Crash Course

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
matthewsanford.com.

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.

NU: But arriving at that openness is a process,
right?

MS: That’s true. The really negative effect of
trauma is that it dulls you, it deadens you. You’re no longer in
pain, but you’re numb, and most people who have been through a lot
of trauma at first have to be numb and only later can the trauma be
transformed into possibility, into hope.

If you’ve had your heart broken in love and you just shut down
and never let yourself love again-then you’re really injured. The
initial pain you felt when someone broke off a relationship that
mattered is difficult, but it’s the denial of life that comes after
it that is the real injury.

NU: How do you get past that denial?

MS: Stories play an important part. The stories
you tell about the world and the way you think about the world.
They can be both positive and negative. For example, what happened
to me is unfair and a really sad thing. I wish it hadn’t happened.
I wish my father hadn’t died at 47. I wish my sister hadn’t died at
20. I wish that I was still walking. All that’s true, but if you
stay with that story of unfairness, the effects of trauma are going
to stay with you.

For me, a simultaneous story has taken hold. My life thus far
has been like a river gaining current. I wouldn’t be the person I
am if what happened to me hadn’t happened. And in fact I like who I
am now. I think that I’m a better person than I would have been,
although I don’t know. My whole life’s work is based on the
relationship and fluctuation between mind and body, and no amount
of bookwork would have given me the insight and intuition that were
forced on me as a 13-year-old.

NU: Tell us about those insights.

MS: I was told by a well-intending medical
model that the mind-body relationship below my point of injury, my
chest, was basically over. I was paralyzed and I could learn to
compensate for my paralysis and drag my body through life. What
I’ve discovered through yoga is that there is a more subtle,
invisible connection between mind and body that makes me feel
whole. And this isn’t just psychological stuff; I mean literally. I
feel fluctuating energy between my legs and my upper body now. You
squeeze my ankle, I feel a flow of energy up through my spine, like
squeezing a tube of toothpaste.

No doubt this level of presence is more subtle. Is this level of
presence ever going to make me walk again? Lift my leg against
gravity? Probably not. But it restores a sense of wholeness. If you
tickle the bottoms of my feet I can’t feel it the way you feel it,
but there’s another level of connection in the silence of my
paralysis, and I was trained by the medical model to stop listening
to it. Yoga has helped me to believe in it.

NU: I think we’re all trained to stop listening
to it.

MS: That’s right. We all have a mind-body
problem. But age introduces that same silence into the mind-body
that my paralysis did. One of the things that yoga does is refine
the quality of the presence we experience within our bodies.

NU: So what does this presence have to do with
trauma?

MS: When trauma is not transformed over time,
you become less present. You end up being kind of a shell of
yourself. You don’t take in the world with pleasure, you don’t let
it flow through you and you don’t let it out. When you lose that
presence, you lose connection to the world. That’s when trauma
turns into depression, and the more you become separated from the
world, the deader you become.

Trauma registers in both mind and body. For example, I was
asleep in the car when the accident happened. I have no memory of
that day. But 12 years after the accident, when I started to do
yoga, I started to have flashbacks, like posttraumatic syndrome
flashbacks. My body was having memories. The echoes of the original
accident were finally coming through. Part of the reason it took so
long is that my mind was not ready to deal with what my body had
witnessed. When I was 13, I learned to disassociate from my body to
avoid pain. As I regained presence through yoga, these stored
memories began to dissolve.

NU: These are all personal processes, but is
there a role for the wider community in healing trauma?

MS: That’s important. My experience is that
trauma does not happen to one person, or even one family. It
happens to a whole community of families. I missed the funeral for
my father and sister because of my injuries, but there’s something
incredibly collectively healing about a funeral, to be around all
the love for a lost one. It’s part of the cleansing and healing.
When we are in community-with other bodies and hearts-that spurs
another level of cathartic release.

There are many types of collective trauma, too. We can never go
back to before 9/11. The world will be different from now on. And
of course the world’s always had violence in it, there’s always
been anger. But our collective trust in the world and the security
of the nation got shattered. So the question is, what do you do?
How do you respond? Hitting back after an insult is one way to do
it, but ultimately we’re not going to transform this trauma by
trying to violently counteract it. That’s not going to work. I’m
not saying 9/11 is a good thing, just as I’m not saying that my
being paralyzed is a good thing, but what trauma does by
challenging your assumptions is force you to see the world as more
open. The challenge is to try to see it in a way that makes you
love the world more. Essentially, to be open and compassionate.

NU: It’s a paradox-the trauma makes you
fearful, but it also frees you.

MS: Part of the wisdom of trauma comes from
that paradox. Trauma requires me to acknowledge that my life has
been harsh. Does it hurt? Yes. At the same time, I’m desperately in
love with living, with the gift of life. Healing trauma calls on us
to honor the life force and not be destructive with it. Does this
feeling come from sadness, too? Yes, it’s both. Simultaneously, I
am heartbroken and desperately in love.

NU: It takes courage, though, to live with that
paradox, doesn’t it?

MS: Well, people sometimes call me courageous
because of what I’ve gone through. But I think that’s beside the
point. I wanted to keep living. I wanted to be part of the world.
Overcoming my disability-that doesn’t even make sense to me. I am
who I am because of my disability. It is my life, the only life I
have, and so I’m going to live it. Is that brave? If that’s
bravery, then it’s in a very large sense. I live my life knowing I
want to be here.

NU: Then courageousness is simply being open to
life, trauma and all?

MS: That’s what I think. To know that living
actually entails both life and death. In fact, that’s what defines
consciousness: the integration and acceptance of both life and
death. If you’re open to life, obviously you have to be open to the
silence and sadness in life too. If that’s bravery, then sure, call
me courageous. But the simple fact is that I’m just living. I just
love living.

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