“A gifted and eloquent storyteller, Diana Kuper transports us to her rich inner world with this thoughtful, poignant, and gripping memoir. An equally gifted healer, she uncovers many truths about what it means to be human as she guides herself to wholeness of mind body and spirit. Her paths to self-discovery and healing are nuanced and inspirational.”
— Deborah Shuster, M.D., Neuropathologist writes
“This book is a compelling dive into the human condition. Diana Kuper is an exquisite cartographer of the journey from brokenness to wholeness. Her voice is both lyrical and psychologically astute. A penetrating and affecting memoir that is haunting and hopeful.”
— Brian O’Donnell, PhD, Psychologist and Pathwork Teacher
Below is an excerpt from chapter fourteen of her book:
Inside the Trauma Body
Alone, walking home from school the day the bullying trauma began, I experienced fear so intense, it was as though I had stuck my finger into an electric socket. An explosive current hurled sparks of terror throughout my nervous system.
When Sandy broke his arm on my thirteenth birthday — that current struck again. From that day on, I lived within a nervous system and a belief that I am at fault, bad, and blameworthy. There had been a sea change within my body, my mind, and my emotions. My identity was altered.
Then, seven months later, my father was shot. My nervous system was already compromised, already primed for terror. The night of the shooting, this terror became so acute it jammed the thermostat regulating fear responses in my body. My amygdala was now frozen, permanently set to high alert.
My fearless ice skater’s body had devolved into a body of fear.
It became my lifelong task and responsibility to work with this trauma body as it presents itself in each moment.
Each morning, the moment I wake from my sleep state, the stress hormone cortisol pours into my belly. In the very same seconds my self is waking up, orienting, and remembering who I am — painful knots of fear are already present in my torso. My diaphragm is a tight band of pain. My mind, now engaged, identifying with the signals coming from my body, scans the scene, searching for what is amiss. Default neural pathways are triggered, sending thoughts matching the clenching gut, thoughts about what is bad and wrong with me and my life. A negative feedback loop is rolling.
Thus begins a subtle, semi-conscious, and pernicious process. My mind attacks and blames my self. My mind believes the discomfort in my body is my fault. There is a turning on the self, a continual and persistent self-rejection.
My work is to make this process conscious, to become aware of self-rejection as it is happening and to bring love and self-acceptance to this suffering.
Every day for decades, for some or most or all of the day, I experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety. I did not have knowledge of retraumatization or dysregulation. Instead, I thought of myself as neurotic and depressed. I felt shame. Shame dwelt just below the level of consciousness, always present, determining my sense of who I was in each moment.
My trauma-damaged body, characterized by fear and dread, telegraphed messages to my mind and emotions. Thousands of triggers shared an underlying theme, a root cause — the threat was that someonewas blaming or devaluing me, telling me I had done something wrong. And I was blaming and devaluing myself.
I did not have a platform within myself on which to stand to weather these onslaughts. There was no presence living within me able to hold my goodness and worth and mirror it back to me. No supportive voice within could help me and believe in me.
Instead, when a painful or devaluing interaction occurred, I would tumble into a retraumatization reaction in the body. Racing thoughts, perseverating thoughts. Shame. Nausea. Pervasive dread like a vapor within and around me. Buzzing terror as if every molecule was on fire. A weight of dismay on my chest. A hollowed out, imploded collapse in my middle. Clenching painful guts, like twisted towels, every drop of moisture squeezed out of them.
My trauma body was a small, constricted, tightly bound vessel. My body had difficulty holding and containing any strong physical or emotional charge, whether pleasure or pain. Energy needed to be discharged to bring me back to stasis, the narrow stasis which I could tolerate.
Talking was a way to tame the wild currents coursing through me. I talked to my mother. She was kind enough to listen, to keep track of the characters in my tales, to tolerate the unstoppable flood of words pouring into her ear through the telephone. My phone calls and words also served her — to stem her feelings of loneliness, to give her a feeling of connection with me, even to entertain her. But the talking could be destructive for me. Often, after pouring myself out, I felt heightened anxiety. I lost all sense of boundaries. I felt empty, as though I had given myself away.
Or I imposed my talking on others, oblivious of their feelings. My son was one captive audience, especially when we were in the car together, especially when we were driving on the freeway, when the anxiety in my body ramped up several notches. I could not give myself an accounting of what was happening, that I was driving him crazy with the incessant discharging of my fears, as one worry after another surfaced. He would finally erupt, and I never knew what hit me. I did not mean to hurt him or cause distress or harm. I was doing what I was compelled to do. Yet, deep inside, a part of me knew. I tried to rein myself in — but the energetic charge of fear coursing through me was stronger than my resolve.
Joy, happiness, and excitement were challenging as well. Sometimes the emotional charge of these powerful energies would overwhelm me.
I would phone someone the minute something good happened. I told myself I wanted to share my happiness, but really I needed to discharge energy by talking to achieve a level I could tolerate.
Or, in extremis, I would have an accident and that would stop the flow of good feelings altogether.
Like when my brother and sister-in-law visited me in my city, San Miguel de Allende, my happy place in the highlands of Mexico. I was so excited and happy to see them, that within twenty minutes of our meeting, I fell flat on my face on the cobblestones, blood flowing from my forehead, nose, and cheeks.
Or the first year I returned from San Miguel de Allende, elated with the discovery of this beautiful place — I slipped on the ice the following morning. My elbow required surgery — a plate, six pins — and bike riding suspended until the end of summer.
Or the year I was finally free of an orthopedic boot I had been wearing for months. I walked around San Miguel in my regular shoes so happy and free — until that same night, when I lost my orientation in the bathroom of my new apartment — and fell backwards over a tile ledge into the shower, causing a foot injury that lasted for months.
I had an ambivalent relationship to pleasure. My system was better able to tolerate it when the pleasure was braided with pain. I felt ecstatic pleasure with Uri. This was acceptable because the relationship was held in a space of uncertainty, arrivals, and departures — pleasure laced with pain.
I devoted myself to finding ways to ease the suffering of living in my trauma body. There was my body, there was my mind, and there was a “feeling me” who was trapped inside this challenged body. “I” wanted and needed to save and rescue “her.”
I found nature to be a potent healer. Bike riding and walking in nature became my most powerful line of defense. I jumped out of bed in the morning and hopped on my bike, riding as fast and as far as I could. I created a 17-mile route, a bike ride to beauty. It was so simple, this gift to myself, so simple and profound. My life opened to the caresses of sweet morning air on my cheeks, opened to glory, to the holy of holies— to a ride gliding under a canopy of fully grown trees. I arrived at a lake and found a favorite bench where I watched the ducks, occasional herons, and swans. Standing on a bridge, I visited a waterfall and if I kept my gaze on the river flowing underneath I could shut out the traffic noise and imagine Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, heading down to the creek to fish. On the return route, I rode down and then up a steep hill, the green filling me, the sight of the woods, hiking paths, and a small wetland with fuchsia-colored lily pads flying past — a thrill each morning.
Day after day, no matter how many times I rode this route, I felt pleasure, joy, and strength. I rejoiced in the act of bringing goodness and wellbeing to my self. I rebuilt my identity a little bit each day — coming to embody a self who feels pleasure, who lives well.
I sought a healing path. I came to believe, to know, and to trust with all my heart and mind, that it is possible for the mind to rewire and heal the brain. I came to know, to trust, and to believe with all my heart and soul, that “underneath” trauma, my natural state is one of peace and stillness.
I experienced moments of transcendence.
I woke one summer morning, familiar dread creeping up my torso. I observed the physical sensations of dis-ease which arose and watched dark thoughts seeking to insinuate themselves into the forefront of my mind. I saw the attack coming, and on this particular morning, identifying the thinking process helped me not be at its mercy.
I practiced opening my awareness to the sweet stillness in the room, the leaves on the trees, framed in the skylight on the sloped ceiling across from my bed.
I became aware of the mellow light refracting off the crystals of the chandelier which hangs above the staircase, a campy relic from the dining room of the house I grew up in. My eyes moved to the cheer of the red-apple-colored frame surrounding the Chinese print on the far wall, depicting women bent over rice paddies, their brightly colored Mao jackets center stage.
My attention shifted from the seeming solidity of my body to a felt Presence, a quality of modest thickening of the air in the room. It was as though my body began to dissolve, larger and larger spaces arising between each cell, all merging into Awareness. The thickening of the energy field made itself known by an ever so slight and gentle nudging sensation into which I merged.
As I grow older, I live summer with a fierce cherishing, knowing I can no longer count on endless summers ahead. The recognition of time passing merges with a growing aptitude for unalloyed, appreciative joy, as though there is, after all, all the time in the world. Or more likely, no time but the timeless One Time — lush, exquisite summer to which I surrender.
But since the threat to our democracy, since the mass shootings recurring and accelerating, since the more pronounced ecological ravages to Mother Earth, since Covid, since the war in Ukraine — my ability to inhabit the non-dual space has been challenged. My sense of security has felt threatened, the ground eroding beneath my feet. My sense of refuge is disturbed; my mind in a mad scramble seeking safety.
Whether I can manifest healing, peace, and stillness in a sustained way or whether I fall back into re-traumatization in my body/mind, whether I experience moments of blessed peace or I feel trapped in fear and dread — I embrace my overriding task — to provide a refuge within myself of unconditional love — however my body/mind is expressing herself in any given moment.
This question emerges. How do we heal trauma when our collective trauma is becoming more dire?
And for me personally: how do I hold and live with the indigestible, the intergenerational trauma I carry as a child of survivors?
Finding Refuge: a memoir by Diana Kuper is available now.