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Unpacking Trauma

1978





Healing requires more than journaling, talking to a therapist, changing up food choices, hopping on a stationary bike, and starting the day with meditation. All of these things have value but they’re not enough if there are unresolved issues of a traumatic nature. Trauma embeds into the body as a self-protective move when there’s too much for the mind to handle. That’s especially true when we’re young and trying to get a foothold on where we fit in in the world. The sing-songy notion that today’s a new day and the past is over isn’t quite true if you’re carrying wounds. Mine reared their heads in the form of auto-immune disease and chronic foot pain two years ago. I never experienced anything like it – even at my highest weight. My gut told me there was an emotional corollary (there always is) and after agreeing to take some quiet, deep dives into my body and simply listen, the shifting that was waiting to occur finally did. We are composite pieces of the past operating in the now and creating our future. And that’s why I’m sharing this with you:



I sat next to my mother in the passenger seat of her car about a month ago, a heavy pit in my stomach. We’d just pulled into our favorite park, but before we exited the car, I needed to tell my mother how hard it was for me to be alive in 1978. I was in eighth grade and my world, which wasn’t rosy to begin with, had reached crescendo levels of unbearability.

  • We moved to a new school district. For a shy kid steeped in low self-esteem because of my weight, I did anything but flourish.

  • Adding to the isolation was being dropped by my best friend from childhood, who had also moved to the same school district but deemed me a social liability in her determination to ascend the ranks of the popular-girl pyramid.

  • My dog was hit by a car and killed in front of my eyes one evening when I took her out for a walk.

  • And underneath the intermittent emotional bombs, my family was in turmoil because my father’s business went belly-up that year. And not because it was the bank’s fault or the lawyers’ fault or the fault of anyone else on his ‘to blame’ list. The business, begun proudly by his father, crashed and burned because of my dad’s grandiose wild spending and financial mismanagement. This left the family destitute and in debt and my father obsessed with vengeance against the bank that foreclosed on him.

Humiliated by losing all but unwilling to acknowledge his part in it, my father buried himself in a series of lawsuits that never went anywhere. He’d call us into his office to proclaim how we’d all be rich one day and the bank would finally get their come-uppance. If it isn’t already apparent, my father was a narcissist. Textbook. No one‘s needs mattered more than his own, even his children’s. If I earned money at a summer babysitting job he demanded I turn it over, reminding me that I ‘cost him a lot of money.’ If I wanted to go to the mall with friends on a Friday night like every other 13-year-old, I was screamed at for asking for $5 so I could buy a soda and a slice of pizza. One night he responded by bitterly tossing three singles across his desk and shaking his head in disgust.

My father’s shenanigans were known about town and he’d nailed down a reputation for being a huckster. Not long after my grandfather’s legacy demolished, a particularly hateful classmate sent me a typewritten anonymous letter with the newspaper clipping of my father‘s arrest for writing a bad check. ‘I see daddy try to buy something but couldn’t hack it financially…Ha-Ha! You loser.’

One day, he announced he was moving to Virginia because someone in Albany was preventing him from obtaining his license to sell life insurance – there was always a shady story and half-baked excuse with him. That was all the rationale he needed to leave for Alexandria. It wasn’t a divorce, just a temporary diversion for him to forget he was married and had familial responsibilities. This left my mother, already emotionally fried from a year of financial tail-spinning, in a state that alternated between seething anger and depression. She would sometimes lock herself in her bedroom for the night and refuse to answer our knocks on the door. As the oldest of four, I was first in line for bearing responsibility for the other three, but also completely inept emotionally to be the rock my younger siblings needed.

Whenever my father’s insane choices made the world around her a vortex of chaos, my mother stepped up her campaign of food scarcity and body shaming, hiding forbidden food from me in attic trunks, or amongst the cardboard bunkers of boxes in the basement. If I was ever caught relieving myself with any of her hidden stash it was Armageddon. We hated each other. We were each other‘s targets for the rage we felt at life not being like it was promised in the movies. By the time 1978 rolled around, our family decided to 86 the painful tradition of the Happy Family Christmas cards. Even my parents, mired in denial as they were, must have known the façade was futile.

I blotted out daily reality with as much food as I could get my thieving little hands-on, and lots of Led Zeppelin on the turntable up in my room. There was no one to talk to about the pain I was in. My sister and I shared a room so it was the bathroom where I was guaranteed privacy and a place to cry. And it was in that powdery blue bathroom surrounded by Dixie cups and half-empty hair mousse bottles that I thought about suicide for the first time. My psyche was macerated from a constant barrage of macro and micro-aggressions. I’d become accustomed to my parents’ disapproval, and being ridiculed at school, but was unprepared for lectures from my grandmother when she came for extended visits. Babysitters had always been told to keep food away from me and they were always quick to remind me how imperative it was that I change for the better.

School was a lonely and humiliating place where I’d brace myself every day to pretend I didn’t hear the names. In an effort to get me to say on my latest diet attempt, my parents explained to me that the name-calling I experienced at school, or at the mall, or while crossing a street – there was no safe place in those days for people not bestowed with thin privilege – was my fault. “No one can help their height or if their ears stick out, but you control your WEIGHT,” my father was fond of telling me, even though he never succeeded once at doing what he told me I should do. There are more anecdotes but this paints enough of a picture. By year’s end I was emotional wreckage personified and believed with every shred of my being that I was worthless and hateable. Call me self-indulgent for sharing these memories but that’s who I am – a catalyst – I show the underbelly because that’s where the evolution is. And I do it to let others know they’re not alone. 1978 was a terrible and bewildering time in my life and I look back in amazement that I got through it. Guardian angels are my only explanation. F%&K that ‘Sticks and Stones’ limerick. Emotional scars are not to be dismissed or underestimated. They are to be tended to with reverence. And if you won’t offer them the honor they deserve, who will?

By the time I was finished telling my mother what I needed to, the tears had started to dry and she had reached over to clutch my hand (something she hadn’t done since I was four). There was an immediate sense of relief and lightness in my body. I knew my gut was solidly correct: that taking an honest look at 1978 was the path forward. I’ve been getting flashbacks from 1978 for months now, and I finally put it together that the embedded trauma from that era has come home to roost, in the form of physical pain and autoimmune disease. And I consider myself very fortunate that it isn’t a more serious, terminal disease. So before it gets to that point, I’m engaging in a looooong overdue airing of my grievances.

No one is more stunned over this setback than I because I thought I’d crossed the finish line when I dropped 180 pounds 11 years ago and kept it off for a decade. And as many of you know, it wasn’t just a weight loss achievement. I did the inner work for years. Through therapy, journaling, self-help books, overeaters anonymous meetings, and even a month-long stay in a food addiction rehab. I believed I’d left no emotional stone unturned, but the thing about 1978 was, the frequency of sorrow, fear, and buried rage proved to be an invisible poison. With no recourse to help myself, and with no emotional support from anyone I knew intimately or peripherally, my unconscious mind performed its due diligence by hiding it from my sight. This is a protective and self-preserving method we’re all equipped in and sometimes it’s simply enough for the horrible stuff to remain buried. But everyone is different, and my subconscious was sending out distress signals:

Episodes from 1978 would be my first thought in the morning, and I’d be back on that darkened road where my dog lay motionless on the pavement, with her eyes wide open as passing cars splashed through puddles of her blood. Or my childhood friend, at a time when I desperately needed to belong, shooting me a ‘don’t come over here’ warning look when I’d be frantically looking for someone to talk to at recess. And my mother summoning me to the refrigerator to berate me for the theft of a piece of cheese (she kept track of the slices) telling me how I had no right to eat anything in between meals. Memories were bubbling to the surface and they weren’t random. The pattern was a trail of crumbs leading to a massive pile of emotional garbage that had been rotting within me.

I partook of the usual remedies of crying, feeling, and journaling but this time, the wounds were demanding verbal expression. Part of my healing from the hell that was 1978 is to not just acknowledge my pain to myself, but also to those who have hurt me. My father is gone and I’ve been doing the mental dialogue of what I would like to say now if here were here as best I can. But my mother is here and I knew I would be doing myself a huge disservice if I swept it under the rug. I laid out my side of the story with compassion, but I was honest. She sat and listened to me, and that’s all I wanted from that encounter with my mother – to be heard.

Difficult conversations are usually avoided. The avoidance may be easier in the moment, but the ensuing price is high. The one with my mother was successful because she listened. But I’ve had difficult conversations with people who cannot hear anything that veers from their script of reality and it usually gets ugly. And I’ve realized that the reaction of the other isn’t the point…it’s having the courage to speak aloud about uncomfortable subjects and advocate on my own behalf. There are more conversations I need to have with others and I’m scared. That’s the truth. Maybe someday it’ll be easy, or perhaps second nature. I’m not there yet. And that’s not going to stop me. Wounds have the right to be aired. And if the past is unmistakably seeking you out, it may be time to enter the discomfort zone and let the healing begin.



Ayurveda, Espresso, & Compromise

My love affair with coffee has been well-documented. Though I started out with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards the watery brew found at convenience stores and diners, my mind changed irrevocably during my first trip abroad. Thanks to fate, I spent a summer studying in Italy and was reborn. I thought it would be the pasta that would dazzle me, but it was their coffee beans: robust, and uniformly excellent. The aroma of Italian coffee and espresso drinks beckoned from every corner of Siena, Italy: at bakeries, restaurants, and dedicated coffee bars. And I don’t mean anything akin to Maxwell House, but for an uninitiated American, there was a learning curve. I initially recoiled from the jet-black liquid served in cups that looked as though they belonged at a children’s tea party. Never one to drink coffee black, I chose instead the elixir known as cappuccino: a warm drink where the bitterness of the espresso is tempered with a mollifying dose of steamed milk. There was an intensity present at the Italian coffee bars, whose layout had little if any seating. Usually, Italians toted their treasured coffee cups to high-top tables where they briskly sipped their shots of espresso or pale-brown lattes while standing. The ritual ended with an emphatic drop of the cup to the countertop in a way that said, ‘THAT was satisfying.’ The cherished interlude was officially concluded with a napkin dab to the lips and then the said espresso lover would briskly disappear down the cobblestone street. Once exposed to the depth and richness of Italian Espresso, I was forever changed and sought it with a vengeance once I returned to the states. The year was 1987, not an easy task since the espresso-wave had yet to take root at a national level. It was still considered a boutique hobby at the time, but I persisted until finding a proper roast. I think you get the picture: I’m a coffee-lover. Majorly. It was and is a beloved part of my morning ritual and that’s where I leave it. The rest of the day is spent drinking water and herbal tea. I never abused coffee but always loved it with a loyal passion.

As an armchair student of Ayurveda, Chinese medicine, and other wellness modalities, I know caffeine isn’t the best thing for me. But it’s also hardly, in reasonable amounts, a powder keg of destruction. But I’m also now just as interested in studying the scroll that is my body’s wisdom (see my August blog). So, even though I’ve no plans to give up my morning delight (that would have a too punitive a ring, ala dieting), I often crave a good cup of something warm, flavorful, and soothing during winter afternoons and evenings. Years ago my first Kundalini Yoga teacher, Danielle Lyons, gave me a recipe for an energizing chai that included peppercorns, turmeric, and cinnamon.

It sounded strange to be steeping peppercorns for a hot drink, but as Danielle pointed out, every ingredient in Ayurvedic medicine has a purpose, and peppercorns are excellent for adding heat to the internal furnace of our digestive systems, which are often made sluggish with sweet, heavy foods and cold winter weather. Cinnamon and turmeric are high in anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory, and nutmeg is good for the skin and immune system. So many mix-and-match possibilities! I made a batch yesterday and added a few more ingredients and found it nourishing, comforting, energizing, and endearingly kind – my body gratefully registered the difference between this and sugary caffeinated drive-thru drinks.



A word about sugar:  we all know it’s to be used sparingly for a variety of reasons. That said, I’m not the sugar police, but I wouldn’t advise heavy-handed sweetening of your chai, or it’ll defeat the medicinal purpose. I drink spice chais unsweetened, but if that prospect is thoroughly unappealing to you, try a moderate amount of date syrup, honey, or maple syrup. Traditional Masala chai is made with a black tea base. When I’m in the mood for a tea-based chai, I prefer Roobios, an aromatic, vanilla-tinged herbal tea. Most of the time, I go with warm almond milk and spices.

The key to a nourishing chai is allowing enough time for a slow simmering of ingredients like peppercorns, cardamom pods, and cinnamon sticks. Using sugar-free vegan milk as the base, the properties of the slowly-steeped spices alchemize into a drink that both nourishes my body and tastes good. I bring all ingredients to just under a boil, then shut the heat off and let it steep for an hour or two. Then I fish the solids out with a slotted spoon and discard before drinking. It’s a great idea to make a big batch so you don’t. have to watch the clock when a craving hits.

The solid versions of spices are found in most supermarkets and import stores. And if you don’t have the solid forms of pepper, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom, ground versions are fine. Just heat milk in a saucepan (no microwaves, PLEASE) until just bubbling, add the desired level of spicedom (it’s individual), and blitz in a blender or Vitamix for a frothy, delicious treat that treats your body like the royalty that it is.

When Creamed Onions Call

The holidays are well behind us but the events of this week have me longing for one of my favorite side dishes. Creamed onions were a caloric creation dreamed up by my father one Thanksgiving back in the 80’s when I was a junior in high school. Their sudden appearance on our holiday menu seemed random to me at first, but as I listened to my father talk of their origins, I realize why. His mother made them on special occasions. She died suddenly 14 years prior and my father, not being one to show vulnerability, often talked about his mother’s food as a gentle alternative to mourning.

That Thanksgiving, he set about recreating his mother’s dish, and what an exercise in decadence it was: sliced onions floating in a bath of heavy cream and topped with buttery breadcrumbs. Their richness precluded eating more than a few bites at an already heavy meal so we dined on creamed onion leftovers for weeks.

When I began a life transformation 11 years ago, I decided to stop eating dairy and gluten. That decision alone was more life-altering than I anticipated. Weight came off without struggle and my energy soared. I discovered I really didn’t miss binge-foods like I thought I did and when I really found myself pining for a food, I’d simply reinvent a cleaner version. Such is the case with my grandmother’s creamed onions. The vegan creamer doesn’t have the same mouth-feel as heavy cream, but what does?  And not having to lie on the couch in recovery mode is a nice bonus.

I’m not really surprised creamed onions are calling my name today. Americans lost something on January 6th, and we’re still trying to define it and put a lasso around the wreckage. Rules weren’t broken, they were smashed to smithereens, blood was shed, old wounds were reopened, and outrage and sorrow are reverberating in unison across the land. I wish things were different, but the only way out is through, and I believe we’ve sunk to such a low-point that going up is inevitable.

A casserole dish full of comfort-food isn’t meant to be an escape or a magic wand. But I’ve still got to eat, so why not shower my menu tonight with a little kind nostalgia?  And as I always say to clients, taking the time to make yourself something from scratch is a positive endeavor and a wonderful non-verbal cue that you matter. We all do, actually, and perhaps knowing that truth and living it would be the best reboot our nation can hope for.

Creamed Onions

Ingredients:

5-6 large onions, sliced into rings

1 cup grated pecorino cheese (sheep-milk-based)

1 quart of vegan, unsweetened creamer (I like Ripple or Milkadamia)

About 1/3 cup all-purpose gluten-free flour

1/2 stick unsalted butter

ground pepper

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Slowly sprinkle in flour and whisk vigorously. Add more until it’s all absorbed into the butter and a thick paste (roux) is formed. Turn heat up to medium-high and add vegan creamer about a half-cup at a time, continuing to whisk. The cream should gradually be thickened by the roux and be bubbling gently. When all the creamer is added, continue to simmer gently and whisk, so it will thicken a bit more. Turn heat off and set aside.



Begin to layer the onions in a casserole dish (no need to grease). After each layer, sprinkle with a generous amount of grated cheese, and a more moderate sprinkling of black pepper. No need for salt as the cheese is salty enough. Continue layering until onions are used. Pour creamer over the onion layer; it’s OK if it’s submerged. Sprinkle more cheese and pepper on the surface. Bake uncovered for at least 30 minutes, or until top is golden brown. Serve immediately.

Digging below the surface

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…or as I also like to call it, painful but necessary. Specifically, I’m referring to inner-healing and salving past wounds, whether they occurred yesterday or 30 years ago.

Sometimes, I’ll find an e-mail in my inbox desperately seeking a Pep-Talk. Just about always, the urgency centers around wanting to be rid of excess weight, and it always stirs mixed emotions in me from the past. I’ve been in the seeking position many times and each time I reached out for a jolt of inspiration, I’d feel hopeful for about 3 hours, then lapse back to where I was. And where I was, though support from others is crucial, could only be remedied by me and my actions. And nope, I’m not referring to weight-loss solutions.

It’s a fallacy then I can give someone a Pep Talk and turn them around, but the fact that they WANT one is a beginning. One of the many reasons Pep Talks don’t work is they skirt root issues. Far more effective is delving into one of the eight limbs of Yoga, known as Self-Inquiry, to ask yourself some probing, yet compassionate, questions:

What am I trying to deflect from by focusing on my weight?

Whom do I resent and why?

Are there areas in my life where I don’t feel I can speak freely?

Do I let myself cry when I feel the emotions surging, or do I shut myself down?

Who is currently mistreating me, or doesn’t bring the respect that I know I deserve?

Am I paid fairly for the work I do?

Was I quick to believe all the bad stuff about myself, and, do I hate parts of myself because of it?

Am I angry at myself for not standing up to people with their own unhealthy agendas? You know the type: the passive-aggressive friend who asks a question that’s really a dig so well-placed, it stings for days afterwards; or a family member who makes a remark about a food choice.

Get the picture?

It’s no wonder why so many of us willingly default to obsessing on weight, clothing size, muscle mass, and the merits of ketosis. The reason is simple: it’s less freaking painful!

Obviously, fitness and physical well-being are important, but if the above emotional issues have not been addressed at all, it’s a losing battle. And also know that just because you are broken at the present time doesn’t mean you are permanently out of commission. The process, I’ll be honest, it’s a long one, but what else do we have but time? And wouldn’t you rather start winning the battle right in the present moment? You can if you just agree to step into that private chamber of your heart, and compassionately, gently begin the process of asking..

The DNA of Comfort

Repetitive comfort. It’s what I sought in order to survive. Some days it was about survival, but most often, I employed its technique to feel better by paving over a painful existence. My form of it boiled down to this: fill every corner of my mouth with a delightful-tasting substance, chew, swallow, repeat. And repeat, and repeat.

Repetitive comfort is a need from within that’s primal. It has been used to soothe tension and tears for millennia. Softly humming to oneself while working a task, the gentle click of needles that transform yarn to scarf, putting brush to canvas while painting a picture, or a mother rocking a baby gently in her arms (I don’t think anything tops that one), all pay homage to the allure of enjoyable repetition.

At one time labeled myself a food-addict and declared myself to be untrustworthy and out of control where food is concerned. I’ve since changed my mind about that position, especially since the label was the result of herd-coercion from one of the support groups I attended back in the early days of healing. What I’ve come to realize instead is, there were parts of me I’d gagged and bound, and they were desperate for attention. When I began tending to the wounded and dispirited parts of me, the need to dull my senses with food diminished. I’m the first to admit that food is here to both please and nurture us. That’s a fact and shouldn’t be dismissed with the worn-out ‘food as fuel’ rationales…that, as anyone who has attempted to live it, is only partially true.

I’ve been at this part-time job known as healing and wound-releasing for the better part of three decades and am divested from much of my wounding – enough to live a life of relative ease and clarity. Certain vagaries of life still drive me to seek comfort, and I balance it by sitting with unpleasant situations and feelings because running from them only compounds their troubling nature. But about that comfort-seeking….I’ve found some delightful ways to indulge in it, and yes, much of it involves repetitive acts. I’ll simply never tire of a soothing rhythm that goes on and on for as long as I need it. Which brings me to Ang So Hum, the song posted below. Roughly translated to “I Am That,” I discovered the beautiful melody during a recent yoga class at Aura Kundalini Yoga via Zoom. The instructor, a recovered addict, said the 22-minute song is one of his favorite ways to ground and soothe. You may already have a repertoire of music that feels like a long, safe, lingering hug. I ascribe to the Ray Charles rule of there being two kinds of music: good and bad, but when it comes to soothing my soul, I’m partial to chanting and kirtan. I heard it for the first time more than 20 years in the car while listening to a college radio station. I was on lunch break from a toxic job and in between drive-thru stops. The power of the song stopped me in my tracks and actually diverted me from the contents of my Wendy’s bag for a few moments. I knew at an instantaneous, soul level, I wanted more and more of it. I bought CD’s and listened regularly. This did not magically eradicate binge-eating, but it opened a door to allow some much-needed light. I followed at my own pace, and slowly discovered other forms of comfort and relief outside the realm of eating. A profound discovery if there ever was one.

It’s great, of course, to have a cache of healthy coping techinques at the ready. The trick I’ve learned, during these turbulent times, is not waiting to use them until I’m in frothing crisis mode from stress and aggravation. Soothing music, especially music that’s created with Intention, is also good prevention. So pardon me while I put my headphones on, turn off the TV, and dial down the cortisol.

This one is for Great Lakes Collagen: