On being a punk with a trauma history
There was a long gap between graduation and beginning – really beginning – my practice of acupuncture. This was for a few reasons, one of them being I was not emotionally prepared to work with other people’s trauma. When I decided I was ready, it was exciting, and frightening. I recall reading books by acupuncture "experts" with dramatic case studies and serious essays intoning on what it means to Take On The Role Of The Healer. In his book Braving the Void Michael Greenwood claims that “To deal with another’s wounding adequately, a practitioner must be fully aware of her personal injury and how it manifests. The physician's spiritual integrity is vitally important to any healing relationship."
I knew that the years I took to do other things, including the solid year during which I gave no one acupuncture except myself, had been fruitful & necessary. But was I “healed” enough to help other people without somehow screwing up their qi? Basically: Was I good enough, despite how badly I'd been hurt?
My first year acupunking at a community acupuncture clinic was one of the happiest of my life. The job was fun & satisfying. I was elated (and vastly relieved) to have found an effective & affordable way to practice acupuncture. It was hugely liberating to work someplace queer and trans* positive, where I could confidently refer members of my community. I realise now that I was also doing some deep subconscious integration of my trauma history as a direct result of working in community acupuncture. I was also discovering that despite the fact that I had not completely resolved my history of trauma, and probably was not fully aware of every manifestation of my "personal injuries" this was not a liability at work. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was good enough.
I spent years during my twenties with a well-earned deep distrust of cisgendered men. Being subtly alarmed by most or all cis males is an absolutely exhausting way to spend a decade; I don't recommend it. I still recall with utter tenderness the first cis man who I befriended, and the second, and the third. It was a really big deal. Through my work in community acupuncture I was suddenly having regular, brief, meaningful and straightforward interactions with men who weren’t trying to hurt me. I was very rarely alone with them, and they were coming to me for help, i.e. with some degree of vulnerability, in a setting where it was safe for me to care about them. Cis men as regular folk with frailties and struggles and simple human gratitude for pain relief: this is a part of what I was learning and experiencing. It was no longer a big deal. It was normal. It burned new and healthier neural pathways in my survivor’s brain.
Speaking of survivor’s brain: people with trauma histories often end up being hyper-vigilant and very aware of others’ moods and feelings. This is a useful quality for surviving unpredictable & violent situations, but again, it is exhausting to be on hyper-alert in every situation, and it can make one-on-one caregiving interactions exceptionally draining.
In the group treatment room, however, even the most upset/anxious/ depressive patients were “held” by the group. I didn’t have to do it all myself. My job was to give them treatment and to be aware of when they needed another blanket/a needle adjusted/to get up. The community acupuncture treatment room gives me a space for my heightened awareness, without the accompanying alarm. I got to learn a way of being open-hearted and present with others’ pain & unmet needs without being responsible for fixing them. Without fearing the consequences of not fixing them. What I had thought of as my over-sensitivity, in this setting, does not hurt me, and is actually one of the reasons I'm good at my job.
Many of us who were abused as children have been conditioned to care for their abuser. This easily translates to codependent patterns as adults: an overblown sense of responsibility for others. The phenomenon of community qi, of patients getting better faster when other patients are also there getting better, of strangers healing each other with the simple gift of their presence, has interrupted those patterns in me. Being able to set needles for someone in absolute crisis and then turn to the next person, trusting that everyone will be held safely enough by the room, has been and continues to be a powerful contradiction to the storyline of “I have to take care of everyone myself.”
The connections between NADA (aka the 5-Needle Protocol for addictions & PTSD) and community acupuncture worlds has also been hugely healing for me as an acupunk – simply because of the recognition that PTSD exists, and is treatable with acupuncture, and that it is normal & understandable to need care & treatment after trauma. When I went through a traumatic experience 6 months after starting work in community acupuncture, the two other punks gave me daily acupuncture for over a week. I cried and then slept, before or after my shifts, every day.
One of the deepest wounds I have carried as someone with a trauma history has been the requirement that I smile through pain, that I always appear as though I’ve got it together and am Just Fine. Bringing my whole self to work, and doing deep healing both on and off shift at work, has gone a long way towards healing the internal splits caused from years of forced smiles.
According to Lonny Jarrett, “Our integrity as practitioners has import beyond any technical prowess or academic knowledge we may possess...It seems to me that the minimal requirement for being a healer ought to be having come to a place in one's own life where no more time is being taken to overcome one's past* and all attention and effort is placed on creating a more wholesome future.”
It seems to me that anyone making such a claim does not understand the cyclical, nonlinear nature of healing from trauma. That there are good days, and bad days, and strange numb days in between. There are days that start out with early morning nightmares, with struggling to get to clinic with enough time to sweep the treatment room (too tired to do it the night before) that become one of the best days you’ve ever had, as your regular patients fill the treatment room with their pain, their resilience, their rest. There are days of thought-free integration of your own wounding as you engage with others'. There are exchanges with traumatized patients who have never had acupuncture before, who are probably frightened of yet another violation, and the silent recognition between survivors when you let them know that you’ll stop if they say the word, as you ask permission to touch their wrist. There’s the moment of release as they realise they’re safer than they thought, that you “get it,” that this might actually be ok.
I don’t mean to romanticize us as Wounded Healers or to suggest that having a trauma history is a necessary part of being a sensitive & respectful practitioner. It is not. But I think that an important part of Liberation Acupuncture conversations is not only recognizing that trauma is widespread among us as practitioners, but also articulating our experiences as competent community acupuncturists who are still affected by our trauma histories, and deeply affected by our work. I think that there are significant dynamics to explore here.
Joanna Kadi, a self-described working-class Arab halfbreed queer girl with a trauma history, includes a powerful essay on child sexual abuse in her brilliant book Thinking Class. The following excerpt resonates with me, and seems relevant to this conversation:
“Taking these experiences and theorizing about them is fraught with difficulties. First, there are emotions. I’ve only been able to theorize about this abuse after doing a lot of healing. … Only recently have I been able to set my abuse history into a more analytical, reflective framework. Which doesn’t mean leaving my feelings behind, or thinking ‘objectively’ about these issues. For me, that’s not possible or desirable.
“Second, there’s the world of theory itself. Creating theory is loaded with questions, complexity, and issues of political power. Who creates theory, whose theory gets validated, whose language is spoken, who benefits? Where child sexual abuse is concerned, tension exists between some therapists and psychiatrists who consider themselves experts on our lives, and politicized survivors who insist we must analyze and makes sense of these experiences ourselves. I’m uninterested in theory from self-proclaimed experts who have no sense of the political context in which families exist, who make sweeping generalizations about the monolithic group of child sexual abuse survivors. At the same time, I don’t believe only survivors can create theory, or that theory must be identity-based.
“I’m open to theory from politically aware, emotionally supportive allies who perceive the relationship between themselves and survivors as one of equal partners with different life experiences.”
I have no clever conclusion to this post. I'm leaving it open-ended for others to comment, whether they have a trauma history or not.
*Jarrett’s direct implication is that to not be perfectly healed, as a healer, is to lack integrity. This points to a fundamental question about what integrity in a healer looks like, as well as a long-term conflict between those who would have healers as white-coated demi-gods on pedestals, and those who actively dismantle those pedestals to snore & drool & weep in recliners alongside their patients. I have questions about what kind of a world Jarrett apparently lives in where it's even possible to completely overcome one's past. This ties in with some conversations I’d love to start here, beyond critique of Jarrett (which has certainly happened elsewhere!): what does it mean to refer to post-traumatic stress disorder when the trauma is ongoing? I certainly believe that healing is possible and continue to experience it in my own life. But trauma is not necessarily “over.” Healthy relationships and less chronic pain and a wonderful job doesn’t end the impacts of rape culture, or the threat of bursting pipelines, or white supremacy. When is the “post” in my PTSD? I certainly think it is useful to recognize & define the signs and symptoms of PTSD, but I wonder if we need new language.