When people learn that I’m from Vermont, the next question is, invariably, “Do you ski?”
I grew up in the town of Richmond, perhaps best known as home to “the Skiing Cochrans,” a family of mythical athletes. Their father, Mickey, coached all four of his wholesome, ruddy-cheeked offspring all the way to the U.S. Ski team and many national and world cups. Barbara (Barbie, to us) brought home a gold medal in slalom from the 1972 Sapporo winter Olympics. We were sprung early from school for the parade celebrating her triumphant return.
The Cochrans put in a rope tow on the hill behind their house just outside of town and turned the whole shebang into a tiny starter ski area. Ginny, their mom, launched an after-school program to teach local kids to ski, myself among them.
I had trouble getting a grip on the rope tow. With Ginny’s kindly intervention, I got the hang of it. I learned to make a pie-shaped wedge, to snowplow. Briefly, I loved skiing. One Saturday in February, the last run of the day, I was flying down the hill, enjoying a feeling of freedom and confidence unparalleled in my 8-year-old life, when a patch of unpacked snow brought my skiing career to an abrupt end.
The scream that rose out of me when I fell sounded to my own ears like it belonged to someone else. I tried to rise out of a tangle of skis and legs and crumpled back in the snow. They loaded me on a toboggan for transport to the triage area outside the kitchen of the Cochrans’ house. It served as a kind of ski lodge, kids wandering in and out with hot chocolate. There was some confusion in the chain of command. My parents had gone skiing at another ski area not so close by, depositing my brother and me at the Cochrans’ for the day with no clear guardian. A neighbor, a professor of home economics at the University of Vermont, was to have given us a ride home. She lived in a hot pink house with nineteen cats and bearded goats in her basement and had an enormous pale-yellow Chevy Suburban with room for me and the toboggan in the back. Away we went to the hospital. Although I’m sure there was kindness surrounding me during this critical period, I remember being cold, alone, and in a misery of pain.
My older brother sat in the backseat with the professor’s son who was his best friend. I whimpered at every pothole, while he assured Mrs. Livak, a nervous driver under the best of circumstances, not to worry, she didn’t need to drive so fast. I’d always been a baby, he said, and my leg was probably not broken.
At the hospital, x-rays confirmed a broken leg. They gave me a shot for the pain. My parents finally arrived. I was sent home with a toe to groin cast and crutches. I stayed in bed for a week, listless, using a bedpan. PTSD is not uncommon in children who are immobilized by orthopedic injuries. It’s not so much the event that produces the trauma as undischarged survival energy, an incomplete biological response. Like animals, we need to move in, through, and out of our instinctual response to perceived threats. If we’re immobilized, frozen, that amped up energy can stay in our system and wreak havoc. Just how much havoc may not become clear for, say, fifty years.
I can speak intimately of a feeling of soaring freedom suddenly struck down. It was as if my whole being were put in a cast, not just my leg. After that break, nothing was ever the same. I know this sounds overly dramatic, just a broken leg, I mean, Come on.
Spring came, and on an unseasonably hot day, my siblings and some neighborhood friends began to talk about swimming in the pond behind our house, plunging me into despair because I couldn’t get the cast wet. While the others swam, I lay on the grass in the front yard and succumbed to tears. There were changes in my body. I was getting heavier, denser. I broke my leg and lost my lightness, any childhood effervescence I’d had. I’d come to tears in the morning getting dressed, trying to find something clean to fit over my cast-thickened thigh. My whole self-image had changed.
At last the cast came off. I returned to school the same day, still on crutches, but with a feeling of exalted liberation. In the cafeteria at lunch, the rubber tip of my crutch slid on applesauce, and I went down hard. Back at the hospital, x-rays indicated a sprained ankle. This throbbing injury caused me more discomfort than the broken leg and kept me on the sidelines for another six or eight weeks. Summer came, and all sympathy dried up. Everyone was sick and tired of hearing about my troubles.
Five months after the skiing accident, I’d begun to get around pretty well again. We were in the Adirondacks, visiting my grandmother at her summer cottage. A family outing was planned, a hike up to one of the high lakes for a cookout. I didn’t want to go. The high point of visiting my grandmother was the candy bowl in her bedroom which had a seating area we all gravitated to when she wasn’t napping. We played cards or put together puzzles on the card table, helping ourselves to candy at our pleasure. If only I had won my bid to stay close to the candy bowl.
We set off on a forced march uphill through the woods. I began to whine about my ankle. I can’t say now if it really hurt, it’s possible it did, or maybe I’d begun to favor a life of inactivity and found it a convenient excuse. I’d lost the child’s zest for adventure.
We hiked as a loose family unit, but I began to fall behind. Eventually, I sat on a rock and refused to budge, staging a silent mutiny. They continued on without me. I miscalculated. I expected my mother to return for me, to take me back to the womb of my grandmother’s cottage. Instead, my father, or some furious facsimile, appeared. He was bearing down upon me, saying, in an ominous voice, “I’ll give you something to whine about.” He took a stout stick from the ground, bent me over his lap, and delivered on the threat.
Trauma typically falls in one of two categories–shock trauma, resulting from accident or injury, or developmental trauma, which boils down to lousy nurturing during critical developmental periods in childhood. Sometimes it’s referred to as relational trauma; abuse received at the hands of our attachment figures, those we’re dependent upon.
I’d never been “corrected” physically that I can recall. When he’d finished venting his rage, I stumbled forward up the trail to rejoin the family at the picnic site, my father heavy on my heels. Here memory bleeps out. Trauma is said to rob us of a coherent narrative. We dissociate, detaching from our physical environment, our emotions, reality itself. Our experience becomes fragmented, split off into bite-sized pieces.
The next deposit in my memory bank came a few days later. I was in the bathtub back at home. The door opened, and my father came in. He stood at the sink with his back to me, looking in the mirror. I turned over in the tub to cover myself. As casual as one commenting on the weather, he said, “I guess I really got you, didn’t I?”
I turned to look over my shoulder at my backside, startled to see a pattern of zebra stripes. I’m strangely grateful for this moment because I might not have understood how badly I’d been beaten if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. I believe this acknowledgment was his form of apology. Nothing more was ever spoken of it between us. I was deeply afraid of him and carried this fear as a shield of antipathy all through my childhood and into my adult life. In a constellation of woundings—broken leg, sprained ankle, beating–this last was the most decisive, my North Star. Everything about who I felt myself to be and who I have become stands in relationship to it.
It’s said that the soul of a child who’s been abused will simply leave the body, stand outside it, or hover around it. In Trauma and the Soul, Donald Kalsched defines soul as the “vital animating core of our embodied selves.” It’s the part of us that reacts creatively and spontaneously to the world. In indigenous cultures, shamans may be called in to facilitate “soul retrieval,” coaxing the soul back to its home in the body.
Trauma shrank my response to life. I became more inhibited than curious, more bleak than positive, more passive than active. Often, I was falsely accommodating, a pleaser, though I could also be dug in, refusing to participate at all. My decisions were largely fear-based. I developed an arsenal of numbing and avoidance strategies. For a long time, these adaptations felt like my true nature.
It’s said that we trauma survivors must take responsibility for our own healing and that it begins with a strong desire to become whole again. We undertake a sort of private Olympics, training for many years in such things as yoga, breath work, psychology, forgiveness. We find the places in our body and psyche where we’re collapsed and need to build strength to get the job done, as well as those places where we’re rigid or frozen, and need to let go. We try to construct coherent narratives to explain what has happened to us. Bit by bit, without parades or medals, we come home.