How Transformation Heals Trauma
“The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls the butterfly.” -Richard Bach
I recently learned that the transformation of the caterpillar to a butterfly isn’t just about the effort of spinning their cocoon. Once inside, the caterpillar literally liquefies in its metamorphosis into its adult form as a butterfly, which, while short-lived, optimizes the astonishing feat of beauty and freedom that most all living creatures aspire toward. In humans, I would argue based on recent life events, the transformation to our fully free and beautiful selves is no less epic. Yet, instead of spinning a cocoon of silk, we transform through forgiveness, through our courage to feel and dismantle the stories that have defined us and remarkably re-make our cellular memory.
Married to my psychiatrist husband for 29 years this month, I have heard hundreds of stories of traumatic healing crises that are triggered by anything and everything from the scent of a certain pie, a storm at a particular time of year, a face that resembles someone else or most commonly, a re-occurring physical injury. I had never experienced that kind of spontaneous traumatic memory until recently when a pain that began in my back, behind my heart, during a recent week-long visit with my father steadily moved up into my neck and worsened with every chiropractic adjustment. The pain became so intense, persistent, and resistant to every effort to heal that it occupied my full attention and took constant vigilance not to slip into desperate fear. In these moments when living in a body is only pain, I learned again how compassion grows in us, for those whose lives are dominated by illness and injury that has no relief. The entire space of our mental universe is owned by the density of pain in our body.
On my third visit to the doctor he told me that sometimes when treatments go awry and the body’s response intensifies with a splintering protection, (and by this time, my neck muscles were like steel cords affording me zero mobility from side to side) there is often an emotional component involved. He reminded me of the offhand comment I had made about a challenging trip with my father on my first visit: “It’s something to think about…” he said as he cradled my head seeking some space between skull and vertebrae. Tears welled up in my eyes as I lay there trying to breathe, praying for relief.
This most recent visit with my father was to celebrate his 80th birthday. My family flew to escort him on a cruise that he said he always wanted to go on. Unlike many aging people I have heard of, my father’s anger and bitterness has encased him. He has lost all of his bulk but none of his bile and there is nothing softening in his ability to relate. His mean-spirited commentary was still as sharp as his mind, although he could hardly make it into a wheel chair. It was a confounding experience of compassion and disgust that I wrestled with pushing him through the Carnival Ecstasy.
I had gone on this trip with prayerful aspirations of forgiveness. I wanted release of the anger, shame and resentment that my father provoked in me. Each day I leaned toward letting go of my attachments and my kids applauded my self control, as this time there were no retaliatory outbursts to his disrespectful remarks directed at everyone. I also found no release. Quietly, I seethed and felt like a failure in trying to forgive, except for a few moments on the Serenity deck when I had enough to drink and distance to see him compassionately. My husband consoled me with the truth that forgiveness comes into us in moments.
Yet, as I walked out of the doctor’s office, the pain in my neck even more acute by the gentle opening, the memory of my father’s hands around my neck, choking me against the dining room wall when I was fourteen years old, came back in full color. I had said something — called him a failure or a loser and something in him snapped. His violence towards me was persistent but moderated throughout my childhood. But this injury on top of my mother’s coarse departure, the door closing behind her comment of never loving him was too much. He could have killed me and that moment has been living in my 1st cervical vertebrae for 36 years. I couldn’t stop the sobs; the memories were as vivid as if they were yesterday. Gratefully, I was held and guarded by the family that I had the courage to create over my adult life. There was no one to save me back then, but now there was.
I had asked for this memory; I had prayed for release. I just didn’t know that I would have to go through the fire to get there. This I think is the liquefying of forgiveness. When we are finally strong enough to feel the abuses we endured, then we can forgive. We can forgive ourselves for allowing ourselves to be mistreated, for the mistreatment we have passed along in our own life. Sometimes it takes half our life to grow up enough to witness and protect the child we were. But there is no getting away from it. The body is a living record and life will offer up continuous triggers to get us to release if we are willing, if we are seeking forgiveness.
Monarch butterflies require three generations of caterpillars to liquefy to make the astounding journey half way around the world every year. For us humans it takes only one lifetime to end the suffering that preceded us for generations. It takes the courage and willingness to walk through the fire and liquefy our painful past. It is easy to medicate away or ignore the triggers. Consider how many caterpillars never get into their cocoon. I am grateful for this pain, for the courage to feel my own pain and to understand that forgiveness, like love is not for someone out there, it is an internal job of making peace with the entirety of who you are. Although I am still not at 100%, my neck muscles are returning to functional and I am excited to open up the space in my 1st cervical and in my heart to make room for the person I have been aspiring to become. I know this; our ability to sustain loving relationships depends on this transformation, just as the courage of the caterpillar keeps the butterfly amazingly crossing thousands of miles of ocean.