Certain words I have torn out of my personal lexicon and just tossed. One of those is “stuck.” It is not allowed in my office either. True, sometimes progress is so slow as to be frustratingly imperceptible, but I don’t believe it has stopped and is certainly not cause for giving up.
I was once riding my bike up a hill so steep that I just went splat and fell right on my side. It was not that I had stopped moving completely; I was just not quite a match for that grade yet. I picked myself up, dusted myself off sheepishly, and with embarrassment walked that final stretch. I needed to get a little (maybe a lot?) stronger to tackle that hill again.
Sometimes clients will lament feeling or being stuck, and I know there is nothing I can say in those moments. If I try to disagree and point out the progress that is still slowly being made, they just feel frustrated and not understood or not heard. I have no choice but to just be quiet and empathic and hold the faith. I do remember how miserable and hopeless those moments can feel. And yes, they are moments.
“True, sometimes progress is so slow as to be frustratingly imperceptible, but I don’t believe it has stopped and is certainly not cause for giving up.”
The road to healing can be long and steep, and often interrupted by surprises. I recently heard a radio story about a prison “lifer” who was released on parole after completing twenty-three years of his life sentence. He’d had a tragically traumatic childhood as a ghetto boy: his parents having divorced, he lived with his father, who committed suicide when he was 8. He returned to live with his mother then, who was “more or less homeless.” At age 16, he and some friends had robbed a store, and one of his friends had shot and killed the store clerk. Tried as an adult, our young man had landed a life prison sentence. All of this detail is to illustrate how completely and utterly alone – uncared-for – he had almost always been. And his sentence was in effect, forever… His story of course is sadly not an unusual one when poverty is involved.
Trauma healing often does feel like a life sentence, and like one we will never be free. For some reason, our young man chose to spend the time behind bars working hard to transform himself.
He studied, educated himself, earned a degree, stayed out of trouble, and somehow succeeded, to his own disbelief, in winning a release date.
At 42, he had never worked an honest job. Coming out of prison, he was completely “dazed” and alien, rather like Rip van Winkle. At any moment he expected to be yanked back and locked up again. And as he described it, one is immediately about $25,000 “in the red.” You need a place to live, a car, clothes, basically everything. Most of all, you need a job, which is no small feat, because application forms can legally inquire if one has been convicted of a crime, and no one really wants to hire an “ex-con.”
Our man pounded the pavement, applied “everywhere” including all the current gig type jobs, but kept meeting with the same slamming doors until he happened to wander into a small Kosher bakery in the outer avenues of San Francisco, owned and operated by a young Israeli man named Isaac Frena. Frena, whose Eastern European family also had a story before getting to America, decided to try him out.
Our young man turned out to be the hardest working, most competent baker ever. He loved learning all the Kosher laws, even learning Hebrew. Why did Frena decide to do this? “Kosher is not just about food;” he said. Kosher is a way of life. The first fundamental rule of Judaism is that everyone deserves a second chance.” I for one, had never quite thought about “Kashrut” that way. Our young man gave his all to that chance. “It is the hardest work you could hope to find – high pressure, timing, accuracy. Bread is like… it’s a living organism. I compare it to a baby. It’s growing. if you don’t intervene into that child’s life at the right time, it’s going to grow up to be a monster.”
He began to tell others, and Frena gave others that chance. And before too long there were over twenty-five former “lifers” of all ages and races, working harmoniously together in the Kosher bakery. Of course, it was not smooth always, but here is the most important part: “Frena genuinely cares about people… They gave me love and a sense of security and they were giving love and a sense of security to all the dudes that were around me. That kind of kept snowballing.” Love and security, feeling seen and cared about are the most important ingredients for life: for growth, and for healing. That is why neglect is so devastating.
I once worked with a couple, who seemed to be having the same dialog every week. “I feel hopeless,” said one. “It makes sense that you feel so hopeless.” Then the other would reply “and I feel hopeless too.” The other responded “it makes sense that you feel hopeless too…” And it went on like that, round and round for months. But they kept showing up. And I for one, was still hopeful. Because the main ingredient was in the room. I genuinely cared for them and they still genuinely cared for each other.
After some months, week after week like that, they broke through. They were amazed. How do we keep going? I don’t know. They proceeded to be a happy long-married couple, and I have seen them again over the years from time to time.
Sometimes, when it seems as if there is no progress, like nothing is moving at all, what is happening is that “something” is slowly growing, like yeast rising in the space where that secure attachment never was. One is growing the capacity to metabolize the steady care of a consistent other. In itself, it is regulating. It is really the most important thing in the world.
Baking is a great metaphor and I do love to bake. I started growing my sourdough starter in 2014. That is where you mix a ratio of flour to water, and find just the right conditions, where it eventually begins to bubble and in effect ferment. It becomes natural or “wild” yeast. It took me six tries before my starter “took” so to speak. I had to try different locations with different temperatures, light, draft, etc. Finally, I found a cabinet, of just the right size and temperature, free of light and breeze, where my little jarful could thrive, and it has been ever since. Of course, I have to feed it and clean it every day. I have never thought of it as being like a baby, but certainly a pet. And I continue to find baking with it regulating and calming, not only because dough is tactile and it feels good; but because something that grows does provide that additional missing experience, that even if slow, there may be subtle, even imperceptible movement. It is hard to hold hope sometimes. That is where we may most need the presence of another.
Competent therapy, a variety of regulating modalities and consistency are requisites for good trauma healing. And the solid base of authentic care does keep things moving. That is why I am rather insistent about the combination of neurofeedback with deep psychotherapy. Both are necessary but not sufficient, but the combination is the charm. Sometimes the greatest challenge is to keep showing up, keep pedaling. Meanwhile, everyone seems to love the bread!
Each time I write a blog, I always try to think of a song that I love that goes with what I’ve written. Today’s is Don’t Give Up (ft. Kate Bush) by Peter Gabriel.
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.