Three years ago, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti. Conflicting reports indicate that from 46,000 to 230,000 people may have died from the initial quake and many aftershocks. Approximately 1.5 million people were displaced.
Maryknoll quickly responded to help the people of Haiti. Among the responders was Father Dennis Moorman, a Maryknoll priest and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. The following is his story about his work in Haiti. Father Moorman currently is working in Brazil with trauma renegotiation and assisting with SE training.
Trauma, Spirituallity and SE
by Dennis Moorman
While working in Haiti with trauma victims after the 2010 earthquake, I discovered the importance of spirituality in Somatic Experiencing® work. Let me first say that I understand spirituality, in the broad sense, as being all of the unique ways in which each of us connects and relates with: our self, other beings, our physical environment, and however we might conceive of the supernatural world. In response to trauma, a common defense mechanism of the human body is dissociation—a disconnection—from all these important forms of connection: self, others, and the surrounding world. So in this view, trauma and spirituality are very much intertwined.
I recall having a conversation once with a man who suffered a terrible, life-threatening automobile accident, from which it took him several years to recover. He told me that since this accident, he no longer fears death, because in that terrifying event, he could not remember feeling any pain. He had no cognitive memory of what had happened to him. On the contrary, the memories he retained from that traumatic episode were almost overwhelmingly positive. He said that he only remembers feelings of peace, well-being, and freedom. Does that seem surprising? He told me he felt this was: “God’s way of protecting me from more than I could handle.”
I recount this story because it presents a positive side of dissociation: when it serves as a mechanism to protect us from feeling too much pain. The problem arises when we get stuck in dissociation after the traumatizing event has passed, no longer able to engage life fully.
Many of the victims of the earthquake in Haiti, with whom I worked, reported that they were unable to feel any sensations in certain parts of their body. This was a symptom of a possible ongoing dissociation. When our body is numbed such that we cannot feel pain, we are simultaneously deprived of enjoying the pleasurable sensations in our body.
When, as SE Practitioners, we help people reconnect with their body and discharge excess traumatic energy, we are also helping them to expand their capacity to feel positive sensations. These feelings of pleasure and well-being are very important in helping to restore the body’s capacity for self-healing. Positive sensations also help each person to reconnect with self, which in turn, allows him or her to be more fully present to others and the world around them.
Ultimately, this experience of being fully present to self and others is essential to healthy, whole living. This applies not only from a spiritual perspective, but also from a physical and emotional standpoint. Actually, the physical, emotional, and spiritual are all intimately interconnected, such that they can’t really be separated from one another, especially in addressing trauma.
Woman Relies On Jesus For Support
Just one month after the earthquake in Haiti, a very thin woman, approximately 50 years old, presented herself to me complaining that she couldn’t eat anything. She said all she could think about since the earthquake was finding food for her eight children. I tried to help her identify some resources, somewhere she had some kind of support in her life, but she repeatedly focused on her traumas and worries.
Not only did this woman lose her home and all of her belongings in the disaster but she also lost her best friend. She told me that her friend had abandoned her, feeling too overwhelmed by this need to support so many hungry children. This client even revealed to me that she was so overwhelmed, the thought of taking her own life had often crossed her mind.
She had suffered so many losses that she was completely stuck in crisis mode. She was unable to think about anything besides the survival of her children. My attempts to find a source of physical or material support were not going anywhere helpful, so I tried a different approach. Not knowing her religious background, I asked if she had any form of spiritual support or protection in her life.
Without hesitation, she told me: “Jesus is a source of support for me, I have great trust in God.”
So, I invited her to call upon Jesus for support in her life in the present moment.
She still continued returning time and time again to her emotional pain and trauma, so I asked if she would like to feel some supportive touch on her back. My translator seemed very connected with her through the resonance of the session, so I asked if it would be alright for the translator to give the supportive touch. The client agreed and before long she began praying and singing. Eventually, she raised her trembling arms in the air and her whole body began to shake. I encouraged her to gently allow the shaking to continue in order to liberate the traumatic energy held in her body.
After some minutes of trembling, praying, and singing, her body began to settle. After a while, she expressed that she felt like a new person with renewed hope. I was very pleased, since just minutes earlier she couldn’t even pay attention to her body momentarily, much less imagine a single supportive resource in her life.
I reminded her that she could call upon the presence of Jesus at anytime when she was feeling overwhelmed and a lack of support in her life. At the end of the session, she experienced a strong sense of gratitude and thanked us saying: “I think God has sent you to help me.”
She felt like she could now start eating again. In the absence of any other physical or material support, the two resources that we were able to use to facilitate her renegotiation of trauma were touch and a spiritual resource of her choice.
Dreaming Keeps Hope Alive
Imagination is another excellent spiritual resource for healing trauma, especially when working with the materially impoverished. Oftentimes in Haiti, people would talk about the trauma of living in abject poverty, sometimes not even knowing where they might find their next meal. For these people, it was very difficult to get beyond the stark reality of their suffering. When I would ask them to imagine the kind of life they would like to have, they usually responded: “What’s the use of imagining something that isn’t real?”
This is where some gentle challenge was often helpful. I would try to help them discover that as long as we continue to dream, we keep hope alive. When we can imagine the good that we wish to have for ourselves, this in turn attracts goodness to our life. Imagination is a gift that allows us to transcend our present reality, providing the power to open us up so that we may create new possibilities for ourselves. This resource— available within all of our own minds— approximates divine power in that its possibilities are unlimited.
The use of imagination was most helpful in renegotiating trauma in Haiti. It seems that it came most naturally for children. Some adults have become so overwhelmed, riding out trauma after trauma, that they have nearly forgotten how to dream. When they are able to reconnect with the power of their imagination, however, they are enabled to see different options and new possibilities for their lives. This, in turn, restores hope that things can get better.
The hope that things can get better prepares the way for new possibilities to emerge. For example, one young adult woman presented herself living in a very disagreeable situation with her mother and stepfather. She felt trapped and abused. When she was able to imagine a more agreeable living situation for herself, actually “feeling” it in her body, she experienced a discharge of energy from her nervous system that allowed her to begin to rise out of her depression.
She started to feel her own power of choice. This power would ultimately allow her to make a change in her lifestyle, opening her up to the very real possibility of more freedom, joy and happiness.
Above All: Openness and Tolerance
Finally, as a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, I find it essential to allow each client to identify his or her own spiritual resources. I strive to be open to diversity in spirituality and religious background (or none at all). I take care not to impose my own spiritual beliefs and practices, even if unwittingly, on the client. Each person is a singular being with a unique spirituality that merits respect and awe.
Spirituality proved to be a vital resource that led to successful renegotiation of trauma when no other physical resources could be found. The successful renegotiation of trauma helped people to reconnect with their body and become more fully present to self, others, and the surrounding world.
What I witnessed in Haiti was a mutually beneficial relationship between SE and a client’s spirituality. Spirituality not only served as an important resource for renegotiating trauma, but, at the same time, each client’s own spiritual perspective was strengthened and deepened by the healing experience.