The catatonic Army captain sitting immobile on my couch reminded me of what I had eventually discovered: that when we force our truths and stories into hiding, secrets can become their own trauma, their own prison.
Far from diminishing pain, whatever we deny ourselves the opportunity to accept becomes as inescapable as brick walls and steel bars. When we don't allow ourselves to grieve our losses, wounds, and disappointments, we are doomed to keep reliving them.
Freedom lies in learning to embrace what happened. Freedom means we muster the courage to dismantle the prison, brick by brick.
Bad things, I am afraid, happen to everyone. This we can't change. If you look at your birth certificate, does it say life will be easy? It does not. But so many of us remain stuck in a trauma or grief, unable to experience our lives fully. This we can change.
At Kennedy International Airport recently, waiting for my flight home to San Diego, I sat and studied the faces of every passing stranger. What I saw deeply moved me.
I saw boredom, fury, tension, worry, confusion, discouragement, disappointment, sadness, and, most troubling of all, emptiness. It made me very sad to see so little joy and laughter.
Even the dullest moments of our lives are opportunities to experience hope, buoyancy, happiness. Mundane life is life too. As is painful life, and stressful life. Why do we so often struggle to feel alive, or distance ourselves from feeling life fully? Why is it such a challenge to bring life to life?
If you asked me for the most common diagnosis among the people I treat, I wouldn't say depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, although these conditions are all too common among those I've known, loved, and guided to freedom. No, I would say hunger.
We are hungry. We are hungry for approval, attention, affection. We are hungry for the freedom to embrace life and to really know and be ourselves.
My own search for freedom and my years of experience as a licensed clinical psychologist have taught me that suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional.
There is a difference between victimization and victimhood. We are all likely to be victimized in some way in the course of our lives. At some point we will suffer some kind of affliction or calamity or abuse, caused by circumstances or people or institutions over which we have little or no control.
This is life. And this is victimization. It comes from the outside. It's the neighborhood bully, the boss who rages, the spouse who hits, the lover who cheats, the discriminatory law, the accident that lands you in the hospital.
In contrast, victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We become victims not because of what happens to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimization.
We develop a victim's mind a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, and without healthy limits or boundaries. We become our own jailors when we choose the confines of the victim's mind.
I want to make one thing very clear. When I talk about victims and survivors, I am not blaming victims - so many of whom never had a chance.
I could never blame those who were sent right to the gas chambers or who died in their cot, or even those who ran into the electric barbed wire fence. I grieve for all people everywhere who are sentenced to violence and destruction. I live to guide others to a position of empowerment in the face of all of life's hardships.
I also want to say that there is no hierarchy of suffering. There's nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours, no graph on which we can plot the relative importance of one sorrow versus another.
People say to me, "Things in my my life are pretty hard right now, but I have no right to complain - it's not Auschwitz." This kind of comparison can lead us to minimize or diminish our own suffering.
Being a survivor, being a "thriver" requires absolute acceptance of what was and what is.
If we discount our pain, or punish ourselves for feeling lost or isolated or scared about the challenges in our lives, however insignificant these challenges may seem to someone else, then we're still choosing to be victims. We're not seeing our choices. We're judging ourselves.
I don't want you to hear my story own suffering is less significant." I want you to hear my story and say, "If she can do it, then so can I!"
...Often, the little upsets in our lives are emblematic of the larger losses; the seemingly insignificant worries are representative of greater pain.
I realized that day how much my two patients, who appeared so different, had in common-with each other and with all people everywhere.
Both women were responding to a situation they couldn't control in which their expectations had been upended. Both were struggling and hurting because something was not what they wanted or expected it to be; they were trying to reconcile what was with what ought to have been.
Whether you're in the dawn or noon or late evening of your life, whether you've seen deep suffering or are only just beginning to encounter struggle, whether you're falling in love for the first time or losing your life partner to old age, whether you're healing from a life-altering event or in search of some little adjustments that could bring more joy to your life, I would love to help you discover how to escape the concentration camp of your own mind and become the person you were meant to be.
I would love to help you experience freedom from the past, freedom from failures and fears, freedom from anger and mistakes, freedom from regret and unresolved grief - and the freedom to enjoy the full, rich feast of life.
We cannot choose to have a life free of hurt. But we can choose to be free, to escape the past, no matter what befalls us, and to embrace the possible.
"All your ecstasy in life is going to come from the inside," my ballet master had told me. I never understood what he meant. Until Auschwitz.
…When Edith and her sister were liberated by American soldiers and spent six weeks inching back from death in Wels, an Austrian village, they were sent on their way back to Czechoslovakia. But as she recounts, freedom carries its own issues:
Survival is black and white, no "buts" can intrude when you are fighting for your life. Now the "buts" come rushing in. We have bread to eat. Yes, but we are penniless. You are gaining weight. Yes, but my heart is heavy. You are alive. Yes, by my mother is dead.
Edith wraps her past inside her so tight that she can't move on. She thinks the only way to move on is to forget and ignore. No-one should be burdened with what she will carry with her forever. Until, that is, she is given and reads Viktor Frankl's, Man's Search for Meaning:
I read how Frankl marches to his work site in the icy dark. The cold is harsh, the guards are brutal, the prisoners stumble.
In the midst of physical pain and dehumanizing injustice, Frankl flashes on his wife's face. He sees her eyes, and his heart blooms with love in the depth of winter. He understands how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.
My heart opens. I weep. It is my mother speaking to me from the page, from the oppressive dark of the train: Just remember, no one can take away from you what you've put in your mind. We can't choose to vanish the dark, but we can choose to kindle the light.
In those predawn hours in the autumn of 1966, I read this, which is at the very heart of Frankl's teaching: Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. Each moment is a choice. No matter how frustrating or boring or constraining or painful or oppressive our experience, we can always choose how we respond. And I finally begin to understand that I, too, have a choice. This realization will change my life."
If I had to name my therapy I'd probably call it Choice Therapy, as freedom is about CHOICE -about choosing compassion, humor, optimism, intuition, curiosity, and self-expression.
And to be free is to live in the present. If we are stuck in the past, saying, "If only I had gone there instead of here..." or "If only had married someone else...," we are living in a prison of our I own making.
Likewise if we spend our time in the future, saying, "I won't be happy until I graduate..." or "I won't be happy until I find the right person."
The only place where we can exercise our freedom of choice is the present.
These are the tools my patients use to liberate themselves from role expectations, to be kind and loving parents to themselves, to stop passing on imprisoning beliefs and behaviors, to discover that love comes out as the answer in the end.
I guide patients to understand both what causes and what maintains their self-defeating behaviors. The self-defeating behaviors first emerged as useful behaviors, things they did to satisfy a need, usually a need for one of the As: approval, affection, attention.
Once patients can see why they developed a certain behavior (belittling others, attaching oneself to angry people, eating too little, eating too much, etc.), they can take responsibility for whether or not they maintain the behavior.
They can choose what to give up (the need for approval, the need to go shopping, the need to be perfect, etc.) - because even freedom doesn't come for free! And they can learn to take better care of themselves and to discover self-acceptance: Only I can do what I can do the way I can do it.
"I'd like you to try something. An exercise. You're going to turn yourself inside out. Whatever you usually hold in, you're going to get out, and whatever you usually get rid of, you're going to put back in." I took the pad of hotel stationery off the desk and handed it to her with a pen. "Each person in your immediate family gets one sentence. I want you to write down something you haven't told that person. It might be a desire or a secret or a regret - it might be something small, like, I wish you'd put your dirty socks in the laundry. The only rule is it has to be something you've never said out loud."
She smiled faintly, nervously. "Are you going to make me actually say these?"
"What them up you do with them is entirely up to you. You can tear like confetti and flush them down the toilet, or set them on fire. I just want you to get them out of your body by writing them down."
She sat in silence for a few minutes and then began to write. Several times she crossed something out. Finally she looked up.
"How do you feel?"
"A little dizzy."
"Then it's time to fill yourself back up again. But with the things you usually give to other people. You're going to put all that love and protection and nurturing back inside." I asked her to picture herself getting very small, so tiny that she could climb inside her own ear. I told her to crawl down the canal, and down her throat and esophagus, all the way to her stomach. As she journeyed within, I asked her to put her tiny loving hands on each part of her body that she passed. On her lungs, her heart. On her spine, along the inside of each leg and arm. I coached her to lay her compassionate hands on each organ, muscle, bone, vein. "Bring love everywhere. Be your own unique, one-of-a kind nurturer," I said.
Reflections during Edith’s first time travelling back to Auschwitz:
We travel to Salzburg, where we tour the cathedral constructed on the ruins of a Roman church. It has been rebuilt three times, we learn-most recently after a bomb damaged the central dome during the war. There is no evidence of the destruction. "Like us," Béla says, taking my hand.
From Salzburg, we go to Vienna, traveling over the same ground Magda and I marched across before we were liberated. I see ditches running alongside roads, and I imagine them as I once saw them, spilling over with corpses, but I can also see them as they are now, filling up with summer grass.
I can see that the past doesn't taint the present, the present doesn't diminish the past. Time is the medium. Time is the track, we travel it. The train goes through Linz. Through Wels. I am a girl with a broken back who learns to write a capital G again, who learns again to dance.
As she gets closer to Auschwitz:
"Let's get off at the next stop," I tell Béla. "It's not important to go all the way to Auschwitz. Let's go home." "Edie," he says, "you're going to be fine. It's only a place. It can't hurt you."
I stay on the train for another stop, and another, through Berlin, through Poznań. I think of Dr. Hans Selye - a fellow Hungarian - who said stress is the body's response to any demand for change.
Our automatic responses are to fight or to flee - but in Auschwitz, where we endured more than stress, where we lived in distress, the stakes life and death, never knowing what would happen next, the options to fight or flee didn't exist. I would have been shot if I'd fought back, electrocuted if I'd tried to run away.
So I learned to flow, I learned to stay in the situation, to develop the only thing I had left, to look within for the part of me that no Nazi could ever murder. To find and hold on to my truest self. Maybe I'm not losing skin. Maybe I am only stretching. Stretching to encompass every aspect of who I am and have been and can become.
“Release begins with acceptance.”
They taught me the same important lesson that I began studying at Auschwitz: Our painful experiences aren't a liability - they're a gift. They give us perspective and meaning, an opportunity to find our unique purpose and our strength.
So often when we are unhappy it is because we are taking too much responsibility or we are taking too little. Instead of being assertive and choosing clearly for ourselves, we might become aggressive (choosing for others), or passive (letting others choose for us), or passive-aggressive (choosing for others by preventing them from achieving what they are choosing for themselves).
These are the questions I came up with to liberate people from their victimhood.
We want so much to understand the truth. We want to be accountable for our mistakes, honest about our lives. We want reasons, explanations. We want our lives to make sense. But to ask why? is to stay in the past, to keep company with our guilt and regret. We can't control other people, and we can't control the past.
In the summer of 2010, I was invited to Fort Carson, Colorado, to address an Army unit returning from combat in Afghanistan, a unit with a high suicide rate.
I was there to talk about my own trauma - how I survived it, how I survived the return to everyday life, how I chose to be free-so the soldiers might also adjust more easefully to life after war.
As I climbed up to the podium, I experienced a few brief internal skirmishes of discomfort, the old habits of being hard on myself, of wondering what a little Hungarian ballet student has to offer men and women of war.
I reminded myself that I was there to share the most important truth I know, that the biggest prison is in your own mind, and in your pocket you already hold the key: the willingness to take absolute responsibility for your life; the willingness to risk; the willingness to release yourself from judgment and reclaim your innocence, accepting and loving yourself for who you really are.