by Gregory Gaiser
My first experience as a health care professional working with trauma happened in the early 1990s with a woman I’ll call Roberta. Roberta was in psychotherapy at a local women’s center which specialized in treatment for childhood sexual abuse and rape survivors.
Roberta’s story was particularly tragic as she had been born into and raised in a cult where the most heinous acts occurred. Not only was she repeatedly sexually abused in a ritualistic way, but she was also psychologically abused every day in her own family. As a result, she coped by separated the feelings, memories and body experiences into ‘parts’ within herself; her diagnosis was Multiple Personality Disorder (this was before the DSM diagnosis changed to Dissociative Identity Disorder).
She came to me for massage therapy as an adjunct to her psychotherapy. Our goal was to help Roberta reconnect with her body.
I quickly learned that no particular techniques in my massage school training had prepared me for working with Roberta. In fact, if I stayed within the realm of techniques and formulaic massage it was counterproductive. I had to work withRoberta as a person, not on her body with a set of symptoms.
By tracking the moment to moment impact of the touch and talking about that, healing and integration started to happen. I learned I had to be extremely flexible and emotionally attuned. I needed to remind Roberta that she was in charge and we could stop at any time. Slowly over time, cultivating an attitude of working together, we found a particular kind of ‘still touch’ spoke to all the parts inside Roberta: the terrified little girl, the older quiet child, the sullen and desperate teenager, the angry one, and even the pre-verbal infant. This approach offered Roberta a felt sense of safety through touch. The results were profound.
Roberta’s nervous system began to experience grounding and deactivation. She calmed down and experienced a felt sense of safety like never before.
Over time I began to study more and more about trauma and to understand how Roberta’s experiences were like those of other trauma survivors. Indeed she had things in common not only with other childhood sexual abuse survivors, but with battered wives, men and women who had served in combat, and people who had been in earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and tornadoes.
As a result of being in life or death situations, all these folks had dysregulated Autonomic Nervous Systems. Massage therapy can be a potent component of a treatment plan for such individuals.