Diagram of a Family

 

family, trauma and healing blog

You’ve seen the stick-figure decals, custom made for the rear window of your SUV. The family is lined up tallest to smallest: Dad, Mom, kids, dog, cat. I guess some family stories are that straightforward. There’s no death and remarriage, no divorce, no adoption, no half-brothers or step-sisters.

My story is thornier.

I was the last of my father’s children. He had a fatal heart attack at age 59, when I was six years old and my mother was 36. He’d married her soon after his first wife died. My father was a doctor, and before she became his wife, my mother was his secretary. She was only six years older than my father’s eldest son, my half-brother Allon.

After my father died, my mother remarried. We’d lived in Maine all my life, but my mother and my brother Bruce and my sister Sue and I moved to Massachusetts to live in my new father’s house. He’s a doctor too. My first father used to bring my mother to see him as a patient. Our new father legally adopted Bruce and Sue and me, but not my brothers Allon and Tedd. They were married with children of their own.

Like my mother, my new father had been married before. He and his wife had adopted two children, a boy and a girl. When they divorced, the boy, who was still a baby, had to be returned to the orphanage because his adoption had not been finalized. The girl, Nancy, stayed with my father. He fought his ex-wife for sole custody and won. When my mother married my second father, Nancy became my little sister.

Try putting that family on a decal.

When I was sixteen and Nancy was twelve, she died in a plane crash. My father was flying the plane. He and my mother and Nancy and I were on our way home from visiting my brother Tedd in Maine. After we crashed and the police and firefighters found us, the others were pulled out quickly, but I was stuck in the wreck. My arm was pinned beneath the engine. They wanted to cut it off to get me out.

When I was nineteen, my father told me he wished I had died in that crash and Nancy had lived.

My memoir, Every Moment of a Fall (Schaffner Press, May 2016), is about the depression that seized me in the wake of these events, and about how I eventually found a way out through talk therapy and EMDR. The transformation in me has encouraged my siblings to seek their own healing from the deep scars that mark us as family.

Complicated or not, we’re like a lot of other families rocked by narcissism, sexual predation, neglect. I’d like to think that our unfolding story holds out hope. Not for some regressive fantasy of familial unity. But for the genuine release that comes from linking arms and facing down hard truths together.

 

Voyage Around My Body

roxane gay hunger body trauma

I am reading Roxane Gay’s immensely powerful memoir, Hunger. It comes at a time when I am deep into another intense period of therapy, thinking about trauma in new ways and inching toward recognition of the traumas my body has been harboring ever since I was a very small child. I have been at odds with my body for such a long time.

EMDR therapy allowed me to see, for the first time in my life, my body’s intelligence. An emotional intelligence I’d wanted nothing to do with up to that point, because I’d wanted nothing to do with my own emotions. I knew they would be unbearable. After EMDR helped me to process and to bear what I was feeling about having been trapped in a crashed airplane, about having survived my little sister, about having been told—and believing—that I did not deserve to be alive, I thought I was done.

But here’s the thing I am coming awake to: my body is riddled with pockets of grief, and anger, and shame. And joy, thankfully. My body is mapped with sites of trauma, and if I can let myself follow its quiet guidance, if I can stand to visit each one and, with help, connect to how it feels, then I can hope to fully embody my emotion. I can own my whole feeing and thinking self.

I am seeing two therapists weekly now. It was getting difficult to hold on to—or even to understand, sometimes—the concepts we were discussing in talk therapy. It felt like they were sliding out of my brain before I could process them. This made sense, my therapist said. We were talking about abuses that occurred in early childhood, before I had the language to describe them to myself, to name them.

I found a somatic psychotherapist to work with, because those abstract concepts that slide out of my brain were preceded by wordless, flesh-and-blood traumas imprinted on skin. We are in the early stages of our work together, slowly setting out on a voyage around my body. She puts a hand on my back and I burst into tears. I lie on a green mat on the floor and sob. I am a small, small girl in bed in the dark, tail tucked between my legs.

Something my talk therapist said yesterday, when we were discussing Hunger, made me consider that I may not always hold myself at odds with my body. I am bereft of my body. Bereft of the whole, unbroken self who came into the world as a Song of Joy. She was taken by adults who had no right. But I am moving through the dark toward her again.

As Gay writes, “She is still small and scared and ashamed, and perhaps I am writing my way back to her, trying to tell her everything she needs to hear.”

 

Spellbinding Story of a Life Renewed

Sybil Steinberg Publishers Weekly EMDR Memoir

Every Moment of a Fall is praised by Publishers Weekly contributing editor Sybil Steinberg as one of the best new books of 2016!

Sybil Steinberg served as the Publishers Weekly reviews editor for 30 years; it was her guidance that shaped the magazine’s reviews section into what it is today. She introduced the starred review, among other industry firsts, and created the “Best Books” lists that are are still published each year ahead of the New York Times Book Review list.

Now retired, Steinberg remains a Publishers Weekly contributing editor. And twice a year, in June and October, she releases her own “Best New Books” list. The presentation of this list at the Westport, Connecticut public library is always a standing-room only affair.

Every Moment of a Fall is one of ten nonfiction works on Steinberg’s October 2016 list of best new books. In the company of works by Robert Gottlieb, Jeffrey Toobin, Diana Athill, Ariel Leve and others, Every Moment of a Fall has the distinction of being the first title from an independent press to be included on the list. (Go indies!)

Here is Steinberg’s review in full:

Every Moment of a Fall is a memoir of childhood trauma, but it’s an ultimately hopeful story of haunting memories exorcized and a life that has been renewed.

Carol Miller was sixteen when she survived the crash of a plane piloted by her father. Her survival was always tinged with guilt because her younger sister died in the crash. And a few years later, her father said he wished that she, Carol, had died instead of her sister.

Two decades of depression, bad relationships and bad luck followed for Carol. She earned a doctorate in English Literature and creative writing, but she didn’t have a job. So when a therapist recommended EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, she was ready to try it.

I, on the other hand, felt very skeptical when I picked up this book. I could not imagine that there was a treatment using bilateral stimulation—tones in each ear—to access deeply submerged memories.

But it works. It really is a m