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 miracle. And she explains the process so cogently that the reader just becomes fascinated all the way along.

Carol is, moreover, an excellent writer. She has published poetry in literary magazines, and her narrative voice is spellbinding.

Love, the Universe

act with intention and the universe responds

Publishing a gut-spilling memoir certainly clarifies what it means to act with intention. This is not language I’m entirely comfortable using. Despite the fact that I’ve lived in Northern California for sixteen years, I have yet to read a book by Deepak Chopra, who wrote, “Your focused intentions set the infinite organizing power of the universe in motion.” Chopra believes the universe has bigger things in store for us than our blinkered brains can imagine, different outcomes than the ones we try to force.

I’m here today to say that the man knows whereof he speaks. The unforced outcome of your dogged intent, the thing that shows up out of the blue, that you never saw coming, that you couldn’t have dreamed if you tried—that thing the universe has up its sleeve for you is stupefyingly amazing!

I’ve written elsewhere about some of the uncanny connections my book has allowed me to make with some wonderful people. I told myself those were very cool coincidences, nothing more. My apologies to the universe for not recognizing your handiwork right off the bat.

In May, after the reading I gave at my local bookstore from Every Moment of a Fall: A Memoir of Recovery Through EMDR Therapy, people lined up to have their copies signed. One woman seemed to hesitate when her turn came. I said hello. She kind of stammered how much she enjoyed the reading. There was a pause. Then she told me her name was Carol, and that she grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, where I’m from, and where the plane my dad was flying crashed when I was sixteen. Then she said my sister Nancy, who was killed in the crash, had been one of her closest childhood friends. They’d spent summers together at the Concord Country Club. Then she told me she lives right here in the same small California town as me. Then she said she’s a psychotherapist. Who does EMDR.

Mind fully and completely blown, courtesy of the universe.

I couldn’t really make words come out of my mouth. I was in the middle of signing her book and found myself writing, Wow! Wow! Wow! Somehow, I had the presence of mind to hand her a Post-It note and ask for her email address. It took me a couple of days to convince myself that the unfathomable had actually happened. Then I emailed her.

We went for the first of what would become many walks. We established that Carol and my sister Nancy were the same age, four years younger than me. Both Carols (she and I) have a sister named Sue who is four years older than we are. Which makes Carol’s sister Sue my age. It slowly dawned on me that we were in the same high school class. We played freshman field hockey together.

Carol and Nancy became friends because they both felt ostracized by the other kids who spent their days at the club pool. This is not hard to imagine. The country club was home territory to the New England uber-WASP. So Nancy and Carol kept to themselves. Carol described a little stand of apple trees between the pool and the tennis courts where they hung out, eating lunch in the shade. Maybe once or twice chucking apples at passing cars. And talking for hours about all kinds of things, like what they struggled with or longed for in their twelve-year-old hearts. For years after Nancy died, Carol felt like she’d never find another friend who got her the way Nancy did.

This was my bratty little sister we were talking about. The one who couldn’t let me be for five seconds without dropping the cat onto my book, or snapping off the bathroom light from the outside, or tattling to Mom that I’d used my allowance to buy candy. I’d never given any thought to the possibility that she’d had an inner life, that she harbored secrets and dreams she’d never shared with me. Suddenly, here was a person who admired my sister in a way I never had, giving me a glimpse of the textured creature I never knew her to be.

I tried to convey how meaningful it was to learn these things about Nancy all these decades later—to get a peek into my sister’s psyche. And how great it was to hear about Carol’s own life—her time in college and grad school, her husband and two kids, the places she’s lived and the work she’s done. Not only was it lovely to start to know Carol, getting acquainted helped me picture what Nancy’s life could have been like had she survived.

We hugged goodbye and Carol offered to be my adopted little sister.

After that first walk, I dreamed about Nancy. She was a small child in the dream, while my sister Sue and I were our adult selves. We were protecting Nancy from a bully, using our grown bodies to shield her. Another woman in the room with us began urging me to let Nancy fend for herself, warning me that was the only way my little sister would learn to roll with life’s punches. I became enraged, shouting at the woman to butt out, telling her she had no idea what a troubling past Nancy had endured.

When I woke up, I wondered if the other person in that room was me too, in the way it sometimes goes in dreams, where we play multiple characters and see the action from  multiple perspectives. Maybe my dream was showing me two sides of the coin, two versions of the story of Nancy’s life. The version I’d vehemently guarded for years cast my sister as a helpless child. Now that was being challenged by critical new information, by all there was to learn about my sister from a second Carol, who remembers Nancy as capable, even fierce.

After that first walk, Carol had a similar experience. She made a painting about Nancy. It turns out that, in addition to being an EMDR therapist, Carol has an MFA in painting. It’s her vehicle for addressing and processing complex emotions, or working through knotty problems. Meeting me, reading my book, learning things about her friend she’d never known before had unsettled her. She began to think she had idealized Nancy in some ways, making her stand for certain Big Important Things in her mind. So she made a painting to work through that. The one at the top of this page.

When Carol first showed me the canvas, all I could think was: coast of Maine. That’s where our family spent much of my childhood. But beyond the immediate personal association, there was something starkly elemental about the work, its juxtaposition of a cold, stony (one might say frozen) bluescape against the warm browns, ochres and greens of the overlaid trees Carol collaged in. Those greens and yellows are slowly seeping into the blues, as if the two versions of Nancy’s story, slapped together, are merging. Making something new.

Perhaps it’s impossible to keep ourselves from freezing the dead in past time, or idealizing them as we begin to forget the subtler things. I think both of us Carols allowed Nancy to become more of a symbol of something we needed to believe and less of a person, as time passed.

Today, thanks to the improbable ways of the universe, I’m getting a peek at the real girl who sat under those apple trees sharing her struggles. I acted with intention, releasing my story into the world, and the outcome is something I never could have imagined. I’ve been given the chance to understand that my little sister may have only lived twelve years, but she had a robust emotional life, and a kindred-spirit confidante. One who answers to my name. One who I now call sister and friend.

Burning Down the House

reliving trauma

by guest blogger Andy Weisskoff, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Some people who survive a life or death event — like war, sexual assault, or a plane accident — get mired, reliving trauma for decades, experiencing the intense anxiety, depression, vigilance, flashbacks, and nightmares characteristic of PTSD. For these people, memories remain vivid and feel horribly alive until a therapeutic intervention, such as EMDR, softens them. For others, who have been through the same types of dangerous events, memories of the trauma transform apace into manageable life lessons, without professional intervention.

The difference is in large part determined by the social resources available in the aftermath of trauma. If you have people around who help you process the thoughts and emotions aroused by trauma, you are much more likely to recover. If, however, you struggle alone with your memories, and the conclusions about yourself that follow, (like, “It was all my fault,” or “I’m still in danger,” or “Something’s wrong with me), the memories stay stuck in their original form, inspiring fight/flight/freeze responses to triggers of the original event.

I’m reminded of the episode of the 1970s TV series The Waltons where the family’s house burns down. In case you don’t know the show, I’ll recap using my very faulty memory of watching it forty years ago. One night in Depression-era Virginia, John Boy Walton leaves his lit pipe on a table in the hallway. That same night Grandpa Walton leaves the electric heater running in the bathroom. The next day both artifacts are discovered in the smoking embers. But was it John Boy’s pipe or Grandpa’s heater responsible for the disaster?

Eventually, (it was a two-part episode), Grandpa Walton takes John Boy aside in an effort to ease his guilty mind. Grandpa says something like, “It was either your pipe or my heater that burned the house down. We’ll never know which. Either way it was an accident. Put it behind you or you’ll drive yourself crazy with guilt. And that won’t help anyone.”

Wisdom from Walton’s Mountain.

After a catastrophe, the reactions of family and friends have the power to either mediate or reinforce our tendency toward self-blame. At the time of the event, if the people close to us are non-blaming, if they tell us, “This is not your fault,” or, “Even if you participated, you had your reasons,” if they say, “I’m glad you survived,” and “I still love you,” we have a decent chance of setting the experience to rest alongside our other important life lessons. If, however, the soothing messages are absent, if they’re ambiguous or frankly accusatory, our memory of the event will stay alive indefinitely, along with the belief, “I’m bad.”

In Every Moment of a Fall, Carol’s memoir of recovery from trauma using EMDR, we watch in agony as her parents miss one opportunity after another to challenge her self-blame. Like John Boy with his pipe, Carol takes responsibility for the crash that killed her sister. Then, because there is no Grandpa Walton in her story, (not in her immediate family, nor, when she becomes an adult, in her primary relationships), she remains stuck. That is, until her therapists Connie and Jan arrive. Connie, with acceptance and gentle prodding, starts challenging her life’s narrative.  Jan, with EMDR, facilitates a radical re-examination of the facts. When the work is done, instead of believing the accident is all her fault, she sees it as nobody’s. From this vantage she gets curious about why her dad let her take the blame in the first place, why her mom went along, and why the other men in her life had followed suit.

After EMDR Carol rejoins her life from a new perspective: “Accidents happen. People who blame me when things go wrong, or allow me to blame myself, are not on my side.” This perspective suggests an action plan: “From now on, I’m only hanging with the non-blamers.”

And that, as the poet wrote, has made all the difference.

Andy Weisskoff, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and EMDR specialist. Learn more about EMDR and his practice at