Element Two: The Trauma
In September of 2015, I decided to start a clinical psychologist position at the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, a maximum security prison for men in Sacramento. This decision was met with concerns for my safety and the belief that my skills could be put to better use with a more deserving audience. That only fueled my resolve to show up for these inmates. Knowing that I was entering an institution rooted in systemic racism and oppression I wanted to be a source of light for the inmates. Offering a space to feel seen and heard and reminding them that there are people in the outside world who care about their well-being, I wanted to help them reconnect to their bodies as they discover their worth and resilience.
My work primarily consisted of individual sessions centered around harnessing tools to improve emotion regulation. As a result, I was particularly driven to focus on offering breath work and meditation practices. Eight months later, after working with several individuals who found value in my teachings, I felt compelled to launch a yoga and meditation group with a colleague who was a yoga teacher. Just one week before our first class, however, as I was walking through the prison yard, I was assaulted by an inmate. He had run up behind me and I turned just in time to get a glimpse of his smile as he raised his fists and began punching me in my face. I crouched to the ground to protect my head as he continued punching. I tried to scream, but my voice was nowhere to be found. He only stopped when he heard officers approaching. I was transported to a hospital for CT scans and sutures to my eyebrow. I made it through with cuts, bumps and bruises. I did not lose consciousness, break any bones or have any internal bleeding. I was so grateful to be alive and in one piece that I didn’t immediately grasp the depths of that day’s impact and, after a few months of medical treatment, I decided I was ready to get back to work.
But, there was a deeper trauma that needed healing. As I began planning my return to work, the thought of entering those prison walls made me anxious to the point of nausea. I began experiencing a worsening of symptoms, from paranoia and hyper-vigilance to heightened emotional sensitivity and nightmares, to name a few. I decided it was time to seek mental health support and was referred to a psychiatrist by my primary care physician. During my first visit I sat at his desk and cried uncontrollably while shaking and recounting my experience. He wrote me a prescription for an antidepressant and 6-8 sessions with a psychologist.
I never filled that prescription. I didn’t feel that psychotropic medication was the right path. But I did decide to begin working with a psychologist. This offered a safe space to let it all out, cry and process my experience while intellectualizing how my brain’s functioning had shifted. Again, after a few months of therapy, I thought I was on track to go back to work. I thought, “I am a psychologist; I know how trauma impacts the body. I have the intellectual capacity to work through all of this.” I felt that I should be able to deal with my PTSD diagnosis and get back to work because I am an expert in the field. In hindsight, that was my ego speaking as feelings of shame began to take over my experience. Although talk therapy is a crucial factor in healing, I soon realized that our body and spirit needed just as much, if not more, attention than our mind, particularly when working through trauma. It was time for me to begin an embodied approach to healing.