It all ended with a homework assignment. However, to explain the ending, it is only right to start at the beginning.
I have spent the past two years of my life doing research on and delving into the neurological aspects of trauma in women. I even went so far as to apply for and begin a master's program in Criminal Justice SOLELY for the opportunity to work with a Dr. who specializes in the topic. Part of the work I am doing with her involves a program that she is the lead researcher for: TIMBo (Trauma Informed Mind and Body)...a program specifically for women with trauma histories, using yoga, mindfulness, meditation and group work to create new opportunities in their lives.
My initial assignment was fairly simple...enter data from pre and post tests. Tedious? Yes. Interesting? Not really. But then I got upgraded, I was told that I had to do a literature review for a paper that my boss wants to publish on a group that was run following the Boston Marathon Bombing. She thought that would be best accomplished if I first attended a training, " TIMBo Foundations". It was a 4 day training that was focused on trauma, and I was petrified...my father had just died, Inga and I were having some challenges, school was kicking my ass...I thought being dropped into 32 hours of trauma talk would result in me being hospitalized. I was wrong.
As most of you know, I have issues. Not run of the mill issues, but real life diagnostic issues. I have spent the past 11 years working toward "embodiment" with my trauma therapist, and had gotten to the point where I could talk about feelings (as much as I could understand them) and not disassociate every time I had one. I thought I had arrived at some sort of magical place, where my trauma no longer captained my ship...and I was somewhat right. But there was more to learn, more to experience, more to become.
It all began at that first training. I was introduced to holding space for people, and to people holding space for me. I dipped my toe in the water of vulnerability, finding that I could expose my most inner self to a group of women and that they would stand not in judgment, but in compassion for the experiences I had. That left me feeling connected, TRULY connected for perhaps the first time in my adult life. I came back in awe of my experience, and then became challenged by maintaining those feelings in my day to day life. In turn, I went to the second training and then Inga went to both as well based on the changes she witnessed in me. We now had common language, common ground and began to relate to each other in new and amazing ways. I thought I was done with my training journey, I had gone the distance...adopted the language, embraced the practices, shared them with my friends and most importantly my partner. Until...
I got a text about a month ago, from a friend that is also one of the TIMBo trainers, asking me why I was not attending the 3rd and final training. I had a lot of reasons. Money being at the top of the list, but closely followed by the rationale that I would never be a facilitator and I didn't need to attend to complete the research I was meant to do for them. After a couple days of bantering, I finally agreed to go....thinking it was for them and only them.
When I walked into the final training, I was greeted by women that I knew and loved from previous trainings, but also by some humans I had heard about through Inga attending her trainings. I was intimidated, closed off, and reluctant. That changed within the first hour, and soon I was swept up in the sense of safety that these people provided FOR me. I spent the first three days caught up in the magic of identification and feeling "seen". And then came the homework assignment.
We had been asked prior to the training to send in a photo of ourselves as children. Then we had been given someone else's childhood photo on the first day of training, with strict instructions to not try to figure out who's photo we had, and to not try to determine who had ours. This pushed many many buttons for me...some obvious and some that were interesting to experience. I never bought into the whole "child within" thing, and I was not open to that type of wishy-washy feel-good hippie crap on any level. We had spent days looking at the lengths we had gone to keeping ourselves safe...the ways in which we used defense mechanisms to keep people at bay, to not be hurt, to fight demons that we all seemed to have regardless of our histories. And now, we were being asked to write a letter...to the girl in the photo we had been given, but more to ourselves. A letter explaining that we all try to keep ourselves "safe"...without details and stories that were specific, but just of the feelings and actions we had taken to protect ourselves from harm, real or imagined.
I came home and sat down with this photo, and then took out the one I had sent in. I looked into my own eyes and struggled to find words to say, and then I just started writing. I wrote for her, I wrote for me, I wrote having NO idea what was going to become of this, but I wrote the truth. The next day we handed in those photos, and my life changed. Possibly forever.
We spent time with the photos hanging on the wall, a testimony to the fact that every woman in that room had once been an innocent child. That really hit me in a way I was not expecting. I know we were all young once, but after hearing these women open up, the visual of their younger selves was almost too much to bear. Then we all had the opportunity to read the letters, initially to ourselves, but eventually out loud to the group. These intensely personal and incredibly vulnerable letters that offered the little girl in the photograph words of support and encouragement for what their life would bring them. Not the stories...not details. Just honoring the ways that they adapted to their fears, and that continuing to operate from that place of fear was not longer necessary. As people started reading, I felt myself slipping away...the walls I had built to protect myself were firmly in place. Until they crumbled. I mustered up the courage to read what someone had written to me...and magic happened.
For the first time, IN MY LIFE, I felt complete compassion for someone, and simultaneously felt entirely connected. Our circumstances, upbringings, personalities no longer mattered. She spoke to my heart, and I knew that we experienced the same fears, doubts and insecurities on a level that had been previously off limits inside myself, to myself. Then, the person who's picture I had written on read my words...to her...to ME.
I am not sure that I can describe what it is like to have someone do that. I know, with 99% confidence, that had I read my own words, it would not have been the same. I would have been focused on not screwing up, editing what felt too frightening, and protecting myself from possible rejection of my efforts. Instead, I just sat and listened. I took it all in, every word. Every word I wished for and needed to hear when I was a child. Suddenly, I loved her. Me. I loved me. I felt compassion for every time I have pushed someone away, for every time I have lashed out, for every way I chose to protect myself from loss, abandonment, rejection, judgement. I finally understood.
We have a universal condition. We ALL need to feel safe, and the ways we choose to do that may differ, but the fact remains the same. We all need connection and love, and on some level we all fight it for fear that we won't actually get it. That has not changed in me, but something significant has. I no longer judge myself for it.
I thought that was fleeting. I assumed that I would come home and just go back to business as usual. That is not what has happened. I feel a tenderness I never knew was possible, and I do not just feel it for myself. I feel it for every person I come in contact with. That does not mean that I feel good all the time. However it does mean that when I feel scared, hurt, angry, or confused, I can stop and honor myself and my responses to internal vulnerability. It does mean that when my partner, or any other person I come in contact with is struggling, I can have compassion for their internal vulnerabilities and offer love and space rather than pushing them away. It means that I have something I have never had before.
I have Sonja.