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Turning Around Trauma

Maverick approaches are helping people to heal from trauma, and thrive through life’s biggest hardships.


  • Illustration by Annie Internicola

Mark Matousek is familiar with the long, dark night of the soul; he spent years as a denizen there. In the early 1980s, Matousek was a successful editor in New York when he was diagnosed with HIV and led to believe that, while only in his late 20s, he had precious little time left to live. The news terrified him, but it also woke him up. “With the end in sight, the stakes are really high—there’s an urgency to finding out who you are and what you want, what life means to you,” says Matousek. “I had been so busy climbing the corporate ladder that I didn’t realize I wasn’t happy.” He quit his job and entered a decade-long “dharma bum” period of spiritual seeking, moving toward a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. “The same thing that scared me and took friends of mine from me, also gave me my life. When your back is up against a wall, the choice comes down to this—do I lay down and die, or do I figure out a way to get through this and make my life as good as it can be?” It turned out that he would be a survivor. Today, Matousek—a Manhattan-based author, teacher, speaker, and coach—works with other people who are confronting their own dusky crossroads and helps lead them toward the light. What emerges is a nonconventional, off-the-therapist’s-couch approach to trauma that’s based on practical experience, with tools and principles to use in everyday life.

Figuring out ways not just to survive, but thrive, amid trauma and adversity is a fashionable theme right now in wellness books. In just the past few months, two titles have come out on the subject—Mark Epstein’s The Trauma of Everyday Life: A Guide to Inner Peace (2013, Penguin Press) and The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections (2013, Tarcher) by Norman Rosenthal, MD. Matousek himself offers a preamble to the conversation with his own 2008 book, When You’re Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living (Bloomsbury USA), in which he gives voice to the stories of extraordinary people who have blossomed amid major hardship, from becoming paralyzed to losing a child. The overarching message: If these people can pass through the fire of personal crisis with such grace and power, so can you, whatever your own personal crisis might be. Common to all of these books is not a simplistic, silver-lining moral, but an honest look at the darkness of adversity as well as ways to harness its transformational power. Hardship and pain are the very things we are told to avoid at all costs, but these authors suggest that our timidity in this terrain may not serve us well. If we recognize instead that darkness can be a doorway into self-realization and can, as Matousek says, “galvanize and deepen the spirit,” new opportunities begin to unfold.

Your Wound Can Be Your Gift
“Everyday life is traumatic; there’s uncertainty, loss, fear,” says Matousek, who leads workshops on thriving in adversity—including one at Old Stone Farm, a beautiful new retreat center near Rhinebeck, in early December. “It’s about dealing with the nuts and bolts of being human in an impermanent body, in a dangerous world. If you’re waiting for life to get peaceful and calm with everything hunky dory, you’re going to be waiting a long time.” Through writing exercises, lectures, one-on-one sessions, and group dialog, he leads people to see that when your story changes, your life changes. “You have to remember that no matter what happened to you, something else is also true,” he says. “When you’re in crisis, you can feel like you’re on a dead-end street. But there’s a flip side: Every experience has the potential to wake you up. When your story falls apart, you have the opportunity to reframe your life. People live in terror of things falling apart, but it’s when things fall apart that new creation happens.”

Matousek steers his students toward the concept of viriditas—a Latin word that medieval mystics used to describe the green creative force in the universe, or the life force pulsing through all of us. “What people who have gone through extreme situations realize is that their recovery, healing, and very life depend on being able to connect to that green force—the creative, evolving energy in themselves,” says Matousek. “The first thing that happens when people go through a catastrophe is that they’re in this kind of limbo place—they don’t feel like they’re alive but they’re not dead, they survive but they’re not really living. To the ability that you can connect to that green power, your spirit, creativity, and imagination will come back.” Other key principles that Matousek helps to cultivate are gratitude (“it cancels out self-pity, which is the enemy of thriving”) and curiosity (“if you can stay curious about your life, that’s going to keep you growing and looking forward, not back”).

A Path from Powerless to Empowered
Sharon Freeman, too, has taken a long walk through the valley of darkness. “I had a very traumatic childhood, with lots of loss, neglect, and abuse,” says Freeman (not her real name), 53, of Staten Island. “I grew up not really embracing life. I wasn’t suicidal, but I felt powerless and victimized.” Freeman started working with Matousek a little over three years ago—first at a class at the Open Center in Manhattan, and later at Miriam’s Well retreat center in Saugerties. “He helped me see how I was living my life as the same victimized little girl I had been, as opposed to being an adult who can make my own choices.” Freeman was also working as a children’s bereavement group leader, finding that her difficult early experiences gave her wisdom and skills that she could use to help others. Yet just as she was making progress toward healing her childhood wounds, Freeman was confronted with another setback: This past spring, she discovered that she carried the gene linked with the aggressive development of breast and ovarian cancer that ran in her family.

“At first I thought, well, here is another example of how the world is against me,” says Freeman. “The standard recommendation for women with this gene is to have your ovaries removed, but my first reaction was, why bother? I’m not that thrilled with life anyway.” A paralyzing fear of surgery also stood in her way. Although the risk of death is only about 1 percent, to Freeman it felt like 75 percent: “When you grow up with so much trauma, you’re always waiting for the next disaster.” Yet through writing exercises and other explorations with Matousek, she was able to see how she could turn around her situation to be a gift. She decided to have the surgery. “I could look at how I felt about being alive straight on and come from a place where I wasn’t a victim. I had the choice to take a stand and say, yes, I do want to be alive, I’m grateful to be alive, and I want to do everything in my power to give myself the chance of staying alive as long as possible. It’s realizing that with anything that happens, it’s your choice what to do with the situation. I may not like what is happening, but I do have power and choice in it.”

Treating Trauma Through the Body
Therapists, social workers, and others involved in treating people with severe trauma are finding a way in through another nontraditional approach: yoga. Just recently, researchers completed a three-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health on the effects of yoga on trauma survivors—and the results, though as yet unpublished, are promising. “Trauma happens to the body,” explains Jenn Turner, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher who taught classes for the NIH study at the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, a world-renowned center for the research and development of trauma treatment models; the center is the brainchild of Bessel van der Kolk, the psychiatrist who coined the phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) in the 1970s. “Many people who have been through major trauma have the experience that when they become triggered, their body feels like it’s been hijacked,” says Turner. “If somebody hears a door slam, that might trigger memories that make the heart rate increase; they might become sweaty and unable to concentrate. Even if the brain says, it’s okay, there’s no danger present, it can still take a long time for the body to settle back down. With yoga, we’re offering our students a way to self-regulate. The idea is to treat the body first, and then the brain can get back online.”

A trauma-sensitive yoga class feels and sounds very different from a conventional yoga class. Teachers are trained to speak in a way that gives students a lot of choice and free will. They do not give physical assists or even move around the room, which can startle trauma survivors. For the NIH study, many subjects were victims of childhood sexual abuse with a long-time diagnosis of PTSD. Individuals like these often feel disenfranchised from their bodies. “We encourage students to begin to come into contact with and gradually explore the body at their own pace,” says Turner. “As a relationship builds with the body, then students can begin to use the body as a resource to help them feel differently.” In general, the study found a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms; one participant reported that, after doing yoga for only 10 weeks, she was able to allow her husband and family to touch her more. “I found that so moving—something about her relationship with her own body had changed enough that she was able to feel more comfortable with touch in her life,” says Turner. The yoga classes also often gave participants fresh material for their talk therapy sessions, and some people who had been previously stuck in their therapy were making renewed progress. When the results of the NIH study are published sometime in the next year, expect wider recognition from the psychiatric community for yoga’s promise with PTSD patients.

Meanwhile, for those struggling with everyday trauma and adversity (rather than severe, clinically diagnosed PTSD), there’s a growing body of literature out there about the Phoenix that can rise from the ashes. “People can manage not only to survive the dark times but also to use that darkness as fuel to thrive in their lives,” says Matousek. “You can go through the alchemy of suffering and come out bigger, wiser, smarter, deeper, and more loving on the other side. If you’re willing to reimagine yourself, to step into a new zone, all kinds of possibilities can happen.”

Mark Matousek will lead his retreat “When You’re Falling, Dive: Thriving in Adversity,” December 5-8 at Old Stone Farm in Staatsburg (Oldstonefarm.org). Jenn Turner will co-lead “Teaching Trauma-Sensitive Yoga” with David Emerson, April 6-11 at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (Kripalu.org).

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