Listening to Nina Simone, who was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon. The great civil rights advocate and musician inspires me. One of my clients looks like her. Hard to say whose history is harder. The woman I know remembers her father holding a gun to her mother’s head. She suffers from complex trauma, a syndrome unrecognized by the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. She trust no one, certainly not me.
This blog post explores some of the bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects of sexual assault on male survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Although the percentage of female survivors of MST is greater than the percentage of male survivors, the number of men who have sustained this trauma far exceeds the number of female survivors, since the veteran population remains overwhelmingly male. Men who have been sexually assaulted are as likely if not more likely to develop post-traumatic stress syndrome as veterans who have experienced combat-related trauma. There is virtually no research on male survivors, who face some different problems than female survivors of MST and who generally have greater difficulty discussing or seeking treatment for their trauma. It is vital for social workers to educate themselves about men’s issues with MST and to develop novel ways to make it easier for male survivors to discuss their experiences.
We have heard a great deal about the plight of female military service personnel who experience sexual assault at the hands of their fellow soldiers lately, but very little about male survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST). A small but growing number of articles about the bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects of MST demonstrate that this corrosive, criminal activity leads more certainly to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than combat experience in women (Calhoun, 1994; Campbell, Dworkin, & Cabral, 2009; Donna L. Washington et al., 2010; M. M. Kelly et al., 2008; U. A. Kelly, Skelton, Patel, & Bradley, 2011; Kimerling, Gima, Smith, Street, & Frayne, 2007; Mary Ann Boyd; Sharon Valente & Callie Wight, 2007; Turchik & Wilson, 2010). There are as yet no studies showing that MST is as likely or more likely to lead to PTSD in male survivors, but there are in fact very few studies on male survivors of this trauma. Furthermore, while feminist social workers and theorists have rightly pointed to the devastating physical, psychological, social and spiritual affects that the hyper-masculinist military culture has had on women, we have only just begun to pay attention to how this culture has affected men. In this paper, I examine some of the bio-psycho-social-spiritual causes and effects of sexual assaults by men against their male military personnel.
The Veterans Administration (VA) defines MST as “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty of active duty for training.” The VA further defines sexual harassment as “repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in nature” (Affairs, 2010). Male survivors of MST are only now beginning to speak about their experiences. Although women constitute by far the greater percentage of survivors of MST in the military, the number of men who have experienced this trauma is much larger than the number of women, since the military remains overwhelmingly male (Affairs, 2010). Indeed, the number of living veterans who experienced MST over the course of last seventy years is probably far greater than we could possibly estimate. Cultural attitudes towards gender and sexuality changed dramatically during that period, but mainstream culture has remained cramped by rigid gender norms. Although the entrance of women and very recent toleration for homosexuality in the armed forces has dramatically altered military culture, it remains hierarchical and masculinist (Burgess, Slattery, & Herlihy, 2013). Masculinism is the arbitrary elevation of all things masculine over all things feminine. Within military and civilian life, men’s experiences of MST are bound to differ from women’s.
What are the bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects of this trauma in general? Consider some of these stories: Less than two weeks after Greg Jeloudov joined the army at the age of 35, fellow-soldiers gang-raped him in the shower at Fort Benning, Georgia. They didn’t like his Russian-Irish accent. They didn’t like his previous history as an actor. They called him a “commie faggot” and said, “We don’t like actors here.…We especially don’t like Russian and Irish actors.” (Duell, 2011). They beat and sodomized him in 2009, and now Mr. Jeloudov takes 13 different medicines as he struggles with PTSD, depression, nightmares, and thoughts of suicide. “Being a male victim is horrible,” Theodore James Skovranek told a reporter. In 2003 soldiers grabbed and held him down while another shoved his genitals in his face. He shrugged it off at the time, but said, “I walked around for a long time thinking: I don’t feel like a man. But I don’t feel like a woman either. So there’s just this void.”
In 1974, three Whitman Air Force Base servicemen jumped, beat, and sodomized Michael Matthews, who had just graduated from high school. Afraid to report the incident, Matthews became depressed and suicidal. His first two marriages foundered while he suffered in silence. “I lived with this beast in my head for nearly 30 years, before telling my wife and going for counseling” (Evans, 2012).
Higher-ranking enlisted soldiers in Norfolk raped Thomas F. Drapac on three separate occasions in 1963. He, too, kept the assaults to the himself for decades, worried about his sexuality and drowned his recurring nightmares in alcohol and sex (Dao, 2013).
Sexual trauma, like combat trauma, injures the brain and the body in both men and women. During the moment of attack, the sympathetic nervous system engages and stimulates a flood of cortisol throughout the system, elevating blood pressure, heart rate, inducing sweating and a hyper-aroused sensory state. This is the “fight-or-flight” response that humans and other animals experience when we sense danger. Because the victim of sexual trauma is temporarily rendered helpless to fight or flee, he is overwhelmed; his ordinary adaptations to life break down (Herman, 1992, 1997). The most fundamental psychological element of trauma is a feeling of “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation” (Herman, 1992, 1997). The neural system is injured: people who have been traumatized often feel as though their nervous systems have become unplugged from reality. (Herman, 1992, 1997).
It is difficult to separate the biological from the psychological effects of trauma, since the brain is corporeal, an organ within the biological organism. Like all traumatized persons, MST survivors frequently re-live the initial moment of trauma in a sensory fashion, because the memory of the event is so terrible that it has not yet been incorporated, as it were, into the set of stories that a person recalls and retells about him- or herself in the past.
This happens because traumatic memories do not encode the same way that ordinary memories do. They tend to be experienced as “fixed images” or vivid sensations felt in the body but incapable of being expressed in words. These non-integrated, traumatic memories frequently intrude upon the traumatic survivor (Herman, 1992, 1997). Involuntarily pulled back into the moment through nightmares or flashbacks, the traumatized person experiences the flood of cortisol again and again, enduring an overload of stress that impairs the immune system and weakens the heart.
Because of the association of sodomy with homosexuality, and the military’s long-standing, profoundly heterosexist bias, many male survivors of MST have been afraid to speak about their experiences. Living with unprocessed traumatic memories and untreated PTSD over decades, as many survivors have done, can lead to dementia (Chao et al., 2010). Dementia can be understood as a biological degeneration of the brain and psychological and spiritual disintegration, a kind of wasting away of the mind and soul that has profound social consequences. Trauma effects people in similar ways.
Traumatized people typically experience what Herman calls “constriction,” the trance that the person transfixed by helplessness and terror experiences at the moment of the assault, as well as the disorientation and psychic numbing, even to the point of paralysis, that the survivor experiences in the aftermath of trauma. Constriction interferes with purposeful action and initiative as well as with anticipation and planning for the future.
Men who experience this common side-affect of trauma, but who are unable to speak about it or unwilling to seek treatment, may regard themselves as weak failures, men who are not “men” insofar as they are unable to meet cultural expectations that they pursue productive and lucrative action in the world. Indeed, many if not most men who experienced MST report that their masculinity was impaired or damaged.
Masculinity is a social construction, a sense of self formed in opposition to what is construed as femininity (Bourdieu, 2001). The U.S. military sustains an aggressively hierarchical, patriarchal, and homophobic culture. By homophobic I mean not “fear of men,” as the name implies, but rather, and ironically, “fear of femininity,” especially in men. As Pierre Bourdieu observes, masculinity is continually demonstrated in dynamic display:
Like honor–or shame, its reverse side, which we know, in contrast to guilt, is felt before others–manliness must be validated by other men, in its reality as actual or potential violence, and certified by recognition of membership of the group of ‘real men’. A number of rites of institution, especially in education or military milieu, include veritable tests of manliness oriented toward the reinforcement of male solidarity. Practices such as some gang rapes…are designed to challenge those under test to prove before others their virility in its violent reality, in other words stripped of all the devirilizing tenderness and gentleness of love, and they dramatically demonstrate the heteronomy of all affirmations of virility, their dependence on the judgment of the male group.
The soldiers who raped Greg Jeloudev confirmed their brotherhood and shored up masculinity by brutalizing a man who did not fit in, a man whose alternative manifestation of manliness challenged and threatened their own, precarious sense of themselves as men. They could not tolerate his very difference. The drill process by which soldiers are allegedly “broken down” often employs a similar dynamic. The sergeant seeks to humiliate and shame the recruit by demeaning and “feminizing” him, insisting that he is not a “man” until he can himself turn off his emotions, eradicate his softness, and become a killing machine.
The actor in the following clip from Full Metal Jacket (Kubrik, 1987) is notorious because was a former marine and gunnery sergeant originally hired only as an advisor. Unsatisfied with the performance of the actor designated to play the part, he stepped in to demonstrate how the military turns what he here calls a “maggot” and a “lady” into a “weapon, a minister of death”:
Manliness in the military is constructed as the conquest of womanliness, of tenderness, of weakness, of that which is to be despised, demeaned, and dominated.The particularly pernicious effect that this obscene social dynamic has upon the male soldiers who have been raped by their fellows (a method of social cruelty that humans alone among all the animals perpetrate) is that they must become their worst enemies in order to survive. They must adopt the mentality and sadistic behavior demanded in order to demonstrate that they are, indeed, men, or forever be spat upon as reviled, womanly outcasts who deserve nothing more than to be dominated again and again.
As with women who suffer MST, male survivors who are deployed or in the field often become captive to the culture, forced to endure the indignity of working alongside their abusers without recourse to any justice or understanding. To report the attack, even to acknowledge its occurrence to one’s self, is to risk being subjected to further, unbearable humiliation and disgrace. Before the Pentagon reversed its total ban on homosexuality in the service, anyone who reported having been assaulted was generally assumed to be unfit for duty. “If you made a complaint, then you are gay and you’re out that that’s it,” Drapac explains. Even though this would theoretically not take place in today’s military, for a man to admit that he has been “unmanned” in a culture that insists that manliness is superior to all other states of being requires immense courage, because the trauma cancels out his trust in others as well as himself (Herman, 1992).
Moreover, because it radically destabilizes his understanding of himself as a male being in relation to other men and women, it unmoors his sexual identity and leaves him feeling lost, sexless, neither male nor female. “Men don’t acknowledge being victims of sexual assault,” reports Dr. Carol O’Brien, who heads the PTSD program at Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Florida. “Men tend to feel a great deal of shame, embarrassment and fear that others will respond negatively” (Dao, 2013). If, as happens in a small number of cases, the rapist is a woman, the male survivor of MST feels even further demeaned and unmoored.
Male survivors may surely also experience spiritual isolation and confusion, through the inevitable question, “why me?” and the despair and self-loathing that fundamentally misconstrues his true nature. He descends into a spiritual malaise, a separation from a sense of purpose and meaning in the world. In fact the military culture that overtly promotes or covertly tolerates hyper-masculine concepts of honor is spiritually corrupt. When men and women embrace an ideal based on the arbitrary elevation of masculinity over femininity they exist not in harmony with one another, but rather in a permanent state of war against themselves.
The Population Concerned
The VA has been using an assessment tool to screen for MST since 2000 (Rowe, Gradus, Pineles, Batten, & Davison, 2009). A 2012 study of a subset of veterans of 213,803 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan diagnosed with PTSD from April 1, 2002, to October 1, 2008, found that 31 % of the women and 1% of the mean screened positively for MST (Maguen et al., 2012). Because the overwhelming number of veterans is male, the number of men is roughly equivalent to the number of women who have experienced MST. Within this population, 12% of the men and 7% of the women have substance abuse problems, while 56% of the men and 70% of the women suffer from depression. Male survivors of MST with PTSD displayed less frequency of comorbid depression, anxiety, and eating disorders than the female counterparts. Both women and men with a history of MST were more likely to have three or more comorbid mental health diagnoses than those with PTSD who had not experienced MST (Maguen et al., 2012). The most recent Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assaults estimates that roughly 26,000 service members experienced sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact in 2012, an increase of 6% from the previous year.
According to the Department of Defense, sexual assault refers to “a range of crimes, including rape, sexual assault, nonconsensual sodomy, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact, and attempts to commit these offenses” (Defense, 2013). Incidents of sexual assault took place equally, in proportion to the number of troops in each division, throughout the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. The vast majority of the persons investigated for sexual assault were male, under the age of 35, and enlisted. Of the reports made, only 12% of the victims were male, but the Department of Defense estimates that 53% of all the assaults actually committed were committed by men against men. The Department of Military Affairs does not break down their statistics by race or ethnic identity. Nor does is estimate the total number of living veterans who may have experienced MST.
Social Work Interventions
Social workers have not adequately addressed the problem of men’s experiences of MST. There is little published research on male survivors of MST, and so far no scientific or theoretical discussions designed to guide social workers engaged in practice with the male veterans who have endured this terrible trauma. The 2012 “Handbook of Military Social Work” only discusses MST in a chapter on women in the Military, utterly ignoring the phenomenon. A different guide for social work with veterans published the same year includes a chapter on MST but only briefly touches upon male survivors. What is especially needed is a body of literature from social workers, psychologists, and other behavioral health professionals who have worked directly with male veterans suffering from combat- and military sexual trauma.
One very helpful, recent resource is the forthcoming documentary film that social worker Geri Lynn Weinstein-Matthews and her husband, Michael Matthews, have produced.
“Justice Denied” examines sexual assault and rape against men in the U.S. armed forces. Michael’s experience of rape as a 19 year-old airman is mentioned above (Evans, 2012). An NASW blog, “Social Workers Speak” has included a few references to male soldiers suffering from MST, but the NASW needs to bring much more attention to this topic (NASW, 2013).
Conclusions and Recommendations
Military sexual trauma is a serious affliction affecting thousands of male veterans and military service personnel, whose problems social workers have only recently begin to understand. Like many people, I originally understood the problem solely as a women’s issue, since the increasing numbers of women soldiers and increasingly expanded roles for women in the service has brought this topic to the foreground of public discussion. Recently changed policies and slowly changing attitudes towards homosexual soldiers has made it easier for men to speak out. Sexually traumatized men are not homosexual by virtue of having been attacked, of course, and, in fact, most of the men who rape or sexually assault other men in the military are heterosexual. As I explain above, sexual assault is a means of domination, of demonstrating masculinity. It has very little to do with sexual desire. Yet until recently men who reported that they had been assaulted were, tragically and unjustly, regarded as homosexual and therefore dismissed dishonorably from service.
Male-on-male sexual assault illuminates the fragility and complexity of masculine sexuality in general and illuminates the highly constructed nature of gender identity. Mild assault as well as violent rape can damage a man’s psychological and spiritual understanding of himself as a “man,” especially in a culture with particularly rigid and narrow notions of masculinity and femininity. The fault lies not in the man, but rather in the culture at large.
I’d like to see many more seminars for clinicians as well as survivors on the spiritual damage that MST inflicts on men as well as on our culture, seminars that would focus on the spiritual poverty of masculinism and patriarchy in general. But therapists also need much more training and guidance in working with men who have survived this biologically and psychologically damaging trauma.
Social workers need to build new understandings of how to address and approach men who traditionally do not seek therapeutic healing, and we also need to advocate for a broader discussion of the issue in general. I’d like to see government funding for scientific studies as well as for training social workers to engage this particularly vulnerable and forgotten population.
This will not be easy. Men, especially military men who have served their country as soldiers, don’t want to be treated as victims. Therefore we need to find novel and sensitive ways to discuss their experiences in ways that uphold their sense of themselves as strong, independent, and honorable human beings, respected members of the community, and beloved fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles, and grandfathers.
Affairs, U.S. Department of Veterans. (2010). Military Sexual Trauma.
Burgess, Ann W., Slattery, Donna M., & Herlihy, Patricia A. (2013). Military Sexual Trauma: A Silent Syndrome. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 51(2), 20-26. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3928/02793695-20130109-03
Calhoun, Rachel Kimerling and Karen S. (1994). Somatic Symptoms, Social Support, and Treatment Seeking Among Sexual Assault Victims. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62(2), 333-340.
Campbell, R., Dworkin, E., & Cabral, G. (2009). An ecological model of the impact of sexual assault on women’s mental health. Trauma Violence Abuse, 10(3), 225-246. doi: 10.1177/1524838009334456
Chao, Linda L., Yaffe, Kristine, Neylan, Thomas C., Rothlind, Johannes C., Meyerhoff, Dieter J., & Weiner, Michael W. (2010). Hippocampal atrophy in young veterans with PTSD and cognitive impairment: A potential link between PTSD and dementia. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 6(4, Supplement), S286. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jalz.2010.05.943
Defense, Department of. (2013). Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2012 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military
Donna L. Washington, MD, MPH, Elizabeth M. Yano, PhD, MSPH, James McGuire, PhD, MSW , Vivian Hines, MSW, ACSW , Martin Lee, PhD, & Lillian Gelberg, MD, MSPH. (2010). Risk factors for Homelessness among Women Veterans. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 21.
Herman, Judith. (1992, 1997). Trama and Recovery: The aftermath of violence–from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.
Kelly, M. M., Vogt, D. S., Scheiderer, E. M., Ouimette, P., Daley, J., & Wolfe, J. (2008). Effects of military trauma exposure on women veterans’ use and perceptions of Veterans Health Administration care. J Gen Intern Med, 23(6), 741-747. doi: 10.1007/s11606-008-0589-x
Kelly, U. A., Skelton, K., Patel, M., & Bradley, B. (2011). More than military sexual trauma: interpersonal violence, PTSD, and mental health in women veterans. Res Nurs Health, 34(6), 457-467. doi: 10.1002/nur.20453
Kimerling, R., Gima, K., Smith, M. W., Street, A., & Frayne, S. (2007). The Veterans Health Administration and military sexual trauma. Am J Public Health, 97(12), 2160-2166. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2006.092999
Kubrik, Stanely (Writer). (1987). Full Metal Jacket.
Maguen, S., Cohen, B., Ren, L., Bosch, J., Kimerling, R., & Seal, K. (2012). Gender differences in military sexual trauma and mental health diagnoses among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. Womens Health Issues, 22(1), e61-66. doi: 10.1016/j.whi.2011.07.010
Mary Ann Boyd, Wanda Bradshaw, and Marceline Robinson. Mental Health Issues of Women Deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Arch Psychiatr Nurs, 27(1). doi: 10.1016/j.apnu.2012.10.005
Rowe, Erin L., Gradus, Jaimie L., Pineles, Suzanne L., Batten, Sonja V., & Davison, Eve H. (2009). Military Sexual Trauma in Treatment-Seeking Women Veterans. Military Psychology, 21(3), 387.
Sharon Valente, PhD FAAN, & Callie Wight, RN C MA. (2007). Military Sexual Trauma: Violence and Sexual Abuse. MILITARY MEDICINE, 172.
Turchik, Jessica A., & Wilson, Susan M. (2010). Sexual assault in the U.S. military: A review of the literature and recommendations for the future. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(4), 267-277. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2010.01.005
Hodiedah: In an interview with Marib Press, 12 year old “Hanadi” said she was forced into marriage by her impoverished father to pay a debt. Her husband tried repeatedly to rape her, her tears were no deterrent, and he threatened to beat her. After three days, he drugged by her with sleeping pills in her juice. She woke up bruised, confused and bleeding. The child ran away and is currently in the Hodiedah CID, appealing to Human Rights Organizations to save her. A medical exam proves the child was violently raped. The father and husband were interviewed by police. The father asserts the husband promised not to engage in intercourse until she was older. The husband says he didn’t touch her.
“12 year old Hanadi launched a distress call to the Ministry of Human Rights and human rights organizations demanding urgent intervention and to direct the security agencies to arrest the looter of her childhood and to investigate him and refer him to the judiciary.”
The issue is where is she going to go live. And its questionable if either the father or husband will be charged with a crime. There is no law in Yemen designating a minimum marriage age. Without publicity, she might have to go back. If she does not return to her husband, the father’s debt is still in force because she was basically sold like a slave. Children are frequently used as chattel. At least half of all marriages in Yemen occur before 16. Unsurprisingly, Yemen’s youthful female revolutionaries are quite determined to overthrow the system.
She was a German erotic actor who died in her sixth breast enlargement surgery, at the age of 23:
She went under the knife for the last time at the Alster Clinic and was having 800g (28oz) of silicon injected into each breast. But her heart stopped beating during the operation. She suffered brain damage and was put into an induced coma.The tabloid’s headline read: “The senseless death of Big Brother star Cora shocks the whole of Germany. “(Her) frail, 48kg (106lb) body struggled against death for 224 hours. She lost. Cora is dead. …Her previous five operations were reportedly done at a private clinic in Poland which refused to admit her for a sixth time.
I kept going over those weight numbers, the amount of silicone to be injected into her and her body weight. Then I started thinking about the widespread impact of heterosexual pron on what women’s breasts should look like and how we now regard artificial breasts as really the natural ones, how seeing a very thin woman with very large breasts on television now looks normal, in the sense of averages. Porn has also affected the shaving of the pubic hair.
If it has done all that, surely it must have had some impact on general interpretations of sexuality and on the roles women and men take in sex?
I think that the cultural turn towards increasingly artificial bodies would indeed affect sexual habits and roles.
Women who are willing to alter their bodies dramatically are likely to engage in degrading and humiliating acts that do not sensually stimulate themselves, but, rather, their partners. Of course, being able to excite their partners would theoretically also get them off. Presumably, they would be more stimulated by partners who fit the roles that they have learned to find exciting–wealthy, powerful, dominant. These are the very men for whom they are mutating their bodies, after all, the men for whom they (think they) live, presumably.
Or would it be more accurate to say that these women live entirely in the Gaze, permanently disconnected from themselves as subjects, and utterly and only aware of themselves as objects?
I think that porn alters the mind and sexual experience because the culture has prepared the mind to alter. We are all subject to deep and long patterns of dominant-submissive behavior that are not at all “natural” in the sense of being permanent and unalterable.
In other words, it has not always been this way. We have been humanoid, Homo Sapiens, upright, intelligent, and communal, for approximately 100,000 years. Only about 10,000 years ago did human males begin to figure out how to dominate human females. Human females learned how to cope with that arbitrary and unnatural situation in various and often freakish ways.
Sexual desire is very malleable, easily manipulated–we know this.
But at what point does the subject who is experiencing sex as an object, and nothing but an object, utterly lose herself (or himself)? At what point does the long-objectified self break down completely, in severe depression, catastrophic phobias, or addictions, or bizarre, disfiguring and self-destructive behaviors?
Coralin Berger seems to have broken down in the last sort of way. We can imagine that she at one time had a sense of herself as a person, a girl, a young woman, before she became obsessed with her body, or, rather obsessed with the notion of herself as a body, a body that needed, in her eyes, continually to be improved.
We can speculate about the forces that influenced the way that she came to think of herself. They are the forces that influence all of us: the family, the church, the schools, the juridical system, the economy. There is also the increasing power of the media that manipulates our sense of ourselves as women, as men (for some good examples, check out About Face and the film Generation M). Each one of us resists these forces to the best of our abilities.
My question is: at what point do these forces drive us completely insane? At what point does the self who struggles to think independently break down so completely that there is nothing left but a shell, thin, brittle, and driven to the operating table for the sixth and final fix?
Fortuitously, my countdown in bikram coincides with the day of the month, at least through January. So, today is January 3 as well as the 43rd day of my bikram practice. What is different? Sivasana.
Yes! Already! It still hurts, sometimes, to “relax” on my back on the floor, because my muscles, long trained to bunch up, still contract and hold tightly to my spine when I lay it down flat. Yet I have learned, not just through daily practice, but also heat and exhaustion, to let go and, as I call it, to “fall through” the pain.
I have been going to yoga classes for more than 10 years. It is only recently that I have experienced lying flat on my back with complete comfort. Some years have been better than others, depending on the degree of stress I was under and how much exercise I was getting. Generally, whenever I lie flat on my back on a hard surface, my body feels, simply, not suited to this posture. For all these years, I thought it was because I had such large buttocks, which forced my spine to arch upwards away from the floor in an s-curve. It seemed as though I needed to reverse that arch in a posture such as child’s pose to get comfortable. The odd thing I have discovered is that the opposite is true. It is only through practicing poses such as cobra and camel, in which I bend my spine backwards and backwards from the floor, that I find relief.
What has been happening lately when I go into sivasana is a kind of cramping up. This is the usual response of my spine to the pose. Not only my spine, but my entire back clenches, as though the muscles have memories, in anticipation of pain. What I have been learning to do is to “fall through” the net that my clenched muscles create. I must consciously tell myself that it will be all right to relax into the pain. That is, the pain actually increases when I first acknowledge that it is there, and that my muscular habits are creating it. Once I accept that the pain is there– and this is a huge step–and then willingly fall into it, embrace it, by asking my muscles to release–I feel first a greater discomfort, and then a complete release from it.
It feels as though there are stages of pain, or layers of muscular netting, that I allow myself first to fall into so that I can go through them to the place where pain ceases and I am resting. Usually I have just arrived at this place of peace and comfort when my teacher alerts me that it is time to sit up. So my resting period ends up being quite short. But it is getting longer. That is, I am finding that I can “fall through” the pain faster than I used to, which affords me a few seconds more of complete relaxation before moving on to the next pose.
Camel, the excruciating backward bend that I could not do without passing out in my first week of class, is ironically the pose that affords me the most comfort in sivasana. Rabbit, the next crunch forward, affords the least relief. But today at the end of class, as I settled down into sivasana, I scanned my body in disbelief. Where was the pain? The net of clenching, tensed muscles had disappeared. I shifted position on the floor, looking for it. It had to be there. It has always been there. But it wasn’t.
So, what is the emotional or psychological lesson? Every day that I go to class I learn something new or reinforce something I have known about the way that I experience being alive in this world. Falling into pain to fall through it is something that I have been practicing with my emotions for many years.
During periods of great distress, particularly the years of separation from my son, I often found that resisting the pain, or actively refusing to acknowledge it, only heightened its intensity. I’d push it away and away and away, all in fear of what would happen to me if I admitted it. I was afraid that I would not be able to function; that I would never stop weeping; that I would not be able to get out of bed; that I could not do my job; that I would lose my income; that I would end up living hand-to-mouth on the streets, strung out, out of my mind with grief and pain and mother-madness. What I was mostly afraid of was that I would lose him forever, that he would stop loving me entirely.
The only relief I found, the only way that I could get beyond the pain, which was like a searing hot fire burning out all my nerve endings, was by allowing it to be. There was no pretending this devastation away. In fact, just like with back pain, the more I stiffened up against it, in all the various protective postures that my mind assumed to guard against discomfort, the more discomfort I felt. The more anxiously I responded to my fear of disablement, the more crippled I became. So I had to learn to give in.
When I first lost him, I would go into my son’s room and lie on his bed and say to the pain, the grief, the longing, the fear, “come.” Of course I would weep. Usually I would cry myself to sleep. I did this for weeks, for months, for years. But it was the only way to make it bearable. Only by focusing directly on what I was feeling, without responding to it in any way, could I find any clarity, any relief, any sanity. I had to go into the pain, and bring it in, accept it, in order to get beyond it.
The key is learning not to respond. The key is finding a way simply to accept what is, to acknowledge it without fighting it, in the hope of understanding it and, most importantly, having compassion for the self who is experiencing it. I found I had to hear myself or see myself suffering to begin to recover from the suffering.
To invite the pain in is quite a different project than to dwell on or indulge in pain, which really only means a kind of idiotic wallowing and vaulting off into trauma after trauma. Yes, sometimes just breathing can feel traumatic. And sometimes just breathing is traumatic. Still, I have found that I do best when I put my weapons down, when I drop my fists, and stop trying to bat the pain away. Only this way do I see that some of the nets that I spread out for myself to fall into are not saving me, but rather trapping me in yet more hurt.
A caveat: sometimes the nets–protective mechanisms of denial, or behaviors that temporarily dull my suffering (such as over-exericising, over-eating, or playing computer games for hours on end)–really do save my life. But when I am stronger I see that only by falling through the habitual nets, only by letting go of my learned responses to pain, that I can fall through and beyond it.