The Transformative Power of Trauma – From Damaged Goods to an Empowered Life

Phyllis
“I call it my shark bite,” Phyllis says, whose entire left side from breast to lower abdomen has scars from five operations, all of which occurred within one year as the result of migrating cancer and other complications. One-quarter of her lung, four ribs, part of her breast and its surrounding tissue, her uterus, and a segment of her lower intestine were removed.

“All I could think of was death,” she recalls. “I felt myself becoming weaker and giving in to the illness, so I forced myself to return to work. There, I asked a co-worker, whom I knew had had cancer: ‘What do you do when every day that you wake up, you think that you’re going to die?’ And he said: ‘You’re going to die anyway.’ And, it struck me: That’s so true. It’s not important when you die, but rather how you live. It’s like breathing, it’s all part of something very natural, so just live your life how you want to be living it right now.”

During guided visualization, when Phyllis returned to those places where the illness had begun and where she was later cut into, she saw “colors coming in versus something coming out of the scars, and I just let that all come in. It was like the Aurora Borealis, only it was all brilliant colors, merging into a center sphere that was a pulsating healthy place where all these colors were coming from.”

It was her shoulders, where Phyllis said she had carried a lot, that she chose to decorate and beautify the most. Her entire left side was draped in a foliage of vibrant blues, oranges and greens. “Before, I took things for granted, took all kinds of things on my shoulders and was really struggling through life, whereas now it’s just a piece of cake. I consider myself a very healthy person because for a year my body went through all these shocks to see what I would come out as, and I came out stronger than I was before. I now look at death in a different light because I’ve come so close to it twice.”

Mapping a Body, Reflecting a Life
“Soul pours forth from our wounds … [The places of our] punctures and violations are areas of potential intimacy between us and those we love, even though on the surface they may seem to be precisely the areas of mistrust.” Thomas Moore wrote these words in his book Soul Mates (Harper Collins, 1994), and the lines remind us that, after a wounding, sometimes the most difficult thing is to allow life to flow back into the very place where it once hurt us the most — to trust and open our body, ourselves, once again. The areas where we have been cut into, opened, bled, bruised, torn and otherwise hurt physically or emotionally are not places we immediately return to, much less celebrate, though the stories that emerge from there often redefine who we are and how we move in the world. They are the places where, once we return, we rediscover what it means to be truly intimate and open with ourselves, with another and with life. The body is restructured — and we are redefined — by such experiences, as much as by any physical therapy received.

During a massage session, these places of wounding, visible or not, are often touched in and on the body. Sometimes the massage session is the only time these areas of pain and life’s other signs of transition are explored. These are regions where the body’s energy flow has been interrupted or constricted. The musculature tightens, blood flow is limited, breath is held and fascia adhered, holding memories, messages and stories. These are also transformative places, holding great potential.

To touch these places is to acknowledge, beautify and even celebrate the wounds that mark life’s passages. The intent is to allow the unique individual stories to emerge from the areas where the body has experienced trauma or other life changes, such as birth and aging. These stories represented here come from participants of a workshop in which they follow a guided visualization and meditation, and each person draws or paints what they feel when they re-enter those places in their own body. With the body as canvas, the drawings are then repainted on the original scar or area of change, bringing the imagery and colors of each person’s experience to the surface, making the vibrant energy of their individual story visible.

Trauma sometimes washes out the color in life. Exploring the trauma allows, as Moore wrote, the soul to pour forth so that life is re-experienced. These are the ways people have been transformed.

Sonja
“I made my body beautiful. I restitched it, recreating what had been done to me in surgery, through art,” says Sonja*, an artist and dancer, who experienced a car accident that left her clinically dead for several minutes and resulted in a brain injury, 22 fractures, and subsequent surgeries, skin grafts, braces and pins. “I’m a medical miracle … a reconstruction of technology. At first, I felt that the accident had raped me of my passion for dance, but I wouldn’t take back what I learned and what came out of the experience,” she says.

It was through her art that Sonja reconstructed her form and her sense of self, rebuilding neural connections as she rebuilt her self-esteem. Projecting actual photographs and paintings of her scars onto her body and then photographing her form, she created a tapestry of images that retold her story and became a work of art.

Through her work, Sonja was able to recognize the importance not only of transforming her experience, but of sharing it with others. She is now working on her master’s degree in art therapy, practices yoga and lectures about her experience, despite continuing problems with short-term memory. “It was a rebirth of myself. I learned to respect my own rhythms and healing process. Society is already moving too fast and I discovered patience with myself. I also recognized how important personal integrity is, to respect who we are, as we are. Wherever we are in our process and however we look, or however society looks at us, doesn’t matter. What I see on my body now is my life story. There are beautiful shapes, like what happens in art: Spontaneous, unplanned. There’s so much that I want to do artistically with this.”

Our physical and emotional scars often have the same corporal effects. When people speak of their scars and experiences, one has a sense that the healing is a process of on-going revelation, versus arriving at an end-result. Sonja says: “Scars have a healing component because they’re always with us so we can’t ignore them, we have to befriend them, listen to their stories, and repeat them. By retelling them, they become part of us, we accept them — and then they transform us.”

Jacqueline
“I was back in the operating room, feeling the cutting as I had then, slightly tugging, even though I’d been given a local anesthetic,” says Jacqueline, recalling the birth of her first child, Raphaelle, via a cesarean delivery. “I was already pushing her out and they were telling me to stop because they wanted to give me the shot [anesthetic]. But I was working my contractions with the energy of the universe. My baby was ready to come out. It was her energy that I started experiencing in the visualization.” Jacqueline painted not her C-section scar, but an image of her daughter in the womb, surrounded by a rainbow of colors. “That was her way out,” she says. “Through and with that energy.”

As she recalled the incision, she also recalled where she had been in her life at the time. “I was embarking on this new identity, a new lifestyle as a mother. I’d never premeditated this and there was a lot of fear around my decision, wondering if it was the right choice. Then I got pregnant a second time, less than a year after, but I was more relaxed and knew more what to expect. There has been a lot of healing in me and in my attitudes, and this exercise [workshop] gave me a chance to get in touch with what I appreciate about all that I’ve been through and about where I am now with my two girls. It was like a window into a place in my body that holds a lot of memories and emotions. And it was good to enter that place in a experiential, creative way that I normally wouldn’t explore on my own.”

Michel
For Michel Paradis, back scars from multiple surgeries to correct a spinal injury and from a severe acne condition that also covered much of his face, are reminders that he has been offered an opportunity to understand his life’s purpose. “When we don’t yet understand what our mission in life is, events increase in intensity so that we can realize why we’re here and what we’re supposed to be doing,” Paradis says. “These scars are the traces that life has left on me. They mark the direction of life that has led me to where I am today, to what I needed to find, and I believe that it is through our body that we find guidance.”

During his nearly two-year recovery period, Paradis found the time (which he never seemed to have before) to read about different philosophies, giving him insights into not only his condition, but into his life as he had been living it. It was a period of both recovery and reassessment. “My scars are like messages, they’re part of a cellular memory that I had to take the time to interpret,” he says, emphasizing that the process is ongoing, particularly since he still sometimes suffers from severe back pain that brings him to a place of stillness and listening, a place he now also touches through meditation.

It was through this continual re-evaluation and his perception of how others reacted to his scars that he was able to better understand his body’s messages. “I realized that we cultivate our own ‘complexes.’ As I came to accept how I looked, I noticed that my condition still provoked reactions in others but I had also come to accept their reactions. Those who react to me negatively are coming from a place of judging, which is something that we all have a tendency to do and so we share this very same human condition. Everyone has notions about what’s ‘beautiful’ or what’s ‘deficient’ and we all have times when we cannot deal with the reality of what is in front of us. I’ve come to realize that what’s really beautiful about the body is that it’s a vehicle for messages from our soul.”

Charlie
“The scar was a place where there was a vacuum, no activity, therefore no color,” says Charlie Gurd, reflecting on his painting that surrounds his scar with bright orange hues yet leaves it unadorned. “When you cut through nerve endings, you also cut through sensation and all the activity that passes through that area. What was cut was a transmission that was going not only through that area, but to other places in the body that are communicating via that central area.”

While on his bicycle on his way to a Buddhist meditation, Gurd was run off the road by a truck and knocked unconscious. Although he attempted to sit in meditation after regaining consciousness, he had to eventually be taken to the hospital. That’s where problems began. Because he didn’t outwardly appear injured, he was continually refused admission at various hospitals. Eventually, with the help of a medical-student friend, he was admitted to one hospital where diagnostic tests showed that he was hemorrhaging internally. After undergoing exploratory surgery, the cause of the hemorrhaging was discovered: A ruptured spleen. The surgical incision left Gurd with stitches up the length of his abdomen and scar tissue that contracted painfully as it healed, preventing him from standing up straight for almost a year.

“I was bedridden for a long time and there was a lot going through my mind, a lot of visualization. For sure, there was some trauma attached to that. It’s only fairly recently — and the accident was 22 years ago — that I’ve regained most of my strength, although there’s still some slight contraction from the scar tissue,” says Gurd, now an architect and photographer.

Gurd continues his meditation practice and now also does yoga and has begun exploring the nature of movement, energy and memory in the body. “The nature of memory is especially well-detailed in the ancient Tibetan texts, where it’s described as a perceptual screen that filters awareness of the present,” he states. He sees the workshop concept of painting scars as a way to bypass this “memory screen,” which may interfere with an unobstructed connection with the present moment, and of how the body itself can become a physical representation of this memory screen and how memory is held throughout the body.

“It would be interesting to develop a visual allegory of whatever it is that prevents us from fully seeing the moment as it is. I think that it’s a step toward enlightenment, to clearly see the moment that is a unity, an aspect of the universal path. There’s a series of paintings and photographs that I’d love to do sometime: The taking and giving of light.”

Charlie’s photographic work, which has been exhibited in several galleries, often involves a visual expression of this interplay of light on form, or even through forms, imbued with a luminescence, a radiance that appears to come from within.

How the Body Holds–and Releases–Trauma
Trusting these body signals is paramount. It is this listening quality that is integral to the body’s restructuring process. As we move and think in new ways, our body restructures itself around these messages. It is therefore essential to establish new patterns of thought and movement that will convey positive messages around an area of wounding or a place that is in the process of change. This transformation begins at a very deep molecular and energetic level, in our connective tissue — one of the first structures to develop in the embryo (as early as 12 days following fertilization). It is this network that supports all other organs and structures of our body, and that also carries and transforms all information throughout our body, throughout our life. It is here that change happens.

Collagen, the tough fibrous protein that gives connective tissue its strength, has a crystalline molecular matrix that is piezoelectric, that is, it generates an electrical impulse when pressure is applied to it. Thus, the connective tissue matrix produces a field of electrical current whenever pressure or movement occurs, making it capable of restructuring and reconstructing itself as it is moved, as we move and are moved. This network functions as a semiconductor, converting and transmitting energy into various electrical (neural, hormonal, muscular) signals, which naturally carry information throughout the body.

In re-exploring stored cellular memories through bodywork, an information flow is encouraged and the body’s restructuring takes on a more creative and healing quality.

Transforming Patterns
A fashionable Egyptian woman in fourth century B.C. would outline the veins on her breasts in blue and coat her nipples with gold. Centuries later, we try to cover the veins and hide any signs of change on our bodies. We excise out or cover over the places where life has touched our form. We all carry such experiences on and within our bodies: The wounding, aging, birthing and transitions that leave their marks. Some are visible, others less so. These are places that tell the stories of our lives. And, while we may eventually acknowledge these physical and emotional scars, rarely do we work with them. Rarer still do we celebrate or even beautify them.

As the stories above show, those who worked with, not against, the places of scarring or change in and on their bodies saw them not as limitations but as opportunities to redefine their notion of who they are. It was this new expression of themselves that challenged and transcended previously held concepts of wounding, of life changes, of beauty, and of who we believe we are or should be.

Our scars and wounds, metaphorically as well as literally, change our body and how life moves through us — and how we move through life, either distancing ourselves from it or opening to it. How we allow ourselves to be touched, seen, revealed and how we approach others as well as how we approach life — all of this is held in our tissues. Bodywork can become a way of transforming long-held patterns of thought and movement. It can offer the opportunity to commit to a new process that is more life-affirming.

This is a continual process, and as with any long-term commitment, there are always transitional points, moments when we can stay with it and trust, where we can speak our truth and allow ourselves to be heard and felt, seen and touched, or moments where we can choose to retreat and pull back into old holding patterns. It is when we commit to creatively living our life through our bodies in the present moment, regardless of what we have been through in the past, that we can return to those places of wounding and view those areas of change as part of our soul’s deepest expression. It is from here that we can truly touch another and allow ourselves to be touched. It is from here that life flows. It is from here that we transform.

* In some instances, only first names have been used at the individual’s request.

By Sonia Osorio is a massage therapist and teacher who also practices yoga and dance. Her work is a continual reminder of the body’s capacity to creatively redefine itself and move through life with pleasure and joy. Osorio is a regular contributor to various healthcare publications as both a writer and editor.

Ann Milligan is a visual artist inspired by the human condition, especially our ability to overcome and transform ourselves through difficult passages in our lives. She has had several shows, including an exhibit that is an exploration of the effect of genetically-modified food on the body.

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2001.
Copyright since 2001. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

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