Four hulking buzzards sat on a dead tree in my yard. Their black bodies shining in the mid-day sun. The one nearest to me turned and studied me and my dog, Idgie. His dark eyes penetrated mine. I felt the muscles in my arms and legs tighten, and suddenly, my nose was filled with the smell of rotting flesh, the stench that hangs on a buzzard's body. I felt confused because the birds were too far away for me to detect their smell. Why did I smell them from so far away? Why did I feel so tense? I knew that the buzzards were not going to bother us yet, my body was on high alert.
Almost as suddenly as the stench enveloped me, I saw flashes of my red Doberman, Sassafras, caught in a coyote trap. Snap. Black, hard, buzzard eyes. Snap. Sassy's still body. I tried to pull my gaze away from the birds, but each time I tried, my eyes returned to stare the buzzards down. I realized I was ready for a fight. Three of the birds grew restless then flew off. The last one remained locked in a staring contest with me. I walked toward him, making myself as big as possible. Instead of flying away, he leaned toward me. I felt a mixture of rage and fear in my body, feelings that I knew were from long ago.
When I was a teenager, my dog, Sassy, went missing. I remembered searching for her for days. One morning I saw buzzards circling and followed them. Below their slow, methodical circle were four buzzards pecking a trapped animal. When I realized it was my dog, I ran at them, screaming at the top of my lungs, "Getaway!" The buzzards didn't seem to notice. I ran into the birds, pounding their bodies with my fists and feet. I remember the sting of their wings slapping my head and face and their awful smell. I don't know how long I fought them, all I remember is they left, and I was left with my dog at my feet. I cannot remember if Sassy lived through that experience. I just remember Sassy's pleading and grateful eyes. I loved that dog.
Feelings of loss flooded my body. My eyes stung with tears, and my chest tightened to hold back the old grief. I reached down and nuzzled Idgie. She looked up at me with soft dark eyes. I looked back at the buzzard. "I won't let him get ya," I whispered. I gave the bird a hard glare then turned away. For the first time, I felt the pounding of my heart and the tremors in my hands. "This is how the past lives," I whispered to myself.
Trauma, experiences that overwhelm our ability to cope, live in the present moment in our bodies, and in the patterns of our lives (how we relate, how we think). The story above illustrates how trauma can live in the present. The moment I saw the birds, my body remembered fighting off buzzards to save my dog, and my brain sent out a danger signal. The danger signal readied my body for a fight. The muscles in my extremities tightened so I could protect myself by running or fighting. My heart rate increased, pumping more blood to my large muscles so I could run or fight. I stared down the birds and was unable to look away because I perceived the birds as a threat to me and my dog. I immediately felt fear and rage, even though there was no danger to me or my dog. The intensity of those emotions may have been influenced by the buzzards proximity to me and Idgie and seeing the birds in a group of four. Even the words of protection I spoke to Idgie were from the past. Idgie was not afraid of the birds. Those words were for a young kid and a beautiful red Doberman from long ago.
If you had asked me if that experience was traumatic, I would have said at the time, but not any longer. I would have been wrong. Sometimes, we do not know the actual effect of something until we are faced with cues from the experience. Our bodies tell us whether something is still traumatic or not. Can you imagine how horrific interpersonal traumas like torture and sexual assault live on in people's bodies and in their present-day experiences?
At Pecan Creek Ranch, we help individuals understand how their bodies and minds responded to the trauma, and how that response is played out in different ways in the present. We guide their bodies and minds to release the trauma, and create new patterns in their lives. We know that using words and speaking about what happened is not enough to assist the individual in healing. That is why at Pecan Creek Ranch, we provide relational Trauma-Informed Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy. While creating new relationships with horses, individuals are actively changing their old trauma patterns to patterns that are more helpful to them now. If you'd like to read more about the importance of the body in treatment we recommend Dr. Pat Ogden's book "Trauma In The Body," and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk's book, "The Body Keeps The Score."
Photo by Thư Anh on Unsplash