There are times in our life when everything suddenly feels very unfamiliar and unclear, when the usual rhythms of our routines and relationships waver or even completely unravel, and we are left disoriented and confused. There may have been a precipitating event involving loss, like the death of a loved one or losing a job; or a relationship rupture that seems unresolvable; or a health crisis where bodily functions we have taken for granted no longer seem certain. We may have moved away from everything and everyone that is familiar, struggling to find our way in a different place where nothing is the same as what we left behind, from the neighbors to which grocery aisles house our favorite flavor of Pringles (or worse yet, they are not even stocked!)
Sometimes these disruptions in our “business as usual” represent minor challenges that we are motivated to overcome, like my first Thanksgiving while living in England (shocking that the British don’t celebrate this holiday, I know). I was determined to share this most American of traditions with my new neighbors by hosting them for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. I scoured the grocery stores in our small coastal village for the necessary ingredients but struggled to find what I considered basic staples. The fourth time I hunted down the manager, this time to ask for graham cracker crumbs to make my grandmother’s famous pie crust, he threw up his hands and said, “Goodness luv, what are you on about?” (Which loosely translated meant I had to give up on plan A and start working on plan B). Although the biggest whole turkey the butcher carried was more like a five pound game hen, I bravely bought 5 of them and put on as close to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner as I could manage. My neighbors were mostly enthusiastic (and did not seem to miss the miniature marshmallows I could not find to put on the sweet potato casserole) and a good time was had by all.
Other times, though, the bottom truly drops out and we are left feeling unmoored, tossed about in an unforgiving, raging open sea. The things we believed about our world, ourselves, others, and God are called into question, and we are wracked with doubt and fear. We have lost our bearings and nothing seems to make sense any longer. Someone betrays our trust, or an unexpected event occurs that leaves us reeling. We drop into our brainstem which insists the world is now an unsafe place and we need to be hypervigilant and watchful for the next danger that surely awaits us.
When I was attacked on my usual morning run several years ago, I experienced this kind of disruption. I had lived in this neighborhood for over ten years, and ran these streets on a regular basis without any mishap. I shared the sidewalks with runners, bikers, walkers and their dogs who became familiar over time, and knew which ones liked to greet (and might interrupt my run with a chat) and which ones were too buried in their podcast or music or workout to be bothered to look up when I went by. There was a comforting rhythm to this morning routine, until it was shattered by the unexpected appearance of a man who did not belong in this familiar scene, a stranger who forced his way into my heretofore safe environment, violating my expectations of how my usual morning routine was going to play out. My neighborhood no longer seemed comfortable and benign, but felt dark and scary and unfamiliar to me. I struggled with things I had never even thought twice about before, like rolling the trash and recycling bins out to the edge of the driveway, or taking our boxer, Harley, outside to do his business if it was already dark out. Hearing footsteps behind me immediately put me in my brainstem and the grocery store aisles just seemed full of places for people to hide before jumping out to grab me. While my neocortex understood how unlikely this was, my brainstem insisted on this hypervigilance everywhere I went.
During my break from running following the assault, I discovered yoga. Three mornings a week I struggled to bend my body into difficult poses with deceptively cheerful animal names like Dolphin and Bird of Paradise (I will never achieve this particular pose. Ever.) My lack of flexibility and poor balance made me glad the room was dark so no one could see me falling over in my corner of the studio. My favorite instructor often repeated during class: “Don’t over-think the poses. Let your body flow. You know the way.” When I got out of my head and stopped thinking too hard about which way to move next, and connected with my body, I found she was right. I did “know the way” when I got out of the way.
I have always been a high energy, high capacity person, but after the attack I found that all I wanted to do was to crawl under the covers and sleep. Tasks and interactions I formerly handled with ease felt impossible and I wanted to avoid engaging with life in any way. I doubted I could ever feel right with myself or others again. “You know the way” became my mantra. When I got stuck, I would ask myself, “What is the next right thing to do? You know the way.” It might be as small as putting one foot on the floor, and then the other, in order to slide out of bed and start my day. It might be feeding myself if I was hungry, or answering the phone instead of avoiding the call, or watering the droopy plant on the front porch. Breaking each day down into small, manageable steps instead of being overwhelmed by the whole of it helped me find my way back to better functioning over time. Slowly, my life developed a rhythm again. Some things would never be quite the same. Trauma irrevocably changes us, but if we embrace the healing process, these changes can be for the better. In the meantime, ask yourself, “what is the next right thing?”
Don’t forget, you know the way.