I found myself falling a lot the year after my husband died. I worked hard to convince myself that I was well on the road to healing — back at work, my children managing their newfound status as the ones with the dead dad, trying to figure out how to move forward into a life that I hadn’t planned but I had thought I had gotten under control.
But my body told a different story.
About a year after he died, I was headed to my youngest son’s back-to-school night. I hated attending big gatherings where I was sure to run into people who wanted to give me their condolences. The energy it takes a grieving person to absorb the good will of others is enormous. So I stopped for a glass of wine to fortify myself.
As I walked out of the restaurant to head to the school, I neglected to note a step down. One ankle turned, then the next, and I found myself on the concrete, flat on my back, completely unsure how I got there, but clear that I was unable to stand back up and head down the street.
I called my 16-year-old son, waiting for me back at school where he was eager to show off his teachers and his new girlfriend, and let him know that I would not be able to make it that evening, and by the way, the sky was really pretty when you are flat on the ground.
He raced over, assessed the situation, and, donning the take-charge persona he adopted while he watched and tended to his dying father, stormed into the restaurant to scream about not having a sign warning customers about the step. Then realizing that practicality had to rule the moment, and despite the fact that he had only started learning how to drive two weeks earlier, he lifted me and helped me stumble back to the parking lot, took my car keys and drove us home.
One of the hardest things about watching your children watch a parent die is knowing that the tide has turned too early. They were too young to be taking care of their father. And now, as I hopped back into the house and splayed on the couch, crying quietly so as not to further upset my son, I realized that it was even worse for them to take care of me too. My job was to stay healthy, to provide them with comfort, safety and stability while they got their sea legs back. Instead, I’d been flopping and falling and creating situations for my children to revisit their fear and their pain as they watched me injure myself time and again in the months following their father’s death.
It turned out I needed physical therapy to help my ankle heal. I remembered that I had a neighbor who was a physical therapist but whose work was more holistic. That sounded kind and I needed kindness. I called Annie, who agreed to come to my house for our first session, since I still couldn’t drive. She brought her table. I assumed she would massage my ankles and ask me to do some leg lifts and we would be done.
Before I even hopped up on the table, Annie wanted to see me stand. She crouched and peered at my ankles, quietly assessing them for maybe three minutes. Then she stood up and looked at me and said, “Your ankles are still in the accident. They are still in trauma. They believe you are still falling. We need to make your body understand that you are no longer falling.”
My ankles had muscle memory. I know about muscle memory. When I was on complete bed rest in the hospital for almost two months, pregnant, a physical therapist would come to my room and move my legs for me, as I was not allowed to even sit up straight, let alone get up and move around. Bedpans and wash basins were my domain for seven weeks. The therapist would move my legs in circles, then in an up and down motion. The first time she did it my leg lifted almost straight into the air, startling her. My leg remembered the stretch. That, she told me, was muscle memory. You must have been a dancer, she said. And I shyly nodded, even though it had been almost 20 years since I had taken a regular dance class. But my body remembered.
So I thought I understood what Annie was saying when she said my ankles were still in the trauma. I wriggled my way onto the table, and as expected, Annie began to massage them. It felt unbelievably good. Any human touch did — I had not been touched by another person in a very long time. And as I lay there, thinking this physical therapy would be a happy respite from the rest of my life, Annie started asking me more questions about what my year had been like, the year of my husband’s illness and death. I told her a little, trying to keep up a firewall between my physical therapist, which was all about me and my body, and the year I would rather forget.
Then Annie suggested something. “While I continue to work on your ankles, why don’t you try some rapid breathing. Just very rapid breaths, for 10 minutes. I don’t know what will happen … maybe nothing. But sometimes, the somatic breathing reveals some truth about your body that is helpful in the healing process.”
Muscle memory is one thing. My body revealing some deeply-buried truth is an entirely different layer of connection I wasn’t sure I believed. But then I remembered how, many years earlier, I went for an acupuncture session to see if I could get some allergies under control before I tried to get pregnant. My first session was an intake, and the acupuncturist, after listening to my history, had me hop up on the table and lie on my stomach so that she could needle my back for a “toxin release.” She assured me that my body would respond, and left me lying for 20 minutes with a number of needles in my back and along the sides of my body.
By the time she returned, the needles had started popping out and I was sweating profusely. My body was doing the cleansing work she had promised. I felt like a turkey in the oven when the thermometer pops out, but I was convinced that something had happened on that table.
On Annie’s table I tried what she suggested. I lay back, and as Annie continued to massage my ankles, I started to take very short, shallow breaths. They made me a little dizzy. I kept going. I thought about the breathing exercises that are supposed to help a pregnant woman. I remembered that panting. I kept breathing. My throat felt a little raw. I swallowed. My chest heaved. Each breath was harder to manage. My breasts pushed up against my neck. I kept breathing. I felt lightheaded. Deep breaths. I began to feel transported.
And then, nine minutes in, my body convulsed with sobs. I sat up, my body heavy and heaving. I couldn’t catch my breath. I cried. Wracking, full-body sobs emerged from a place so deep, there was no access. My face hurt. My mouth was raw. My nose ran. I heaved and choked and sniffled and couldn’t stop the crying. For 30 minutes I sat on Annie’s table and wept out the equivalent of every ounce of liquid in my body.
Finally, my chest began to rest from its roller coaster ride, my breathing slowed and I could at last stanch the tears. I looked up at Annie, who returned my gaze with no judgment, only compassion, and said, “And that is your body releasing trauma.”
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in a book that has spent more than 150 weeks in the top 15 spots on the New York Times best seller list — The Body Keeps the Score — provides a primer on trauma and the mind-body connection: “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”
Van Der Kolk, whose research and teaching on the human body and its capacity to hold trauma has become a bit of a hero in our Covid-induced moment of collective trauma, believes that modern psychology has done patients an enormous disservice in relying entirely on talk therapy as a way to address and resolve traumatic events. “Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
In truth, Annie’s assertion that my feet were still in the trauma of the fall sounded like snake oil to me. But here’s what Van Der Kolk says about that: “Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on — unchanged and immutable — as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.”
In other words, the trauma of my husband’s year of terminal illness had recorded itself right into my cellular structure. And every time I fell that first year after his death, my body was telling me it was still residing inside.
Trauma impacts my body. It exists as an uncontrollable entity shaping my response to life’s stimuli. The day I cried with Annie remains vivid and visceral. And for many months afterwards, in trying to relate the story, my tears would be re-triggered.
This same somatic response infused my body after a car accident I had in that first year after my husband’s death. At a dangerous divide in a local highway, I was sideswiped by the driver of a small truck who decided at the last minute that he was in the wrong lane and moved over quickly, sending my car spinning across three lanes of high intensity traffic and into a light pole on the other side. As my car was twisting and I was desperately trying to get it under control and not hit the pole, I could think only of one thing — that my youngest son, sitting next to me, was once again at the scene of something terrible and traumatic involving his parent, only this time, it was his only living parent.
We didn’t hit the pole. Rattled, we survived the accident. And after taking a few deep breaths (deep, deep breaths) I turned the car back around on the one-way ramp and headed on our way to our synagogue, where, even though I don’t believe in God or prayer, I offered a few quick thank yous to the spirit that saved us.
For the next two years, I had no trouble driving on that highway. I would encounter that dangerous merge and not give much thought to the accident. Then one evening about three years later, I was driving to a friend’s house for dinner with my children in the car with me. As we rounded the curve in the road where the merge sits, I could feel my breath catch and my body tense and I could barely get us through the spot and onto the arm of the highway where we would exit. My daughter, nervous that I had suddenly become a terrible driver, asked me what was up. I told her I thought it had to do with the accident three years earlier.
Of course it did. And I spent the next several months talking about it, thinking about it and worrying about driving on that road. Every time I tried to talk about it with a friend I would start to feel breathless and cry. I finally collected my nerves and drove my car around the bend again and was able to get through the point with a deep breath and careful driving. And I have been able to do it ever since.
Anyone who has taken a yoga class knows that the core of the work is conducted through proper breathing exercises. A perfect Downward Dog may be hard to achieve unless you open up your diaphragm and allow your breath to enable you to reach further down than you imagine you can. But your body listens to the breath; it understands its power. Breathing exercises like the one Annie tested on me are often used in healing trauma. Mindful breathing, when you slow down your conscious mind and narrow its focus to nothing but the breath, allows the body to release its memory and bring a sense of calm and completion to the mind. But the mind might not always be ready. At a grief retreat I attended at Kripalu, a well-known yoga and mindfulness center in Western Massachusetts, we returned one day from lunch and were told we would be having a sound bath. We had to lie on the floor while the teacher hit a gong — a disc-like percussion instrument — with a mallet. We were invited to passively soak up the mindfulness benefits of the sound for the next 45 minutes. Sound baths are ancient rituals, with proven impact on healing and trauma. But not for this girl. Within two minutes of lying still listening to the gong my head was about to explode and I felt nauseated. I leapt up, gave a quick apology to the group leader and fled. In fact, I left the retreat altogether. A gong bath, whatever its positive intent, had crunched against something inside my body that needed to shake it off immediately. Sometimes our breath is just not ready to be released.
I wound up having other falls in my early days of widowhood. But there are fewer now, several years later. I’m also older, a little more careful physically, aware that a small misstep can turn into months of medical intervention and challenges. My body has done some work to right itself, feeling stronger and more capable. My brain has too — I’ve made a lot of changes in my life that have required deep breaths. I have worked to overcome the damage the grief wants to inflict. “Come with me,” it whispers. “I will remind you of the pain in so many ways.” But I refuse to succumb. I let the grief reside next to the will to move forward instead of allowing it to subsume my desire to live a more balanced life, both physically and emotionally.
My body has been sending me messages all my life. Learning to decode those messages, to use them to understand my experience, has been a process that weaves both adverse childhood experiences and adult trauma. The physical manifestation of all of my losses creates moments when I feel my sorrow make its way up through my muscles, snake through my blood and my sinew, and cause my pain to double in size and impact. As Van Der Kolk reminds us, our minds and our bodies converge in the healing of traumatic experience. Our bodies, indeed, keep the score.