Reading to Change Your Mind
Bee’s Books, April 2019
Did you ever see “The Wizard of Oz?” Dorothy skipping down the Yellow Brick Road with the Straw Man, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and her little dog Toto to find a way home? It wasn’t all singing We’re Off to See the Wizard. There was traveling through the dark forest, the witch slinking around threatening, “I’ll get you, my pretty! And your little dog, too!” Falling asleep in the poppy field, before Glinda the Good intervened and woke them up with a snowfall in spring.
So what do you do after the tornado has picked you up and dropped you into the Land Of Sobriety? This month and next month I’ll be talking about a couple of books that can help you with waking up, clearing out the underbrush, and finding the sunlit path home.
For me, using wasn’t about partying. I needed to manage my moods with booze and workaholism and codependency just to carry on a “normal” life. Of course, there were the drawbacks of feeling isolated emotionally from other people, experiencing random flashes of rage, the wreckage of getting into and out of toxic relationships and jobs, and having to avoid places and people that might remind me of anything I didn’t want to think about, which was a problem, since after a while I couldn’t go anywhere or see anybody.
And eventually I was drunk or hungover most of the time, so I couldn’t work, and then learning from my doctor that alcoholism could literally kill me. That was my tornado. I crashed. Entering recovery, I felt like Dorothy opening the door of her little black and white existence into an unfamiliar, colorful world, governed by rules I didn’t understand. But once the first excruciating six weeks or so was over, getting sober was a huge relief. Connecting with a recovery community, working with a mentor, writing the inventories, and starting to wake up through a consistent meditation practice seemed to be part of creating a new, calmer self. Happy ending, right?
But then I had got chest pain taking down the Christmas tree. And while hiking on a trail where my ex-husband and I used to go, my hands started shaking too bad to open my water bottle. What the heck? I’m sober! I should be fine now!
When I asked my mentor what I was doing wrong, he said, “Nothing. You’re just dealing with old trauma. You should do some therapy to clear it out and get rid of it.” I said, “I don’t want to talk about that stuff.” Those memories were a dark forest that I just didn’t want to go into. But then he said that talk therapy doesn’t always help. That having an intellectual insight into why you react a certain way can’t heal a trauma that has become embedded in the body, where those memories are stored. There are new modalities of therapy, which allow us to process trauma and clear it from where it has become embedded in the body. This being me, I asked a therapist friend for what to read, and she recommended The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
I opened it and read, “As long as we register emotions primarily in our heads, we can remain pretty much in control, but feeling as if our chest is caving in or we’ve been punched in the gut is unbearable. We’ll do anything to make these awful visceral sensations go away, whether it is clinging desperately to another human being…(or) rendering ourselves insensible with drugs or alcohol…the solution requires finding ways to help people alter the inner sensory landscape of their bodies.”
Yup, I thought, this guy gets it!
Luckily, Dr. van der Kolk didn’t leave me there. He’s got solutions. “…the rational brain cannot abolish emotions, sensations or thoughts…If we want to change posttraumatic reactions, we have to access the emotional brain and do “limbic system therapy.” After explaining how physiologically embedded trauma affects us, he goes on to explain how a diversity of body-based therapies, including meditation, EMDR, yoga, neurofeedback, and psychomotor therapy. There is even a chapter on how to find a good therapist.
I found reading this book to be a good first step toward getting me ready to begin the work of eradicating underlying trauma and solidifying my recovery. It may be helpful for you, too.
Next month – finding the sunlit path home to discovering and recovering joy.