Crash Course

An accident taught Matthew Sanford what holds body and soul together

| July / August 2006

When Matthew Sanford was 13 years old, an auto accident killed his father and sister and left him paralyzed. This physical and spiritual crisis changed him forever. As a paraplegic yoga instructor, he pays close attention to the mind-body connection, and this perspective has given him a unique insight into the nature of trauma. His book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence was just published by Rodale. He recently spoke with me about his experiences. Matthew's website address is

NU: Based on your experiences, how would you define trauma?

MS: Broadly speaking, trauma is a core loss of trust in the world, in life-when the world stops making sense to you. What's important to understand about that is that trauma happens to everyone; it's not just the extreme stories you hear about. For instance, the loss of childhood innocence is a big trauma. At that moment when you lost your childhood innocence, the world changed its shape. An essential part of trauma is that the world will never be the same again. And that requires you to reconfigure your relationship to the world.

NU: You say that everybody is traumatized, but there are examples like yours where there was a precipitating traumatic event.

MS: It's important to distinguish between a traumatic event (and the pain that accompanies it) and the effects of trauma, that is, how we respond to trauma. How we carry trauma forward throughout our lives can often be the real injury. For example, when I was in the car accident and broke my back and had all the traumatic injuries, the pain and suffering eventually ended. But 27 years later, I still carry trauma in little ways, like when I see the answering machine blinking and worry that something horrible has happened.

In my case, we were a fun-loving family of five driving home after Thanksgiving, and the unthinkable happened. I went to sleep in the backseat of a car; then I woke up to a world where my father and sister were dead and I was a paraplegic. It deeply violated my sense of trust in the world. I lost trust in the idea that if I just did the right thing everything would work out. That loss of trust is part of what I've had to heal, but this is both the injury and the gift of the trauma I experienced-now I truly know that anything is possible; the world is wide open.

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