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With no improvement in my longstanding symptoms of constipation despite daily walks, almost 2 years on the strictest version of the GAPS diet, stress reduction, mindfulness practices, and more I have started rooting into the role of trauma with greater focus and intention. I see my gut symptoms and food intolerances as influenced by subtle childhood trauma and survival patterns. My gut has been an absorber and container of difficult emotions that have had nowhere else to go. And I have directly experienced how it has cushioned me from overwhelm. I have already used many skills such as following my intuition, which helped me leave my career as a physician for something that held more meaning for me. In paying attention to my gut and my impulses in the years since then (see introductions to the role of impulses here, here and here), I have found my passion in researching the links between trauma and chronic illness. This has all lead me to a fuller life with more joy and satisfaction and sense of wholeness than I ever imagined possible.
But the fact that I continue to have symptoms tells me there is more to be done. My symptoms of progressing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have motivated me to venture further down the pathway of “listening to your inner voice.”
I am excited to share this process with you as I go. This is in part because it has the unusual characteristic of accompanying external visuals that reflect the journey that is unfolding within. Listening to your inner voice is about trusting ourselves – and our guts. I am using many of the resources, skills and tools I have been developing through the years from trauma therapy. Even though the effects of this process have been slow and have often filled me with doubt (more on that here, and here), the trauma perspective has provided a powerful context for me. It has given me insights, markers of progress and an understanding of what is going on from a nervous system perspective. I anticipate presenting you with a retrospective review. It will include references to the science of the vagus nerve and its involvement in feelings of connection and safety, as well as in managing energy levels, digestion and symptoms such as IBS. I expect this work will also help me further reduce my symptoms of chronic fatigue (“ME/CFS” or “SEID”).
First, though, I need to allow this process of listening to your inner voice to unfold and see where it takes me.
Listening To Your Inner Voice And Transforming Pain Through Metaphor
Five months ago I discovered a link between uncomfortable sensations in my belly and my love of smooth round river stones. I realized the extent to which they dotted not only the landscape of my bedroom, yard and garden but also of my blog.
The image of a large heavy stone evoked a sensation of quiet calm and groundedness in my body that felt reassuring and soothing.
I decided that the process of listening to your inner voice was a tool I needed to include in resolving old trauma that had not yet responded to the trauma therapy I had already done.
One of the first impulses I had when I started listening to my gut more attentively was the desire to create a “container.” I had placed my hands on my belly during a quiet time when I was laying down. I hadn’t “heard” anything or felt any shifts and so had hung out with it for a while from a place of curiosity and nonjudgment. I then gradually noticed an image associated with the concept of containers, which I love (I have to work at not saving too many boxes in the garage in the event of some future need). In my mind’s eye I saw a cardboard box and lined it with fabric. The idea of sewing the lining was predominant but was more than I had the energy to do. So I waited.
A week or two later I found myself with an interest in creating a small sand tray.
I started with figurines I collected for sand tray in my psychotherapy practice.
I found myself represented in the sand tray by a tiny baby. I wrapped her in shimmering green silk brocade from my stash of fabric. She belonged in the curve of a seashell at the base of a starfish and close to a wooden heart. I used a pin, as tall as she was, to hold her blanket on. No other humans made it into the sand.
One of my strongest impulses in creating my sand tray was a need for boundaries and protectors.
I started with a piece of scrap wood baseboard trim. In front of it went poisonous frogs, cowboys with rifles, prickly pine cones, and a prism. There were also smooth stones and a postcard with the solid imperturbable energy of Buddhist monks in a candlelit square. I had firefighters around the ceramic container.
I placed a large stone beneath the box holding the sand tray because it felt like a stabilizing force.
Giving Creativity the Time She Needs
I kept the sand tray up all summer and made changes along the way as my process unfolded. I’ll show you more in a future post.
In the meantime, the impulse to create a more box-like container recurred.
I found ways to keep it manageable by using a small box and covering it with paper mache.
I left its contents of degradable shipping peanuts inside to keep it simple. This packaging is inherently protective and filled the box. The little cornstarch peanuts were very “contained” and looked remarkably stool-like.
I chose paper from the recycled pages of my 400 page master’s thesis. It was my first research into the role of trauma in the development of chronic illness and represents the rewards of listening to your inner voice.
I so enjoyed playing with the mess of flour and water that I paper mached another, larger box. This second box is the size I had originally envisioned.
Two other little boxes snuck their way into my listening project.
Listening to Your Inner Voice And Allowing Room for The Unexpected
Once I had created my containers the creativity really began to flow.
Fabric was an appealing way to layer the inside of my larger box.
I stole the fabric from underneath my sand tray and pinned it into place rather than sewing or buying a glue gun.
I then painted the small box black.
While painting I accidentally dropped it onto the front of my beautiful fabric that was lining my big container. I had planned to reuse this cloth, my favorite of all time, for some unknown purpose in the future.
I had a long pause as I looked at the paint stain and felt sharp disappointment. I debated whether I could successfully clean up the tiny spot and salvage the fabric.
I also contemplated my unplanned mess from the place of “listening to your inner voice,” which also calls for making room for surprises to lead the way.
I decided to Go With It.
It gave me freedom to paint and play at will.
This is really where the transformation seemed to begin.
It lead me to painting designs on the bottom of my big box and, on a crazy spur-of-the-moment-touched-with-a-hint-of-exuberant-reckless-abandon, I painted my hand and pressed my print into the bottom of my container.
The little black box developed an unexpectedly cheery underbelly beneath the 5 black sides.
And in the bottom of the big box, I found myself creating a yin yang symbol. At the very front I drew “Enso,” a circle that I have been making now for years. You see it in image 7 above – it’s in the background painting behind where I am dancing with the big paper mache box.
Enso comes from Zen Buddhism and the aesthetics of Japanese art and life. I discovered the following meaning when looking it up on wiki so that I could give you a link:
Enso “is a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create.
The Intelligence of Protection and Survival
The palm print in my container looks and feels to me like a clear and adamant symbol of protection or defense. I see it as the universal sign for “STOP!”
The fabric lining is layered and fortified with additional protection in the form of guilded dragons.
Over the following few weeks the dragon theme, which showed up when I worked with symptoms last winter and started watching the movie How To Train Your Dragon, began to emerge a little more fully.
I found this tiny 1/2 inch dragon when shopping for more figurines to add to my sand tray. She belonged inside the Enso circle.
The yin yang symbol at the bottom of my container was then met with a nest – one I found some years ago that had been blown onto the sidewalk.
The nest, in turn, called for a golden stone given to me a few years ago by a dear friend.
It may be the protectors and defenders and helpers that allowed this tender new pair to emerge.
Something filled with potential is emerging inside my container that is holding such a clear and vital boundary.
The nest and The Egg are like two new forms of “Enso.”
As it turns out I was recently reminded that I, too, am a Dragon according to the Chinese calendar, which is based on the year of one’s birth.
The dragon is also a Chinese symbol of transformation.
Do you see a possible theme of transformation evolving from my starting point with stones many months ago – or is it just me?!
Looking back on my sand tray at the top of the page after writing this post and appreciating my egg I see the little baby of mine in a new light. Like the golden egg held so protectively in its nest, she is reminiscent of a little grain of sand filled with potential, growing in a Mother of Pearl.
The willingness to continue listening to my inner voice is taking me down a pretty fascinating path.
I’ll share more steps from this amazing journey with you in a follow-up post.
See Related Posts in This Series of Working with Diet and Gut Symptoms
5. Repairing the Health of “No” by Healing Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) (the next post on art and trauma therapy for healing IBS)