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September 2, 2020

When the Visitors Come: the Key to Navigating our Traumatic Memories & Self-Sabotaging Thoughts.

In June 2005, I sat on my front porch—planning.

I had a collection of pills I had gathered in one place. These pills had been sitting in medicine cabinets and random catch-all baskets for several years, leftover from dental procedures and minor surgeries.

Tucked away, they were forgotten and had no use. Until now.

It wasn’t that I was tired of life. I was tired of feeling like a piece of sh*t. I was tired of feeling like a horrible wife and a selfish mother. I was tired of feeling impossible to love. These internalized beliefs began as messages from someone I loved. Over the course of many years, I came to believe this was who I was. My conclusion was certain.

My existence causes other people pain.

I must remove myself.

This is the right thing to do.

Like a hard candy swirling around inside my mouth, I savored my plan. I tossed it and turned it. Tasted it and moved it from side to side and all around. I anticipated the moment that I would finally bite down. That moment was almost here.

I would send the kids to school on a day that my husband was scheduled to pick them up. I would return home and clean my house thoroughly from top to bottom. I would draw a bubble bath, light some candles, and swallow all the pills I had collected. If I made it through the bath, I would get out and wrap myself in a towel, lay on my bed, and go to sleep forever.

I felt certain that the time was soon, but five months prior I had discovered a local yoga studio and it had become a sort of refuge for me. Each time I stepped onto my mat and began to breathe, I felt safe.

Calm.

Peaceful.

Patient.

When the class was over, I told myself my plan could wait until tomorrow.

It went like that for a while: I planned, I went to yoga, and I waited for another day—over and over, until eventually I stopped planning.

Over time, and with a lot of support from my family, my friends, and my community, I came to realize that I was not the source of anyone’s pain. That I was, in fact, a good person. And all of the condemning statements I so easily internalized were not my truth.

I’m miles away from the woman I was in 2005, but my body will never let me forget what it was like to be sitting on that porch planning my last days. The month of June, in particular, always catches me by surprise. It’s subtle at first. There is a general feeling of being squeezed. Then it’s like some invisible tether is wrapped around my ankles, quickly pulling me straight down into the depths of the deepest ocean.

It’s dark. Quiet. Cold.

A physical heaviness accompanies the memory, and that is when I know my body is remembering. It’s hard to move. My brain feels like it is stuffed with pink fiberglass insulation. My mind begins to turn on me and it all comes rushing back.

Exhaustion.

Resignation.

Isolation.

Condemnation.

Surrender.

Our bodies remember, and periodically re-experience, specific events in our lives, especially emotionally impactful ones. We tend to be more accepting of this when it’s a fun memory. A particular song can bring me right back to my 80s big hair, high school days. A smell can transport me back to my all-girls Catholic school in Birmingham, England. It’s fun to feel these body memories. We get to relive enjoyable past experiences as if they were happening in the present moment.

But when it comes to the body memory associated with traumatic experiences (such as depression-fueled suicidal ideation) it can be confusing and frightening—until we understand what is happening and learn some tools to navigate through these memories.

These body memories are a mechanism of our sensory nervous system, which means that sensory memories related to traumatic events feel extremely real and distressing. This can happen at any time, and often happens during the anniversary day, month, or season of the original event. A time of year, a smell, or a sound can all trigger traumatic body memories that make us feel like we are right back there, reliving an experience that we wish we could just forget forever.

Our bodies recreate traumatic memories because they are brilliant pieces of molecular machinery that can guide our healing, if we know how to listen. Our bodies see opportunities to say, “Here you go—this is an opportunity to renegotiate this trauma.” This doesn’t feel great, because in order to heal it’s crucial to experience all the distressing body sensations of the original event and to react or respond differently.

We can use mind-body practices to help regulate these sensations and find our own version of wait until tomorrow. But often these memories are accompanied by thoughts that are invasive and sometimes self-sabotaging. Instead of responding to these thoughts with fear or resistance or judgment, we must at least be curious. In order to be curious, it’s useful to have some additional tools to bring a little creative thinking to the experience.

If we don’t, the experience can feel traumatizing all over again.

Trauma-associated body memories—including the associated internal dialogue—are there to help us heal. Ignoring, resisting, or condemning them can lead to short-term unhealthy coping strategies and does not have a healthy long-term impact. Growth and healing are not linear, they are cyclical, so we can accept that these experiences are (periodically) a part of life after trauma, and we can find a way to welcome them and creatively sit with them until they subside. When the thoughts and feelings associated with my suicidal ideation come around, I think of them as visitors. I give them shape and personality. They are not me, they are more like kids from the wrong side of the tracks.

They show up and try to convince me to join them.

“Psst, hey you! Come on over here with us! Let us take you away from all this. Trust us, you want this.”

So I invite them in, let them sit on my couch, and listen to their seductive “pitch.”

Sometimes I gently talk to them. I tell them that I’m good right where I am and I don’t plan on joining them. I have my breath and mind-body practices that allow me to sit firmly in their presence, with compassion.

I don’t need to act. Or react.

I’ve become familiar with the traumatic body memories and self-sabotaging thoughts that accompany them. Sometimes it is the heavy blanket of depression and that familiar inner dialogue of “you can just disappear.” Other times it is anxiety-fueled panic, and Chicken Little-type thoughts telling me that everything is catastrophically dangerous. It can even be a place in my mind telling me stories of which I have absolutely no proof. All of these things can be seen as separate from me. Separate from my mind, even.

But when the visitors come, I give them a shape, a voice, an identity of sorts. Instead of trying to shut them up, or exile them, I allow them to be. I hear them, but I don’t listen to them.

Sometimes my visitors seem like noisy toddlers. Needy for attention and screaming to be noticed. Sometimes they seem like teenagers, applying peer pressure. Other times they seem like misguided vigilante street gangs. Like the guardian angels of 1980s New York City. They show up outfitted in their red berets and T-shirts, ready to kick some ass. “Simmer down,” I tell them. “There is no need for alarm. I’ve got this.”

Creatively visualizing our trauma memories as visitors means we can expect them to drop in every now and again. We don’t feel broadsided when they do. But we don’t make up a room and invite them to stay; we let them do their thing for a bit and simply say, “No thanks, I’m good.”

The more we can use our creativity to be with trauma-associated thoughts, the more confident we feel to navigate through difficult times again and again. I know now that the heavy feeling that accompanied my period of suicide can, does, and will revisit me from time to time. Each time I am visited by the memory of making my plan on the porch, I am more and more aware of what is happening in my body. I know it is a memory and an opportunity to continue healing. I break out the Entenmann’s and hang out in the living room for however long these visitors want to hang out.

“Have another slice,” I say. “I’m not going anywhere.”

I am grateful that my yoga practice allowed me to wait until tomorrow all those years ago. I am even more grateful that I have a way to creatively navigate through moments when particular traumatic life experiences (of which there are a few) decide to pay me a visit. Just like the weather, I expect storms to come and go, and I know that wishing that storms will never come around again is unrealistic.

Vivian Greene reminds us, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Maybe someday, my visitors and I will honor my healing journey together with a celebratory dance in the rain.

~

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