“Conscious awareness is the foundation of healing. Blocked awareness is the foundation of disconnection, and separation from self and others.”

Craig Penner
Art by Foster Turtle

I brace my body. I can feel it. I hold my breath. She unloads her words on me. I feel my face turn into a plastic smile as I hear my friend yelling at me through her tears. We are in the middle of a dining area in a Hampton Inn. The smell of hotcakes hangs in the air. People pause, trying not to look as they glance uncomfortably in our direction. 

“You are always too happy,” she screams. “You are always too good. I never see you upset. There is always a smile on your face. How is this possible? You are untouchable.” 

She looks down in frustration and defeat and asks, “What is wrong with you?”

That was 15 years ago. Our relationship never recovered. She never trusted me again and I never trusted her. Her words undid something in me. But she was spot on.

People knew me as someone constantly upbeat. People called me “Sunshine” because my presence lit up a room. Even my daughter wondered aloud at how different I was from so many of her friends’ mothers. 

Most people did not know that I was sick much of the time. This is a little embarrassing, but it feels important to be fully honest if this is a “fully human” blog. 

For many years, I suffered from a number of health issues. I had chronic bladder pain, yeast infections, vaginismus, chronic anxiety, chronic fatigue, chronic achiness all over my body, hypoglycemia, debilitatingly painful menstrual cycles, rosacea, Hashimoto’s thyroid disorder, and a painfully clenched jaw. When I was in my early 30s, I carried Metamucil packets with me everywhere. I was the only one I knew who would ask for an extra glass at a restaurant for my regular orange fiber drink ritual. My sister lovingly began to call me the regularity fairy.

I walked in my sleep and had night terrors since I was a teenager. I almost broke my nose one time walking into a wall. My poor husband frequently awoke to screams of terror or horse whispers, “There’s someone in the room!” He would gently pat my head and reassure me that it was just the two of us and open his arms for me to snuggle into his comfort. 

In my mid 30s I went to see a doctor for a yearly physical. I expressed what I was experiencing in my body. He looked down at me calmly as he said dismissively, “That’s not possible,” and walked out of the room. I wish I was exaggerating here, but this is a true story. I was devastated. He did not believe me. I was too dramatic. There really must be something wrong with me. 

What is a girl to do? Keep on smiling? Fake it until you make it? Ignore the chronic health issues and keep pushing through. I did not want to be a burden. I ignored my body with a smile. 

As an emerging therapist, I tried a number of different types of therapy steeped in shame resilience, self-compassion, mindfulness, and empathy. I became a certified EMDR therapist and attended multitudes of trainings. I learned important coping and grounding skills, but I found myself in a constant cycle of managing symptoms. I knew people who experienced healing with EMDR and I also knew people who were so overwhelmed by the experience, that they vowed they would never try it again. I was missing something.

Fast forward to three years ago. Right around the time of my sailing adventure on the Heritage Schooner, I was exploring the Enneagram and read something that made me stop in my tracks. People who identify as “Type 2” are often known to have a characteristic “forced smile.” I had never really noticed my smile before, but come to think of it, I had an unusual amount of jaw pain. I noticed this “plastic smile” during difficult interactions, when I felt anxious, or stressed. Then, I remembered how my face had hardened into a tight smile during that fight so many years ago.

And then I met Craig Penner. I signed up for yet another EMDR training in Dallas. But, this time I was hopeful. This one seemed different. Craig, a master therapist from Santa Barbara, combined several therapies including Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, and present moment awareness. He called his fusion of therapies Natural Processing

I arrived at a home in a suburb of Dallas filled with 30 therapists. The living room was arranged with chairs, bean bags, and meditation pillows. The smell of fresh coffee lingered in the air. Bright colored fruit, vegetables, crackers, and various snack bars sat on the island in the kitchen. Craig welcomed us with a gentle smile and encouraged us to enjoy ourselves as we sipped our drinks and circled around the PowerPoint presentation. We nestled in, feeling at home. Craig’s demeanor was open and warm. He encouraged our questions and took careful time to understand and answer fully. He created a safe, cozy environment to learn and explore. 

We started the training learning Daniel Siegel’s Window of Tolerance using the present moment experience of our own bodies. Using this model, we can track when we are operating from presence, our best selves, or reacting from survival. We explored our senses: vision, touch, taste, hearing, and smell. As we practiced, I became more aware of my senses and internal experience. For example, sometimes my vision was blurry, tunnel-like, but then sometimes clear. I never noticed this before or connected the experience of my vision as one of the ways to track when I was present and when reacting from survival. This was all new to me. I suddenly realized how disconnected I had been all my life.

Craig believes that the conscious awareness of both the therapist and the client are key to successful EMDR. When we become overwhelmed, we go into survival, and do not have the capacity to move through traumatic material. Conscious awareness offers resilience to stay with what is difficult. Awareness is a muscle that can be learned and expanded. When determining the outcome of therapy, the complexity of the trauma is secondary to the potential of a client to grow their ability to become present. The ability or inability to come back to awareness is the key that explains why some people immediately heal with EMDR and some do not.

On day three of the training, I volunteered to be the demonstration client. Craig and I were seated facing each other in the middle of a circle of therapists. As I looked around the room, kind faces waited in expectation. Craig asked what I wanted to work on. I remembered the fight I had all those years ago.

“I want to work on my tight smile,” I replied. I told him about the experience of the fight and the other times that I had noticed myself tightening up, jaw clenched, smiling like a plastic Barbie doll. 

“What do you notice in your body right now as you tell me about this memory?” 

No one had ever asked me that question before, and was astonished that the tight smile was on my face at that very moment. I described the unnatural tension on the corners of the mouth, the way the lips tightened over the teeth, the pressure on the corners of the jaw. I also noticed anxious energy and tension in my chest. My stomach hurt. 

Craig repeated back what I was describing and mirrored the smile back at me. “Like this?” 

“Yes. Yes, that’s right,” I replied as he described the sensations I was experiencing. I felt both anxious and comforted with his precise attention. He then said something like, “You couldn’t tell your body to do this, right? I am seeing this, too.”

I stared at him. He actually saw me. He did not immediately dismiss me and walk out the door. Maybe I am not making this up after all. Maybe there is hope.

“Conscious awareness is the foundation of healing.”

“Do you think you can stay with the sensations in your body in this moment?” Craig asked.

I noticed the tightness of my smile and nodded, “Yes.” I closed my eyes to concentrate. Craig began tapping alternately on each knee to add the EMDR processing to the somatic awareness.

Soon after Craig started tapping, I felt intense fear in my stomach. Something inside me knew I was not supposed to notice this smile. This was off limits, and at the same time I desperately wanted to know. I did not want to keep pushing past myself anymore. My shoulders and arms tensed. My legs began to contract. I felt paralyzed all over my body. Almost as soon as the fear and tension arose, it was gone. A deep heaviness settled over my shoulders, arms, and the back of my head. I felt my torso dipping forward, the heaviness pushing me down. My chin tucked in. I wanted to get as small as I could. I wanted to be invisible. All I could see was blackness. I am so alone. Desperate sadness settled over me. I remember this feeling. I felt like this throughout my entire childhood. I felt myself sucked into a black hold of despair.

Craig softly spoke, “I’m right here.”

I could feel the reassurance of his presence as well as the despair. Somehow, I did not feel as alone while at the same time experiencing how alone I felt all these years. My hands covered my face. 

Craig gently invited, “Notice your hands.”

I had not noticed my hands until he spoke.

I could feel my hands covering my entire face. I waited. 

A memory from when I was 14 began to surface. 

My family had just moved to Kenya. We were somewhere out in the bush about four hours south of Nairobi. My parents were out with another missionary couple getting to know the area. They left my sisters and other children in the care of a kind Maasai woman. 

As the day drew on, conflicts broke out between us, the kids. No one seemed to get along. I was jetlagged, lonely, and the fighting took me over the edge. I curled up somewhere in a hidden corner and silently wept. I just wanted to disappear. Somehow, the Maasai woman found my hiding place and crouched down beside me. She placed her hands over my face and held them there as I cried. Her hands had the combined smell of smoke mixed with the wash that she had just hung out on the line outside. She stayed with me calming cooing and reassuring me in her language. I had never experienced anyone comforting me in this way. She really saw me, moving into my sadness with gentle presence. I had no words. I did not know the language. The wordless comfort and gentle touch spanned cultures. She remained with me until I settled and was able to rejoin the other kids.

Back in the training with Craig, when my hands were covering my face, it reminded me of the feeling of the Maasai woman’s gentle hands on my face. My torso began to lift. My deep sadness intermingled with the compassion I had received from this woman. My shoulders relaxed. My breathing calmed. I felt a peace settle over my entire body.

I opened my eyes.

Craig asked, “How is it for me to be here with you noticing?”

I gasped as I bit my lips and pulled them in. I realized the vulnerability of what just happened. I was so into my experience I forgot that he and the 30 therapists were all around me.

Craig pointed to his own lips and pulled them in mirroring mine. “We don’t do this for nothing.”

I became aware of my own lips and let the words sink in: “We don’t do this for nothing.” 

I am speechless. I am not making this stuff up. He sees it too. His presence welcomes my genuine experience without judgement. I feel the opposite of feeling like a burden. I feel human.

As we begin to finish the work, I share that I am now aware of a deep sadness within, but I do not know why or where it comes from. Craig notes that this work is still “midstream.” This is just the beginning. Is this something I would like to continue to work on with someone?

“Absolutely.”

“We cannot change what happened to us. We can change our relationship to what happened in our body.”

“Conscious awareness is the foundation of healing.”

He looks at me with a reassuring smile. “This is workable, Jennifer.”

I looked out at the faces circled around me. Some of the women in the group were wiping tears from their eyes. Several began to place their hands over their hearts as I caught their eyes. In the group processing, many expressed their gratitude for allowing them into this space with me. Several shared that the experience of watching me brought up something within them that may need to be explored further. We were all humans sharing what it means to be human together. I felt supported and encouraged by their words and actions.

During my experience with Craig I learned that I could be present with my body. I still did not know what it all meant. But, I felt hopeful. Instead of running away, my body could be my healing guide.

I am beginning to understanding that the house in my dream represents my body. I have tried all my life to run away from myself, be a good girl, and leave the past behind. But, the discomfort, pain, and physical illness is giving me the opportunity to turn back around. My body calls out over and over offering the opportunity to heal. I can trust the experience of my body.

“Conscious awareness is the foundation of healing.”