Updated: Jan 21, 2020
From Seeds to Seasons
Media and popular culture hold up practitioners of the healing arts, namely psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and psychotherapists, as modern-day oracles. Those who consult with us expect an aha moment from the very start of our work together. Films such as Good Will Hunting, Ordinary People, and Silver Linings Playbook depict sudden and often dramatic, psychological transformations.
The iconic scene in Good Will Hunting, where Sean, a psychologist, flawlessly delivers an intervention where Will, his client, has the fabled aha moment is freed from the belief he is responsible for his own abuse allowing him to open his heart to love. Sean delivers this by emphatically repeating, 'it's not your fault,' which brings about a watershed moment for Will. Thus, people seek out healing practitioners who can deliver 'the' magical phrase that will spark longlasting transformation.
In Silver Linings Playbook, a similar story unfolds wherein two people are profoundly hurt by loved ones that their worlds are unexpectedly turned upside down. In the aftermath, they are both hospitalized for some time. After discharge from the hospital, they struggle to find their footing in a world that has moved on while they have not. A series of serendipitous events bring them together; in so doing, they heal through their shared vulnerabilities.
Both of these examples set the expectation that the right connection under the right conditions will break one open, thus forever changing his or her inner emotional world. With the rise of media personalities like Dr. Phil and Dr. Deepak Chopra, we are given hope that by following prescribed practices for the mentally healthy and spiritually awakened that an epiphany will inevitably and quickly arise.
What these stories overlook are the small, mundane, or intangible moments across time that culminate into the fabled aha moments of legend. While I do not disagree that vulnerability or brutal honesty are valuable tools, the uncritical acceptance that they alone will create swift and enduring change is problematic. Dr. Brown spoke poignantly about the labour of change by sharing that her move toward wholeheartedness was a yearlong street fight that was really difficult.
Nevertheless, epiphanies do happen, and when they do, they are beautiful, joyous occasions. As a social worker and psychotherapist, one of the highest honours I can experience is bearing witness to a client's epiphany. They seemingly come from nowhere but offer a welcome refuge after the shame storms that have rocked our core have passed. I think that is why we place so much stock in the idea that epiphanies happen following prolific prose or divinely timed sage advice.
However, the secret to finding the fabled epiphany lies in the refuge following the storms of our lives. Take a moment now to close your eyes so that you can imagine the first day of warm weather following a harsh winter where you can wear shorts and sandals. How do you feel? What did you notice? Did you experience the warm feeling of gratitude that comes with feeling the warm breeze on your skin? Or the feeling of contentment as the warm sun kisses your face? Now think about all of the times you had to suit up to go outside. Or all the times you had to tie your boots to go out to shovel the driveway. Each of these moments, whether evident to you or not, were small moments where you faced the harshness of life only to survive so that you could enjoy the spring.
Emotional or spiritual epiphanies are no different from surviving winter to embrace spring. Each day we confront the wounds that trauma has mapped onto our emotional bodies, we rewrite our story little by little until we see life anew. During a group I facilitate, students asked about the point at which transformation occurs. Such a question is one I think of often because I too have been in search of my epiphany, THE one that will forever change the way I feel about my past, present, and future. Many social workers that I have seen throughout my healing have all used the axiom 'a seed of change has been planted within you, but we cannot always know when it will bloom.' Their axiom did little to satisfy my need for a change because of the suffering I often felt was too great to bear.
Nevertheless, the few aha moments I have had, no matter how big, I saw as isolated events only made possible by the context in which they occurred. I was still waiting for the dormant seed of change to spring forth. I assumed the winter of my life was just unusually long and harsh. What I failed to see up until recently is that epiphanies are emergent, meaning that they develop in each of us only waiting to be born. As a social worker, I see the culmination of the small acts of bravery and courage that give life to the real epiphanies people are desperately seeking. My clients miss the build-up in the same way I have. In each of us, epiphanies are ever-unfolding, trying to find a mechanism for expression.
The Mechanics of An Epiphany
The mechanical metaphor denotes an interlocking set of processes or gears that makes a system or a machine functional. A system is also self-reproducing, thus ever becoming. Ecological and social networks are a great example of a mechanical metaphor because of their desire to thrive and grow. The maxim of systems theory is the 'whole is greater than the sum of its parts.' Therefore, an epiphany finds expression when discreet events, experiences, or lessons, in other words, the mechanics, coalesce to provide the form to our hardwon transformation.
A Personal Example
Throughout my life, I have struggled to trust my intuition while forclosing my own voice. I feared to trust my feelings, emotions, and desires. I learned that my experience of reality was at best invalid, and at worst, sheer delusion. My birth mother often told me that I fabricated my version of events to dishonour her unless they affirmed her position as a saint or martyr. I grew up feeling so confused about what life was real. Eventually, I stopped giving voice to my innermost feelings at home. At school, my teachers also diminished by voice because they did not address the chronic bullying I experienced at the hands of peers. They often said I needed to be less sensitive by toughing up. It was at around this time, I lost my ability to sing, which I once thoroughly enjoyed. I also started to question the person staring back at me in the mirror by wondering who this person in the mirror? Do I even matter?
In 2002, the staff at Empire House, the group home where I resided, set into motion the mechanics of a future epiphany I would never see coming. They told me that I had to shut down my feelings to survive the toll of ongoing violence at home, which left me unsteady about how to feel about most other things in my life. At the time, these were just words, but they flipped a switch that helped me see I wasn't wholly 'broken.' In 2007, I entered therapy for the first time, where I learned about the notion of complex trauma. I left three years of treatment, knowing that my experiences were valid while coming into the truth of myself as a wholesome person with imperfections, not an intrinsically dishonest villain.
Yet... I still felt like I was missing a piece to the puzzle of my recovery. None of these discoveries felt revolutionary to me, a hope that seemed in further out of reach than before.
In wasn't until this past year, when I was refreshing my certification in trauma therapy that my lightbulb began to shine. While reading an article on dissociation, the authors were talking about this phenomenon where one is looking at him or herself in the mirror, questioning whether the person staring back is real, thus creating a sense of disembodiment.
The previous insights about my emotional foreclosure as a side-effect of my adverse childhood gave validity to my therapist's claim that I am a survivor of trauma. I took this revelation to my current therapist, who beautifully said: "I have this image of a boy looking in the mirror who couldn't trust what he saw because he wasn't allowed too." I felt something building inside following this appointment, along with a sense of relief in the knowledge that I can trust what I'm feeling and seeing and why I struggled up until now.
Next, my singing teacher and I talked about the role of emotional trauma in constricting the vocal folds that enable one to sing. She wondered out loud whether I was afraid to make too much noise for fear of what might happen. I was shaken. My circumstances claimed my trust in what I was feeling and robbed me of my voice. I felt like Ariel, who lost her voice to Ursula simply to escape a life where she felt like a prisoner. Ariel did not appreciate at the time what she was giving up to run away from who she was. In this case, my voice was living in the past, captive to father time. I felt a shift coming, but none of these fit the freedom that comes with an epiphany that reveals the essence of our pain. I kept moving forward, mostly unaware of what was happening, a 15-year epiphany waiting to illuminate all that I have gained.
One evening as I sat at home, I was thinking about my body with all its aches and pains that come from unprocessed emotional pain and trauma with the knowledge that I surrendered my voice and feared my intuition. I felt tired, a tired a had never known before as if it were itched onto my very bones. Laying before me was a handout from a text on Somatic Psychotherapy that asks you to complete a trauma timeline by age while thinking about the unresolved issues that live there. I picked it up to fill in my trauma timeline. A clear theme emerged, I lacked physical and emotional safety without the ability to escape or stand-up for myself. I felt angry at my birth mother for failing to keep my brother safe and me, but anger was a familiar feeling, a place I often get stuck.
I decided to venture inward to travel back in time to a remarkable memory that embodied voicelessness, fear, entrapment, and violence. In this scene, my older self interceded on my behalf to give voice to the impact of violence while demanding that the abuse stop. What happened next rocked my core. I thought that I would feel overwhelming anger at my mother and her partner, who perpetuated much of the abuse my brother and I witnessed, thus enabling me to experience justified anger freeing me from shame and fear. Therein my epiphany resided. What I needed to give voice, too, was my grief while being safe enough to do so.
I was reminded of a time where my birth mom was generally okay as her wounds were not yet critical, so she had a lot more room for my brother and me. As she continued to endure more abuse without healing from the wounds of her own childhood, more of her was lost to the pain. Those in shamanic traditions of diverse indigenous cultures call the loss of self from trauma: 'soul loss;' the power we give-up to or was taken by others or the circumstances of life. The antidote is soul retrieval, reclaiming aspects of your experience or the self once cherished. Trauma is a western concept that does not exist in many indigenous cultures.
As I shouted in my reenactment, what I voiced was: "you're stealing our mother away from us. She can't handle much more of this before succumbing to the pain. She will not have anything left for us." I then looked to my inner child to say: "she can't bear the reality of her own life, let alone anyone else's. Aven, don't let life rob you of your reality. Hold onto your story tightly. You'll be okay." At this moment, epiphany revealed herself to me in all her glory by sharing: 'the grief of losing your mother to abuse without any help or rescue was the reality overlooked and never acknowledged.'
I felt this epiphany resonate throughout my physical and emotional body. I continue to feel waves of it like aftershocks that follow an earthquake. In the days that followed, I had an epiphany about epiphanies, which is that they take time to settle in and to integrate, especially if they are 15-years in the making. I urge readers to not be discouraged if an epiphany occurs that you do not immediately feel changed, let it sink in, be patient. I also think that it is in the aftershocks that follow an epiphany that the next one is set into motion as the reconstruction of the self unsettles other layers to be healed. Always know that we are all one moment away from another epiphany as it stirs to life inside each of us.