Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dancing with the Dark Side of the Season

In 1960 an extremely promising baseball career lay wide open in front of me. I was eleven years old and that summer I had been honored with the “All-Around Athlete” award at Yale’s summer camp for disadvantaged kids (Now, past 60, I can still hit a 90 mph fastball!). In anticipation of a great 1961 season, overshadowed perhaps only by the heroics of Yankee sluggers Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, I told my mother I wanted just one thing for Christmas: a new Wilson A-2000 baseball glove. When Christmas morning arrived, I raced downstairs before dawn and “inadvertently” tore open several presents with my sister’s name on them until I finally came to the package that I was certain held my prize. I ripped off the wrapping in joyous anticipation, only to discover what turned out to be a three dollar baseball glove that I later learned had been a last minute purchase at the local Rexall pharmacy.

Needless to say, I felt heartbroken and betrayed. Even more than that, I was grief-stricken, embarrassed and ashamed. I went up to my room and cried for most of the morning. In my view, limited by the constricting distortion of unfathomable pain and sorrow, my baseball career was clearly over – there was simply no way I could possibly show up on any respectable playing field with a glove like that. Harvard psychiatrist, Judith Herman, would consider this a true trauma in my boyhood world, one that “overwhelms the ordinary system of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning.” (pg. 33).

Many of us have similar painful, traumatic memories associated with the holiday season. At some early point in our lives, the celebration of the return of the light somehow managed to take a turn for the worse, often much worse than the bit of personal tragedy I’ve related above. My cousin, for example, spent one frozen Christmas day visiting his mother in Middletown, at the Connecticut State Mental Hospital. And I remember two friends who lived in the neighborhood who spent a few of their holidays among felons-in-the-making at the Cheshire Boy’s Reformatory. These kinds of experiences often lie beneath many of the “Bah Humbugs” of the holiday season. (And in fact, Marley’s Ghost might be recast as Scrooge’s own unconscious attempting to work healing resolution). But turning a deaf ear and a jaundiced eye rarely leads to any such resolution. What might then?

As with many painful and overwhelming experiences that live in us as traumatic memories, telling the truth about what happened, and how it genuinely impacted us, sometimes over and over and over again, can often help. We need to tell people who have the capacity to hear such painful recountings with compassion and kindness, of course, in a setting where it’s safe to do such truth-telling.
There is great benefit to healing traumatic memories, and there are a number of ways we can tell if such memories from experiences in our past have been fully resolved and integrated. Psychologist Mary Harvey has identified seven touchstones we can use to guide us. The first is that thoughts about the experience are able to be entertained and easily managed. The second is that we no longer feel great emotional charge about the experience. The third is we have some choice about recall of the experience – thoughts or feelings about it don’t simply intrude at random. Fourth, the experience can be spoken about coherently with appropriate feeling. Fifth, whatever damage our self-esteem may have suffered, it has become fully restored. Sixth, important relationships that may have been breeched have also been fully restored. And finally, seventh, we’re able to make sense and meaning of the experience, painful and unfortunate though it may have been. For example, with my baseball glove experience, the sense and meaning I’m able to make (after much emotional working-through) is simply that my mother was doing the absolute best she could, living on welfare as a single, unemployed mother of three mostly unmanageable kids.

There’s one further aspect to resolving the dark things that have happened to us in connection with the holidays that I’m a big fan of – restorative justice. This turns out to provide great neurological benefit for perpetrators and victims alike. Somatic psychotherapist, Pat Ogden often refers to the need for some kind of body-based “triumphant action” in connection with restorative justice. How that unfolded for me happened “serendipitously” one day without any conscious planning. I happened to be book-shopping one Christmas in New Haven at the Yale Coop. I often gravitate for “no special reason” to the sports equipment areas of department stores. On this day, I managed to wander through their sporting goods department, when lo and behold, hanging on a hook on the back wall, I spied a lone Wilson A-2000. The price tag was $130! As I write this, that glove, with it’s Snap-action hinge and its well-oiled Grip-Tite Pocket is propped up triumphantly on a shelf here beside me in my office. And inside it sits a baseball signed by the 1961 home run king, Roger Maris himself.

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