“Life Beyond PTSD”
Imagine your body – constricted, frozen, muscles so tight there’s sometimes convulsions. Imagine a blank gaze where you’re unresponsive to anything around you. Imagine holding your breath for so long…you eventually pass out. Imagine your mind so confused that the question “what’s your name?” becomes unanswerable. Imagine violently raging against yourself…hitting, scratching, biting…until you have to be restrained by your closest loved one. Imagine living a trauma over and over again like it’s happening for the first time, and you’re powerless to do anything about it. Can you…imagine?
This was me on PTSD. Though I’ve lived with PTSD for most of my life, in 2013 I spent nine months, where most of that was my daily existence. PTSD: post-traumatic-stress-disorder. What is it and why does it happen? The diagnosis was originally created when veterans of the Vietnam war came home, completely traumatized. Though I’ve never been to an actual war zone, for decades I have been at war within my own skin. Here’s my why:
My first dream was to be a dancer. Before I was 8, almost everywhere I went, I walked around in pink ballet slippers. I even slept in them so I could dance in my dreams. I was “a natural” people said! And during one of my earliest recitals, I was the most charismatic bunny there was, with sparkly glitter and a little puffy tail. As I hopped around that stage, girl became bunny. I was at home in my body as it naturally moved. Until…sexual abuse, rape, torture, trauma deep enough to live fingerprints at the cellular level. Trauma that ripped my entire being out of alignment. Mind over here, emotions scattered here, spirit disappearing, body frozen in fear. My dream to be a dancer died the moment my body became an “it.” When it experienced sensations, though biologically natural, that were far too complex for a child’s mind to comprehend. At that first moment of abuse, and for the two and half years that it continued, I learned to embody two stories: my body isn’t safe and my body isn’t my own. So I spent my life learning how to disconnect from it.
After the abuse, I tried everything to make some sense out of what had happened to me. I studied all the major world religions, I participated in two decades of talk therapy, I lost and found myself in music and stories. I was even hospitalized.
But I was spinning in circles, no closer to any answers, still stuck in a constant state of fight-or-flight. Over time I realized the clarify I wanted wasn’t going to come from my mind or spirit where I was most comfortable, but through this body. So I started pushing the body to extremes where I quickly discovered that the only sensation I could connect to was pain, both physically and emotionally. Somewhere amidst all this pushing, I discovered yoga. Yoga spoke to me because of its deep spiritual roots. Connecting to my spirit? Now that I could do. So I practiced, spirit leading to the body, and when the body became too intense, all I had to do was melt into that ethereal side of me. And though I was still clinically depressed, yoga held me in such a way that I started to make some sense out of what had happened to me.
So I entered yoga teacher training, and on my first day, my teacher said: “why are you here?” “To have a love affair with my body,” I said with a small voice, cloaked in shame, “to connect to this ‘it’ I had become.” But during training, the exact opposite happened and the PTSD came back so severely that I had to interrupt my life for those nine months I mentioned earlier. Eventually, though, the daily episodes subsided and I was able to return to training. I graduated, I started teaching. But something wasn’t right for me; I asked my students how they felt after class. “Great!” “Relaxed!” Their pain was subsiding while the opposite was true for their teacher who could barely even walk to her car after teaching a gentle class. I was a yoga teacher who was completely disconnected from her own body. Lost. Frustrated. Afraid. Would this be my existence forever?
Then I met Lola Manekin, a beautiful spicy Brazilian woman who’s a 100% free in her body. Lola lead’s others to that freedom through something called the Nia Technique. Nia? What the heck is that? As Lola and I intersected at the studio where we both taught, she kept saying “come, dance with us.” “Sure, soon, I will, I want to,” were my words to her. “Hell no!” was my mantra in my mind. But fate, God, the universe, whatever you want to call it, intervened and Lola became my acupuncturist. I lie on her table, sobbing, teetering on the edge of that PTSD-chronic pain-depression cliff; I felt like a fraud. “I just want to give up,” I said to her. “I won’t let you give up,” she said, her fingers firmly on my pulses, “and you’re not alone.”
Three weeks later I trusted Lola enough to step into the dance. That whole first Nia class, this body threatened to slip away from me. But for some reason, it stayed, I stayed, and we danced together for the first time in 30 years.
I laughed and cried that whole hour as sensations slipped up my spine and shot through every nerve I never even knew I had. Through the expressive dance of Nia, every word I was trying to fit into concepts, I still can’t understand, transformed into pure sensation. And something magical happened – the sensations just moved, through me. “Welcome home, baby girl.” Those were Lola’s words to me after I graduated the Nia training. And in that moment, I was home. My body transformed from ‘it’ to ‘me’ again.
We are born in vibration, cells pulsing, and bursting, moving into action, movement, life. Nia is a sensory-based experience, meaning that sensations are the guide to awareness, health, and healing. Why has this worked better for me than anything I’ve ever tried? I don’t know. What I can say, is that when triggered into a PTSD episode I relive the memory as if it’s a movie scene, stuck on repeat, unchangeable, inaccessible; the memory is static. The powerful practice of yoga asked me to hold the memory in my mind and body, and the breath is what shifted the discomfort. But I can hold my breath for a really long time. Yoga sometimes triggered me more than comforted me. With Nia, the body is dynamic. Whatever is within me, isn’t being held, but it’s moving up and out. There is no place in the body where the memory can stagnate.
So now whenever the memories resurface, though the content has never shifted, my experience with them has. Life is this beautiful undulation and now I am present to all the sensations it has to offer. In the two years I’ve been dancing and teaching Nia, I can honestly say: my chronic pain and depression are gone, my PTSD has passed, I’ve reconnected to my yoga practice, and I’ve lost over 40 lbs.
The body is now a safe playground for expression, just as it was when I was hopping around stage as that charismatic little bunny. Nia: Now I Am. Now I am fearless. No, not even close. But I can honestly say that now I am no longer afraid of this body. Now I am truly having a love affair within my own skin. Now I am becoming who I was always meant to be. Every time I step into class, whether as teacher or student, I step into my body the way I was always meant to, in unity with myself. Now, I am free.