I spent the summer sailing the Ionian Sea. In many ways, it was as idyllic as it sounds. However, one day, as we were heading down the Peloponnese coast, the seas were unsettled. Generally, waves come from the direction of the true wind. However, there had been Force 5 winds for the past couple of days from a direction different than the current wind direction. This and an underwater shelf near the coastline conspired to create chaotic, unpredictable waves. Not surprisingly, I felt woozy and nauseous. I sat clutching a bimini bow, praying to get to Methoni Bay, where we would be protected from the waves. But, even when we made it into the bay, I still felt ill from the swell. Being on land was a temporary reprieve; the headache and nausea returned as soon as I was back aboard.
After that, at the least amount of boat movement, my seasickness would return. I think this sensitivity was a side effect of my concussion, now two years past. My vestibular system had been triggered and it remained hypervigilant. After a couple of weeks, I realized that what I was doing wasn’t adequate. I had tried wrist bands, ear patches, ginger chews, and hoping it would go away. The wrist bands were helpful, particularly if put on preventatively. The ear patches had a smell that made my seasickness worse. The ginger chews were tasty—everyone enjoyed them, whether they felt nauseous or not. And, hoping it would go away was code for berating myself for being so sensitive.
My vestibular disequilibrium evidenced itself as dizzying migraines. I realized I was feeling unsafe. Having written the blog Scary versus Dangerous, I could appraise that my autonomic nervous system was scared, but the situation was not dangerous. As we rocked on anchor in a bay, there was a very low probability of anything bad happening and I could easily handle the “worst case scenario”—should the boat suddenly, inexplicably sink, I could swim the 20 yards to shore. Even as we crossed to the island of Kefalonia with 15-foot waves, our boat was more than up to the challenge—should I be swept over board, I was wearing a life vest. My logical, conscious mind saw no threat, but my unconscious had determined that I was unsafe. As I said, I believe this hypervigilance was triggered by having sustained a concussion—in many situations that I previously found benign, my body no longer trusts it is safe. I have become more alert to distractions and unable to habituate to them (e.g., noises outside my house).
Just as the concussion was a momentary incident, I assumed my post-concussive syndrome symptoms were solely the effect of the collision between my helmeted head and the ground. But, no. I began to realize that my body’s response to my concussion—and, therefore, the clues to help myself process the concussion—is grounded not just in that moment of impact, but in my entire history. The concussion was additional validation to my unconscious implicit assumptions of being unsafe. If I was going to calm my vestibular system, I needed to address feeling unsafe.
So, when I felt dizzy and pained, I would lean into the bodily sensations—noticing how the boat was moving and what I was feeling in response, rather than trying to minimize my awareness. I practiced Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), acknowledging my suffering, and wishing myself and all others who suffer similarly to find relief. I thanked my hypervigilant autonomic nervous system for working so hard to protect me. This was more successful in reducing my seasickness than trying to ignore my experience or judge myself for being bothered by minor rocking.
MSC was helpful for my in-the-moment vestibular response. And, it made me trust myself—I wasn’t going to beat myself up for my experiences. It provided the grounding to do the deeper work: feeling unsafe, and where that was coming from. It created an opportunity but wasn’t the deeper work itself. As Stephanie Foo writes in her memoir of healing from complex trauma, What My Bones Know,
But grounding and gratitude were palliative care versus curative care. I was still treating the symptoms without treating the source, and I would never truly be healed unless I confronted it. Now that I had stabilized the present, it was time for me to dive back into the past.
I realized that concussion recovery as conceptualized by modern medicine and me—up to that point—had been palliative, symptom-oriented care.
My implicit orientation towards the world as an unsafe place has a lifetime history. And, it will be a lifetime task to unpack and alter reactions based on this assumption into preferred responses. One of the insights that this summer’s discomfort afforded was that I—and most discussions—have reduced safe and unsafe to binary opposites—something is either safe or unsafe, we are either safe or unsafe. This dualistic thinking can impede our development. If I ask, “Am I safe or unsafe?”, in order to answer the question, I will have to deny the ways in which I am simultaneously the other.
Taken to its extreme, if we were fully unsafe, we would be dead—some need would be so violated as to not sustain life. And, similarly, if we are alive, we will never be fully safe—the environment will always impose some jeopardy on the meeting of some need. I find this macabre approach quite freeing. I am not fully unsafe—I am still breathing. I am still alive. Similarly, it’s pointless to expect full safety—I will only obtain that when I no longer have any needs; in other words, after I have died. Alive, I exist in a mix of safety and unsafety.
On our sailboat, we have done many things to increase its safety—from purchasing new life vests to adding fire extinguishers to replacing the standing rigging. And, yet, life brings risks—choosing to live that life on water increases some of those risks. Acknowledging that I am both safe and unsafe is a compassionate stance to my hypervigilant vestibular system—I can gently remind myself of the ways in which I am currently safe, as well as investigate what feels unsafe, and from whence these fears arose. I can dive back into the past, with the strength of my stabilized present self. I can provide compassion not only to my current self, but also to the child who felt unsafe. I haven’t been able to use this new-found learning on the sailboat yet—I look forward to trying it out next summer, as needed. For now, I am experimenting with ariel yoga, which does a number on my vestibular system.
How does recognizing that, for as long as we are alive, we are always simultaneously safe and unsafe change your relationship to difficult situations, to your fears?