Oregon Trail

Location: Oregon, United States

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Classic Lydia Stories: Talley and the Tree

At our first house on Hansen Road (we moved three houses down the street when I was a teenager), there was an Ash tree next to the driveway. I loved that tree, and it was perfect for climbing by the time I was old enough to want to. I used to climb up in the tree, perch myself on a particular branch, then lean out, let go, grab a lower branch, swing, arc, and jump off. Better than jumping off a swing. Even MORE fun if you closed your eyes during the swing and the arc.

Talley, my younger sister, used to climb the tree with me. One day as we were swinging out of the tree, I told her, "It's even MORE fun if you close your eyes!" So on the next turn, Talley gets to the particular branch, closed her eyes, leaned out, completely missed the other branch, came hurtling out of the tree screaming bloody murder (I think her eyes were still closed at this point), and suddenly landed on the ground with a crash. Now think about this. She was screaming all the way down up to the point of impact. That means her mouth was wide open and her tongue was partially extended. Imagine what the force of the sudden impact would have on her jaw. And where her tongue was in relation to her teeth. Yep, you got it, her mouth slammed shut and she bit her tongue. Big time.

I came out of the tree, saw her bleeding from the mouth, and ran in the house to get Nanny, our grandmother, who was staying with us during the summer while my mom worked. (My mom was the only one on the block that worked at all.) "Nanny! Come quick!" "What happened?" she said. "We were jumping out of the tree with our eyes closed and Talley missed the branch!" On hindsight, this does not sound like the smartest thing to be doing on a summer afternoon. Nanny came out, saw the mess Talley had made of her tongue, and got my dad, who was in his office downstairs, to bring Talley to the doctor's office.

When they got in to see the doctor, he took a look and said, "Huh! Look at that! It's cut clear through. Do you mind if I have Dr. So and So come and take a look at it?" And my sister, whose tongue is swollen and sticking partway out of her mouth, shakes her head and says, "Doe, dat's otay." Dr. So and So comes in and also wonders at the amazing cut. Then a series of nurses enter and they take a look. No one has seen anything like it. We're not sure if they were all looking because of the curiosity of it all, or in order to consult together as to how best patch it up.

They eventually decided to give Talley stitches and return her home. We had dinner that night, and Talley sat across from me with her tongue still swollen, numbed from novocaine, her baseball cap on her head with the bill toward the back but skewed so it rested behind her ear. Her fine blond hair stuck to her forehead from the humidity and her cheeks were rosy from the heat and excitement of the day. She sipped on a milkshake while the rest of us attempted to eat our dinner with this pitiful reality in front of us. I'm sure she was even more pitiful than necessary in order to increase my guilt but it did not faze me. I knew I was not at fault. Anyone else would have known enough to wait until they had a hold of the branch before they closed their eyes. Not Talley, though. She jumped straight out of the tree with her eyes closed and her mouth wide open.

When it was clear that she wasn't pitiful enough to induce an adequate level of guilt, Talley attempted to speak, botching the attempt and sounding like she belonged in an institution for the developmentally delayed. Apparently, my mother couldn't take the aura of guilt that was permeating the room any more, burst into tears, and fled the table. I said, "Why is she crying?" because I was impervious to the guilt factor and could not figure out why this was so upsetting. My dad and grandmother looked at me, boring into my soul with the combined guilt power of two adults and Talley, and said, "She's just happy it isn't permanent". Then they looked at each other with a "mission accomplished" expression on their faces, and proceeded to finish eating their dinner while Talley sipped happily at her milkshake and I felt the first pang of doubt. Maybe it was my fault...

Disclaimer: I honestly don't remember if Talley was ever mad at me for telling her to close her eyes. I don't remember her making me feel guilty about it and I don't really believe my parents blamed me either. It was an accident. We were fortunate it wasn't worse. But that doesn't stop the what ifs. What if I had explained the procedure better? What if she had ended up with broken bones or knocked her head? What if it really was my fault? I'm just happy it wasn't permanent.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

On Being a Carrier and Letting Go

I have been on a journey over the last year or so. Much of this learning began through experience at work as we delve into how best to serve individuals with history of trauma. At least 95% of all the people I serve have had long term, chronic trauma in their lives. As a result, we as practitioners need to be aware of how our buildings, forms, actions, and words may affect a person with this kind of history. I also taught DBT, which incorporates mindful awareness into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I was clearly punting.

Just over a year ago, one of my traumatized clients had to move out of the facility where he lived. I watched as he unraveled due to our lack of awareness of how this move was carried out would affect him. During this time, I had a deck of "Wisdom Cards" that I would choose from every few days for inspiration. I chose "I am Willing to Let Go" over five times in a row. I gave the deck to others to hold, I closed my eyes, I shuffled the deck. I drew the same card. I was not willing to let go, as I was horrified by how this move was being carried out and the effect it had on this individual. While the move has been positive overall, he is still recovering from it. I think we both are...

I began to look into mindfulness and meditation as ways to treat trauma, as this has been proven to reduce symptoms. I went to a workshop and followed up with a study group with coworkers designed to implement these practices into our work and lives. These practices are not only beneficial to trauma survivors, but to anyone experiencing life's stressors. Practitioners who work with people who have been traumatized tend to pick up on the trauma and carry it themselves. I began to work more in my own life on the concepts of radical acceptance, non-attachment to outcomes, and sitting quietly as I observed my thoughts and sought to non-judgmentally calm them.

I had the opportunity to attend two seminars on trauma as well. At these, I learned more about how the brain reacts to traumatic events. Fascinating! Our linguistic center shuts down when we experience trauma but our body retains the memory as a physical experience. Effective treatment is often linked to body movement through theatre, dance, yoga, or guided movement therapy that serves to integrate the traumatic memory in a way that can be managed by the individual.

Work was stressful. I began to hunger for a better way of relieving this stress in addition to desiring to be a more effective teacher and clinician and decided to look into yoga. There is a studio near my office that offers yoga, yoga therapy, and mindfulness based stress reduction classes. The more I read their website, the more I was convinced that these were my kind of people.

Today was Day 2 of yoga. The first day we spent practicing melting into the floor nearly the whole time, which sounds really weird, but was amazing and surprisingly difficult. I developed really sore muscles in my upper back and I was thinking "Really? From melting? Wow, am I ever out of shape!" But in the following few days, I would catch myself as I walked, realign my shoulders, and feel the positive difference as I walked along.

Today's lesson was more of the same, but with a focus on the shoulder and neck area. At one point, we laid on our back on the floor and had a partner press down on our shoulders. At one point when it was my turn, I felt myself quit fighting the resistance and allow my partner to just press my shoulders down to the floor. She exclaimed (quietly, because it's yoga), "You let go!" And I said, "Yeah, I did," and thought "Wow, that was weird..." And we stayed there and breathed a few times, then let up. But something had snapped in my brain.

As we moved from this into the "Dead Man" pose, which is where you melt into the floor and breathe and observe your thoughts, I was struck about how profound it felt to let go. And suddenly, tears were streaming down my face (screwing up my breathing) and I was thinking about how much I carry and have carried, since junior high or high school even, and being in awe of the power of letting go as a physical act. I later thought of how, in a literal sense, we carry things with our arms, and our shoulder muscles feel the strain, and how symbolic it is that I carry secrets and bear responsibilities and who knows what else I have as my load, and how ironic that my shoulders are bearing the strain. I thought about all I've been learning as head knowledge about how important movement is to recovery and thought, "So this is what they mean." And I laid there (not doing the dead man very well at all because I had to keep wiping away tears and attempting to breathe with some regularity) and trying to force myself to let go of the fact that I was currently sucking at yoga. Which is okay. I am by nature a carrier and have been since early on. My habit is to hold on, cling to, bear. I have not let go. But today, I found a new pathway in my brain. I can still carry. But now I can also let go.