“Healing involves discomfort but so does refusing to heal. Over time, refusing to heal is always more painful.”
— Resmaa Menakem, psychotherapist and author
Trauma is a conscious component of injury and is an obstacle to healing. My days in Intensive Care being unable to breath because of Covid-19 taught me something about trauma.
Healing is something you do yourself. When it happens naturally, we suffer, struggle, and prevail and this becomes the foundation of our experience. Our body and our mind learns this is the healing process. The suffering motivates our struggle and our struggle appears to us to be a definitive part of healing. We take credit for our recovery even if we normally take little credit for anything else in our lives.
It is true that struggle creates focus, and the struggle and focus may be necessary components of healing. But the actual healing process, or the details of the process, may not depend on any of your willful actions. You didn’t heal because you are rested and warm, your healing forces you to rest and seek warmth. You were following directions.
Your immune system, organ functions, and blood chemistry are self-correcting systems. Your struggle and focus may direct you in working with your body, but it’s likely that your healing would either proceed regardless, or your healing might force you to comply with it. What we think of as our personal choice, such as how to take care of ourselves, is really our mind responding to our body’s command.
Resting, keeping warm, doing what seems to help are voluntary actions, but anyone who tries to ignore these signals and “get creative,” such attempting freezing therapy, will quickly be reminded of what their body wants them to do. What happens when you follow your body’s directions, but it doesn’t work?
Something different happens in your mind when your healing fails. When this happens, you are left feeling that you are not capable, powerful, or good enough to prevail. It’s not enough to rest and sleep; it’s not enough to focus, act, or know; ultimately, your being is insufficient and there is nothing you can do with any of your resources. You are insufficient. You do not have the power to prevail. Your inner self can be deeply injured in this case. It is a deeply confusing experience that can cause you to panic or become numb.
There is something about being able to act that creates a faith in oneself. It is less important that you’re successful or effective, what’s important is that you have something to do and some way to do it.
At higher levels, we find support in family, community, and nature. Yet when this all seems to fail, we risk coming to the belief that either we are not good enough, or we have been abandoned. Our options are to freak out, fight, or collapse. It is at this point that we may become deeply frightened: we are slipping away and there is nothing we can do about it. We make choices all the time along these lines and, to some extent, we suffer small traumas.
We might put our faith in the healer. Up until this point, the healer was a secondary, supporting character, but when everything you do fails, the healer becomes a transcendent figure, the person who will determine your survival. Here is where the prayers to God become fervent, or the appeals to the healer become desperate.
At this point you enter a mentally malleable state, your mind becomes neuro-plastic and who you are may start to change. This is a critical, unstable point. If having faith in oneself is critical to healing, then being supported in one’s faith in oneself is necessary.
The action that one needs to take need not be physical, although physical progress would be most welcome. One is looking to consolidate one’s energy to a more unified sense of purpose. In this, support can be as important as progress.
When I was in Intensive Care I was isolated and alone. Without my cell phone and charger I feel I would have been traumatized even more. The hospital had no sense of me as a person, spirit, mind, or being. I was just numbers on a machine being managed by nurses and doctors who seemed to have no idea what to do with me. Under these conditions, most people die for lack of mental support.
I was having trouble breathing, but that’s not what I remember. I remember holding on to survival. People were pumping oxygen into my damaged lungs in order to see numbers read out on their machines. Numbers were the goal, not healing or supporting my ability to heal myself.
Is this the limit of allopathic medicine? Is this how most people are treated? Put into an antiseptic bubble and dosed with pharmaceuticals until they either prevail or succumb? I have a new disrespect for medicine!
“We need to pay special attention to the breath secondly because it is a very powerful and centrally important system. Somewhat like the flywheel in a car engine, the breath regulates all the other autonomic systems, including brain function.”
— Peter Levine, psychotherapist, from Waking The Tiger
We are told that the body heals itself when healing occurs. How does this happen?
We are led to believe our mind makes executive decisions, most of which have little consequence and none of which affect our physiology. I don’t accept this. I don’t know how anyone could accept this.
When I was young, nothing happened unless I made it happen. Public education was essentially a huge outhouse into which students and teachers spent their days emptying their guts of insight and experience. With every passing year, students’ personalities became thinner and their output less interesting. The only valuable things were the things that people did themselves.
Teachers were the role models of diuretic personalities, repetitively expelling long-since digested inert material onto the food trays of imprisoned students who were expected to eat it. With few exceptions, teaching was just like any other job, and the result of it was as poorly formed and indigestible as any other cheap plastic product.
I believed what my parents believed, which is what all the other parents believed, which is what everyone seemed to believe. I grew up in an affluent neighborhood, but I knew a few less affluent kids and their parents seemed to believe the same things. In a fit of dissatisfaction, I spent a few months exploring private schools, but they all seemed to be following the same program.
It was around this point that perhaps my father woke up and recognized I had a problem and there was something he could do. My mother could not wake up, but my father took me under his wing and made me his photo-shoot assistant. On the shorter jobs, where the equipment was lighter, I flew with him to cities around the US to photograph colossal, empty office buildings either set amid tens of acres of magazine-perfect gardens, or monument-like intrusions into busy city scapes.
This was a breath of fresh air. The environments may have been contrived and yet to be occupied—he was sent to photograph iconic constructions before they were put into operation—but at least they were real investments in the future. And while our architectural subjects were just finished but unoccupied, I explored new towns, cities, and forests, flying to places I’d never heard of and would never remember.
It wasn’t until a friend returned from Outward Bound—he was 15 while I was only 12—and returned with the idea of exploration. Up until that point all I’d explored was shoplifting and vandalism. The shoplifting was mildly empowering but the vandalism was pathetic. The problem was that I had no maternal emotional support. I was angry.
I was taking steps beyond climbing trees. I was looking at my hands and wondering what they could accomplish. I was developing a sense of creativity. I distinctly remember returning to my high school after my first summer in the big mountains. I put photos in the library. People looked past them as the apocryphal Florida Indians looked past Columbus’s boats as things not of their world.
Mallory answered the question of why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest by saying, “Because it’s there.” The real reason is because extreme experiences force us to become extremely aware of ourselves. Mountains become personal when we risk our lives in getting to know them.
Nature tests us in complex ways and rewards us with experiences we often do not expect. It punishes us fairly and rewards us by simply by allowing us to pass into places that few, if anyone, has ever seen before. This offer is made everywhere, in far away mountains you’ve never heard of, or nearby ravines, swamps, and cliffs that only plants have explored.
You must attend to your mind. Become aware of the speed of your thoughts and paces of your attention. As my hospital stay progressed I was aware of the gears of my mind disconnecting. I felt like an engine whose governor was malfunctioning. I had to engineer operations that would otherwise have been natural. Eating trays of hospital food. Navigating to the bathroom while connected to machines via tubes and wires. Attempting to stay warm.
I listened to Spotify music for the duration of the long nights. I tried Audible’s spoken books, but they seemed so trivial and trite. When you’re considering your own mortality, who cares about some author’s creative self-indulgence?
I listened to Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad until I could no longer stand the repetition of its one-sentence plot. I listened to Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, as she extolled inaction and indecision as virtuous vulnerability until it started to make me sick.
I listened to Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, about the ecological and evolutionary role of fungi. I listened mostly because he is Rupert Sheldrake’s son and a friend of mushroom evangelist Paul Stamets. Sheldrake’s whole book was a description—not an explication or analysis—of how networks discover solutions without using reason. There is something here to be considered, but Sheldrake stood before it perplexed.
One has to create a recovery frame of mind. This is a state of mind that capably manages your executive functions and even, if you’re lucky, achieves greater insight. The hospital experience seems designed to undermine your awareness. You’re told only to eat the food, shit in the potty, and generate the numbers. I would not be surprised if, in the future, they put everyone in an artificial coma. Once human nurses are replaced by robots, they probably will. Once they do that, most people will probably die and they’ll probably blame it on some new disease.
Luckily, induced coma was not my fate, though they threatened it under some perverted belief that the more fear and power they could take from me, the better off they would be. They presented the option quite plainly: let us intubate you if we feel it’s necessary or we’ll let you die. The Grim Reaper could not have said it better.
Where does the trauma occur? It occurs where your spirit weakens. It was the threat of intubation, the experience of being unable to breath, and the sense that whatever was going to happen to you might be a corporate decision or a medical experiment.
Not only were the nurses and doctors unaware of what they were doing, but they fundamentally didn’t care. You are an animatronic entity that will either go out the front door in a wheelchair, or the back door in a bag. In either case, they will remain doctors and nurses, manage the ward, report the numbers, and develop their careers.
Throughout my first night in the hospital I could hear some angry person shouting. At the time, I felt their energies were counter productive. Having spent more time in their system, I’m not sure that anger is not the more appropriate response.
I was happy to participate in a survey of my experience conducted by hospital services after I was discharged. I told them that no one paid any attention to my becoming healed, and there was no recognition that I might need to play some role in it.
Trauma is basically your inability to put yourself right. If you can’t do it, then no amount of well-behaving physiology is going to do it for you. There is a body-mind and a well body will support a well mind. But there is also a defeated and disconnected mind, and an unwell mind will undermine your physical state. An unwell mind might, in fact, kill you.
The survey questions rated the hospital’s performance on a scale of one to five. They did not ask the right questions. There was no interest in healing because no one was responsible for it. I put my comments as succinctly as possible at the end.
I was first referred to Mental Health Services, and then to the Office of Patient Quality Services. What I was looking for was the Office for Human Beings, but there is no such office. I’m considering contacting Patient Quality Services but I wonder if I’d just be wasting my time.
The fifth step in Peter Levine’s nine step prescription for remediating Post Traumatic Stress is replacing the mental construct of defeat and helplessness with one of balance and engagement. If you cannot do this in any situation, you’re screwed. This is something you must do Post Trauma but also Pre Healing. You cannot heal if your mind remains in terror, powerless, and disengaged from your body.
It’s clear to me that the allopathic model can kill you, and it will do that because there is no “you” in it. You must take an active role in your existence or you will not exist. This is the ultimate “use it or lose it.”
Spirit channels entertain the notion of ghosts as people whose minds are so disconnected from their dying bodies that they are not aware of their deaths. How such a person might communicate is not explained, but from a first-person perspective, this describes what I was feeling.
“We are left highly activated with an incomplete motor plan still going round and round in our brain.”
— Peter Levine
As mountaineers, we did some death-defying things some of the time because we wanted to, but most of the time because we had to. We didn’t climb “because it was there,” we climbed either because it felt great or to get the hell out of there.
Rarely was I traumatized in mountaineering because I was responsible for everything I did. Things rarely happened for which I was not responsible. This is the state of mind you need to overcome adversity. That’s not to say you can overcome anything, but if you don’t believe you can, you won’t. To become untraumatized is to reject the notion that you are overpowered. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, it’s a state of mind.
Levine, P., Frederick, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma, North Atlantic Books.
Sheldrake, M. (2021). Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, Random House.
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