Commusings: The Wounds That Shape Us by Alex HowardNov 10, 2023
Dear Commune Community,
The word "trauma" has its origins in the Greek word "τραῦμα" (traûma), which means "wound." In contemporary usage, however, the term has been broadened to refer not only to physical injuries but also to psychological and emotional wounds. When we speak of trauma in a modern context, particularly in the fields of psychology and mental health, we are often referring to the emotional response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual's ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self, and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.
It is not the event itself but rather the individual's experience of the event that constitutes trauma. This understanding is helpful as past events are immutable, but our relationship with them is not.
A physical wound, if properly tended or dressed, can heal. If untended, it can either remain raw or it may scar. The nerves may become numb to the touch. The same is true for emotional wounds. As a self-protective measure, we numb ourselves to emotions. We become scarred —sometimes for life.
Through deep tissue massage (among other techniques), physical therapists can break up scar tissue. Again, the analogy holds true for emotional scars. You might call this “deep issue massage.” It’s hard, brave, painful work. But the alternative is never to feel.
Deep gratitude to this week’s essayist Alex Howard for vulnerably sharing his journey. Through his story, he allows us to see better into our own.
In love, include me,
• • •
The Wounds That Shape Us
Excerpted from It's Not Your Fault by Alex Howard
It was a cold, frosty early morning in South Wales and the final day of a week-long retreat in which I was taking part. As a therapist myself, I ought to have been having the time of my life, but in truth, I was in my own personal hell.
Unable to sleep and needing to move my body, I decided to take a walk to try and clear my head. The silence of the retreat center was palpable as I slipped out the back door and followed one of the routes into the forest behind the building. As I picked up the pace to keep warm, my mind drifted back to the previous day’s teachings.
The subject of the retreat was opening to our unprocessed emotions and learning to feel them and heal them. The idea sounded simple, but to me, it felt like a path worse than death. In fact, several years earlier, I’d attended this same retreat and halfway through I’d walked out mid-lecture and driven home, telling myself it just wasn’t for me.
At this time, my emotions were far from being a safe place; indeed, I was starting to realize that unconsciously, I’d designed my life in such a way as to avoid feeling them. The problem was it was becoming harder to do so.
My Trauma Healing Journey
In the 18 months prior to the retreat, I’d experienced debilitating panic attacks that had almost consumed my life. During the daytime, I ran the gauntlet of anxiety and fear, but that was nothing compared to nighttime, when I had to face the terror without distractions; at one point, I found myself in one unhealthy relationship after another simply as an alternative to sleeping alone. I’d always been proudly independent, so this situation had only deepened my sense of hopelessness.
The timing of my falling apart couldn’t have been more disastrous. At the age of 26 I’d already achieved many of my dreams – after fighting a seven-year battle with myalgic encephalomyelitis (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome) as a teenager, I’d gone on to make a full recovery and had set up the kind of clinic that I’d longed for when I was ill: one specializing in fatigue-related conditions.
I was also in demand as a public speaker and had been offered my own BBC TV series, which was, rather ironically, called Panic Room. On the surface I was leading a dream life, driving a sports car, dating glamorous girls, and living in a penthouse apartment in London.
However, by the time I joined the retreat for a second time, I’d walked away from the TV series, given up my apartment, sold my car, and was living a hermit’s existence, just trying to survive. If there was any chance that this retreat might help me, I had to stay with it. I could either continue living in a state of constant fear and anxiety or finally face up to my emotions. Both options felt impossible.
When I reached the far side of the forest, I slowed my pace, gazing at the mist lingering over the distant mountains. I found myself reflecting on my childhood and how some of the events that had occurred back then shaped my current life. I realized that, ultimately, my inability to feel my emotions must have been a natural response to the traumas I’d experienced during my early years.
The word trauma didn’t mean a great deal to me at that time. I thought of trauma as the physical injuries sustained in a serious accident or, say, the experience of living in a war zone. The idea that the childhood I’d normalized had been ‘traumatic’ seemed strange to me. I knew that many people had experienced far more difficult things than I had, and yet I did recognize that the shutting down of my emotional capacity must have originated somewhere.
From a young age, my sister suffered from significant mental health issues. Severe anorexia and bipolar disorder were the diagnoses at the time, but those labels did little to capture the lived experience for her and those around her. She spent periods in mental health hospitals and foster care, and although her own pain was intense, the effects of her illness on the family were also devastating.
I have countless childhood memories of my sister being violent toward family members and smashing up the house. And on multiple occasions I sat in the back of a police car with her, trying to soothe her as she was once again taken into enforced residential care.
Growing up with someone whose feelings were so explosive and destructive, I’d learned a clear lesson: Emotions are dangerous and the more we express them, the more we and those around us get hurt. The problem was that now, on the retreat, I was being asked to open up to and feel my feelings, but they were simply not accessible to me. And the closer I got to them, the more severe the panic and terror became. Never in my life had I felt more stuck.
Taking a Leap
Later that day, I had a private session with one of the retreat’s teachers. These were designed to help us integrate the theory of the teaching into our everyday experience, but so far, I’d generally seen them as something to get through, and certainly not a place in which to be truly vulnerable.
My teacher, Prakash, was a stocky Glaswegian in his late fifties whose voice was a bit like Sean Connery’s. When he wasn’t teaching retreats, he lived in Hawaii, and I’d been having online video sessions with him for the past year. During that time, we’d talked a lot about my growing predicament of emotional ‘stuckness,’ but I’d not managed to move beyond it.
As I sat with Prakash and updated him on how the week had been for me, he listened patiently and empathically. When I was finished, he regarded me with a stern but compassionate look in his eyes and said, ‘Alex, I think the time for talking is done.’ He then invited me to lie on a mat on the floor and close my eyes. I did as I was told, even though a huge part of me once again wanted to pack my bags and run. But I feared that if I did, I might spend the rest of my life running, and that wouldn’t be a life worth living.
Prakash asked me to put my focus on my breath and to pay attention to the sensations in my body; in doing so, he was encouraging me to deepen my focus on my inner experience and to give up trying to control it. At first, I felt nothing but the familiar stuckness and hopelessness. But then, as I felt into the feelings, to my surprise I noticed something else was there, and one word came to mind to describe it: hatred.
The feeling was mainly in my chest, but it was growing. It felt cold and toxic, and it was almost as if there was a demonic force rising within me. It occurred to me that I might be about to get more than I’d bargained for. Prakash suggested I stay with the feeling, and I realized that this was a pivotal moment. If I’d really decided that my life couldn’t continue in the way it was, I had to dig deep and grow my courage. I allowed the feeling of hatred to spread more fully into my body, and as I did so, I started to get images of my father. I say images, but they were more vague ideas of what he might look like – I’d grown up without my father and had only ever seen two photographs of him.
As I did my best to continue to allow the feeling, it started to build. I knew that there would be a tipping point, when the control would no longer be mine, and I gave myself over to the feeling and to Prakash’s guidance. As someone who was used to being in control, this wasn’t easy for me. The tipping point arrived, and before I knew it, I’d taken a leap.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the feeling of hatred became overwhelming. It was like a poison infecting every cell of my body. I began to scream, making the most murderous sounds I’d ever heard. And one phrase, on repeat, came out of my mouth between those screams, as if they were the only words I knew: ‘I hate him. I hate him. I hate him so much.’
By then, my entire body was shaking intensely, and at one point, I thought I’d be sick. For a moment, I found myself wondering what the hell was happening. Where had all this intensity come from?
Our Pain Is the Gateway to Our Healing
Until I was in my early twenties, it had barely crossed my mind that my father leaving the family soon after I was born had impacted me in any way. It wasn’t until I stumbled across a weekend workshop on exploring family dynamics that I was faced with the undeniable truth – my father walking out had been a defining event of my life.
I wasn’t aware of the circumstances of my parents’ separation, but I did know that my conception had been a failed attempt to save their marriage; indeed, they had even argued about what to call me. Eventually, my mother divorced my father on grounds of mental cruelty. He stopped visiting us a few months after the divorce was finalized, and we had no contact with him at all after I was about six months old.
My father didn’t just leave us physically, he also left us financially, failing to pay a penny in child support. As a result, at one point my mother had to work three jobs to support my sister and me. At a young age, I became the man of the house – I had to be strong, and when my sister lost one of her ongoing battles with her mental health, I was often the person who tried to make it better. And, despite being one of the most bullied kids in my school, I’d still try to protect other kids from bullies by standing between them. I couldn’t bear to see other people suffer – to see them feeling the pain that I felt, deep down.
Alongside the physical and emotional stress of the events of my childhood, I learned something deeply formative: the pain I was experiencing was my fault. As children we are egocentric – we believe the world revolves around us, and, more importantly, is caused by us. Therefore, the trauma that happens to us – be it a parent leaving, or other emotional instability we experience – must, on some level, be our own fault. Right?
As I lay on the floor, with Prakash kneeling over me and my body trying to purge itself of the poison that was consuming me, for the first time I understood the difference between anger and hatred. Anger has a fiery, hot quality, while hatred is cold. I didn’t just want my father dead, I wanted to kill him, and I wanted it to be slow and cruel. I wanted to hurt him in every way that he’d hurt us.
I knew there was a good chance that my father was still alive. So why had he never reached out? At the very least, he could have checked to see if we were OK. There had been nothing – not a single phone call or letter. It hurt. It hurt so much.
After what felt like an eternity but was probably closer to 15 minutes, the hatred in me began to dissipate a little. Prakash gently asked me what I was feeling now. At first, I hesitated. I desperately didn’t want it to be true, but I knew that my hatred was really a defense against something even more painful: I wanted my father. I needed him. More than anything in the world, I desperately longed for my father to love me.
In hating my father, I experienced the illusion of power, but in feeling my need for him, it was as if I had no defenses left. As Prakash softly encouraged me to continue to allow my feelings, the sensations in my heart were so intense, it felt as if it was breaking.
As my hatred turned to sadness, my screams dissolved into desperate sobs. As tears poured down my cheeks, I became the little boy whose father had abandoned him. The little boy who was utterly innocent, yet believed, on some level, that it was his fault. The little boy who needed the love of his father like he needed food and oxygen. It was a pain that nothing in the world could heal. The love of a father seemed, to me, to be the most basic human right, and I couldn’t have it.
The Beauty of Surrender
I felt that I was in a place from which I could never return, and with a heartbreak so absolute and so final. But then, something totally unexpected happened. From the depths of my broken heart, a new feeling started to arise: love. My broken heart began to transform into the deepest and most all-consuming feeling of love I’d ever experienced.
I was beyond logic and rationality at this point, so I didn’t even begin to try to make sense of it. I just followed Prakash as he used his words and loving presence to guide me deeper into what was happening. As this new feeling continued to build, I had no resistance left. It was as if my heart was the center of a vortex of pure, unconditional love. It wasn’t love for someone or something; it was just love. It was as if love was the fabric of everything and everyone. My heart still ached, but not in a way that hurt; instead, it felt utterly exquisite, and the feeling vibrated through every cell of my being.
As Prakash encouraged me to breathe into the feeling more and more, my conscious mind almost entirely dropped away. It wasn’t even that I was consumed by the love. I was the love. I was bliss. It was everything that we spend lifetimes searching for, there and then, in that moment, lying on the floor.
What I’d discovered at the heart of my deepest pain and trauma was the exact opposite of what I’d feared. My emotions were not something to fear and escape from; in learning to trust and open to them, I’d unleashed their innate wisdom for healing.
Alex Howard is Founder & Chairman of The Optimum Health Clinic (OHC), one of the world’s leading integrative medicine clinics specialising in fatigue. He is also the creator of the Therapeutic Coaching methodology, and has been documenting his therapeutic work with real life patients via his In Therapy with Alex Howard YouTube series. In the last few years, Alex has created some of the largest online conferences in the health and mind–body markets; including the Trauma Super Conference. Alex has published academic research in publications such as the British Medical Journal Open and Psychology and Health, and is the author of three books, including his most recent It’s Not Your Fault – Why childhood trauma shapes you and how to break free.
Excerpted from It’s Not Your Fault: Why Childhood Trauma Shapes You and How to Break Free by Alex Howard. Hay House Publishers. Reprinted with permission.
Leading teachers, life-changing courses...
Your path to a happier, healthier life
Get access to our library of over 100 courses on health and nutrition, spirituality, creativity, breathwork and meditation, relationships, personal growth, sustainability, social impact and leadership.
Stay connected with Commune
Receive our weekly Commusings newsletter + free course announcements!