In my mid-twenties, a life of family dysfunction culminated in a period of prolonged and acute crisis. That is to say, my father lived in homeless shelters during this time and after one failed suicide attempt, eventually took his life. The cause of his death, in truth, was unclear and could not be determined by the autopsy, which is exactly as he would have wanted it, but I know in my heart he made the decision that night to end his pain.
To say I was alone and isolated during this period of my life is an understatement. In my essay, Memories Without a Home, I expressed it this way: I was dangling by a precarious thread but I didn’t admit this to anyone, not even myself. I had no support system, no one to talk to about what was happening and no way of processing all the confusing, painful, and overwhelming feelings. I held them in, smiled, and pretended everything was ok, as I had been taught to.
In the 12-step programs, there is a saying: “You are as sick as your secrets.” Secrets are the truths, emotions, and things we hold in and hide from others, and ourselves. We can even become physically sick from what we energetically “hold in.” During these years in crisis, my energy was low and I relied heavily on coffee in the morning, which further depleted my already dehydrated system. I felt sluggish and depressed, and had a foggy brain, which I didn’t know, at the time, was due to unresolved emotional trauma.
Without an outlet for self expression, emotions get “stuck” in the body and mind, which can result in a feeling of stagnation or a lack of “flow” in life.
Enter Yoga (or any type of purposeful body movement). When I moved home to New York from San Francisco at the age of 30, and after making a mess of my life there (something people with unresolved trauma tend to do), I began practicing … you guessed it … yoga. I enjoyed hiking and barre classes in San Francisco, but I wasn’t in touch with what I really needed. I had disassociated from my body, as people who have gone through difficult experiences often do.
Practicing yoga was like thawing out. I began to “feel” my body and self again. I knew I liked the “flow-y” movement (i.e., linking movement to breath), that it was good for me and helped me feel less “stuck,” but I didn’t know why.
As I continued to practice, I understood that it was helping me to unravel unhealthy habits and patterns, first in my body/mind and then in my life. As I became more aware of my alignment, habits, and transitions on the yoga mat, I was able to see and feel how my unhealthy habits and patterns “off the mat” were keeping me “stuck” and unhappy. The key to this “work” is movement, breath, and present moment awareness, since we cannot think our way out of negativity and dysfunction (the mind is what created the dysfunction in the first place).
When you begin to do this healing work, you begin to change your patterns and habits because it feels right to do so, i.e., you naturally become drawn to the choices that bring you into a more balanced state of being. For example, I had no interest in shopping (AKA never-ending seeking) anymore. I was drawn, instead, to hiking and the outdoors, where I would receive a natural “high,” rather than the fleeting high of purchasing something new and shiny that I didn’t need or, truly, even want, and that lead to an even deeper low when the credit card bill arrived.
Any type of mindful or meditative movement (Tai Chi or dance come to mind) can have this effect and, ultimately, helps us face what we have hidden not only from others but, more importantly, from ourselves.
I think back to my high school self, sitting on the sidelines because I was the weakest player on the soccer team. I did not have the confidence to be a valuable member of the team. Most of my life has felt this way: sitting on the sidelines, watching everyone else play. Feeling stuck is very painful. People might not understand why you can’t just get up and get moving. It’s as if you are frozen in time, and in a way you are; it is a response your body learned when you were not able to process difficult experiences in the moment.
In my twenties, when I lived in Manhattan, I started writing “my stories” after reading a few memoirs I connected deeply to. I joined a writing workshop (it was a good thing most of the members were kind and understood I was processing stuff; the writing was, I’m sure, difficult to read) and eventually studied Creative Nonfiction at Antioch University in Los Angeles. Writing is another way for me to get in touch with my feelings, to make sense of events and give them meaning, and to create space around them, so to speak.
There are many modalities for healing, i.e., processing and integrating difficult (or stuck) emotions and moving on from the past (and getting off the bench). One of the first steps in this work is to get honest with yourself about what you are hiding, which may not be obvious to you at first.
I was hiding my shame and vulnerability and, as a result, my empowerment. I felt hopeless, without agency, and completely at the mercy of life situations and people that were not supportive or leading to my growth. It can take some time, free-writing and processing, to get to the heart of what you are hiding. You hid it for a reason and most likely that reason was your survival, so it is not something to feel badly about; on the contrary, it’s like discovering a buried gem that you get to clean off and make shiny again.
The point of “processing” is not to dwell (we want to move on, not stay stuck), but if we can pinpoint what we have been holding in or onto, we can begin to release it from the mind/body and energetic heart. Like the bird in the photo, drying his (or her) wings we allow ourselves to become vulnerable in certain moments so we can get un-stuck and use our wings.