I used to tell this story as a self-deprecating tale about clumsiness. That was when I believed in self-deprecation1. Now I tell it as a story about bottoms and something deeper than bottom.
It starts with a meadow. A meadow which was connected to other meadows. My dad and I first visited it when I was a teenager. I would have been around 14 years of age. The reason for the visit was trout. The place had been a farm at one time, but was situated on a rural road that wound through a valley in the mountains. The farm had been abandoned decades before we started fishing there. There were old fences falling down in the tall grass, hidden barbed wire here and there, and an old truck the colour of mars. There were also lots of foot sized holes hidden beneath the long grass in the boggy soil.
A small creek wound for several miles through the meadow. It cut deeply into the peat-like ground and in most places you could not see the bottom it was so deep. There were dark holes you could drown in. An unexpectedly dangerous place cloaked in beauty. Beavers had dammed the creek, causing it to flood out across the meadow in places and much of the meadow floor was soft and squishy under foot.
Because of the cold water, the tall grass full of insects, and the deep undercuts to the creek banks, the trout that occupied the creek grew large and healthy.
The first time my father brought me to the place I looked down at the creek from the railway tracks we had walked along to get there and said something like, “this little creek here?” Dad had been telling me about the place for a few weeks, not building it up, but hinting that the visit would be worthwhile. He said he had been there over the years and had “some luck.”
It really did look tiny. You could easily jump across it in places. Stepping into the grass it was immediately apparent that the meadow floor was wildly uneven. We walked towards the creek swaying around as our feet pivoted on the lumpy ground out of sight below grass that stretched up to our shoulders
“Use the grass to your advantage,” dad said, “the fish here are very sensitive, if they see you or hear you, they will shoot away down stream or upstream. Walk very slowly and keep down.”
He demonstrated by hunching low in the grass, just his hat and rod above the swaying seed heads. He moved painfully slowly inching his way within casting range of the creek. He air casted enough line and then dropped the fly gently down so that it landed on the surface of the water like an insect would. Immediately a fish took the fly and he set the hook. Bang, the splashing was intense, dad’s rod bent down and he pulled it back and held the fish from making a run, saying, “You don’t want to let it get under the bank, it will rub the fly off on a log or root and you will have a dickens of a time getting your fly back.”
I started to unhook my fly from my rod and dad waved me upstream as he hauled the thrashing flashing fish out of the water towards him through the grass.
It was like some kind or strange magic. Sizable trout in a tiny stream.
We had a successful day and we went back a few times that year but Dad explained that we could easily fish the stream out, if we weren’t carful.
The next year, our second trip to the meadows that season, Dad suggested we try a little higher upstream. There were more willows and low trees here and more ponds. More risk of getting your fly caught on your back-cast. There was an old bridge across the creek and so we were both able to pick one side of the stream and fish separate ponds and feeder streams. The creek was wider in places because of the work of the beavers to slow the flow and the network of ponds stretched out across the meadow. As we moved apart along the spreading wetland I lost sight of dad. I could still hear the swish of his fly line and from time to time the umph and splash as he set the hook on another trout.
I was catching fish, but no keepers, so I set out to make my way around to the other side of a larger area of open water. As I moved away from the main beaver dam the ground became more firm underfoot and I looked up to see that the meadow here ended in a rise of ground leading into the forest above. There was a burbling brook spilling down under the trees and then disappearing into the long grass of the meadow. As I got closer I could see that this little brook was a feeder to the pond. As I moved forward carefully the tall grass parted I could see that the water was about 8 inches deep in the brook but that it was a wide shallow expanse too wide to jump across. I looked towards the forest and there didn’t seem to be any narrower spots. I looked down at my legs, pants wet up to my knees, water squishing around my canvas runners. I looked down at the bed of the brook and saw small rocks washed from the forest and lots of small twigs, sticks, cedar cones, and other woody debris.
Holding my rod up so it would not snag on the grass I leapt as far out as I could, landing about 3 feet from the far shore. I felt little resistance as my first foot pieced the water and entered the muddy bottom. I waited for the reassuring pressure as my foot moved down toward something more solid. That pressure never came, nothing solid ever was struck. Instead I found myself instinctively preparing to swim, which seemed ridiculous given that the water looked less than a foot deep. I lobbed my rod forward into the grass and spread my arms as the water and mud rushed up my body.
After a few minutes of floundering in the strange mixture of water, mud, sticks and debris, I was able to grasp handfuls of the long grass hanging over the water and pull myself out of the sucking mire.
I lay in the tall grass panting and feeling my racing heart thudding in my chest. I looked back at the water and the flow of the brook was already carrying a plume of muddy water towards the pond. I could see a large hole in the bottom of the brook where I had been flailing around, but the sides of the hole were already sluffing down to collect the heavier debris. Finer mud was collecting on top of the sticks again. Within a few minutes it would be only a depression in the bottom of the brook and I imagined that in a few days it would be as before.
I stood up and heard my dad calling, “What?” from the distance.
“You ok?” he called.
I guess I must have called out in surprise. Embarrassment filled me and I called back, “I’m fine, I just fell in a hole.”
“Ok” he called from somewhere beyond the willows, and we both went back to fishing.
A half an hour later I saw dad making his way towards the main stream and I made my way in the same direction on the other side. When I stepped out of the long grass onto a long near where he was fishing, he look up and an expression of puzzlement crossed his face. “What happened to you?” he called. I looked down and realized I was covered in mud from my arm pits down.
“I told you,” I said, “I fell in a hole!”
My father started laughing, “That must have been some hole!” he said.
For years afterwards my dad told that story and I told that story and we would laughed again and he would say he didn’t realize how big a hole it was and I would say I didn’t either! We would both agree the fishing was worth it. When I told the story I would say, “I just kept going down and down in this tiny little stream that had not bottom!” and people would laugh.
Lately, that story keeps surfacing in my awareness. I have had a series of falls in a series of holes, and I’m not able to laugh about it.
Some people say you don’t make a change till you hit bottom. Other people say, when you fall in a hole, you have to pull yourself out. In my fishing story, I fell in a hole and pulled myself out. In addition, I learned from my experience, and told the story to warn others not to trust the appearance of brook bottoms. The consistency of the mud, with multiple broken twigs and sticks supported heavier objects that the brook had washed from the higher ground, but something as heavy as a human body would have disappeared beneath the surface without a trace, were it not for the instinct for survival.
I was able to turn the incident into a funny story because I knew how to swim, was young and fit, and was not alone. Even if I had not been able to get out, I would have called for my father who would have come and helped.
The novel element to this story is that there was no bottom. I just kept sinking and sinking and if I hadn’t started swimming, I would have gone under completely. Summers practicing stride jumps off our dock at home had ingrained the habit of scissoring my legs, and striking down with my arms. I knew something was wrong right away, recognized I was in for a dunking, and threw my rod to safety in preparation for the plunge. Not having my head go under, not getting mud and water in my mouth and eyes, helped me stay clear-minded, look around, see the overhanging grass, and pull myself from the sucking mire. Being prepared for this kind of thing meant that I was not traumatized by it. I knew how to respond and saved myself without much trouble.
Not like Other Holes
Many holes these days, like that strange one from my youth, have no bottom. Unlike that hole, the ones we fall into these days are ones many of us are not prepared for. What happens if we are not prepared? Often we experience trauma.
Trauma is defined differently by experts in the field, but they agree on some central aspects of it. Recently I took in the “Trauma Super Conference,” put on by Conscious Life. Because of the long slate of excellent speakers, some people (including me) were not able to hear all the speakers they wanted to, so it is airing again for free this coming Friday, 7 Jan 2022 through the 13th.
The simplest definition of trauma I have heard is from Dr. Aimie Apigian.
“What is Trauma?” she asks, “This is something we have complicated more than we need to. This is part of the reason we have gotten lost in it because we don’t really understand what it is. When we look at trauma through the lens of our body, our biology, it becomes a really simple definition. Trauma becomes simply anything in our life, that at the time, for whatever reason, was overwhelming.2” In another interview she explains, “If danger, perceived or real, causes anything that overwhelms our system, we go into an energy conservation state, and that is trauma. Every person is very individual in terms of what their body decides is overwhelming. There are many factors that go into the body’s subconscious decision of what is overwhelming.”
The recuring word there, is overwhelming.
Trauma experts describe how people get caught in trauma loops where they perceive a threat, go into a fight or flight state, then become overwhelmed and crash, only to start the loop over then next day.
Sukie Baxter, talking with Julie Bjelland, explains how “the cult of productivity” in many workplaces drives people into this type of cycle. She advocated doing nervous system work to learn to regulate our responses. The most helpful theory for understanding how to do this is the Polyvagal Theory.
Baxter says that Polyvagal Theory “explains how your body, especially your nervous system, stores and processes stress of all kinds. Stress, trauma, all of the activating charged experiences you experience in life.” She notes that it is normal for us to be activated by events, feel the activation, and then discharge any stress to our nervous system as part of regular life. We are not intended to coast along at a low state of activation, nor would most of us want to do so.
Baxter tells the story of how Dr Stephen Porges, who first proposed the Polyvagal Theory in 1994, noticed that the old theory of stress was very binary, you were either in stress or relaxation. Stress was seen as associated with fight of flight. What Porges discovered was that the part of the nervous system responsible for the “rest and digest” function actually has two branches associated with the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve divides into two parts, one that runs down the front of your body and one that runs down the back of your body. Together these parts make up a significant amount of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Dr. Porges discovered that there are two ways the parasympathetic system can get activated, in a way “that allows us to be connected to other people, and allows us to connect to empathy, joy, laughter, and play, and all of the positive experiences of life where we feel safe” or alternatively in a defensive way that allows us to shut down, conserve energy, and avoid harm.
When the ventral part is activated it is called “ventral vagal social engagement.” When we are functioning from this system we are curious, engaged, and sometimes even child-like in a positive sense.
The dorsal vagal system, on the other hand, is responsible for immobilizing us and conserving our energy. This system invokes a shut-down or collapse state. When in this state we might feel shame, depression, lethargy, deep weariness, and lack of motivation.
Trauma is an overwhelm of our system, characterized by Dorsal Vagal shut down that becomes a source of recurring feelings, even when the traumatic event is long over.
I’m not completely sure the difference between a “normal” dorsal vagal shut down and Trauma. More research is needed.
I highly recommend listening to the podcast episode, “HSPs and the Polyvagal Theory of Stress with Sukie Baxter” for a detailed explanation of how these systems work.
A New Way to view My Old Story
Returning to my story, we can unpack the events with a polyvagal understanding. My father and I were going fishing, and this experience began with the ventral vagal system being the dominant system. I was curious about the place, enjoying being with my father, and not experiencing any fear or perceiving any threats. My sympathetic system was somewhat active as I began to focus on fishing but only in so far as it helped magnify my senses and concentrate my attention, as well as deal with the physical challenges of walking over the uneven ground. But as soon as I leapt into the stream and felt myself sinking beyond what I expected, the sympathetic system became fully engaged, took over from the parasympathetic system and rousing all my resources for survival. Once out of the water, I quickly calmed down and returned to fishing, because I did not perceive any threat to my safety in what had happened. This is what Sukie Baxter described as a normal response that does not involve any trauma. I didn’t feel overwhelm, even though I experienced an unexpected and potentially threatening situation.
Take Covid for Example
The pandemic has been overwhelming for many people. It has triggered our dorsal vagal system and we have gone into a conservation state, hunkered down, waiting for the danger to pass. Perhaps the danger is passing but it has left many with a new level of vigilance, what Trauma expert Paul Conti calls, “hyper vigilance.” Dr. Conti says, ““When people suffer from Trauma their threat sensor becomes hyper active and hyper vigilant, convincing them that things are dangerous and wrong right now constantly, it’s like the threat sensor recognizes that it was unable to prevent the initial trauma and now it is trying to make up for it by being active and loud all the time.”
What to do when Your Threat Sensor is Active and Loud
I’m there. My threat sensor is hyper vigilant and has been for a long time now. It started early in the pandemic. Not exclusively from the pandemic, but from a series of events my body perceived as dangerous. Dr. Conti says hyper vigilance can sometimes mean a person has been, “rewired” so that they are much more likely to perceive threat that they used to. I know this has happened to me. The second half of his new book, “Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic: How Trauma Works And How We Can Heal From It” goes into exercises that can help, including “writing your true life narrative.” I have ordered the book and intend to work through the exercises. I’ll report back if they help!
How about you? Is your threat sensor on high alert? How are you managing your nervous system? Any resources you would recommend?
- Self-deprecation according to some is, a way of deflecting attention and staying modest. In this respect, it is seen as a virtue. No one can insult you when you take no airs or don’t think too highly of yourself. Unfortunately for me, this is a central part of my defectiveness schema. Like many of the traits modeled for me as virtues by my parents, this one remains difficult to let go of. I think there is wisdom in the old British habit of modesty, of knowing our true rank and not being arrogant, puffed up, or self-important. But it is also important to have an accurate appraisal of our strengths and good qualities. For this reason, and for the harm that my defectiveness schema has caused me, I have set aside deprecation in favor of welcoming reality.
- From the podcast Healing Stored Trauma on the C60 Health Connection.