For my entire life I’d belittled the role of my body, valuing it merely as a vehicle for staying healthy and serving my vanity. I’d been convinced that it was through the “I” of my mind—in dialogue with a therapist—that if I just “dug deep” enough, as my father had always advised, I’d unearth the source of my anxiety and depression, and in so doing, be free of them. By 2010 at the age of 57, as a wife of 30 years, mother of two, and a lawyer-turned-schoolteacher, I thought I’d done just that.
Yet, as I would discover, what’s been called “the unspoken voice,” must also be listened to—and that voice speaks from the body.
On a routine errand on a July afternoon in 2010, I stepped into a marked crosswalk, its sign clearly visible atop a pedestal that said, “Stop for Pedestrians.” I noticed a pickup truck pulling out of the street across from me. As it turned into my lane, I wasn’t scared. If the windshield weren’t shaded, I could’ve seen the driver’s face.
He had to see me . . .
The hood plowed into me at shoulder level with a thud so heavy and determined it seemed propelled like the earth itself. I was thrown back and my head crashed onto the pavement…
Yet, somewhat miraculously, I suffered no broken bones or internal injuries. At the head-trauma hospital to which I was taken by helicopter, doctors concluded I had a concussion, head wound, and various scrapes and bruises.
Two weeks later, my doctor recommended I see a therapist to forestall the possibility of developing PTSD symptoms. Although I wasn’t worried about that, I called my therapist.
I’d seen Barbara at different times for varying periods over the last 20 years and had probably spent the equivalent of months sobbing as I shared feelings of vulnerability and fear from my childhood. When I was four-and-a-half, my father suddenly disappeared for eight months, the same year my mother had clawed her way to sobriety. After my father returned, I constantly worried I might do something out of ignorance or carelessness that would “get Dad upset, get Dad angry.” Even then, making mistakes that bothered Dad—eventually, any kind of mistake, even those I might make as a lawyer—felt to me like a deadly gamble. At sixteen, when I finally learned the reason for my mother’s warnings and my father’s absence—he’d been hospitalized after threatening to jump from a hotel window ledge—I had been on high alert for as long as I could remember.
Yet, by summer 2010, I felt I’d fully resolved any issues stemming my childhood, but if by chance any psychic residue remained, I would at least recognize it.
Barbara and I met weekly for months. I recounted the accident during many visits, but as she would point out to me later, I always found ways to joke about it.
Until then, I’d never before avoided a topic in therapy. Given my father’s history, I’d taken his advice seriously, and no matter how embarrassing or upsetting a thought was to me, I forced myself to say it. However, whether I was avoiding the vulnerability I’d felt facing the truck, the memory of my head smashing onto the pavement, or some other reason, I could not “dig deep.”
Due to my persistent shoulder pain, my doctor referred me to Isabella James, an acupuncturist. Within a month or two, Isabella began training in Somatic Experiencing (SE), a psychobiological method for resolving trauma’s aftermath, developed by Peter Levine, Ph.D. The theory is based in part on how mammals release the effects of a threatening experience: When facing danger, they instinctively mobilize huge amounts of energy to fight, flee, or freeze. Once the threat is gone, they discharge the energy through involuntary movements such as shaking, trembling, or breathing deeply, which returns its nervous system to balance. On the other hand, people can reason and repress and often (consciously or unconsciously) ignore their innate capacity to reset. In those cases, the undischarged stress resulting from trauma remains stored in the nervous system, where it can lead to a wide array of physical and psychological problems.
To help a person release the unprocessed energy, rebalance their nervous system, and thereby eventually resolve trauma, SE practitioners like Isabella use, among other tools, “pendulation” and “titration”—the processes of guiding a person back and forth between areas of comfort and discomfort in the body. By momentarily tapping into and then out of physical sensations they’ve been avoiding, clients gradually experience more openness and flow, and their trauma eventually becomes “unstuck.” The practitioner must carefully titrate the client’s exposure to discomfort because by lingering too long in that area, she risks reactivating the client’s nervous system, compelling it to reexperience the trauma. The practitioner must be sensitive enough to recognize subtle shifts in body language or physiology that indicate that a system is approaching its limit for discomfort.
Somatic Experiencing’s focus on the physical was foreign to me. Initially, I could barely detect any internal bodily sensations, other than the unmistakable stomach growl; when I could, I felt silly doing so. Over years of therapy, I’d been trained to look for psychological insight—the “right” or most plausible interpretation for my feelings. But whenever (and it was often) I started analyzing myself, Isabella would redirect me: “It’s not about the story, Amy. Tell me what’s happening in your body.”
As Isabella explained, this process cultivates a “felt sense”—an awareness that promotes “embodiment”—a feeling of being at home in one’s body. I was skeptical at first, yet undoubtedly I felt less burdened after each session.
In one session, Isabella asked me to move my head to the left very gradually. Due to my accident, the range of motion on my left was much more restricted than on my right side. Yet, moving in slow motion, I felt additional resistance. Noticing a quickening pulse and a sizzling through my limbs, I realized I’d also felt these sensations lying on the pavement. On my left had been EMTs using serious-sounding medical terms I didn’t want to hear. On my right had been a woman reassuring me I would be fine.
In most sessions, I would lie on the treatment table while Isabella asked me to describe any physical sensations; often, I would descend into myself so thoroughly that my body seemed to be melting over the table’s edges.
The process felt so magical that it was difficult for me to appreciate its scientific basis. In that deep state, the parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) triggers the more tranquil functions of the body (commonly referred to as the “rest and digest activities”). The process helps restore balance with the ANS’s other part—the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which activates the fight-or-flight response, the physiological consequences of feeling threatened or being on guard. In that situation, the system releases cortisol and other stress hormones, which, if the pattern is repeated often enough, will dysregulate the nervous system. I knew I was more accustomed to operating under the influence of the SNS. That pattern was so ingrained in me that its absence initially felt like depression.
In one session, I was surprised when Isabella placed needles on top of my head—where new parents are cautioned not to touch newborns. She began titrating, guiding me between areas of comfort and discomfort. To enhance my descriptive ability, she asked whether I also perceived a texture or color. The area that came to mind—along the arch of my right foot— seemed strange, if not embarrassing. Suddenly, I saw my mother, who loved to sunbathe, her tanned foot outstretched in front of her on the beach. Then I saw a crescent moon, a cradle shape, pale rose and soft, like fur. My mind drifted off as I imagined the cradle’s plushness against my skin.
As usual, Isabella left the room to “give the needles time to work.” I lay in the semi-darkness, soothed by the fragrance of essential oils. I could feel, if not hear, the low-pitched hum of electricity-like energy circulating within me.
A moment later, that buzzing flowed outward as well, as though my skin could no longer contain or protect me. Although my boundaries seemed to be slipping away, I felt utterly safe.
Suddenly, I gasped for air. A stone slab bore down on my chest. I tried to sit up to inhale more deeply, but I couldn’t stay propped up on my elbows—the stone was too heavy. My heart pounded against the weight. Some part of me must have been aware there was no stone, but I was terrified and completely powerless. I saw the shaded windshield of the truck coming toward me, but just as it was about to hit me, the truck disappeared, as though a slide projector had been clicked off.
Initially surprised, I realized the image didn’t fit—I’d been standing, not lying down, when the truck neared. The pressure on my chest lifted, but I felt sadness, not relief. A sob caught in my throat. It occurred to me that I never cried on the day the truck hit me or for weeks afterward. I followed the warmth of my tears as they slid down my cheeks and dampened the pillow underneath my head.
I felt a twinge of a distant memory, but before I could grab hold of it, my chest began to ache. My shoulders hunched forward to protect me, a reflexive but futile response, and I quickly flattened back down onto the table. As the ache spread into my abdomen and limbs, it may have also dredged the depths because, within seconds, I recognized this longing, this yearning to be consoled and rescued. I was back in the year of my father’s incident—back to being my four-and-a-half-year-old self.
Just then, Isabella reentered. “Are you alright?” She must have sensed something had happened.
I described what I’d gone through. “It was like my body knew what was going on before I did. I realized it wasn’t the truck that was the real trauma; it was my father. I was experiencing what I must have felt when he suddenly disappeared—so vulnerable, such despair. And then being afraid to upset him all those years.”
“When those patterns get locked in the nervous system so young, they become deeply rooted,” Isabella said as she guided me off the treatment table to a chair.
“And then I felt this longing to be rescued,” I said, “but I knew nobody was coming. Maybe I sensed my mother’s drinking back then, even though I didn’t understand it. God, if my mother had started drinking again, there would have been no one to take care of me. It must have been less painful for me to believe I could save my father and keep my mother from drinking. Better for me to stay on guard for signs that he might jump or she might drink—let that constant circuit of anxiety keep me focused.”
“You know, even without the language to express it, young children perceive what’s happening around them.”
As I looked at Isabella, I glimpsed the anatomy chart behind her. The bold black and red Chinese characters had always intrigued me. I smiled. During all that therapy, I had never thought to look to my body for help. Yet it was undeniable that the physical techniques of SE and acupuncture had just excavated an experience more profound and immediate than any I’d had in therapy. I shook my head as the flush of humility, even awe, warmed my face.
No longer overwhelmed by anxiety and fear, my body could speak at last, leading me first to unravel the trauma of my accident and then to the trauma buried far deeper. Finally safe enough to abandon my lifelong guard post, in this new freedom, I would find myself.
AMY TURNER holds a degree in political science from Boston University and a Juris Doctor degree from New York Law School. After practicing law for twenty-two years, she changed careers at forty-eight and became a seventh grade social studies teacher. She lives in East Hampton, New York, with her husband, Ed. Find her online at www.amyturnerauthor.com