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A tango to remember & heal trauma.

by Genoveva Rodríguez-Castañeda

I have always liked tango. When you dance, you have to communicate actively with your partner. I love the melody that the bandoneon imposes in tango and the tension that is felt in the air every time the instruments stop their sound. It is the notes that we expectantly wait as they dictate when I will follow you or guide you. When I dance, I feel how my energy and yours converse wordlessly.

How is tango related to trauma?

Dancing tango takes work. We are learning how to tango takes years of practice. So does knowing where our emotions come from and relating them to what we have lived. Just as no two couples dance tango the same, what works for one person to heal may not help another person. There is no magic formula to remember and heal trauma.

Fabio and Mario, who are twin brothers, are very different in how they cope with the trauma they experienced when they were seven years old. Think about it, genetically. These kids are the same; their parents have instilled the same principles. However, Fabio, when faced with adversity, was left speechless, unable to move after his father collided with a truck. Mario immediately exited the car and started helping his mom get Fabio out of the wreckage. To date, ten years later, Fabio does not remember much about that day, and Mario wakes up sweaty remembering with anguish the moment his dad crashed. The path that both twins take to heal and their suffering that day is different. While Mario has memories, Fabio doesn't. Both reactions are good examples of how our brain protects us to survive difficult times.

What is trauma?

Trauma is defined as experiences that we have survived (think of witnessing wars or neighborhood violence, intense fights at home, car accidents, the breakup of a love relationship or the death of loved ones, the loss of a baby, the tragic death of a child) that have separated our body from our mind. It is a horrible experience we don't remember but relive each time something brings it back. It is curious that while we feel alone because of our horrible personal experiences, trauma, one way or another, unites us as humans because it takes great strength to go on, and many of us have suffered some trauma.

As humans, we are very resilient to withstand horrible events, in the sense that traumas do not take our lives, but that does not mean we can move on as if nothing had happened. Trauma leaves its physical mark on our body and mind. Trauma, by definition, is something you go through that is unbearable. And there are recent studies that link surviving trauma with inflammatory diseases.

It is important to remember that, although we survive difficult times and continue "a normal life," it takes us enormous energy to continue living and carrying these memories. Brainscan studies show how our thought processes shift after a traumatic experience. Moreover, we log every moment of terror, shame, helplessness, and vulnerability that we have experienced in our minds and nervous system. The conflicts and horrible experiences we had as children live inside us by blaming ourselves for what happened or erasing them from our everyday life. But they follow us as burdens our body and mind carry forever.

The work of healing trauma resembles the rhythm of tango. That swing, taking bold steps forward followed by long reversals we do while dragging our feet.

It is a constant wrestle between what our mind wants to drown and never think of again and the part of our body that can't forget and wants us to heal. Add the daunting task of adding words and a narrative to the pieces of nebulous memories that we carry.

In my case, for example, thirty-eight years after having survived an armed assault, suddenly, when I am driving, I am attacked by a pain like a lower back, and I start sweating in my back if I can not breathe. Electric energy surges up in my spine, and my teeth chatter. Sometimes, when I am angry, I get out of control and start driving quickly and impulsively. High anxiety made me dissociate from what I was doing, flying away from the stressful situation, which resulted in meant car accidents as a teenager when I started driving. As a child, I remember gunshots, broken glass sounds, the smell of blood, and bloody chickens running away from the car. It was a long time ago, but part of me returns there when I remember. I am still a tiny afraid girl, watching the destruction of everything and contemplating if we were all okay. Most days, I don't think about what I go through and drive without worry. But there are times when the smell of the leather of the armchairs and blood makes me a helpless child amid calamity. Images like the one of my decapitated and bloody wrist come to me suddenly. I felt it in my throat that I could not scream then. In those moments, I am a frightened seven-year-old, not an adult remembering difficult times.

We must ask ourselves not what our trauma is but how we get out of this and regain our wholeness.

In reality, there is no universal answer which I can offer them. No one technique works flawlessly for everyone. If a company wants to sell you a silver bullet solution or an approach that guarantees your healing of the trauma, it is better to turn around and get out of there. It's like walking in a maze with doors where you have the keys, and the different techniques help you find the key that matches the keyhole.

As in tango, you dance best with a partner you trust, the professional who supports you should be someone with whom you have developed trust. For example, our memory stores images and descriptions of the trauma in the language we lived that horrible experience. While trying to make sense of our traumatic experiences, it is tough to put words to them. And it presents an even more enormous challenge to translate what happened into the language of our therapist. The religion and culture we grow up in dictate feelings such as shame and guilt. Thus it is more strenuous for us to explain to a therapist that doesn't share our culture why we feel bad that professionals who do not share it have difficulty identifying.

To dance the tango of trauma, you must be in a safe mental space to express yourself, so we designed Esperantza. This website provides information about our professionals so that you can make an informed decision about who your therapist will be. We also offer you a complimentary orientation appointment, which you can do here to recommend you to a professional with experience in mental health that, based on listening to you, we believe will earn your trust. Finding the right therapist for you is only part of what you need to heal. The other part is that you need to feel a strong emotional attachment to someone that makes you feel safe to start the journey. Look within yourself for some memory or feeling of someone who loves you unconditionally. It's like the driftwood you grab onto to float after a shipwreck.

How do I find a secure attachment if I don't find it in my memory or my present life?

For some, it is creating a bond with a pet; starting to relate to such a faithful and dependent being to be able to pamper and be pampered without complications and judgments will make you start trusting it.

Starting to talk about what you feel with an animal that listens to you will make you trust more people in your close circles and thus grow like a small green plant of hope within you.

Other people start healing trauma through the practice of yoga or therapeutic dance. Many traumas get stuck in parts of your nervous system (you may not remember, but your body does). The yoga practice that combines deep breathing and stretching with movement connects your body with your mind and can heal many aspects of the trauma left behind in your body.

For me, it was to start "dancing" the tango of psychotherapy with my therapist. First, trust her that she listens without judging, then learn about me and the rest spaces I need. Learning about my trauma is also understanding how trauma, abuse, and neglect have impacted my life.

In general, the steps of tangoing to address trauma when looking for a person with experience in trauma are three.

1. Find calm and stability 2. Find within us the memory of a person or group of people with whom we feel understood. These people help us rest from memories and how we relive the trauma again at unexpected hours and days 3. The support of our teachers or mental health professionals helps us reestablish real connections with people close to our lives (family, spouses, children, and friends) through the various techniques they teach us

Keep in mind that the path to healing trauma is yours alone. No therapist masters all the techniques and must respect your healing path. For example, I now do kickboxing, which is helping me a lot to manage stress, but I have a close friend who is about to become a Yoga instructor, which has helped her manage her traumas and stress. They are two very different paths, but they are paths and activities that have supported us to give space to our emotions.

Why should we work to heal our traumas?

Why not continue living as we have lived all these years? Our body has two jobs, to keep us alive and to pass on the important information learned in this life to the next generations. The traumas we have experienced make us adopt survival strategies. Some will seem like good things to do and traits of a successful person, such as working long hours to avoid problems at home, running every day, and overdoing it with exercise. Some are considered less favorable, like compulsive eating, alcoholism, or hurting ourselves to distract us from pain and anxiety.

All we do with these is seek to forget and move forward with our responsibilities and work. But it's worth considering how hard it is for us to stay that way. We cannot erase only uncomfortable feelings such as suffering. By erasing what we don't like to feel, we also rob ourselves of having joy and feeling loved and safe. And if we have children, we must also consider what we teach them through avoidance actions.

It's worth thinking about what carrying these traumas inside limits us in the decisions we make every day. For example, after the trauma I suffered at home, I vowed never to marry or have children. I thought being a housewife, and mother was the most disgusting and pathetic thing in a woman's life. And while I still agree that family life is not for everyone and that a woman has the right to live single, I am glad that I addressed my ill-conceived certainties, such as all marriages suck and a woman's life ends when she starts a family. Thanks to that, I could marry a kind man who loves me and experience the joy of raising a child that is free to be who he is.

Addressing our traumas makes us better people.

When we pay attention to ourselves, we stop pretending to control others and work on knowing our emotions, giving them their space. By giving them their place and being able to communicate with them, we allow our loved ones to know us better. Healing allows us to leave the beliefs and attitudes that helped us survive in the past, and now that we no longer need them, they continue to burden us.

In short, starting to dance the tango with our traumas is complex and riddled with forward and backward swings. But it's a worthwhile dance for the freedom and peace of working on past traumas.

We can support ourselves in this life path by breaking the silence and sharing information. At Esperantza, we strive to create a community where we share resources that have helped us and want to hear what has helped you.


This piece was inspired by what I learned from reading

Van der Kolk, B., 2014. The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York.


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