I’m no masochist, but I get very disturbed when an adult chipmunk makes no effort to sink those long, corn-colored teeth into my fingers when I put my hand around them. This sorry fellow not only made no effort to bite—he made no effort to move, either.
A week ago, while watering plants out front, I noticed Darter the cat paying too much attention to a small rotten piece of wood on grass. Must be a frog or toad, I told myself gently pushing her aside to peek under the old branch. It took me a second or so to realize I was not looking into frog eyes, but into the glassy, tranced-out face of a chipmunk.
Instinctively, I placed my hand protectively over his body. Luckily, I was wearing garden gloves, because I fully expected a fight. None came. He lay in my palm like a clump of cold clay. I hurried him inside, expecting to find harsh wounds left by my huntress cat all over his spent body, but his wounds had come from a different source.
All the fur had been scraped off his back haunch, his back legs were swollen, and there were holes in his belly area and groin. His tail was broken. I suspected he’d had a collision with a car instead of a cat. He’s come to me to die, my mind whispered as my hands squirted tiny amounts of antibiotics and anti-swelling medication into his unresponsive mouth.
I work as swiftly as possible, because it was clear to me that my touch was sending him deeper and deeper into shock. Quickly, I swabbed the dirt and gravel off of his bloody haunch and rubbed some healing salve on his scrapes to ward off infection. I gently tried to get him to take some electrolyte solution from a syringe, but the liquid just dribbled out his mouth.
“Okay, okay, I get it,” I whispered to him. “I’ll leave you alone and let you rest, you poor, sweet, hurt boy.” I placed him under pieces of fleece blanket in an old birdcage, set half the cage on a heating pad, covered the whole thing with a dark towel, and left the room. For the next few hours, I could not get the feel of his coldness out of my hands, or the vacant dullness of his eyes out of my thoughts.
I gave him one more dose of medications before going to bed, placed a dish of electrolyte solution near him, and named him “Crash” in light of his particular catastrophe. I fully expected him to be gone and stiff by morning, so you can imagine my surprise when I entered my small “healing” room to find him scurrying under his blanket. He’d drunk up nearly all of the liquid in his dish, to my amazement and joy. It’s shocking what the right drugs can do.
But just like the day before, when I put my gloved hand over him so that I could give him his medications, he went still, and the small light in his onyx eyes flickered and died. Again, I did my tasks quickly. When I set him back down on his blanket, he rolled off of my hand as though in a coma. Fight. Flight. Freeze. This is the way of mammals in danger. We’ve all heard about the fight or flight response. Not much is ever mentioned about the third aspect of that survival trinity—Freeze.
It just so happened, however, that I was learning all about the Freeze response in a book I’ve been reading about healing from trauma. When fight and flight have been exhausted or are impossible, all mammals—from chipmunks to humans—instinctively drop into an “immobility” or “freeze” response. Writes author Peter Levine in Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, “The stone-still animal is not pretending to be dead. It has instinctively entered an altered state of consciousness shared by all mammals when death appears imminent. Many indigenous peoples view this phenomenon as the surrender of the spirit of the prey to the predator, which, in a manner of speaking, it is.”
According to Levine, the final phase of this process—if a creature survives the freeze response—is to discharge all of the pent up, traumatic energy stored in the body. Animals achieve this by trembling, or shuddering for a length of time. Levine claims that humans often stop at the freeze response, block the rampaging, terrifying energy, internalize it, and then carry the harsh physical and psychological effects of post-trauma for the rest of their lives.
Trauma for animals is being chased and eaten. Trauma for humans can be anything from car wrecks to accidents, to the sudden death of a child, to a bad birthing experience. My good friend Robb had sent me Waking the Tiger, because I told him that although people often think of me as being very brave and calm during catastrophe (cancer, my house burning down, accident scenes) I was wondering if what was really happening was that I just went numb, or “froze.”
Crash had come along to show me just what the “immobility response” looked like. It is frightening. In my hands, he felt like something going dead, rapidly. And for three days, it was like that whenever I had to pick him up. In his eyes remained that vacancy. It was as though he had already checked out and was somewhere else, which I now know he was.
When people bring injured animals into WildCare, the local rehab center I volunteer with, they often say about that animal, “He wasn’t afraid of me at all! I could hold him and so could all my friends. It was like he trusted us!” Such moments are not about trust. They are about freezing terror.
Sometimes women stay with men who are viscious. People say, “Why doesn’t she leave?” How do you leave when you are psycologically, physiologically frozen? Sometimes we expect those around us to fight, or to flee when catastrophe strikes, and don’t realize they are past that. They are numb, frozen, immobilized, traumatized.
On his fourth day with me, Crash began his instinctive healing process. It came from somewhere deep and clean inside him, and it was truly awesome to behold. By this time, I was keeping him on a high shelf outside, where the sounds would be familiar to him, and the rhythm of nature, soothing. My gloved hand closed around him, and I felt, again, that frozen lethargy overtake him. But then, as I hurriedly administered those wonder drugs that had given him a new chance at life, I noticed that he began what I can only call “reverberating” in my palm. His body entered a deep tremor that I could feel all the way into my wrist. It came steadily at first, then in waves.
I finished up by putting salve on his mending scabs, and as my hand entered the small door of the birdcage to release him, he bolted out of my fingers like a greased piglet, and bounded around the cage. I left quickly with my heart singing. By late that afternoon, he’d chewed his blanket into small pieces and constructed his own “bomb shelter.” Into it, he carted all the acorns, apples, corn, and sunflower pieces I’d given him that morning. Yesterday, he bit me—hard.
The change in his presence is startling. He is alive and vibrant again. So often in my life I have heard the phrase, “just shake it off.” Now I know just what that looks like, and just what amazing benefits doing so can bestow.
Like many people, I have accumulated a lifetime of traumas large and small that need to be “shaken off,” and their damaging energy discharged in a healthy way. Levine proposes to have crafted a natural method to help people in doing just that. It is based on what Crash showed me. If it works for chipmunks, surely it can work for me.
Next week, I’ll be releasing Crash somewhere where there are no cars and no cats. It’s the least I can do for such a fine and brave teacher.
May you be spared from cat bites, road rash, and monstrous hands, for all the coming days of your life, my amazing little man.
Susan – I love how you are always brought to the critters. I find it amazing how they know to come to you, your energy must be extrordinary. Can you imagine the journey Crash had to endure to get you. I hope you know how much the animals need you and how grateful we are that you share what you learn. I appreciate the way you share their lessons. Thank you friend to all. Peace
Debbie, thank you for your kind words! Today, I released Crash in a nature preserve, near a small lake where we swim our dogs. What a joy! He literally leaped out–seemingly in flight—back to the wild.
What a powerful story, Susan. The frozen state you describe above is also know as dissociation. Shamans have long believed that when someone faces a violent trauma, which they feel they cannot escape, fight or shelter themselves from, the soul has no other options than exiting the body in order to survive. Follows a state of dissociation in which the essence of this being (person or animal) is no longer connected to their physical envelope. Because of the intensity of the fear and presence of danger, the soul retreats to its original energetic form without being able to be released through death. In that state, you are still aware of everything that is going on around you, but you no longer can react, express yourself or even feel anything. Hence, the absence of any and all movements, the incapacity to communicate, and the glassy, remote eyes. Shamans believe that when such state of dissociation happens, the trauma victim is robbed of their soul, not so much because the soul is given to the perpetrator, but more so because the soul flees the physical envelope to preserve itself, therefore leaving the body emptied of its most essential component. In Shamanic communities, trauma victims were typically treated immediately, within 3 days, by receiving what they call a soul retrieval ceremony. In our culture where these practices are not commonly known or practiced, victims of violent traumas often continue on, drifting in a life where part of their soul remains disconnected from their body.
I knew a tiny little girl who loved her mother so much, she would have given her life for her, but grew up in a household full of hatred, rage and explosions of violence. Time and again, she was picked up and thrown across a room, her head colliding wherever she would land, her body then pummeled by punches and kicks. There was nowhere to go, no one to protect her, so all she could do was roll herself in the tiniest little ball she could manage, wrap her arms around her head in an attempt to shield her skull from the kicks and the punches, the shoes and the fists. But she couldn’t feel anything. At once, her spirit would disconnect. So she remained frozen in a tight little ball, unable to move or make a single sound. Her parents accused her of being a monster, because she never could cry or beg for them to stop. But she simply could no longer communicate, sometimes for hours. It is a double-edged sword. When you spend time in the realm of the Spirit, you learn to play with energies that are not visible or known by most people. What you don’t learn however, is how to get back to your body entirely, so that every following trauma throughout your life can end up sending you further and further away, until you can’t find the road back to your life. That is, unless you find yourself wrapped in a rainbow-colored blanket and saved by the love of a magical healer 😉
Susan, Thank you for the gift of this story. It touches me deeply, for I too tend to freeze, and I’m grateful not only for the kinship but also the connection to your friend’s book so I can explore the human wisdom of healing from trauma.
Love and gratitude
Marga, “Waking the Tiger” is so powerful and helpful for those of us who go numb in our bodies. I think you will really learn a lot from Levine’s ideas.
Thank you for that story! i feel very fortunate indeed to see how animals are teaching us in every instant. My beautiful kitty of 22 years, Little, just passed in September. She was diagnosed in February with a mild carcinoma, which never really developed. We cared for her from February to September and learned more from her and that situation than I can even begin to tell you. That situation and her presence changed my life forever! Animals are phenomenal teachers if you are fortunate enough to SEE!
My heart is so warmed by your unconditional love, care and wisdom. I am really happy to have found you today through a podcast, and now the Internet. Please continue to share…it is good for all of our hearts, I am sure 🙂
Cindy, welcome! Glad you found me!
That was an awesome and adorable story about Crash! Thanks for sharing and being such a kind person to the furries out there! 😀
Glad you enjoyed it, seatowner! I was so delighted he survived!