My journey started in the mid 1960's, by being born into a "normal" middle-class family in suburban Riverside California. My parents were good people; stable, never divorced, and did their best to provide a good home. Yet, by elementary school I was struggling to learn, and by high school I was starting to engage in self-destructive behaviors. I never suspected there was anything wrong with my upbringing. Sure there were verbal put-downs, some bullying I endured, and sexual molestation from a teacher, but I just assumed these were relatively normal parts of growing up.
I did manage to graduate high school, and after seven years of floundering and doing poorly in three different colleges, I earned a bachelor‘s degree in aviation from Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. During this time, my drinking increased and I was experimenting with drugs. By my mid 20's I was attending AA meetings, and was never successful at staying sober for very long. By the time I entered into my 30's, I had already experienced DUI, divorce, and bankruptcy. My only thread of success during these years was my flying career, which also wasn't going well.
At the age of 35, I caught a lucky break and was offered my first airline job. Within two years I had worked my way to captain, and finally had "arrived" at a successful middle-class life of my own. However, I wasn't happy. I was still abusing alcohol and had no close relationships. I was feeling empty, lonely, guilty, and depressed. At the age of 39, I hit my first rock bottom. While on an overnight trip with my airline crew, I went to a bar and drank. And drank. And drank. A few days later, I was under investigation for my conduct. As my career hung in the balance, I was in shock and devastated.
Unable to work while my fate was being decided, one day I was walking alone in the desert in Southern Utah, and these words came to me; "the truth will set you free." From that point on, I decided to be honest - with others, and with myself. I was able to save my career by taking responsibility for my actions. Most importantly, I decided to become like a mad scientist and put every detail of my life under a microscope for self-observation. I was determined to finally figure out why I had such a propensity towards self-destruction. I clearly remember a Wednesday afternoon in March 2004, when I walked through the doors of my first personal growth workshop. Deep down, I knew I was embarking on a quest which was both terrifying and full of new possibilities. From that point on, my path of self-discovery has taken many twists and turns (very similar to Paulo Coelho's book, The Alchemist), and eventually led me all over the world.
In 2006 I took a flying job in Miami, where I attended Landmark Forum. By 2007 I was flying for a subsidiary of Air India, and living in New Delhi. I spent two years in India, learning transcendental meditation, and going to ashrams and meeting gurus. I went to the Art of Living ashram in Bangalore, and experienced all of the "meditative therapy" groups at the Osho International Meditation Resort in Pune. I also went to meditation centers in Bali, the Netherlands, and Greece. But it was in India where my most profound, life-altering experiences occurred. Searching for the deepest, most extreme transformational methods I could find, I joined an obscure meditation retreat known as "Awareness Intensive". During this retreat, I had a satori (sudden, unexpected glimpse of enlightenment). Needless to say, it changed my life.
In the following years I participated in many more Awareness Intensive retreats, in both three-day and week-long versions. I ending up having another satori, and felt like I was melting into a universe of love, beauty, and magic. My love for these retreats was so strong that I eventually joined the assistant team, and took trainings in how to be a facilitator. After having these surreal, exquisite, beautiful encounters of "Self" in India, I realized that I would need to find a way to integrate what I had experienced and come back to normal life. Eventally, the need for stability and the practicalities of making a living brought me back to the United States.
My experiences of satori were so transformative and life-changing, I was confident that all of my earlier struggles had been resolved. However, at the age of 49 my wife at the time left me. It was as if a bomb had gone off and sucked the wind out of me. I was numb, in disbelief, and then filled with rage. My reactions seemed unreasonably strong. It felt as if my very survival was uncertain. After all the years of learning to meditate, two years in India and countless thousands of dollars spent on personal development workshops and meditation retreats, how could this be happening to me? I still had no idea that anything significant was wrong with my childhood. Even after ten years of deep work on myself, I had never heard of developmental trauma.
Just as I had done after hitting my first rock bottom, I began taking long walks in nature, searching for answers. This time, it was on the trails above Harbin Hot Springs in Northern California. As I walked, calling out to existence for help, and listening to the breeze for answers, a stranger came down the path. Seeing my distress, he stopped and we began to talk. After telling him my story, he recommended that I read a book by Alice Miller; For Your Own Good; Hidden cruelty in child rearing and the roots of violence. Thus started my introduction to the concept of developmental trauma. By reading that book, I was very surprised to learn that my "normal" middle-class upbringing was actually rife with traumatic experiences. Later, I also came to learn that my trauma history made me more vulnerable to many things; addictions, the ability to manage my emotions, and the ability to gracefully recover from loss.
As I now know, my story is not unique. According to the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences study published in 1998, approximately two thirds of the American public have experienced at least one potentially traumatizing event during childhood. I became fascinated with what I was learning. Soon I was attending trauma-focused workshops, and entered into the Somatic Experiencing® professional trauma therapist program. What I discovered as I learned how to resolve my own trauma and support others also, was that there was a large overlap between the meditation techniques I had experienced in India, and the trauma healing methods I was learning through Somatic Experiencing. Within this overlap is the ability to be curious about our own thoughts, emotions, and reactions. Perhaps even more importantly is to be able to track specific inner-body sensations, or "felt-sense" as it's known in the trauma healing world.
As I look back now over the past fifteen years of my own self-discovery, it makes sense why as a child I had fantasites of disappearing, of escaping, and of flying. Growing up in a home that may have appeared normal to others from the outside, it felt hostile and unsafe to me as a child on the inside. I instinctively survived by escaping in whatever ways I could. Hard-wired into all of us are the survival responses of fight, flight, and freeze. In my case, I literally longed to fly. Interestingly, this eventually became my career.
I can also look back now and recognize why I had difficulties in school. To the more instinctual parts of our brains, it doesn't matter if life-threat is real or perceived. Growing up in an environment that felt hostile caused my brain to bypass higher functioning. My physical development was also slowed as my body was subconsciously attempting to survive by being in a predominantly low energy, shut-down state (similar to how an opossum plays dead when threat is sensed). With learning disabilities and lack of physical coordination came shame. All along, I thought these symptoms were evidence of something inherently defective about me. I remember learning about Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest, and strongly believing that in a natural world I would have already perished - and therefore didn't belong in this world.
Now that I can look back with the benefit of awareness and an education in trauma, I realize that there was never anything inherently wrong with me. The only real question to answer was, what happened to me? After all, I was never exposed to most of the things that people normally associate with trauma; I was not adopted or in foster care, I was not physically beaten, I had never been in a car accident or had a major medical procedure, and I had never been in a war or witnessed any horrific events. However, what I now know is that trauma doesn't necessarily come with a capital "T", and that there are many ways to be traumatized - some of which happen very early in childhood before we have conscious memory. These include things that happen before birth, during birth, or in the formative first years just after birth. The first year of life especially is critical, as this is when our attachment blueprint is formed. The quality of attunement provided by our primary caregiver(s) subsequently affects how our brain and nervous system develops. This has an impact on things like self-image, the capacity for empathy, our ability to calm ourselves after being exposed to stress, and our ability to form healthy relationships later in life.
What I also now know is that there is tremendous hope for people who suffer from early attachment or trauma-related challenges. Modern neuroscience shows that the brain has plasticity and can be re-wired at any age. Attachment styles can change, and secure attachment can be earned as an adult even if it wasn't our original blueprint as a child. In my own search for healing I found two valuable complimentary tracks; the first is to address the body and nervous system through trauma healing methods including Somatic Experiencing®, and the other is to get to know the transcendent, natural "Self" through meditation techniques. What I'm offering in group events and retreats are both awareness practices and reparative experiences for trauma and early attachment wounds. These processes bring awareness of inner-body sensations into highly nurturing, safe interactions with other group participants. As we witness each other with curiosity and empathy, we also practice attunement and presence. Over time, the alarm bells of chronic survival responses naturally start to soften, the body begins to relax, and the brain and nervous system can re-pattern for greater resilience.
P.S. I recognize the value of my own struggles. Without having to overcome adversity I wouldn't be who I am, and I wouldn't be able to support others.