Week Two of summer vacation is nearly over. By now, I’m used to the rhythm of my summers. One week “off duty” with a quiet house and no demands other than those I impose on myself. Then the next week is a whirlwind of kids and neighbors and pool time and crafts and noise. Rinse and repeat, alternating between both extremes all summer. It’s the perfect balance, and I’m grateful for both extremes — the noise and the quiet. I guess in hindsight I’ve come a long way since that first summer of restlessness. It’s our fifth summer in this house, and we have settled in another layer deeper this year. The kids remember nothing else, and lately neither do I.
I’m juggling too many things at once (my own doing) in my weeks away from the kids. I get excited about the empty time in front of me to accomplish what has been on the back burner all school year. A few house projects happening at once and a few writing efforts, too. And of course reading two books at the same time as well — Only Love Can Break Your Heart for a dose of fiction and The Body Keeps the Score for my non-fiction itch. Both of these, when I think about it, carry different hues of the same message: the many ways the past can still talk to us and what choices we are left with when we don’t want it to invade the present.
I’m moving faster through the non-fiction work than I expected. It’s an incredible read. Van Der Kolk somehow manages to present his scientific findings and his own valuable experience as a psychotherapist in a way that’s grounded in complex research but readable for all of us. I’ve seen this book mentioned in a million places for years, but I think I needed this particular moment in my life and this specific amount of space from my own past experiences to dive in.
This topic is too huge and too complicated and too personal to paint all of it here for you, but there are small take-aways in his book that are useful for any one of us. His basic premise is that trauma resides in the body and that you can’t think your way past it. You have to look to the body for the gateway to move former trauma out of yourself and reclaim your relationship to the present.
So many of us think of trauma as only the kind with a capital T, the one terrifying, catastrophic moment that happens. Sometimes it is exactly that. But small traumas are stored in the body as well. There are endless examples of these kinds of things — relentless stress in a period of your life that places unreachable demands on you, battling an illness, bullying, betrayal, childhood neglect, the death of someone close to you, situations where someone was deliberately cruel to you or deeply humiliating, etc. Van Der Kolk walks the reader through stories from decades of his own practice that have demonstrated this brain-body connection and given him the tools to help patients move past their own traumas.
We all know that these mind-body-spirit connections exist. You get a stomach ache when you’re anxious. Your pulse races when you’re angry. Your cheeks get pink when you’re embarrassed. But to read his volumes of research and experience on how trauma hides in the body illustrates it in a new way for me. He says, “As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are ‘Notice that’ and ‘What happens next?’ Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”
Curiosity over fear is a mantra I’m working towards in 2019 anyway, and lately I’m trying to be especially mindful of that concept when looking at my own self and even my own body. Instead of holding self-judgment about something, I’m leaning in with curiosity. When my pulse races about an imagined future outcome that hasn’t even occurred yet or my heart sinks with that heavy feeling of sadness, I don’t resist it anymore but instead I say notice that and then what happens next? It’s amazing how losing that resistance lessens the power of the thing that was causing me pain to begin with.
I suppose Notice that and What happens next? are good phrases for nearly every challenge in life. I’m in a transitional space this summer as I move from one job to the next. That major change began with my own subtle discomfort and then a few months of giving myself the space to notice what was beneath it. I have no idea what will happen next in the big picture of my life. But I can watch what happens in small moments when I pay attention to what is brewing in my own heart and head.
I’m stretching wider than I have before in the next couple of months with some travel in June and a writing workshop in July. I feel the familiar gnawing voices of fear and anxiety when I stretch wider than a familiar, prescribed circle. I’m working to notice those voices, give them space and look at them with curiosity. But then I just wait with patience for what happens next as I reach beyond what I’ve known before. The beauty always lies just beyond the fear.