in the Mind broadcast on trauma the other day a similar survivor talked about her own internalised ‘Judge’.   I know therapist Pete Walker talks a lot about the inner and outer critic in his excellent book Complex PTSD : From Surviving to Thriving.  

Walker explains the part this judge, jury and executioner plays in flashbacks dominated by fear and worry and how it can either be internalised (turned against the self) or externalised and then projected on others.  The critic also plays a part in trying to undermine our therapy and prevent connecting with good sources of help, health and healing.   This is a point that was dealt with comprehensively by Donald Kalsched in his excellent book The Inner World of Trauma.  He explained how this kind of critic may also be an inner protector who in wanting to keep us safe from all harm won’t even let in those who want to help us, because the risk is we may be abandoned again.

I could feel this sadness about potential abandonment coming up today when my friend who has moved from South Africa recently started talking about how soon she will be returning there, then in several months time, moving with her son and his family to Perth which for those of you who do not know is on the other side of the country from me.  I felt myself tearing up at this point.   This is the one friend who actually calls in terms of wanting to know how I actually am, as opposed just to wanting to meet up for an event.   She is the one I can share with honestly the deep hurt I feel from lack of connnection from both my sister and brother as well as the rest of the family….so of course I am going to be sad about it.

I was glad today I could notice my feelings and not dismiss them.  She has promised to keep in touch and that I can go and visit.  I know it won’t be the same not being able to see her every week…. for so much of my life, though I had to deny my need, I had to pretend such things didnt hurt me, when they did. That said I know I will survive it’s just I know I also need loving emotionally available relationships to thrive these days.  I am no longer blaming myself as much and when the critic is around I am not as swept up by him as I was.  I really did suffer from emotional neglect and so I found it hard to trust and I have been working as hard as I can be become conscious and aware of my feelings and needs, ones that I had to learn to deny for so long.

Trauma and the Body/Mind : the importance of understanding and making peace with feelings and sensations.

The following is an excerpt from Peter Levines’ book  In An Unspoken Voice : How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness which speaks about the necessity of developing an awareness of our body sensations and feelings as children.  But it also addresses how this process goes awry under trauma and what is needed to set the balance right.

“Under ordinary circumstances, physical sensations are signals for action: to fight or flee when threatened, to chase down a wild turkey or open the fridge and make a sandwich when hungry, to go to the bathroom when the urge presses, to make love when aroused by passion, to sleep when tired, to break into song when the mood strikes or to plant your feet and raise your voice in anger and assertiveness when your boundaries are violated.  In all these instances, the body initiates and the mind follows.

Having an intimate relationship with and understanding of, your physical sensations is critical because they, in signalling action, guide you through the experiences and nuances of your life.  If one has been traumatised, however, one’s sensations can become signals not for effective action but rather, for fearful paralysis, helpeessness or misdirected rage.  When some of one’s bodily signals become harbingers of fear, helplessness, impotent rage and defeat, he or she is typically avoided like the plague at a dear cost mentally, emotionally and physically.  While attemptiong to shut down distressing senstations, one pays the price of losing the capacity to appreciate the subtle physical shifts that denote comfort, satisfaction or warning of clear and present danger.  Sadly, as a result, the capacity for feeling pleasure, garnering relevant meaning and accessing self protective reflexes also shuts down.  You can’t have it both ways; when feelings of dread are kept at bay, so are feelings of joy.

The good news is the human being are generally flexible and resilient: we are ordinarily able to learn from and integrate a variety of life experiences.  These experiences, whether uplifting or down beat, flow easily through our body/mind stream of consciousness as long as we are no chronically over or under aroused. The body/mind keeps flowing through new encounters with vitality, bouncing back into the stream of things unless there is a significant disruption.  In this case, the person is knocked off that normal course whether it is from a single episode, such as a disaster, an accident, surgery or rape, or from a chronic stressor, such as abuse or marital stress.  When such disruptions fail to be fully integrated, the components of that experience become fragmented into isolated sensations, images and emotions.  This kind of splitting apart occurs when the enormity,intensity, suddenness or duration of what happened cannot be defended against coped with or digested.  Personal vulnerability, such as age, genetics and gender also account for this psychic implosion.  The result of this inability for the body/mind to integrate is trauma, or at the very minimum, disorientation, a loss of agency and/or lack of direction.

Trapped between feeling too much (overwhelmed or flooded) or feeling too little (shut down and numb) and unable to trust their sensations, traumatised people can lose their way.  They don’t feel like themselves anymore; loss of sensation equals a loss of a sense of self. As a substitute for genuine feelings, trauma sufferers may see experiences that keep them out of touch – such as sexual titillation or succumbing to compulsions, addictions and miscellaneous distractions that prevent one from facing a now dark and threatening inner life.  In this situation, one cannot discover the transitory nature of despair, terror, rage or helplessness, and that the body is designed to cycle in and out of these extremes.

Helping clients cultivate and regulate the capacity for tolerating extreme sensations through reflective self awareness, while supporting self acceptance, allow them to modulate their uncomfortable sensations and feelings.  They can now touch into intense sensations and emotions for longer periods of time as they learn how to control their arousal.  Once a client has the experience of ‘going within and coming back out’ without falling apart, his or her window of tolerance builds upon itself.  This happens through achieving a subtle interplay between sensations, feelings, perceptions and thoughts.  I believe that the people who are most resilient, and find the greatest peace in their lives, have learned to tolerate extreme sensations while gaining the capacity for reflective self-awareness.  Although this capacity develops normally when we very young, one can learn it at any time in life, thankfully.

Children gradually learn to interpret the message their bodies give them  Indeed, it is by learning to coordinate movement (behaviours) and sensations into a coherent whole that a child learns who he or she is.  By remembering actions that have proven to be effective, and discarding those that are not, children lean how to anticipate what the most appropriate response is and how to time its execution for maximum effect.  In this way, they experience agency, satisfaction and pleasure.  When a child is overwhelmed by trauma or thwarted by neglect, this developmental sequence is aborted or, if already developed, breaks down, and negative emotions come to dominate his or her existence.”

The unravelling

Heart spiral

I am beginning to realise that the stories we tell about things, can either make our bodies tight, or in telling the truth to someone who hears the truth beneath the words and opens us to that truth, we can unravel.  I unravelled a lot today in this afternoon’s therapy session.  Then when I spoke to my Mum later and heard of the health challenges she is facing due to unshed tears I felt my body grown tight and my heart restrict.  I came home, hugged Jasper and cried.  The tightness unravelled then.

In a week my therapist, lovely Katina goes away for just over three weeks, back to Greece.  This may be a simple fact but what it evokes for me are other absences and leavings, the ones consciously chosen by others that left me feeling so alone and affected me deeply, and the one’s forced upon them and me by fate.

The first leaving was when, at age 3, my big sister Jude married and moved to New Zealand.  Turns out of all my family, prior to her stroke when I was 18 my big sister was the most available and nurturing presence for me, at least until other concerns took her away.  Her leaving at the age of 3 had a huge impact,  I felt it today in my cells as tears fell.  I was reminded of how I lost her at least four times, first at age 3, second when she turned to business, following the rest of the family and then became sick from overdoing it, third when she had her stroke and fourth when she died 2 years ago.   These were not absolute losses, as she left and returned and was then claimed by her own terrible experiences of abandonment and pain, she was still with me at times and we were deeply connected but they were significant losses never the less.

There was the loss of true feeling which got buried with the meds, when she was later diagnosed with Bi-Polar (at that time manic depression – which is I know now really Complex PTSD, never truly named in her case).  There were the emotional outbursts which I understood and am learning to understand more these days through my reading and my therapy.

Today I was reading about Alexithymia in my book Running on Empty : Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.  Alexithymia is the tenth symptom of emotional neglect as outlined by Jonice Webb in this book.  I’ll share the others in another blog.

For those who do not know alexithymia is about undifferentiated emotion.   Webb writes :

Alexithymia denotes a person’s deficiency in knowledge about, and awareness of emotions.  In its extreme form an alexithymic is a person for whom feelings are undecipherable, both their own and other people’s.

According to Webb those who suffer in this way tend to suffer from feelings of irritability.  There is a saying in the Al Anon literature about a state of being irritated and full of discontent.  We could explain this to mean a state of suffering a jumble of undifferentiated emotions we don’t fully understand or are not fully connected to.

Emotions that are not acknowledged or expressed tend to jumble together and emerge as anger… (they) refuse to stay down… they erupt as small spurts of irritability that hurt others.

People with alexithymia tend to turn to substances when the feelings they suffer but cannot articulate or sort out become too much.  The alcohol numbs for a time, but since the underground feelings are being medicated and not felt, there can be no insight, no healing and no sorting through of emotions.  There can be no unpacking of trauma.  And no meaning made as a result.  The consequences lead to ruptured relationships, emotional isolation and even suicide in extreme cases.

Reading about alexithymia in the park today I suddenly gained a great insight into myself, my family and the AA fellowship.  It occurred to me that in the first 10 years of my sobriety I was trying to emerge from a state of alexithymia, but often sharing with others who also were alexithymic and that was a futile exercise bound to end in frustration.  I had a two sisters and lot of other relatives who were alexithymic and a lot of other people around me who started to get pretty anxious when feelings buried in this state began to emerge and seem to rock the structure of life and relationship.

It was great news to become aware of this issue of alexithymia today.  I have struggled to understand before and I didn’t have a name for what this state of being was.  I was able to share it with my therapist who explained it to me further.

Healing from alexithymia involves, according to Webb

Helping suffers become aware of their anger, irritability or frustration.

Teaching them to sit with emotions rather than stuff or repress them.

Helping them to pry open the lockbox called anger and to label and experience all the emotions that are stored within it.

There is absolutely NO WAY medication can help us to unravel in this process.  We need others around us who are emotionally literate and aware, who have an insight into what emotions and states of being underlie the anger : grief, fear, sadness, loneliness to name a few.  And then we have to enter the lock box of our hearts which may have a bramble of barricades built around it.  We have to remove these and open the locked door and descent the spiral staircase to discover what is lies buried deep within.  We have to tap the underground river we find at the bottom of that staircase which contains all the buried emotions and learn to swim in it, rather than drown or be erased.

It was such an enormous relief today to feel the true sadness I feel at Katina going away. At other times I am sure I would have denied the feeling and suffered all kinds of body symptoms. We could explore what happened at other times when I was left and I could express all the feelings I have around leaving, endings and loss.

There is an adult part of me that knows I can survive.  There is an aware part of me that can connect all the missing links and love the little child who felt so alone and at times feels she will always be left.   How grateful I am for this.  So grateful.

Facing my aloneness

It has taken me many years to find out how alone I have felt deep down inside.  I remember a few years into recovery coming across the book Healing Your Aloneness by Margaret Paul and learning that the deep loneliness we feel comes when we sacrifice a relationship with our True Self to meet someone else’s need and abandon ourselves.  We may also abandon ourselves by reaching to a substance or activity to sooth us when we feel any kind of feeling.  All of these feelings just reflect how alone we felt as children being unnurtured or misunderstood.

There is a time when taking an action that is positive is good for us.  For example choosing to leave a situation when were are being bullied, starting to exercise when we have been neglecting our health due to depression. But there are other times when we reach to an activity to fill a void or mask a pain or realisation that we need to connect with and feel to understand.

I myself have been in recovery from alcohol addiction for over 20 years but in the last few years I have realised I have a food addiction too.  There are times I reach for coffee or food when really I either need to connect with someone else or with myself.  I know my habit of turning towards substances  began when I could not get the nourishment I needed in my home.  Lately I am finding its becoming more and more obvious when I have done the wrong thing by myself in reaching for the wrong “food”.  My body rebels.

In my body therapy I am only just becoming conscious of how terrified and unsafe I have felt since a young age.  Having an accident at 17 and then other traumas I witnessed in my family made me feel the world was not a safe place, unpredictable things could happen to shatter the continuity of life and I had not much power or control over that happening.

One of the damaging aspects of co-dependency and lack of a sold sense of boundaries is that we try to control every aspect of our lives.  If it feels too unsafe we will simply not engage with things that threaten us.  There are times for sure when we should not engage, but there are other times that we really need to. If fear holds us back our world grows smaller and smaller.

After my husband left me and I tried unsuccessfully to move overseas and had a massive accident I retreated home to a house where no one could come and I had no contact with anyone much apart from my Al Anon support group for over a year.  It was the deepest, darkest loneliest time of my life, but I will say one thing.  It was unlike the deep dark loneliness of my addictive years because I was not numb.  In fact I was unthawing. It just didn’t feel safe enough to feel with others.  I had been getting consistent messages from the last few years in my recovery that my feelings were threatening to others.

Its taken me some time to find people who are not threatened by my feelings.  I know I had a fine hair trigger that was hyper alert to abuse.  I have just read a powerful blog about how narcissists cannot be criticised and how doing so awakens narcissistic injury and then rage.  The rage is the rage at the parent who would not let them be vulnerable,  made them believe they were not good enough, humiliated them and made them feel small and they side with the abuser by becoming ashamed of their own vulnerability and never appearing vulnerable again.  If someone threatens to unmask their vulnerability they strike back.

I must say I can relate to this, but my problem in later years has been in being vulnerable and unmasking this around narcissists.  Vulnerability in recovery is best expressed at first with a therapist or with someone who is not narcissistic themselves.  Luckily in the past few years I have found safe people after many stops and starts.  But I still have times when I question who is actually safe and validating.  I have been invalidated so much it seems like second nature.

This weekend I had to make a few decisions to spend time alone with myself.  I had been invited to several events but I was aware that sometimes when I choose to socialise I end up feeling lonelier than I do when I am alone with me.  This weekend I made the decision to spend a lot of time just taking care of myself.  It paid off as I have ended the weekend feeling happier. But I still have a great fear that all of this alone time is not good for me. I get this message all the time from certain people.  “What have you been doing?” they ask with a heightened emphasis on the last word as if just being were a sign of some problem.  I love what John Bradshaw says :  “I am a human being, not a human doing.”

The point is as an introvert I am nourished by time alone and by time spent connecting with others on a deeper level than the purely surface.  Then there are times when it is just great to be out in the world seeing all the vibrant life and living going on in other people’s lives.  If I don’t judge myself as lacking I can see that time alone and just being does great things for me.

Sometimes it seems to me the price of growing is being alone for a time.  In and through coming to know this aloneness instead of running it seems to me that I can come into a deeper relationship with myself.  For so long growing up in my family the focus was always outside of myself.  I don’t remember my parents playing with me much.  The one time Dad did something I wanted was on holiday when we would go to the fair at the coast and ride the Cha Cha.  Otherwise I was dragged around to other activities they enjoyed or left in the car while they went into the club to have a drink.

It seemed also at big family events as the youngest I was on the outside and the observer of things.  I guess what I am saying is that I spent a lot of my young years and teens dissociated in some way from the family and in time I learned to dissociate from myself and my emotions which I did not understand.

I remember after my first AA meeting driving away in the car to a favourite spot near where I lived in nature and just crying my eyes out.  I had for the first time felt like I belonged somewhere with people who were taking down the mask and talking honestly about their addiction.   Sadly many of them spoke about feeling like aliens, alienated from life and only coming alive with the first drink or drug.

Like them I had learned to check out, in the absence of being able to relate to parents or siblings (most especially after the sister I was close to had a cerebral haemorraghe) I began to turn to alcohol.  Then after Dad died I was sent overseas alone again with a bottle of Scotch from the Duty Free which I awoke from a blackout to find nearly empty following a party in London.

Yesterday when reading Peter Walker’s book on Complex PTSD I related to the chapter in which he shared about the various ways we can react to a traumatising environment or childhood.  He uses the notion of the four ‘F’s to outline this : Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn.   A fight response leads to narcissism.  A flight response to Obsessive/Compulsive reactions, a freeze response leads to dissociation and a fawn response to co-dependence (see pp. 12 – 19)

I related most to the freeze response (as well as to the fawn response) and we can operate from a number of styles.  Often we flip between two in the effort to both act out trauma and heal.  Freeze states and reactions lead to a depressive dissociation from which it is difficult to feel and relate to anything outside the self. An involvement with self soothing activities which actually lock us up in isolation – eating, internet surfing, television watching, shopping etc is also a part of this state.

Realising what these states are, coming to know why we are trapped in them takes time.  It also takes real courage to move out of them, to seek for a different way of being beyond the old comfortable but life squashing reactions which limit us  and keep our lives small.  Along the way we have to grieve for what we have lost from being trapped here within these reactions and habits, maybe for years.

The  phase of intensely grieving our childhood losses can last for a couple of years.  When sufficient progress is made in grieving, the survivor naturally drops down into the next level of recovery work.  This involves working through the fear by grieving our loss of safety in the world.  At this level we also learn to work through our toxic shame by grieving the loss of our self esteem.

Facing the depth of our abandonment trauma comes next, according to Walker along with an unmasking and releasing of self protective defences we had to keep in place to protect ourselves from injury while young.

It is interesting to me that on the path of recovery, which is long and slow, material we need often comes to us just at the right time.  I feel this way about Walker’s book.  It meshes with the work I have been doing in talk and body therapy, most especially at the moment as I have begun to experience just how much I have checked out and erect defences against hurt.  Letting them down is slow work, fraught with fear.  Being patient and kind with myself is essential.  Writing and blogging gives me a way to share about it as it is occurring.

I’m not often the space where I advise or recommend.  I have a respect for each person’s path and need to find their own way.  However Complex PTSD : From Surviving to Thriving by Peter Walker seems to be an extremely valuable resource on the way to recovery.

Complex PTSD

Its strength is that in the book Pete Walker doesn’t just outline what is wrong but what can be done to heal from Trauma and a traumatising childhood.  His book is written by someone who has walked the path (is his surname any accident, I ask?  Pete Walker has obviously walked his talk). So I am giving the book a big recommendation and will be sharing some more information from it on my blog.