The Midwifery of Trauma Recovery
In mid-morning of October 2nd, 1996 I was in my second floor bathroom tub in the midst of heavy labor with my first son. I had chosen to have a home birth for several reasons, one of which was that I was not a big fan of hospitals to begin with. I bristled at the thought of a team of people doing things to me, hooking me up to instruments and making decisions for me in the midst of a process that women have been navigating through naturally since the beginning of humankind. I felt that if I was in an atmosphere surrounded by people who could support the strength, courage and empowerment I had inside me to birth a child, it would happen—and of course it did.
In choosing a home birth I also chose home birth midwives. In my search I wanted to find someone who would relate to me as a person, as opposed to a patient. But more so I wanted a midwife who would experientially understand what I was going through during my pregnancy and who would be fully present with me during my labor and birth. I chose to surround myself with women (midwives, my mother, mother-in-law and sister) during a time when I would need support in calling upon all of my faith, strength and capacity for surrender—because when it comes to childbirth, the only way out is through, and accepting—even welcoming what is happening in each moment of labor and birth is a tall but necessary order.
In that experience (which I still mark as the most empowering and beautiful experience of my life) I recall a moment when the feeling in my body shifted from the intensely painful contractions to something with a force behind it. I was frightened and unsure. I had only been in labor for about six hours and felt like maybe something was going wrong. With fear and probably a little panic in my face I looked at my midwife, who through every contraction for the past six hours had been fully present by my side. And in that moment she locked eyes with me and told me something I have never forgotten to this day.
Trust your body.
So I did, and minutes later my first son was born.
It’s now nearly 22 years later and somewhere along the way I had lost the wisdom in that message from my midwife. Years of living in an emotionally abusive marriage and feeling trapped and powerless left me feeling confused and helpless when it came to my body. I didn’t know it at the time, but my body was creating the profoundly protective dissociative state that had become my daily existence for over a decade.
Yet without the knowledge of what was happening to my body, mind and spirit—I was only able to see my body as broken and in need of fixing. I sought help from homeopaths, acupuncturists, herbalists, body workers and therapists, hoping that some or all of them would fix me.
Still my body would not abate. I lived in a daily fog, unable to feel clear, alert and alive and definitely unable to engage in any shred of physical intimacy.
My body is my enemy!
I am broken.
I will never be normal.
And on it went, until I over a decade later I began the (years long) process of leaving my marriage and (years longer still) process of recovering from traumatic stress. I was not aware of it during my marriage, but my body was trying to tell me what my mind would not allow me to hear—get out. I was in a constant state of fear, stress and anxiety, and felt trapped and powerless in my day to day existence. Days turned to weeks, months and years until finally over a decade of living in my marriage my body gave up the fight, and resorted to collapse (also known as dissociation).
The human body will resort to whatever means necessary to escape a stressor or a trauma. First choice is to fight or flee, which involves action and escape from the threat. But in the millions of cases of trauma where an individual is not able to fight or flee, and is in fact powerless (even if the powerlessness is perceived) the body resorts to the freeze response. Normally reserved for moments when death is perceived to be eminent (think a mouse in cat’s jaws), the freeze response serves two purposes. First it is designed to either trick or discourage the predator into letting go of its capture or losing interest—this often works in animals, but is less effective in the case of human acts of abuse and violence. The second function of the freeze response is that it works as an analgesic of sorts, creating a fluffy calm in the body in the moments before death—like a big dose of body-made morphine just when we need it.
The freeze response (like fight or flight) is meant to be a momentary emergency measure in a moment of a threat to our survival. In the case of human beings however, this response all too often spans the course of years or decades (childhood abuse, abusive marriages).
The freeze response does not get an opportunity to “right” itself and creates a continued feedback loop that over time leads to a complete feeling of collapse and separation from the body (known as immobility). This ultimately leads to a loss of life force or any desire or even capacity for social engagement, relationship or intimacy—creating a downward spiral of continued shame, self-judgment and depression. A long term dissociative state creates a feeling of existing but not living— a feeling of soul-less-ness, and in my case, a disdain for my body and its refusal to “snap out of it”.
Years after my marriage ended I realized that this protective state that my body had been in for so many years was not a life sentence. Peter Levine, renowned trauma therapist and founder of The Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute states, "posttraumatic stress injury is an emotional wound, amenable to healing attention and transformation." But in order to heal from the years of daily stress and trauma I would need to feel what my well entrenched dissociation was protecting me from—the excruciating visceral sensation of traumatic memory. Once again I had women to midwife me through that process, women who I myself had trained and watched heal through my own program, TIMBo.
They told me, "trust your body. It is giving you an opportunity to heal."
And when I slipped into a familiar place of self-loathing and feeling broken they reminded me, "don’t hate your body, it did a very good job of keeping you safe. Say thank you."
The irony that I am now a midwife of sorts, helping women recover from years of trauma traumatic stress by reminding them to trust their bodies is not lost on me. Just as I trusted my midwife 22 years ago—because she experientially knew what I was going through, and just like I trusted the women who helped me in the most excruciating moments of trauma recovery (after I helped them through theirs) the women with whom I am working trust me.
This trust does not come from them because they recognize me as a scholar or respect me on an intellectual level, but because I have been through the experience of recovery myself.
So when I encourage women to trust their body—even in moments when the feelings are so excruciating they can’t imagine getting through the experience, they grab a hold of my presence and my words like an anchor, using every tool they have learned in TIMBo to ride the tumultuous waters of recovery.
I have done it because women before me did it and I trusted them. And if they have done it and I have done it, anyone can do it. They do this because I have done it.
And just like labor, the pain has a purpose—there is another side that is beautiful and free. It is the land of living and loving, of feeling your soul come alive and spread through you like a light that eventually reaches the darkest recesses of your being.
Being a midwife to trauma recovery is about reminding women of this other side because you have touched it yourself. It is reminding women that the only way out is through, and reminding them that their body is presenting them with an opportunity to heal a layer of held trauma—not a layer of trauma to run from.
People recover from trauma, eating disorders, substance abuse, depression and other health risk issues every day without this sort of midwife in their lives. But millions more don’t because for one, it is very scary and very uncomfortable. For another, the majority of the world doesn’t have the resources, let alone the structured system of mental health care that we have in this country. For this reason, creating a community of trauma recovery midwives in countries like Haiti and Kenya has wide spread positive implications. But here in this country we can also experience wide scale healing because women are hard wired to live in community and help other women. Thousands of women can recover and go on to be an anchor for other women in recovery.
And in my last ten years of experience I have seen women go through the process of recovering from life-long trauma—been inspired to witness them continue on to become TIMBo trainers and facilitators who serve in the role of trauma midwife. To be in this role means to be 100% present. To not turn away, flinch or feel helpless when a woman is opening to another layer of healing, but to instead sit solidly grounded by her side and remind her that she has everything she needs inside of herself to heal. To remind her to trust that her body will not give her anything she can’t navigate through. To remind her of the reality of her present moment, the agency of her adult self and her capacity to choose. To help her to breathe and remind her that the experience will not last forever. And she will trust because she knows that you have been through it, and you speak from experience.
I am now blessed with the beautiful opportunity to watch those who I helped recover, go on to midwife others (including me) through the process. We all have the capacity to be midwives for others, and not just to heal trauma. Women naturally want to help other women in so many ways. Through difficult parenting years, difficult relationship experiences, difficult life experiences—and yes childbirth and trauma recovery.
In my opinion women are the single most untapped resource for global healing—and it’s time we recognized the value of this resource.
But the greatest gift in all of this for me is that I can only truly midwife a woman through a moment in time when she feels tired, powerless and has lost faith in her ability because I had my own life trauma. And on the other side of recovery is a recognition that all of the traumas I have been through did not break me, and in fact they are now my most valuable asset. Without them I would not have the ability to be present and attentive and from my deepest place of knowing to say to a woman recovering from trauma,
Trust your body.