Parasympathetic shock makes us withdraw. It resembles what animals do when they are attacked and “play dead.” Systems used for protection and defense shut down. This happens when the animal, or the human being, feels overpowered by the threat. Naturally, the skin turns white as the system drains its resources in order to survive. When a person in parasympathetic shock shifts to empowerment, their complexion usually reddens slightly as blood flow and adrenaline are freed. Thus, the therapist can follow the pattern of the client’s recovery just by noting changes in skin color.
The room filled with compassion as the group debriefed the situation. How does shock limit physical elasticity? What role can massage play in inviting vitality into chronically contracted tissue? What is the best approach to this invitation?
Domestic Violence: Healing the Body of the Family
Speaking of domestic violence in Mexico, like speaking out about sexual abuse, is revolutionary. It is not that different in America. In the United States, a woman is beaten every 60 seconds in her home. In Mexico, women are murdered daily during incidents of domestic violence. What do these horrible facts have to do with massage therapy, bodywork or energy medicine?
Domestic violence is a dramatic example of how the lineage of shock is perpetuated. Children who witness domestic violence, or even hear it happening during the night, often become either abusers or victims. They also frequently become street children when they run away or are abandoned by their parents. If they go to school, they are usually angry and violent students. They can grow up to become abusive parents themselves. To stop the cycle of reaction at any point is to make a valuable contribution to stopping violence worldwide.
Using the theories of energy medicine, and combining them with contemporary neuroscience, a case can be made for the possibility of ending the lineage of domestic violence by repatterning obsessive behavior in the body, as well as in the mind. Balancing the nervous system and changing the knee-jerk response in the body can not only impact a family, but an entire village, town, city or even a culture.
The Freedom to Heal
Ofelia, Leopolina and Carmen are psychologists and social workers who have devoted themselves to serving women and children survivors of domestic violence. They work in rural Mexico where resources and support services are the least available. Nan does the same work in the United States.
They all arrived at Fortin de las Flores spiritually eager and physically exhausted. One of the first criteria for becoming a healer who uses energy medicine is self-care. These women sank into the program in Fortin as a child sinks into her mother’s lap. The energy medicine taught there involved Oriental systems, including pulse diagnosis and the treatment of the meridians. For these women, their pulses all said one thing: fatigue. As the days passed and they received treatment, they slowly regained their strength. As Leopolina recovered, she wanted to dance in order to free herself of the many burdens of suffering she had taken on in her work. As she danced, the students celebrated her service, and her regeneration.
Leopolina’s dance illustrated how the script of service can be edited well. The sacrifices she had made and the strain of her many obligations dropped from her shoulders as she moved for herself, without restraint. In the freedom of her expression and the honesty of her vulnerability, Leopolina modeled what all survivors of domestic violence need. She created space to honor herself. She admitted her depletion. She did not deny her feelings.
Once this dance was done, Leopolina said quite genuinely she needed help. She needed to change, but she could not do it alone. Though she was a healer, she was also a victim of domestic violence. Her victimization was not only from within her own family of origin. She was victimized by the way she worked, geographically isolated and overly-responsible. From this simple acknowledgement, Leopolina was able to ask for help.
All the service providers who worked with domestic violence understood Leopolina’s dance and Leopolina’s need. They agreed to support one another. This is the same path survivors of domestic violence must take. Eventually, these women committed to building a bridge between American and Mexican safehouses (or refugios) — sanctuaries for women and children leaving domestic violence behind.
The Safehouse Legacy
While the first safehouse dates back to 1971, when Erin Pizzey founded Chiswick’s Women’s Aid in England, the movement is very new to Latin America. All the refuges opened after the initial safehouse in England have since been full to capacity. It is likely this will also be the case in Mexico. Lenore Walker, a founding member of the movement against domestic violence and author of Battered Woman, underscores the value of these shelters:
“The importance of the shelter movement is that it provides a sense of community and a support system. As soon as battered women walk through the door, they are no longer helpless victims. They begin to realize that they do have power over their own lives, that other people care enough to risk helping them and that the institutions of society can and will come to their aid.”
In Mexico, such discoveries will be tantamount to an initiation into power for women who have been forced into silence and isolation when they are brutalized. The women in Fortin who have encouraged the development of safehouses in America and refugios in Mexico are like soldiers of liberation. They become doubly powerful and deeply nourished when they join arms to work together.
Massage therapy and energy medicine can serve the function of recovery for survivors of domestic violence, just as it did for Leopolina in Fortin de las Flores. Recovery leads to expression. Expression builds the foundation which allows us to reach out and ask for support. Only from this series of steps can something new evolve.
“It feels like the shadows that were nesting in my body have been removed,” Leopolina said to the group, after her dance. “We have to transform ourselves in order to transform the world.
“I let out the shocks that were held in my organs. I let them out into such a loving space that I was able to connect not only with myself but also to the community, to the whole. This gives me the courage to invite the people I work with to do the same.”
Leopolina spoke these words, as she looked directly into the eyes of all the participants. Everyone knew, in that moment, it was not far-fetched to transplant Oriental theories of energy, of meridians and pulses, to Mexico. On the contrary, in an utterly human way, cultures befriend one another, particularly when you speak the language of healing.
Children and Energy Medicine
Some of the workshop participants brought their children, to the delight of everyone in Fortin. As the participants did the hard work of unraveling shock from their lives and the lives of their clients and their cultures, the children’s bright faces reminded them why they were engaged in this hard work.
But the children were curious about the adults. What were they doing as they gathered in circles? What were they talking about so intensely, late into the evening? Why did they embrace with their eyes closed, and cry, and then dance and laugh? What was making them so sad, and then so happy? Was there some secret here and why couldn’t they be a part of it?
With the greatest innocence and purity, children carry shock in their bodies, just as adults do. But adults have accumulated many complicated layers of shocking and traumatic experience, and as a result they have created defense structures and armoring to lessen the pain they feel. Growing up in social structures where such pain is denied, these protective mechanisms have become part of their survival. Without the background strength of validation for true feeling, adults revert to “fitting in.” Children, on the other hand, reveal their shock quite easily. The children who had come to Fortin were in families going through divorce or medical crisis, or some other major challenge. They knew, instinctively, that what the adults were talking about, studying and practicing, applied somehow to them. Children experience this knowing as action and sensation, not as thought. They were magnetized to the adult gatherings. They wanted to be part of what everyone else was experiencing. And they could be. There was no reason not to include them.
Just as energy medicine is the perfect form for treatment of shock in adults, it is wonderfully suited for children as well. The gentle, spacious, non-invasive choreography of energy medicine allows children to receive it easily. When treating children, special attention must be given to allowing them to determine how much treatment they will receive. Of course, the same applies to adults, but adults tend to want more treatment than children do.
The potential power of treating children for shock using energy medicine is astounding. To free children of the burden is to truly fulfill our function as adults. For children who are survivors of domestic violence, for instance, the non-invasive quality of energy medicine soothes the way they have been violated by touch, or are fearful of it. Children awaiting a foster family in Missouri, for instance, are offered gentle touch as “emotional vitamins,” says Scott Hummel, executive director of a facility for physically abused children. “Touch is only offered once trust and respect have been established.”
A Child’s Story
The international community of healers gathered around the eldest of the children in Fortin when he volunteered to receive a treatment. It had been a long and demanding day and the cooks had arranged a special dessert. Boxes of gaily wrapped chocolates and cookies were distributed and everyone became a child as they opened the treats. Jovial shouts and bright expressions accompanied the competition for the brightest wrappings. Everyone delighted in detailed descriptions of the contents of their sweets. It was the perfect party atmosphere to treat Miguel who was normally a rather serious and somber child. As the eldest in a struggling and afflicted family, he held a position of responsibility that he needed encouragement to abdicate.
He stretched his lanky 10-year-old frame on the treatment table and crossed his arms over his chest. As he lay down, everyone suddenly became quiet and Miguel’s eyes darted quickly around the room.
Evenings in Fortin are cool. The women snuggled in colorful wraps. Dorasita and Nacio sat close together. Emma curled into Juan Carlos’ side. Mimi and Salom brought in steaming pots of tea, sweetened with cinnamon and honey. The room was pungent with many years of damp nights. The candles flickered and the fire crackled.
In families where shock has occurred, there is usually a child who tries to be the healer. This is frequently the child who grows up to be a psychologist, a massage therapist or a social worker. While often appearing to be calmest, he or she may actually be very angry. The healer child sacrifices childhood itself. Miguel was such a child. The tightness in his chest, neck and shoulders revealed how much he was holding back.
In the awkward pause when adults and children realize they have something important to say to one another, there is a gem of energy medicine that fits perfectly. This ancient and simple gift is called storytelling. It erases confusion and replaces it with wonder.
As Miguel received an energy treatment, the international community told a communal story in pidgin English and Spanish. The story Miguel wanted to hear was the story of a boy who swore and yelled and did wild, even coarse things. This was the kind of boy Miguel could never be because of the role he had created for himself in his family.
As the story unfolded, and Miguel’s neck and spine let go, the group laughed louder and louder. They created fantastically “bad” and ribald scenes for their fictional character. Laughter is not in Spanish or English, and neither is love. The multi-colored rebozo of compassion surrounded the healers and survivors on that evening.
Miguel stood up from his treatment with a look of great satisfaction and mumbled something about funny adults, a shy smile on his face. His shoulders sat lower on his frame, his walk was more loosely limbed, his arms swung freely at his sides and his eyes were no longer nervous. Less vigilant and more child-like, he went easily with his mother, brothers and sister to bed.
The group members embraced each other warmly. Whispered wishes for dulces sueos con los ngeles (sweet dreams with the angels) drifted on the moist air. For that night the lineage of shock ended and all slept peacefully in safety and trust.
By Stephanie Mines, Ph.D., the founder and director of The TARA Approach for the Resolution of Shock and Trauma, a nonprofit organization, to build a bridge between survivors of domestic violence in Mexico and the United States. To participate in these intercultural programs, or to make a tax-deductible contribution to their continuity, contact Mines at 303/499-9990, or e-mailing her at Taramines@Tara-Approach.org. Visit her Web site at http://www.TARA-Approach.org. Mines is also the author of Sexual Abuse/Sacred Wound: Transforming Deep Trauma, The Dreaming Child: How Children Help Themselves Recover From Illness and Injury, and We Are All in Shock: Treatments for Healing the Silent Epidemic.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2001.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
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