As a survivor of torture I know how wounds of violation can live in the body and the mind. My recovery included bodywork, and so I know both its assets and liabilities in resolving shock of this magnitude. I am now both a practitioner and a teacher of somatic therapies for survivors, which has added substantially to my perspective on what it takes to rebuild one’s life from the pyres of hatred.
The war I lived through was a political uprising, a struggle for equality with strong racial overtones. The armies at battle were street fighters, indigenous forces with primitive resources and police armed with advanced technology. I lived for almost four years in an environment of ongoing violence, followed by years of hiding after being beaten and tortured, ostensibly for information, but actually as punishment for my beliefs and choices.
I have been able to uproot most of the nervous system behavior instilled during this period and resulting from these horrors. The successes and failures on this journey orient me now as I construct resources with the clear intention of serving both survivors and therapists. In addition, this is my outreach to perpetrators of war, torture and human violation, for once the cycle ends, it ends for everyone.
Here I focus specifically on the somatic interventions that restore vitality and presence for someone who has been in war or who has been affected by combat or the violation of human rights. Indeed, massage therapists, energy healers and bodyworkers of all kinds are the most likely candidates to contact the truth of war. Our hands traverse territories where secrets are embedded. Our fingers walk the borders between sanity and hysteria.
War is like chemotherapy or radiation for cancer. The residual toxins, however, live even longer. These toxins include environmental pollutants, like depleted uranium or Agent Orange, that enter the soil of the earth and the bodies of the survivors, including the DNA of the children they bear. These toxins shape muscles, limbs and embryonic development. They direct nervous system behavior, relationships and the expression of emotions.
Guilt, rage, frustration, horror, grief and shame are also toxic byproducts of war. They burrow into the folds of the brain and therefore into muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves. War lives in our bodies and in the body of the earth for generations. Unless the energies of war are resolved, pacified and repatterned, wars are inherited, passed like a monstrous load from generation to generation in palpable ways.
When you touch the body of a survivor of war or political torture, you are likely to encounter buried land mines. All survivors are always, of necessity, keeping something down, like someone about to vomit, having been instructed not to. Without guidance about dismantling their own explosive energies, survivors all too often go under. This is evidenced, horribly, by the fact that the number of Vietnam War veteran suicides now doubles the number of combat deaths, and continues to rise. (Daniel Hallock. Hell, Healing and Resistance. Plough Publishing, Farmington, PA:1998.)
Who Are the War Survivors?
War is everywhere. Chris Hedges, author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, tells us that modern war is really a war against civilians. On occasion we may foolishly think we are not the civilians Hedges is referring to, but we are. We are all living in the midst of war. You and I are the survivors. We participate in a world shaped by responses to threat. The truth of this is in our bodies and in the bodies of all those we touch.
Somatic therapists put their hands on the body of truth, not the myth of war. We enter the physical space between denial and surrender, between history and personal reality. Our clients are not only those who survive experiences beyond the nervous system’s healthy capacity to integrate. Our clients are also the wives, husbands, mothers, fathers and children of the combatants, living or dead. Our clients are the young people threatened by the wars to come and the descendants of those who fought in previous wars. This is why bodyworkers now, more than ever, need an immediate education in the physiological, neurological and spiritual consequences of overwhelming experience.
To treat the long-term, deeply ingrained wounds of war and torture, our attention must first go to the nervous system. This is the strand bodyworkers, knowingly or unknowingly, unravel from the strangleholds of fear and denial. The intricate interaction of skin, spinal column and neurology is what we aim to free. Our hands communicate directly with survival mechanisms. We, of necessity, evoke memories that reside, like throngs of insects, just on the other side of a wall that combat veteran Farley Mowat calls “the cotton wool of protective forgetfulness.”
The Sacred Box
Denial is omnipresent in the body of the survivor. It is the sacred box in which survivors keep their secrets. Denial is the best friend of those who witness or experience combat, torture, horror and abuse, including the war criminals themselves. Denial is neurologically established for the purpose of survival. It is the commander in the reptilian brain’s control center. Here, the commander, with the key to the box in hand, obsessively issues orders to the body to survive terror. But the reptilian brain only speaks in present tense. It needs education to vacate its past protective role at the necessary time, like an overprotective mother you must inform, even cajole, to step down when she is no longer needed in this capacity.
Bodywork inevitably seduces and draws out the body’s stories, and therein lies both its gift and its warning. How precisely can we honor the release of massive energies long withheld without reactivating original shock? And what happens to us as we do so?
“It was only by listening to my body that I realized I was living a lie,” says Vietnam veteran Steve Cannon, who specifically requested his real name be used in this article. Cannon was adamant about the crucial role somatic therapists and bodyworkers play. “I survived by suppression, by burying everything in my body. What I needed was direction about how to just be with my body and my feelings.
“It should be a requirement,” Cannon continued with intensity, “that every bodyworker dedicate themselves to studying how shock lives in the cells of the body and how it can be reactivated. Bodyworkers need to create a context for their clients to manage their emotional and physiological responses or they are in danger of reinforcing denial and perpetuating suffering.”
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
The three keys to somatic treatment for survivors are sensory awareness, integration and grounding. These cannot be accomplished by touch alone. Words to accompany somatic interventions and a spacious receptivity are essential ingredients in the recovery formula. Appropriate interventions, in combination with intentional dialogue, point to the light and the life at the end of the tunnel. These particular skills, given the nature of our reality now, have to be included in the curricula of a bodyworker’s training.
Somatic therapists are the guides to this reclamation of the body — the treasure that is rediscovered after an arduous journey underground. The rewards of life are what survivors earned but were unable to claim alone. Thus treatment becomes rebirth, and bodyworkers are the midwives.
Immobility and constriction, otherwise known as freezing or parasympathetic shock, is a common muscular condition for survivors. Vigilance or hyper-alertness is its sympathetic twin. Becoming conscious of the specifics of both tonic immobility and hypertension is an important step out of hell. Gentle mirroring by the therapist of these holding patterns is a good introduction to the unifying potential of sensory awareness. But the mirroring must be done carefully and wisely. Both integration and grounding must be assured before any bodywork session can be complete.
The danger in bodywork with survivors is that of intense reactivation and emotional flooding. In fact, Amber Gray, massage therapist and former clinical director of the Rocky Mountain Survivors’ Center, does not recommend bodywork for torture survivors. “For the torture survivor, physical contact is torture. All assumptions about the body must be left behind when you approach survivors of war and torture.”
Subtle interventions, such as energy medicine, are the most effective and even they should be introduced in a titrated way, making sure the effects of each intervention are observed before another is introduced. This way the somatic portals to the wounded body and spirit are respectfully opened.*
Somatic therapists must listen to the cacophony of horror in their hands and in the voices that report and release. This requires the therapist not run from pain. Bodywork with survivors is both active and receptive meditation, slowing us down, centering us by attending to what is. It is the direct opposite of denial. Thus it is living compassion, having the tolerance to be with the dark as well as the light, the shadow that is in all of us.
There are two other primary cautions to bodyworkers who choose to serve survivors. One is not to move quickly, and the second is to never be formulaic. I asked Cannon what aspect of the bodywork he experienced failed him. He replied it was the mandatory instruction to “drink lots of water” or the smile that belies denial. When you bring the darkness of the world to the massage table you don’t want to be reminded to “have a nice day.”
Brian O’Leary’s (a pseudonym) sparkling eyes and joyous laugh told me that although he lost all his friends (they were teenage soldiers in World War II) at the Battle of Midway and nearly lost his mind, he has healed. Ralph Peters (also a pseudonym), on the other hand, could not look me in the eye at all. His plane crashed in Vietnam and since then he’s crashed cars, and traumatized his body, over and over again. His hands tremble with terror, guilt, rage and grief. The keys to his new car, the one he had just gotten after his last crash, rattled as he held them while we spoke. In the end, he left them on the table, racing off to get to an appointment he clearly would not make on time.
O’Leary chose the course of nature, using five element, or nature-based healing systems,** to find his way back to himself. His life now is one of deep contemplation and well boundaried self-respect.
As a former pilot, Peters keeps diving in. He has been Rolfed, structurally integrated and medicated. He has gone on and off anti-depressants as often as he has been in and out of businesses and relationships. He grasps for one hand after the other. Desperate to be handsome, manly, youthful and successful, he struggles to keep his emptiness at bay, whereas O’Leary opened to it. This is the difference between organic pacing that allows a knotted nervous system to find its way home and healing that is pushed to its limits.
Interactive and carefully paced interventions hold the most promise. These, however, require courage and mentoring. Mature attunement to the body’s history will revolutionize the benefits of bodywork for all survivors.
I think somatic therapy is central to recovery from war and torture, but only with the education and honed intention of bodyworkers. When our training instructs us how to free the body from barbaric re-enactment, the profession of somatic therapy will fulfill its purpose of empowerment and embodiment. Then, those we touch will live to tell their stories with dignity and we will be able to stop war at its source.
*Subtle energy interventions that include education about recovery from abuse and violation and are specifically available for bodyworkers are trauma touch therapy, the TARA Approach and somatic experiencing.
**Five-element healing systems include Five Element acupuncture, Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine, Qigong and the TARA Approach. These are beneficial adjuncts to psychotherapy.
By Stephanie Mines, Ph.D., the founder and director of the TARA Approach, a holistic treatment design for the resolution of shock and trauma. She is also the author of We Are All in Shock: How Overwhelming Experience Shatters You and What You Can Do About It (Career/New Pages, 2003). Her program’s website is www.tara-approach.org.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 2003.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
- Immobilization/shutdown/dissociation/frozen, a trauma response built into the nervous system (wellbodymindheartspirit.com)
- Letting Go – Pain is Natural; Suffering is Optional (hofholistichealingcenters.com)