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Living on the Edge – Snapshots of PTSD: Between Death & Life (Lack of Vitality)

Table of Contents

by Heidi Hanson

artist, writer, trauma survivor

Summary: I tell the story of the day I first learned how to do the “felt sense” that Peter Levine teaches and writes about in his books. In the Discussion section after the story, I cover the following topics: (1.) Believing Yourself to be Dead. Feeling dead and developing the belief that you are actually dead after serious accidents, (2.) The Period of Limbo Between Death and Life. The period of time in PTSD that has to do with coming alive again, (3.) Felt Sense Exercise as Link to Life. How the felt sense helps connect to life, (4.) Somatic Experiencing Brings Vitality Back. How Somatic Experiencing in general brings vitality back even with so much deadness to overcome.

In October 2010, I was still sick frequently, after two traumatizing near death experiences (11/13/07 and 4/10/08). My Mom gave me Peter Levine’s book, “Waking the Tiger,” and I began reading it in bed.

In this Journal entry, I was just beginning to realize I was not dead. I was using the felt sense to try to connect to Life again. (Mike, in the story, was my boyfriend at the time.)

Living on the Edge – Snapshots of PTSD: Between Death & Life

October 10, 2010

I’m sprawled out on the foam mat on the floor, the very place I lay terrified saving my life during the Big Death Storm. But now there is a white sheet strung on IKEA wire with little clips spaced evenly, hanging down to the floor. And it’s very warm here in the inner sanctum of the sacred-sanctuary-in-development. And the sheet way above me reminds me of something “real” perhaps a “real” house with “real” curtains somewhere out there in the “real” world, and I feel comfort looking up at it.

Inside I sense distant laughter, a tiny rising secret hope like the cheerful flowering bush “Abelia” must feel before it is born.

Tonight, I am at the stage in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder where I am just beginning to suspect I am actually, just possibly, alive. The sheet hanging there is the first whisper of a clue. Its white nostalgia gently suggests, “This is actually the world of the living. Hint, hint. Remember?”

“Well,” I reply to it, “I cannot, in truth, accept that. If this is the land of the living, why am I, and everything else here besides you, still dead and in the-place-beyond?”

It smiles. It invites me closer to the edge. So I sit for just a moment suspended in a misty night, a still silent space in-between heaven and earth.

Well, it would be “silent” except Mike has pointed his “loud breathing” in my direction. He is lying to my right. If this is NOT the land of the living, he could easily be a strange death-land sprite; we could simply have found each other wandering in the vapors beyond the edge. So HE doesn’t convince me either way.

I poke and prod. “Face the other way. Face the OTHER way.” He turns away from me and begins snoring. I sigh. I prod his back. “You’re snoring! You have to spray water in your nose…”

“Oh,” he says, “Sorry.” He turns farther away and somehow stops snoring, the “water up the nose” idea being sufficient stimulus I suppose.

Earlier today I was staring at the photo of “Abelia,” a bush, in my “The 400 Best Garden Plants” book, after waking from a semi-comatose state of being sick, a state I have been in now for 11 days straight. I was on page 74 of the book Waking the Tiger, by psychologist Peter Levine, doing the exercise in which you learn to describe, and therefore feel, your “felt sense” while viewing photographs.

I had already described my felt sense in relation to photos of (speaking aloud):

Pine: “I feel relaxed in my chest, like I can breathe better….” (fall back asleep)

Trumpet flower: “I feel relaxed in my arms, so relaxing…” (fall back asleep)

Tree covered with many flowers: “I feel excitement, I feel overwhelmed. I like it better when I look at only one flower…”

Pink fuzzy bush: “Fuzzy, comfort, I want to live with this bush for a very long time, no I want to live IN this bush for a very long time…” I murmur as I fall back asleep into the stupor of the altered state of the sick, seeing images of me spending the rest of my life in a little hut under the protective fronds of pink fuzzy flowers.

Then I wake again and turn the page to Abelia: “I feel awake, no I feel alert. I feel like at any moment the bush is going to explode into a party, a celebration. I feel tension in my shoulders, anticipation.”

Even from my stupefied state I stare at that cheerful bush as if it had reached right out of the page and said, “WAKE UP!”

Well, after a few seconds of that I rolled over and went back to sleep, mumbling, “Tension is not necessarily a bad thing…”

But even in my torpor, that exercise also was whispering, hinting, that I may be “alive.” That there are sensations that are “not necessarily a bad thing” in me, even if until now they have been completely masked by the daily, “OW my knee hurts, OW my shoulder hurts now, OW my kidneys. OW my lower back. OW my head – what the HELL is up with my head today. My foot’s all weird now. Dang arms are really hot and bothered today.” And so much of the time, lungs burning like two little unquenchable fires.

These are sensations of injury, of dying, of parts of the body that have partially died and are trying to support life but are faltering, trying to fling themselves towards a matrix of Life that has crumbled away. Those sensations are from the land of death, from the land of torture; they belong to things that crawl out of war, that see flashes of the weapons that were used to harm them as they proceed in circles. None of THOSE sensations ever point anywhere near the exit door. They only serve up more threats to the hyper sensitive skin, pull me under and swoon with me on the trauma-based dance floor, keeping the original wounds ever alive. And remind me I am nothing, nothing like those who still inhabit that long forgotten place called “Life.”

I am nothing, nothing like those who still inhabit that long forgotten place called “Life.”


1. Believing Yourself to be Dead

Developed the Belief that I was Dead. On a certain level, I believed that I had died on September 13, 2007. My “spirit,” as it were, believed I had died. I had a dream in which I believed I was a new person in a new life now and the other person was no longer in existence.

Amnesia Enhanced Sense of being Dead. I also had amnesia, and not remembering much before that date made it seem more as if the previous person I was had died on that date and I somehow miraculously came back to life as someone else.

Constant Triggers Pulled Me to Death Constantly. Also, In 2010, for 3 full years I was always connected powerfully to the terror of nearly dying. Still living in the environment in which I fought to survive, everything around me triggered me severely – sights, sensations – a myriad of pains in my body – sounds, smells etc. Every day I would smell and hear things that were exactly the same as when I believed I was dying, constantly putting me back into the sheer terror of those moments.

Way More in the Land of the Dead than the Living. Therefore, I was much more connected to death than life. These conditions, taken together, made it extremely difficult to connect back to life at all.

It Took Three Years to Suspect I Was Still Alive. But, after three years of rehabilitating, I was starting to feel, just slightly, that I was perhaps alive. So I began to actually want to connect to “life” again. I wanted to leave the world of triggers. I was seeking a world that I used to know but did not remember anymore.

2. The Period of Limbo Between Death and Life

This day 10-10-2010 marked the beginning of a period of time in my experience of PTSD of going through a transition between being dead and being alive, of moving from the land of the dead to the land of the living, a time of living in limbo between these two worlds. For me, this limbo period began after I began reading Peter Levine’s book. I also began SE therapy not long after I began reading his book which got the process off the ground.

3. Felt Sense Exercise as Link to Life

The felt sense is about tuning into sensations in the body in a slow, aware, deep, meaningful and comprehensive way – I describe it in more detail here (Peter Levine’s Felt Sense Exercise). While the felt sense seems very simple, it is profound in that it is something that started to actually connect me to my body where the healing needed to begin. I learned about a lot of things going on inside my body that to be honest I wasn’t even aware were happening at the time. The felt sense began to bring me into connection with my own sensations of being alive as opposed to all the typical ongoing sensations relating to dying.

The felt sense exercise and variations of the felt sense exercise that I have created for myself have been some of the most important healing exercises during my recovery. Doing things on the level of body sensations seems “basic” or “simple” but actually it isn’t. The body is ground zero for PTSD and the body is a complex world; I needed an entry point. When it comes to the nervous system, sensations are your way to communicate and convey meaning to that body system in a way that something more intellectual would be unable to. While I know that somatic exercises may not work for everybody, the felt sense exercises have helped me tremendously. Even now, 12 years later, I continue to use them.

Some additional results of trying the felt sense that helped at that time were:

  • Tuning into the Felt Sense of Good Times in the Past. I began relaxing and allowing myself to reminisce and let my mind wander about how life used to be before. I was allowing myself to go into a state outside of the state I was in 24/7 of feeling terrified and fearing dying and being triggered. I think that the comfort sensations brought about by doing the felt sense can open up other healing avenues, such as reminiscing about good feelings in the past.
  • Going to New, Positive Places. Another thing that was very helpful was leaving the house and periodically getting away from the room I was in which was so incredibly triggering. When I would leave, it would help me escape the field of triggers, which was like a field of landmines that I lived in, so that I could get some relief for my nervous system. Doing the felt sense when in more relaxing environments makes a lot of sense to help bring the new feelings of the new place into the body.

The good thing about the felt sense exercises is they invite you to create a new inner reality that is life oriented. Even while relaxing and going out and away from the room, before trying out the felt sense, my body sensations were something I wouldn’t be tuning into. They often just remained the same – highly stressed – and I wouldn’t even shift that much. But by experimenting with the felt sense, it made me – forced me – to feel positive or neutral sensations – not negative sensations. These good sensations are what help the nervous system learn new ways of being. Then when going out, I would more easily sense new sensations when encountering something new, rather than remain simmering in extreme stress and hyperarousal.

The felt sense exercise invites you to create a new inner reality that is life oriented rather than death oriented

4. Somatic Experiencing Brings Vitality Back

All the tools and somatic experiencing are designed to little by little increase vitality.

Releasing Unfinished Trauma Responses Can Open up Energy. After traumatic experiences, there is energy trapped in the body that was meant to respond to trauma and has been halted mid way. SE helps slowly get this energy out. When this energy releases it opens up more flow and movement of life force that was stagnant before.

Reducing Stress Responses Increases Energy, Vitality. After trauma, a ton of energy is also being consumed by all the body’s responses to trauma. Every moment, the body’s stress responses – flight, fight, freeze, fawn – are eating massive amounts of energy. As the nervous system regulates, the energy stops being consumed by stress responses to trauma and instead is available to be used in the present moment.

Healing Dissociation Allows Access to Energy. After severe traumas, the body becomes a terrifying place – a place full of pain, of danger – a battlefield. It is easier to exist apart from it. Being dissociated and removed from the body does not allow access to the energy or life force in the body. Re-entering the body is an important part of trauma healing for many reasons. One reason is that being in the body in the present moment is where the life force is available and accessible.

I think there are many elements to trauma that trap life energy and vitality.

Ending Scapegoatism Likely Will Increase Life Force and Energy. Another thing a person could be doing that is draining their life force is taking on abuse in order to help one’s family survive as a unit. I think that a lot of time there is a scapegoat in the family system that unconsciously holds the family dysfunction as a way of loving their family. I think that carrying this burden for a family system or for an intimate relationship is also draining. I have seen healing of this kind of thing happen in Family Constellations, but Somatic Experiencing creates a foundation in the body to be capable of doing something like a Family Constellations session and have it actually be beneficial.

Anger Processing Can Increase Energy and Life Force. Holding onto anger can be draining of life force energy as well. And sometimes, after so much trauma, the body is so exhausted, the anger about the trauma never comes out to be processed because there isn’t enough energy available to go through that anger uprooting process. Somatic Experiencing has helped me a lot because after understanding titration – slowing and portioning – and applying it to the process of releasing emotions – I now have some tools to address all the trapped, repressed and unexpressed anger that is holding energy hostage in my system.

The therapeutic process for trauma healing can be long and complex due to all these types of elements. It feels as if it takes forever. And it really does take a very long time. But – the more I practice things like the felt sense, the better I get. I just have to remember that I have these tools in my toolkit and I have to keep reminding myself to practice them.

Re-entering the body is an important part of trauma healing.

Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer located in San Francisco, California. She is currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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