The healing power of touch

Mum and Bub

After my recent hospital surgery I am thinking a lot about the healing power of touch.  A kindly touch from someone who cares has the ability has to soothe us when we are in distress.  How healing it can feel to have a hand held or receive a hug when we are feeling upset, provided that we feel like being touched at this time.

Failure to thrive syndrome was recognised after a study that took place in orphanages.  It was discovered that babies at the end of the line in being fed withered and died more frequently than those at the start of the line.  These were the babies that were not picked up or held.  I would also add that that the quality of the touch would be important in this situation.

If in childhood we were not touched we may develop a very difficult relationship with our body.  Certainly if we were physically abused or invaded we may come to fear touch.  Lack of caring healing touch may mean our nervous systems were not so easily calmed.

The untouched child may be alienated from his or her own body and experience feelings of unreality.

This feeling of unreality in severe cases may lead to a form of dissociation, a retreat from contact and connection into the mind and away from the body.

A sense of reality comes from being grounded in our body and touch is part of what accomplishes this.

In the course of my therapy the most healing times have been when the therapist broke out of the traditional mode of objective distance and reached across the void to touch and comfort me in my darkest moments.  One of my loveliest therapists has actually held me while I cried.  Its sad to say this kind of approach may be viewed askance, but the truth is that touch was what helped me to open the flood gates of my repressed trauma for the very first time during my first Jungian therapy in Cambridge in 1999.

Part of the reason I left my therapist earlier this year was that I began to realise she had a very dissociated intellectual style.  I now have come to the understanding that she was replaying her own trauma through our therapy in establishing a relationship in which she could keep emotional distance and remain in control.  There was never any touch.  We shared a lot of poetry but when it came to touch there was a huge void.   A realisation came one day when some baby magpies were squawking outside her window.  “Those babies must be driving the mother mad she said to me.”  Warning bells.

I am coming to the realisation that for many of us the deepest wound to our feminine body comes from not being comforted, held and touched.  Also if as a baby or child we have had surgeries, accidents and other traumas to our body after which we were not held or comforted that trauma remains buried in the body.

For parents who wish to help their children through this kind of therapy I would recommend Peter Levine’s book Trauma Proofing Your Child.

My first husband was separated and confined from his mother at one year of age.  He also developed asthma and a skin condition that required him to be bandaged from head to toe.  This had a profound affect on him and when he met and married me I was not at all comfortable in my own body and carried my own body trauma.  This early lack of connection and rupture with his mother led him to become very shut down emotionally.  When my emotions began to open up 6 years into our marriage it made him very uncomfortable.

It is through our body that we connect to our deepest self.  I am not too sure now about religious philosophies that say “you are not your body” most certainly there is a spiritual aspect to us and when someone dies if we see the body it is obvious that the animating spirit has departed.  But I still feel like Carl Jung and others that the body is the temple of the soul and its through the body and the openness of our senses that we attune to all that is most beautiful, precious, sacred and enliving in life.

Early trauma and pain or lack of touch may lead us to want to shut the body down but in order to feel a sense of wholeness and safety we need to develop the capacity to fully inhabit our bodies and be in touch with our emotions and desire to connect with others in healthy ways which nourish us.

 

 

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.

 

Four Questions that can help me be more present and loving with myself

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I believe that almost all our sadnesses

are moments of tension

that we find paralysing

because we no longer hear

our surprised feelings living.

Rilke.

Perhaps it is a legacy of trauma. Perhaps one of the purposes of trauma is to make us more aware of the intimate connection between ourselves and our bodies. I was recently having a discussion with a cranio sacral therapist who helps clients live with trauma, and she mentioned that one of the consequences of trauma can be a split between our heads and our bodies. Due to the unbearable pain and damage we can take flight away from the body.  And, as we do, we loose touch with our soul and become more vulnerable to compulsions.  The healing of trauma involves healing this splitting or dissociation.  It involves finding a way to be with a body and being present to a soul that might be suffering deeply, instead of taking flight and running from it.

With this in mind I would like to share four questions, adapted from Mary O’Malley that she used to work with damage to her body due to lack of presence and compulsions which urged her to take flight.

9781577317876

In the course of her healing she learned to heal her own splitting and dissociation by asking the following questions.

These questions are related to using our symptoms and feelings as “treasure”, as messages from ourselves as to what happened to us, how we suffered, what the child felt, as well as to what might be needed beyond the reactive need to engage in a compulsion. I would encourage anyone interested in a more detailed explanation to read her book. The Gift of Our Compulsions : A Revolutionary Approach to Self Acceptance and Healing.

As I share this information I am called to remember a quote from Rilke’s work  Letters to a Young Poet, where he urges the reader to love the questions, fo enter deeply into them, rather than just seek answers to the questions.  In being present to the questions and to ourselves I do believe we find our way back home to our deepest self.

Question One                         

In this moment, what am I experiencing?

O’Malley reminds us with this question that the healing we long for when we can become curious about what is actually happening now. Not our story about what is happening (which we can note, as part of this practice and label “thinking”), but rather, what we are experiencing in this moment. Cultivating curiosity about ourselves and our inner life is at the heart of this question. A passionate listening to our felt experience.   O’Malley explains “The tight knot in the stomach, the lump in the throat, the anger that feels like it is going to explode are all trying to tell us something.” In this practice we are developing the capacity to be present with life as it is, rather than becoming identified with our story about life. Letting go is a huge part of this recognition. The thinking we engage in can be the resistance to the felt experience, that once touched in this way can be recognised and let go, rather than indentified with magnified.

Question Two                  

For This Moment, Can I Let this Be Here?

Working this question involves creating space and acceptance around whatever we have discovered in asking the first question. O’Malley says “the quickest and most powerful way to dissolve our struggles is to let them be.” When we tighten around our experience we hurt more, when we harden we suffer and struggle, where we bend and let be, things soften, including our hearts. This is not about becoming a passive victim of fate or becoming powerless, for once we can fully accept what is happening, even if we don’t like it, we become empowered to take positive action. In the face of abuse we can leave without being stuck in the reactive mode of being.   Another question might be “For this moment, can I NOT struggle with this?”

QuestionThree                    

In this moment, can I touch this with compassion?

“At the centre of all great spiritual teachings lies the knowledge that everything is healing in the heart.”   What beautiful words. As O’Malley points out, is only with the heart at we find a true understanding. Such understanding involves a softened and compassionate heart. I have heard of a similar practice in other writings : to rephrase “For now can I show myself mercy and tenderness”. We can also use the powerful practice of placing our hand over our hearts and bringing attention to what the heart is trying to say in this moment. For “when our hearts finally open to ourselves, all that we have held in judgement and fear can be transformed”.

Question Four                 

Right now what do I truly need?

The final question asks of us an even deeper listening. It is about tapping into our deeper wise guidance which on some level knows what is needed for us to come back into balance. Many of us have not been taught how to truly listen to ourselves. Often we have been taught to place the emphasis of listening outside of ourselves, or we may have actually been told that what we said we needed was NOT what we truly needed. Listening deeply in this way, may take some practice but I do believe the more time we take centring deeply within, the more open we become to our inner guidance.

The four questions need not be used in any order.   They can be applied throughout our days whenever we can find a quiet time. I believe the four questions about have helped me to come into a greater balance in myself.

Supplementary questions include:

What is asking to be seen?

How can I give space to this?

How can I bring compassion to this?

What is the way through this?

In Letters to A Young Poet, Rilke wrote:

The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us, so much the better do we make it ours, so much the more will it be ours, and when on some later day it “happens” (that is, steps forward out o us to others), we shall feel in our innermost selves akin and near to it.

In closing I am drawn to share some wise words from a fellow blogger : An Upturned Soul written in response to a comment I made which echoes the theme of this blog.

I’ve become friends with my pain, it’s an ally rather than an enemy now. Took me a long while to get there, the path was a gradual one, bit by bit I realised that it was showing me where it hurt and how to heal, as well as trying to reveal that pain is something which connects rather than separates, it connects us all in a way that nothing else does, it connects all of life and can be a spur for life.

Amen, Ursula, Amen.