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I’d flown all the way to India to immerse myself in the pinnacle of ayurvedic medicine—one month of Panchakarma—a fivefold detoxification protocol.
It was my first consultation with the doctor.
The warm, herb-infused oils, the exotic massages, the steam baths, the soothing applications to eyes, ears, nose, even the herbal enemas—they were all nurturing to my senses.
I had traveled just short of 10,000 miles (from Los Angeles to the southern tip of India) to heal the neck pain I had lived with for five long years.
The therapists who took such loving care of my body were angels to me and the doctor a wealth of ancient wisdom.
The doctor had a magic about him. He could feel your pulse, look into your eyes, watch your posture and your breathing pattern, and tell you things about yourself. Things you were sure lived within the depths of your being, in a place no one could access.
As we sat across from one another, he said to me, “Kathy, you present to the world as someone who is calm and centered, someone who is profoundly at peace. But on the inside, you are hypervigilant. Always on the alert to danger. Careful to stay one step ahead of any intruder that might do damage to your spirit.”
I was shocked to hear him say this. How could he know this about me? I kept it so well-hidden.
But it was true. I was hypervigilant, so proactive about everything. I thought my picture must be next to the word in the dictionary. I always kept myself ahead of the game to avoid any possible catastrophe. He was absolutely right. I was hypervigilant. I always had been.
The doctor told me that when he sees this in a patient, it usually stems from something that happened in childhood that is creating this pattern of diligent watchfulness.
He told me to sit with this, meditate about it, and dig deep to discover what might have happened to me as a child.
At first, nothing came to me, but as I sat with it, a memory started to surface.
I doubt this memory is actually something I consciously remember, as I was only just under a year old when it happened. But I had heard the story so many times that it seemed as though it was my memory.
I had just learned to walk, and, as most babies do, I loved to run away whenever I could. My sister, who was 13 at the time and caring for me like a second mom, had just gotten me from the bath and toweled me off. I slipped away from her and ran as fast as my little legs would take me into the living room, where we had a floor furnace.
Floor furnaces of the 1950s were units that put out radiating heat from the floor. The unit was covered by a grate made of intersecting sets of parallel pieces of metal. They got so hot they could burn you, so everyone knew to stay away from them with bare feet.
Babies don’t know this, and so, fresh out of the tub, I ran into the living room and onto this heater. It burned my feet, so I sat down on my bottom. It burned my bottom, and I tried to raise myself with my hands and feet. It all happened so quickly. By the time I let out a scream and my sister ran to rescue me, I had third-degree burns on my bottom, my palms, and the soles of my feet.
I had to sleep belly-to-belly with my mom until my burns healed. There was great care taken to keep me out of a diaper because the acid in my urine burned me all over again. I’m told that there were several weeks of agony before I was truly healed.
Recalling this story was like a big smack to the forehead. Duh! I’m sure my body and my psyche had stored the memory of this trauma.
Hypervigilant? From that day on? You think?
I learned as a baby that the world wasn’t safe. The lesson that literally seared its way into my little spirit was that you couldn’t trust what’s around you in the world—you must always be on alert for danger.
Before this exercise in conscious reflection, I thought of my childhood as without trauma. Oh sure, my parents divorced when I was young. My mom struggled as a single parent to keep food on our table and a roof over our heads. But I never felt like there was any real trauma in my life.
I realize now that I suffered major trauma, and it shifted my perception. My paradigm went from I’m safe everywhere to there is danger everywhere, and it will cause me great pain.
After my epiphany, I was able to engage in some deep spiritual work that helped me reframe my understanding of the world around me.
I’m still proactive, still the queen of organization, but I’ve also become more spontaneous, less risk-avoidant. I trust my surroundings again. I trust that I am safe. I no longer feel the need to be hypervigilant.
Perhaps you notice behavioral patterns in yourself that puzzle you or personality quirks that drive who you are. I encourage you to look into your childhood.
Is there something there that left a deep mark? Carved a rut that has caused you to become stuck in behaviors and beliefs that do not serve your highest good?
I’ve come to believe it’s important to mine the depths of our childhood experiences to learn about those things that have shaped us. If there’s something there that is causing pain or detachment, it’s never too late to make a change.
I don’t claim that it is easy or that the change will come quickly, but the work is worth it if we can move toward a greater sense of personal freedom.