What does hope look like? What does it mean to feel safe for the first time in your life? How can these things create an environment where you can truly begin to heal from the traumas that have shaped the landscape of your life?
An Unforseen Opportunity
At the beginning of March, I had a unique and unparalleled opportunity to attend a workshop addressing the trauma of being a mass shooting survivor. This was an opportunity I never had after surviving the Columbine Massacre in 1999. Another survivor spoke to me about the program, and I will admit, my first instinct was to see how I could help. I am a trauma specialist after all, it made sense for me to want to come alongside a program specifically aimed at mass shooting survivors. I inquired into coming on board with the program and then thought nothing more about it.
Funny how the things we avoid tend to assert themselves even stronger. The phrase “what we resist, persists” is very fitting. Being someone who has consistently avoided many things surrounding the Columbine Massacre even to this day, the idea of opening up that wound again was not appealing. I’ve always done the work, but also held a lot at arms length. I did not “want to go there” so many times that I convinced myself that I didn’t need to.
When my friend got back to me about joining the foundation, they were excited about the opportunity I presented, but everyone they work with has to go through the program first. If I wanted to help, I needed to travel this healing path myself.
What I Didn’t Know
When I said yes to the process of attending the program, I had no idea what I was really saying yes to. I did all the research I could on the Onsite Foundation and the Triumph over Tragedy Program (TOT) offered. The part of the program that appealed to me the most was the idea of having 7 glorious days of uninterrupted me time. Healing from whatever God brought me to. The fact that the setting for the program in Cumberland Furnace, TN, a 250 acre property that is beyond idyllic and serene, didn’t hurt either.
It was the second day of the program that I begin to feel the strong, visceral resistance to the work. I did not want to experience the pain. The crux of the program is somatic experiencing. Your body knows how to heal itself, but we get in the way. In order to heal from the pain, you have to grieve what happened. It’s not possible to break free from the past if you are unwilling to experience the strong emotions and responses associated with your traumas.
Apparently, I also developed a strong inclination and ability to not really feel what trauma had done in my mind and body. This was the cause of my strong resistance to the work. But I had chosen to embrace this opportunity no matter what God asked me to do.
Taking a deep breath and choosing to dive into the unknown, I experienced something I’ve never experienced before. Safety, a sense of truly being safe in a place and with the people in my group. We became a family. Bonded by tragedy, strengthened by the process of being known and seen, and not judged or devalued.
A sense of safety, being fully known and seen, created the exact environment needed for healing. Experiencing that I can feel the emotions and not die or get stuck in them, opened up the door to healing I didn’t know I had shut.
Reconnecting Me To Me
Our minds and bodies are intricately intertwined. Trauma breaks that connection between our mind and body. Our mind or our body is loudly screaming at us that something is not right, but we don’t always get that message the right way. The tendency to seek out medical help for physiological symptoms such as digestive issues, chronic pain, autoimmune, and other physiological concerns, is a consequence of this disconnection.
Your body will always remember what your mind forgets.
Our signals get crossed, and we don’t relate the onset of these physiological symptoms with a traumatic event. The rational mind can’t make sense of what the body is feeling because it is stuck in a memory loop of our trauma. A loop driven by the primal, unthinking, part of the brain.
Your mind will always be working to try to resolve your stuck trauma. It will cause you to remember in whatever way it can so that you can heal. Many times this is what triggers panic, anxiety, irrational fear, paranoia, and vivid nightmares. A key indicator of unhealed trauma is whether you still respond strongly to the events or memories of them.
This disconnect between mind and body is the focus of somatic experiencing. The goal being to reconnect us to ourselves. When we are connected, we can heal. If we are dissociated from ourselves, we stay stuck in trauma. We live in the past, in the present.
Onsite is the first program of its kind and it is incredibly unique and effective. Through the somatic experiencing process, the incredible knowledge of the group leaders and educators, I left with a new perspective on my trauma.
The goal at Onsite is NOT complete and total healing. The expectation of complete healing in a week would cause immense shame and further trauma because no one would get there. The goal is a 1-2 degree change. The illustration of a pilot is helpful. If a pilot shifted his course by 1-2 degrees he’d end up in a completely different and unexpected place.
So it is with us. 1-2 degrees of change will alter the trajectory of our lives.
Being able to embrace the knowledge I already had as the truth for myself as well as everyone else, set me free to experience change. Realizing that the parts of me that I was so determined to eradicate are not my enemy and meant to protect me, let me see my pain for what it is.
After this week, I came home to shut-down and shelter in place orders. I was thrust from a safe, healing environment, into toxic chaos and lack of control. The transition was extremely hard, and I am still learning and recovering from the abrupt change. Because of the work I did at Onsite, I am able to navigate this chaos in a very different way.
I am stronger. I am healthier. I am still on that healing journey.
The process began that week, and I am continuing it now. Healing from trauma is complicated, messy, hard, painful, and takes time. Instant, magic pills, do not exist. Trauma does not simply go away. Your body and mind will always try to force you to stop ignoring the trauma and heal.
Embrace the bad with the good. Realize that you are interacting with the world through the lens of your trauma response. Believe that you can heal. Then take the next step forward on your journey to freedom.