This morning I had my fourth Thai Massage. One of the yoga instructors leading my yoga teacher training also does Thai Yoga Therapy… or Thai Massage. If you haven’t read my previous posts about Thai, I recommend you read them before reading this one (Thai Massage 1; Thai Massage 2; Thai Massage 3).
If you read my post from earlier today, you know I was anxious about this Thai Massage. I don’t always get anxious about the actual massage, but today I was. In therapy on Tuesday, I confessed that I still have a difficult time in certain yoga poses (frog on the wall, reclined bound angle, and wide legged forward folds – seated and on the wall). When I am in those poses, I feel everything opening. And no, I am not referring to my hamstrings. The sensation that I feel is actually related to none of the targeted muscle groups in those poses. I can’t feel that stretch. Instead, it feels like it did when I was little. It feels like he is putting things inside of me again. It’s the kind of feeling that makes my legs involuntarily close. It’s uncomfortable, awkward, and sometimes even painful. When I have that sensation, I literally want to claw my insides to pieces. I can’t just “sit with it.” I work hard in yoga classes to stay present with my breath. I try my very best to prevent a flashback when these poses come up. Sometimes I can for a little while, but the longer we hold the pose, the more challenging it becomes. Eventually I start shaking. The fear wins. My breath is gone…. and so am I.
I reached out to my yoga teacher to ask her if we could work on that today. If you’ve ever willingly done something that you know is going to be incredibly challenging or painful, I commend you for your bravery. It is hard. It is not hard because I make it hard; it is hard because it is hard. Putting myself in that situation today was difficult. It would have been easier to just do typical Thai Massage stuff without targeting that specific sensation. It would have been easier to just let her massage my back the whole time. But I have to remind myself that the point of these sessions is to find healing and growth. I can’t do that if I am just sticking with what is “easy.”
Our session started with discussion about how my PTSD symptoms have improved since starting Thai Massage. My yoga teacher asked me what that was like. While I am excited about my progress, I am also a little scared. It is amazing to go to bed at night and not be afraid of nightmares. It is amazing to not be sitting with high anxiety on a daily basis, or to not be contemplating self injury or suicide regularly. However, if you read my post from earlier this week, you know that I am now struggling with the fact that in this growth and healing, I have lost a very big part of my identity. My yoga teacher was empathetic when I explained that. Her empathy made me feel safe. It’s going to be ok. My anxiety instantly decreased.
Just like in previous sessions, she started with massaging my feet. I found myself getting trapped in the memories in the woods again. I caught myself trying to prevent the memories from surfacing. I’m supposed to let them come up, I thought. If they come up, my body can work through them. This reminder was crucial today, and something I had to keep going back to. In order to function in society, I have mastered the art of pushing the trauma memories back down when they surface. Thai Massage is the one place outside of therapy where it is safe to let them come up.
My yoga teacher moved up my legs. At first, it wasn’t too bad. I felt safe and supported. And truthfully, after walking about 11 miles a day for three consecutive days in New York City earlier this week, I needed some serious love on my calves! But then she moved up. She pressed into my upper legs. Through my trauma work, I have learned about the sympathetic nervous system, that “flight, fright, or freeze mode.” As my yoga teacher pushed down on my thighs, my mind screamed at me “this isn’t safe.” I wanted to jerk away. I wanted to cry. I needed to get out. She’s going to hurt you, my mind screamed. I could see the little girl, maybe 9 years old, laying on her back in the woods. His hands are on my thighs, pressing them down. It’s not safe. I tried to find my breath, but I couldn’t. I could feel the leaves under my hands, just like when I was little. No, you are not little anymore. This is your yoga teacher and she is safe… YOU are safe.
As she worked on my legs, there was this war going on inside of my brain. Part of my brain fully believed that I was not safe. The other part very much tried to convince me that I was. Eventually, I curled up into a ball and cried. I just couldn’t take anymore. I needed to escape, to be numb to the noise and the fear in my head. When I found my breath again, I sat up. I’m ok. I explained to my teacher what had happened. I told her that I didn’t feel safe even though I knew that I was. Her response surprised me. It was one of the most validating things I think anyone has ever said to me. She said, “That must have been scary.” It was. It is terrifying to have that battle in your head of not feeling safe even though you are. And for me, those battles can lead to a realm of other things that are scary. For someone else to acknowledge and validate that fear made me feel safe again; it made me feel like I’m actually not crazy; my reaction of fear is normal, given my circumstance and experiences.
When my yoga teacher worked on the stretches that target that “opening sensation” that I was referring to earlier, the fear came back. This fear was different. To a degree, I was afraid that she may hurt me the way that my abuser did, but rationally I knew that wasn’t going to happen. The bulk of this fear came from being afraid of the sensation itself. She opened my left leg out to the side and walked her feet up my hamstring, pressing in. As she pushed into my leg, I felt it. I felt the opening sensation that I was fearing. It stole my breath. I’m little again; younger than 9. It hurts. It hurts so much. Make it stop. It was all I could do to willingly lay there with my legs open. I wanted to curl up into a ball and cry. I wanted it to end. I had to mindfully bring myself back to “the why” of this experience. It would have been easy to curl up into a ball and give up. I am sure my yoga teacher would have understood and been supportive. But I knew if I did that, if I let the fear and flashbacks win this time, I would not be able to find the growth that I was searching for today. So I laid there. I tried desperately to find my breath but could not. At one point I think my yoga teacher even commented about finding my breath, but by then I had dissociated and her words were just a blur. I could hear them, muffled and distant, but I couldn’t comprehend them. I did eventually find my way back though, back to the present moment and back to my breath.
When she had finished with my legs, my yoga teacher asked me if I was ready for hands and arms. I had asked her to work on that again in this session as well. I could tell instantly that this time was going to be different than the last time. In my last session, very little came up for me; my left arm and wrist moved freely and I had no real emotional reaction. Today was the opposite. I was overwhelmed with shame today. It was as if every shameful thing I had ever done came flooding back. Memories of the awful things I participated in as a child, suicide attempts, and self injury…. it was all there. Again, I wanted to jerk my arm away. I wanted to shut myself off from her and the rest of the world, curl up into a ball, and cry. I didn’t want to burden her with my pain or share my shame with her as her hands gently pressed into my scars. I wanted to keep it buried inside. But keeping things inside doesn’t lead to growth.
Towards the end of our session, my instructor massaged my neck and back. I found myself fighting back tears again. I could literally feel my body collapsing onto her, slumping down… and I couldn’t figure out how to engage my muscles to hold myself up. I was mentally exhausted from our session. And then the tears came again. As she pushed her feet into my back and I felt my chest expand, the tears fell. I hope she knows that I am more than this… I am so much more than my trauma stuff, my addictions, my self-injury. Please don’t think I am weak. I don’t know who or what I am right now, but I am more than this. I hope when she looks at me, or when anyone looks at me, they don’t just see my scars; I hope they don’t just see this damaged, weak soul who has been put through these awful traumatic experiences. I am more than that.
Our session ended with a brief savasana. Afterwards, I asked her if she only sees the damaged parts of me. I was afraid she would say that those parts overshadow the rest of me. But she didn’t. She indicated that she does not see my scars and trauma stuff when she looks at me. Relief washed over me. She asked me what I saw when I looked at myself. I don’t know. And right now, I truly don’t. Aside from courage, I do not know what my identity is made up of anymore. As I continue to heal, I will be spending some time exploring and hopefully discovering who I am, and what I want other people to see when they look at me.
Today’s session was challenging and exhausting. Emotionally, it was a lot. I have so much gratitude for this teacher’s willingness to be a part of my journey to healing. As much as my mind tried to tell me that I wasn’t safe today, I know that this teacher works hard to help create a safe place for me. Her care and compassion is what makes trauma work through Thai Massage a possibility for me. I am not sure what the residual effects of today’s session will be, but I am certain I will write about it when they come to fruition.