Last month I discussed the importance of making spiritual guidance accessible to trauma survivors, and the relevance of the trauma survivor’s spiritual journey for us all.
This month I continue the inquiry into trauma survivors and spiritual awakening with a look at how we shed our traumatized identities.
All spiritual awakenings involve the shedding of old identities. This is both good and bad news for trauma survivors.
On one hand, trauma survivors tend to suffer so much that we are eager to discard the old “me.” On the other hand, identity shifts can be uncomfortable and disorienting.
People who have somatic bodywork often emerge with an altered sense of their body’s size, shape, or density: “I feel much taller/wider!” or “I feel denser/lighter.”
Their experience of standing or walking is different. Even micro identity shifts such as these can be unsettling.
A certain amount of unsettledness is unavoidable. The whole point of healing is to heal, right? This means going beyond our victimized identities to live with more freedom and fluidity.
Still, those miserable identities are cozy, like a worn out sock. As your healing process unfolds, you will lose old familiar “yous” and once-/essential survival strategies.
This can feel scary and sad. You may need reassurance. You may need to grieve.
Relationships can be catalysts. Long or short–term relationships with friends, mentors/therapists/spiritual teachers, animal companions, children, lovers, and chosen family.
Learning communities and spiritual communities can catalyze identity shifts.
Practice is a powerful way to shift our identities. Anything we do again and again is a practice, whether it is brushing our teeth, creating art, meditating or exercising.
Repeatedly practicing the same things over months or years eventually, inevitably changes our sense of self. If there is something new that you want to feel, be or do, you can set it in motion now.
Grace (The Uninvited Guest)
Grace is the queen of catalysts! By Grace I mean the unexpected, out of the ordinary disruptions that show up in our lives. Grace is not always fun, but she is always transformative.
All these catalysts are illustrated in the following stories of my own trauma-identity shifts.
Old Identity: Fragile, Isolated Victim-Body
Identity-Shift Catalyst: My Animal Companion
For me, early childhood attachment trauma, neglect and violence/violation all shaped my body to identity as fragile and always-in-danger from others.
My body’s default mode became a constant anticipation of assault or invasion, without expectation of physical protection or kindness.
As a result, my body has often experienced touch initiated by others as a threat.
I have worked a long time to overcome an automatic flinching or withdrawal response when people touch my back or hug me without permission.
Over the years, I have learned to recover more quickly from unexpected touch.
But my bird companion catalyzed a quantum leap.
Notes from my journal:
My body has been claimed by a bird. A bird who does not know this body was invaded and tortured.
She walks deliberately up my arm, without hesitation or reverence. She claims my shoulder as her home and tree.
A parrot wriggles into my shirt cuff. Her muscular, velvet body massages my arm, burrows into my sleeve.
Hidden now, she chortles, creeps further; a gleeful green face pops out of the top of my shirt.
Zee doesn’t fear the trauma memories in my belly; she is blasé about my “private parts.”
When I nap, She clambers up and slides down my pants ‘til I wake up, giggling. I am her personal sandbox/teeter-totter/blanket fort. The perfect playmate for hide and seek.
What mothers of small children find out: this body is no longer my own. This body is not its history. It is safe haven, playground, reference point.
After her shower, she dives inside my bathrobe sleeve to preen herself dry. Appearing at my armpit, she offers her head for a scratch, mutters contentedly.
This new body, claimed by a bird.
My feather friend wants my company: near, very near or at some distance when she needs solo time, exploring time. But always wanted.
When I walk, she hangs from my sleeve, watching the world upside down .
When she naps in the cave of my shirt, my chest is her happy place.
My new body is beloved, not appropriated. Needed, but not exploited. Wow.
I begin to see myself through her eyes, feel myself through her senses. To her, this body is not a site of trauma. Her body leans against me, insisting: I am her refuge.
And this body is no longer fragile–
–Not when she flies at me ferociously. Not when she growls and charges like a dragon defending her hoard. Her beak is sharp! But she chuckles. It is all in fun, Klingon-style fun!
This body can handle boisterous play. This body can take a joke.
This body can do and be new things, because a small, green body has changed my body. Changed its meaning, mood, and purpose.
This bird knows me as flock and kin. She has transformed me into mother, protector, sparring partner.
She does not care about my history. I belong to her now.
Identity-Shift Catalyst: Chronic Exhaustion
When I was a child, peace and safety were fleeting and unreliable. Unpredictable menace set a physiological tone of low grade terror; produced a habitual state of vigilance and heightened adrenaline/cortisol.
I first noticed how anxious I was at fifteen. I could not “let down.”
I got student massages at a massage school, and learned “relaxation response” techniques. I pursued this path for decades, and grew skilled at relaxing.
But Grace asked me to go deeper. Grace showed up as a debilitating fatigue that arose over the past two years.
I was forced to go to the very root of my bone-deep habit of urgency.
Perhaps the bike accident and the extended bug infestation in my building wore me out. Perhaps it was peri-menopause.
It got so I needed two naps to get through the day. I tried to get a diagnosis. I got my blood tested. I inquired into adrenal fatigue. I learned how to manage my low blood pressure.
But it did not shift. This mystery was not ready to be solved. And now I was too tired to worry about it.
At the same time, my new landlord brought in tenants with seven dogs and two toddlers.
My sleep was disrupted like never before. I faced exhaustion every day.
And then sugar and caffeine stopped working for me.
Thanks but no thanks, Grace!
So there we were; me and fatigue. I had no other choice; I decided to befriend it.
I let myself be curious. I wondered, what is this fatigue? Is it really “fatigue,” or is my body trying to teach me a new way of being?
Surrender started with a decision to trust my body’s fatigue instead of trying to fix it.
I followed my body’s lead: sleeping when I could, laying down or doing restorative yoga when I couldn’t.
I allowed my body to be supported by the mattress or props, by earth and by gravity.
I felt glimmers of gratitude. I knew that whatever we repeatedly practice, we start to embody.
Having to rest quietly and free up my schedule was a blessed opportunity to embody rest.
To be honest, this shift in attitude was neither instant nor easy.
Being tired terrified me; all my life I fought it off as hard as I could.
But now I was too worn out to fight.
As fatigue and rest permeated my daily life, my identity shifted:
I learned to sit while tired, meditate while tired, walk while tired, even work with clients while tired. And…nobody died. Nothing bad happened.
One day, after a short, sweet nap, I was engulfed in unshakeable slowness. I was dismayed.
I got up anyway. Exhausted. I took Zee out for a walk anyway.
It was sunny, and besides, why not?
With this thought came the exhilaration of a rebel breaking a stuffy rule.
We got as far as a nearby park, where I found a sunlit bench. I felt a delicious heaviness, a fatigue that I rather…enjoyed?!? What?
The thought came, “I have been waiting all my life to surrender to fatigue.”
One sleepy morning I remembered that the me that I used to be (the me subjected to random nighttime assaults) was afraid to fall asleep.
Now, as Zee dozed in my lap, I wondered. Could tiredness be a friend, a warm lap to doze in?
This emerging me asked interesting questions, like “Why shouldn’t I feel tired and lazy and nap intermittently throughout the day?
Why does that have to be a problem? Why can’t I just enjoy it?”
With these questions came a sense of permission and ease. The tightly coiled wires in my solar plexus unwound; my breath softened.
This re-tooling of my identity from hypervigilant/hyper-worried to being able to rest deeply is a work in progress.
The old habit of terror and vigilance still kicks in. When it does I scan my surroundings, use my senses to verify my safety in this moment.
I make a point of noticing, with my eyes, my ears, my nose, my nerve endings, that I am not starving, not being assaulted. I can close my apartment door and be alone, safe and warm.
In this moment–the only one there is—there is no danger. I am doing fine.
This identity shift is still underway.
But it is well underway.
I am pleased. Deep rest and relaxation is my birthright.
I reclaim it.
Identity shifts vary. Some identity shifts seem effortless, like my bird-friend’s influence on my body. Some are knock-down, drag-out fights, like my wrestle with fatigue.
Identity shifts can be quick, but most are gradual, and some seem to take forever.
What helps us shift old traumatized identities?
- Loving Relationships Help.
Before I loved Zee, I loved other birds. Before I loved birds, I loved animals. The animals that I knew as a kid were sources of resilience and allyship.
I have loved birds since I was thirteen, and before I loved birds I loved my grandpa.
My grandpa, who loved birds, loved me.
- Trusting Relationships Help.
My restorative yoga teacher has earned my trust over the years.
Her no-nonsense authority holds the class space. She stands in between me and the door so I can let down my guard.
Her pose-adjustments are respectful, matter-of-fact. She offers support with no strings attached.
Her deep, steady drawl comforts me. Her very presence permits me to rest.
Repeated Practice Over Time Helps.
Attending restorative yoga classes for eleven years has strengthened my ability to rest.
Loving and trusting birds for thirty years has made bird-love almost effortless.
Experiences I would never ask for. Unwanted, unexpected allies took me places I never dreamed of.
Grace wears us down until we can let those tired, old reactions go.
And now, Gentle Reader,
What in your life needs to die?
Who will you love?
What will you practice?
What will you do when Grace arrives, uninvited?