In the midst of COVID-19, Teresa Hommel joined thousands of people online at the 31st Annual International Trauma Conference.
Four years of attending the conferences in person had brought meaningful knowledge and treatments into her life, and though the format was notably different this year, the outcome was not.
By: Teresa Hommel
I was heading for a massive surprise when I joined four thousand people from around the world at the 31st Annual International Trauma Conference, May 28-30, 2020, conducted online due to COVID-19. This was my fifth year in attendance. Instead of business casual I dressed up in my favorite pajamas, turquoise with yellow duckies. I enjoyed having my refrigerator only few feet away, as well as saving $1000 in expenses by staying home in my apartment in New York City.
Like a handful of others at this event I was not a therapist, doctor, or researcher. I went for self-help purposes. The first time I’d gone I was so naïve I only knew what I’d read in Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score.
Over the years I’d learned I had developmental trauma, which meant my brain hadn’t developed all its parts or internal connections due to abuse and neglect in infancy. I also had complex trauma, which meant the dangers I’d lived with kept recurring, keeping me in a state of physical alarm that adversely affected my immune system and made me vulnerable to various diseases. My question was always, “How can I get over this?”
My problems had started before I was born when my parents agreed not to have any kids, but Mom got pregnant accidentally-on-purpose because she secretly wanted children. Dad went into a rage. By the time Mom brought me home from the hospital Dad wished I was dead. Or would die. Or just plain disappear. He wasn’t physically violent, but he yelled at Mom a lot. Although she adored me, in her fright she became violent.
A Jewish immigrant from Germany, Mom had narrowly escaped death twice during the build-up to World War II. One afternoon she’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time and saw a mob kill a young family–grandfather, father, mother, and newborn. Terrified, she couldn’t close her eyes. She saw the infant corpse.
Mom had reached safety in the United States, but during a screaming fight with Dad she slipped into a post-traumatic hallucination. Like some war-zone mothers, she killed me mercifully–suffocation with a pillow–to protect me from a much worse fate. I was ten weeks old.
Coming out of her hallucination Mom discovered me lying inert in my crib, skin hot, no breath, no heartbeat. She managed to revive me, but she would never forgive herself. Frantic to prevent herself from assaulting me again, she vowed to keep her distance as much as possible until my first birthday.
By the time of my first trauma conference I’d been having flashbacks for more than two decades, so I knew what Mom had done. She’d confessed and apologized, but that hadn’t cured my fear of people, my physical and emotional numbness, or my troubles with learning and memory.
The strange thing was that I’d always believed Mom was my protector and Dad was the dangerous one. By the time I was three he’d gotten used to having me around. He tried to befriend me but I shrank from him. We never became close.
The trauma conferences had taught me enough that I’d been able to find treatments that helped. A therapy called Brainspotting was enabling me to unify my fragmented sense of self. A treatment called the Safe and Sound Protocol had eliminated most of my lifelong panic and enabled me to socialize with ease. Another treatment, the Focus System, was enabling me to grow the brain resources I lacked, and I was delighted with my improved vision, hearing, and physical and mental coordination. I could catch a ball for the first time in my life! I couldn’t wait to learn more at this year’s conference.
During a panel discussion on the last day, Dr. Van der Kolk said that, due to COVID-19, he wasn’t able to conduct his psycho-drama workshops, his most effective form of treatment. He had just presented a video of such a session. One participant played the client. She selected several others to take on the roles of her real and idealized parents, and together they’d performed an idealized re-enactment of her traumatizing incident.
“[The client has a] visceral, embodied experience,” Van der Kolk explained. He gestured with his arms as if hugging a small child as he continued, “[The ideal mother says,] ‘If I had been your Mom when you were 3 years old, ideally, I would have held you like this.’ And [the client who wasn’t held lovingly] goes, like, ‘Oh my God! If people would have held me like this, and I would have had these sensations in my body back then, my whole life would be different.’ “
I was entranced. My ears heard “If I had been your father, I would have held you like this.” My eyes saw Van der Kolk’s arms closer together, closer to his chest, as if he were embracing a tiny ten-week-old.
The next day, when I replayed the recording of the panel, I saw how much my brain had modified my perception of what Van der Kolk actually said and did. Maybe a part of my nervous system was still a newborn, and had been waiting for my Dad to welcome me, claim me as his own, and give me our first hug.
Van der Kolk’s statement and gesture, what he’d have said and done as a participant playing the ideal Mom, had taken five seconds. As I watched during the conference, my chest had convulsed and my upper body was flung down to my lap. I’d grabbed onto my desk to keep from falling on the floor as I gasped for breath. I heard myself cry out. The pain in my chest was extreme. Was that the pain I’d felt so long ago, when Dad came to my crib wishing me dead? Had I cried then? I don’t know.
I watched that section of the recorded panel a dozen times. If Van der Kolk had been my father my life would have been so different. But even seeing that five seconds, over and over, changed me. Later that day, in my mind, my own Dad appeared to me as if in a dream. I was a newborn in my crib. He approached, gazed at me with such soft eyes, reached for me, and lifted me carefully with gentle hands. He held me to his chest. His arms were strong. He said, “You’re mine. My own little daughter. I love you.” I melted into him at last.
Teresa Hommel lives in New York City, teaches computer languages, and writes short stories and essays. She is working on a memoir.