I’ve been studying trauma recently. Quite deeply. Trauma is the Greek word for injury. When I was younger I used to say that we’re all walking wounded. Casualties of the cruelty of life.
To guide me on this journey through old wounds into greater wholeness, greater wellness, I’ve chosen two teachers. Two compassionate doctors. The Hungarian-Canadian Dr. Gabor Maté who specializes in the links between trauma and addiction, stress and childhood development; and the American Dr. James S. Gordon, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist who uses mind-body therapies to address trauma. Both men have huge hearts and go to great lengths to help people heal from the wounds – the trauma – that keep us stuck and hurting.
The other weekend I dipped into Dr. Gordon’s book, Transforming Trauma–The Path to Hope and Healing. I read about a five-year-old girl whose single mother had alcoholism and worked as a hooker. Alone on a Saturday morning and sitting on the front steps of the apartment building, the child was taunted about her life by other kids in the building. In her desperation to get away from them she broke the glass in the front door and cut her hand to pieces.
Mercifully, a woman neighbour appeared. She cleaned up the mess, bandaged the child’s hand and brought her into her home to give her lunch. The woman’s kindness led to a deeply significant relationship between them. But five months later, the woman moved out.
When I read the words: “When she moved away, I sobbed in her arms,” I got triggered and burst into tears.
I was raised by different nannies as a child because my mother was a career woman and my father was away working in the Royal Air Force. The light of my life from age three onwards was Bridgid (in her soft Irish brogue she pronounced it “Bridget”). I adored her. She was firm with me and always followed my parents’ strict parameters for my upbringing. At the same time, she was so kind and warm and loving. It was easy for me to tell her how much I loved her.
Then one morning when I was six, a tragedy. She left. Her body could no longer keep up with the physical demands of looking after a young child and keeping a four-bedroom house spotlessly clean, and she was going to take care of an older lady instead.
I had to go to school that morning. I couldn’t speak. The girl who sat next to me reported me to the teacher, who called me to the front of the large class. The teacher scolded me for misbehaving when she asked me what was wrong with me and I couldn’t answer. How could I tell her – or anyone – that my whole world had crumbled? That love had left my life.
Reading about the other little girl in Dr. Gordon’s book opened up the wound, the trauma, that I thought I had overcome. I found myself painfully mourning and longing for that lost love. What to do?
I have always found forests to be healing so I went out for a walk in the small ravine forest close to my home. I hold trees to be very special beings. They emit phytochemicals beneficial to human wellbeing. A 2001 scientific study conducted by F.E. Kuo and W.C. Sullivan in a large Chicago public housing development showed that even the presence of a few trees and a patch of grass helped inner city residents live a less violent life.
When I left the wide paved path and ventured into the forest on a narrow trail created by many footsteps over time, the forest worked its magic. I could feel a loosening of the tight grip of grief on my heart. Spontaneously, I created a videopoem.
I clambered on until the narrow path opened up to a wide expanse of green meadow dotted with trees. (Toronto is supremely blessed with green spaces.) I chose the side of the meadow furthest away from houses and sat down to rest my back against one of the trees.
I’m not sure how long I sat in silent communion with my tree. But at a certain point I realised that I had healed. Completely. The pain was gone.
I walked home with a light heart, thinking that was the end of the story. Not quite.
Not long after, I was watching online footage of Dr. Gabor Maté speaking about trauma. Of the need to awaken forgotten or buried memories of trauma in order to heal and benefit from its lessons. Until I heard him say this I thought of triggering as a bad thing, because it brings up pain. Now I realise that we can heal that pain, and enjoy a better life as a result. But if we’re unaware of it we can’t heal it. And that’s important, because even though we aren’t consciously aware that the pain is there in our subconscious, it exerts an influence on our thinking and behaviour.
It also occurred to me that throughout my life I’ve been told I’m a good listener. I wonder now if that’s because there was no one to listen to me when my heart was broken all those years ago. So I know full well how important and precious it is to have someone listen to and understand your heart.