How I Healed My Severe Trauma: With Loving-Kindness, IFS And Somatic Experiencing (And It Took a Village)

My healing took a village. (Image: Tomáš Malík @ Pexels.com)

Many people have asked me to write about my intriguing, and at times lightning-fast, trauma healing journey practicing loving-kindness meditation (metta), Internal Family Systems (IFS) and somatic experiencing (SE). Like many real-life stories, it’s a bit complicated — I have to introduce many concepts, provide background and ”claim attainments” in meditation (which is frowned upon in many Buddhist communities), as well as talk about other people’s traumas. Without these things, the story just wouldn’t be whole. And like many journeys, mine also involved several incredible strokes of luck.

It is important to note that meditation may make trauma symptoms worse. Much of my trauma was caused by someone with dissociation deteriorating from meditation. I haven’t had such problems myself, but I also established my practice before the trauma, and I never had dissociation. I do suspect loving-kindness meditation is safer, but not without risks. (Then again, neither is e.g. psychotherapy!)

CW: depictions of psychological abuse (not in detail) and trauma symptoms, involuntary weight loss, a mention of sexual abuse

In 2017, I was 33 and felt really down in the dumps. I had been sick with a severe progressive chronic illness (chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis or CFS/ME) and a myriad of its complications for 17 years and had divorced from my abusive partner after 16 years. While I wasn’t depressed or traumatized, it felt like those things had ruined half of my life and the future didn’t seem much better. In September that year, I started meditating, practicing metta (loving-kindness) and vipassana (insight/mindfulness). To my surprise, both had a practically immediate effect, drastically improving my well-being and improving my ability to cope with my illnesses and issues like loneliness. I knew right away that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life — I haven’t skipped a day since.

While I’ve practiced many different types of meditation, TWIM (tranquil wisdom insight meditation) soon became my main practice, which feels like one of the best decisions I’ve made. TWIM is a form of metta meditation focusing on insight practice done in jhanas or absorption states. It is both very pleasant and highly effective for making progress. Following the breath always felt like the least useful form of meditation for me.

Thanks to my practice, I was incredibly and constantly happy for almost a year, but then things came crashing down. I had become close friends with someone I call K. He was kind and empathetic, in many ways the opposite of my ex-partner. Sadly, K also turned out to be highly abusive in several different ways. His early childhood was full of distressing events and as a result, he suffers from severe dissociation, attachment issues and other emotional problems. I feel like all the abuse stemmed from these causes.

I yearned to have someone warm and caring in my life. For a long time, I tried hard to ignore the abuse, because K seemed to be those things and I certainly wanted him to be those things. I never really trusted my ex, as it was clear early on he lied constantly, and I believe that’s why I got so little trauma from all those years. I knew he was no good. K was the first person I ever really trusted. Everyone told me he was very honest and safe. When I finally admitted to myself how far from the reality that idea was, it was too late.

K regularly told me what was wrong with me and the ways I was inferior to his other friends. My ex put everything down, which massively lessened its impact, while K behaved like everyone else was fine, except for me. When his abuse traumatized me, he saw it as further proof that I was broken and needed to be fixed. He introduced me to various self-therapy techniques and even read a book on EMDR when he became convinced this was how he was going to fix me. He even offered to pay for me to have therapy for the trauma he had caused.

K’s obsession with fixing me was also how we discovered Internal Family Systems in late 2018. IFS is a psychotherapy method that views your mind as consisting of different parts, many of them stuck at a young age and carrying burdens (which are not necessarily full-fledged trauma). You can talk to the parts, console them and release their burdens. I feel like it has a lot in common with metta. IFS is powerful when it works, but often inconsolable parts emerged that made me miserable for days afterward. I rationalized this as having such a crappy life that no wonder the parts would feel any attempt at comfort was phony.

K attended the Level 1 IFS training, but when he guided my IFS sessions, he often became puzzled and distraught when they deviated from the ”form”. But he kept insisting IFS would ”fix me”, and IFS became a part of his abuse. Somehow, while I didn’t believe this idea, through it all, I remained convinced that IFS was great, if I could just get it to properly work for me. Perhaps this was because a few times I did manage to heal an issue, but IFS also offers a nuanced world-view based on parts which I found very helpful.

Even acute stress often makes my illnesses permanently worse, and the abuse and the trauma from it caused lasting damage more than a dozen times. In the summer of 2018, I had been able to meditate for two hours per day (divided into several sessions), but as my health deteriorated I was forced to cut it down a lot, to my great dismay. I sometimes felt like quitting — what’s the point in even meditating if you can’t do more than 5–15 minutes per day?

Insight Stages

It feels impossible to write this story without referring to the insight stages. They are a concept in Theravada Buddhism (similar stages are apparently also described in e.g. Kabbalah) of automatically passing through a sequence of certain stages, usually due to meditation. These stages affect how meditation ”feels” but also your daily life, like mood, energy levels and even things like body temperature. Daniel Ingram has written a helpful description of both the concept and each stage. Ingram is also a medical doctor and believes the insight stages are ”built into” the human brain. This is, of course, the only way we could automatically go through them, but I still have no idea why. I just know I’ve experienced them clearly and sometimes very strongly.

When a cycle of these 15 stages completes, you reach a new path (a stage of enlightenment), until the fourth path, which is the last one. After a completed cycle begins the Review stage, where you rapidly pass through all the stages many times for 1–3 months. The insight stages also include the so-called “dark night of the soul”, six sequential stages of which the last one, Reobservation, tends to be by far the worst.

How the dark night is experienced varies widely. It can be over in seconds or can drag on for years; it can present as minor discomfort or suicidal agony. For me, usually only its first and last stages are experienced as unpleasant at all, but they are also physically draining. Three different insight stages have laid me flat for several days. They can exhaust healthy people too, but it’s quite different for a healthy person to lose, say, 30% of their energy, compared to someone who is very sick.

I experienced my first dark night in the summer of 2018, lasting for about six weeks. There was a lot of fatigue, but only the final days were mentally challenging. My chronic, 24/7 fever that had lasted for 18 years also started to break that summer, which felt shocking, both physically and mentally. One evening, my temperature even dipped into subnormal!

In November 2018, I believe I attained stream entry, the first stage of enlightenment, though my life was so messy because of the abuse that I only realized this a few weeks later. (After stream entry, I had a week without any fever.) As a result of the chaos, I struggled to integrate the changes. I feel like a major part of the integration only happened the following summer, when doing IFS. I went through another dark night in early 2019 and moved past it to Equanimity. Then I stopped mapping insight stages, for some reason, but later it became clear I had slid back to the dark night.

The Peak of Trauma

In early 2020, K attended a meditation retreat that made his severe dissociation much worse, and his abuse of me and others escalated. As a result, my health got permanently worse several times in succession. He gave me COVID due to his reckless behavior and covered it up from other people who were exposed. My illness was very mild, but left me with some complications for many months (and likely permanent thrombocytopenia). This was so traumatizing I developed a severe stutter, when I had never stuttered before.

In the summer, K dumped me, after I asked him not to spread any more lies about me. I ended up in a nearly constant trauma reaction. The slightest noises sent me shaking for hours. I couldn’t sleep and often was up since 4 AM. When I went to the grocery store, I’d usually leave empty-handed, because the presence of people was just too triggering. I couldn’t really distract myself with anything, as I had no energy for activities like reading or watching movies and no one to talk to.

The stress exacerbated my gastroparesis (a severe and often deadly GI condition) to the point I was only able to eat about 30 grams/1 oz per meal. My eating was already severely restricted and I had lost massive amounts of weight, but this was untenable. I lost 12 kilos/26 lbs in two months. Thankfully, the problem eventually fixed itself for the most part.

As a result of the abuse, I also lost almost all my other friends. Either they ”refused to take sides”, effectively taking the abuser’s side, or just found the whole thing too hard to handle. This was obviously very rough, but also a practical catastrophe, as I’m way too illto get by independently. I can’t do household chores and for several years I had been cared for by friends.

Because of the lies K spread about me, I also lost all the communities I had. This included an extremely traumatic experience being immediately kicked out of an event, done in a shockingly abusive way. E.g. my chronic illnesses were mocked and I was told that sexual abusers are welcome to attend their events as long as they aren’t convicted in court. It felt like the most humiliating thing that had ever been done to me.

After that, my physical condition again took a permanent downturn and my intermittent COVID issues returned worse than ever. I ran a nasty fever for weeks and I had such difficulty breathing even at rest I worried I might have a pulmonary embolism. It was crushing to feel like if I was dying, I was dying utterly alone. Everything felt hopeless.

Healing Begins

While struggling with extreme trauma, in August I did something I had been supposed to do for two years: I started recording hypnosis and meditation audios for my YouTube channel. I thought I had been just procrastinating about it, as uncharacteristic as that would be for me, but I realized that being with K had just made me feel too worthless and incapable. This new hobby felt like the first step to a new me, and it didn’t hurt that I got excellent feedback on the recordings. I also started practicing Alexander technique, often called a bodywork method but in many ways more similar to meditation. I’m not sure if it has contributed to my recovery, but I suspect it may have.

I was desperate to heal, but it felt impossible. In TWIM, you only send loving-kindness to yourself and a close friend. I struggled, as I didn’t have anyone left I felt close to. I had periods when I couldn’t even feel metta towards myself, trauma blocked me from feeling any love. I focused more on my nondual practice, inspired by e.g. Loch Kelly’s work, but it didn’t have the uplifting effect of metta. I was scared of doing IFS after my bad experiences, especially since I had no support should I get much worse again. Eventually, I decided I had to take that risk. The other option was just continuing to suffer and losing even more physical function.

K was still willing to pay for my trauma therapy, as he remained invested in the idea that he hadn’t traumatized me, I was just broken. I contacted therapists on the IFS practitioner directory, first ones with keywords that matched my experience, but when I had no luck, eventually more arbitrarily. Finally, I found someone who did remote therapy with affordable rates and had openings right away. I started seeing her at the end of October. I got very lucky, as she was good and I liked her ”grandma energy”.

My therapist used IFS and somatic experiencing combined into one technique. As the word ”somatic” suggests, SE is body-oriented. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, I didn’t really ”feel things in my body”. But to my surprise, I took to it immediately. I’ve written a more detailed account of my SE experiences. Like in IFS, I communicated with parts, but locating them in my body along with associated emotions, images and felt senses. Parts in IFS tend to yearn for comfort and safety, whereas in SE, they usually want to experience a concrete and bodily activity or narrative. SE works with something that in spiritual practices is called e.g. kundalini energy. It took my IFS deeper and seemed more suited for handling anger, which I had plenty of — I’m good at expressing anger, but when someone mistreats you and then bails out, there’s no one left to be angry at.

It feels like another stroke of luck that after learning a dozen (self) therapy techniques, I happened upon this groundbreaking one as a coincidence. I didn’t experience any worsening like before, it turned out it had all been about the presence of K. The actual therapy sessions were mostly enjoyable feel-good material, often with a happy vibe like a children’s book or a Disney movie, even as I was working on deep wounds. Sadly, I was only able to get six 1.5 hour sessions with my therapist, as K stopped paying. SE is suited for self-therapy, but my severe fatigue was limiting. I struggle to stay focused when working alone, while with someone else it is hardly an issue.

A few weeks after starting therapy, some fascinating conversations on Twitter gave me the idea of starting my own community to discuss topics like meditation, self-therapy, hypnosis and bodywork. I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off and I knew that if I failed, it would make me feel worse. But I wanted to take the risk. Mind Is the Gap Discord community was born in mid-November. Setting it up has been one of the best ideas I ever had, and I quickly made several friends.

Extremely luckily, in early December I was able to start weekly IFS/SE sessions guided by someone I met through my new community. She is highly intuitive and knows her way around IFS and trauma. Curiously, she also has similar experiences to me, being close with multiple people with severe trauma and dissociation, similar to K, my ex, a former best friend and several friends I have made recently. These discussions have been extremely valuable and have given me a lot of insight into those people, such as their tendency to run away from me and come back, only to vanish again.

Breakthrough

Early this year, I was growing close to my new best friend. I was making a lot of progress with trauma, but still had a lot of baggage left and felt miserable. In retrospect, I clearly see the latter dark night stages there. In Reobservation, I became desperate and opened up to my friend about some heavy stuff. His reaction reminded me of some of K’s parts and seriously triggered me, but he helped to gently untangle the crisis. It made me feel heard, safe and cared for. He guided a few IFS sessions for me. Once I ended up breaking down in tears and he comforted me for hours. A few days after this, I entered Equanimity. Suddenly nothing bothered me anymore. I felt like I could be happy again.

At the end of January, we had an awful argument, caused by both of us having trauma. It further triggered our parts and hurts, including ones I thought I had already healed, which felt disappointing. After crying for hours, I hardly slept that night. The next day, however, I was pleasantly surprised to have recuperated much better than I had expected. We made up and things seemed mended.

I was sending him metta in bed that night, when I suddenly got two important interpersonal insights. There were tears from happiness and gratitude. It was followed by a strange wobbling sensation in my head, as if it was jello being poked. While I’ve had tons of ”energetic” sensations in my head, nothing like that before. I immediately wondered if it was something related to enlightenment.

The next day I felt weird, kind of like on drugs — not confused or ”stoned”, just a pleasant altered state that’s hard to describe. Some music I could feel in my body in a way I had never experienced before, but this was only a minority of songs with no clear logic to it. The physical sensations abated in a few days, but music has been markedly more enjoyable since. I listen to much more music than before and that alone has improved my quality of life, as there is little I can do that I have enough energy for.

That night, we had another fight with my friend after I got triggered by something he said. He was talking from a protector part that can be quite mean, but unusually, I was able to switch to a part that was not triggered. He gave me the impression that he didn’t want to be friends anymore and blocked me. This upset me, of course, but by the time I got up in the morning, I was fine again.

And I’ve been fine since, it just took a day for the new breakthrough to kick in. It happened late on Thursday night and on Saturday I no longer felt high, but music was still psychoactive and everything was different. Most of my trauma seemed to be gone and I felt incredibly happy, balanced and thankful. I was constantly crying from joy in meditation and often outside of it, too. It felt like most problems hardly bothered me anymore, while even the smallest good things I felt very strongly.

A few days later, my sister did something nice to me and it triggered a kind of ”feedback loop” in me. I had chills for hours and kept crying from feeling so much gratitude and because everything felt perfect. I had a dentist appointment to attend and it was hard to ground myself from cloud nine to be able to leave the house. I’ve experienced similar jhana-like feedback loops many times recently, but this was the strongest one. There was (and is) a strong sense of God in everything. A sense of beauty and magic, of universal love. All that insufferable New Age hippie woo. Once I cried watching the snowfall, another time thinking about the existence of waterfalls.

The Saturday when everything became Great, I also picked up a pencil. The same friend had encouraged me to draw, which I hadn’t done in 20 years — because despite being an artist, ”I can’t draw” — and I expected to produce stick figures. In the previous week I had done two figure drawings, but I decided to attempt a portrait. To my surprise, it turned out quite well. I’ve been drawing portraits enthusiastically since. I also wrote over 60 poems in February, which isn’t the most I’ve written in a month, but still noteworthy.

I was strongly suspecting I had reached the second stage of enlightenment, and the more I read about it and talked to other meditators, the more likely it seemed. The experience was extremely transformative and I felt like a new person. Soon it became clear that I was also experiencing Review cycles. It felt like a real bummer that I was going through the best and most interesting period in my life and couldn’t discuss it with the person closest to me. He didn’t talk to me for a month, he was fighting his own demons.

Challenges

When we resumed contact with my friend, he seemed very distant for a while. This triggered some of my parts that were still burdened and having that trauma bubble up seemed to intensify the healing process. Parts angry at feeling abandoned by him (and others). Parts sad for all my friends being traumatized. Parts angry about all my friends being traumatized. My dark nights got more intense and started to revolve around interpersonal issues, like letting go of attachment (in the Buddhist sense, not attachment theory sense), which at first really spurred the angry parts.

I had a talk with my IFS partner about a part of mine that was determined to help others and solve their problems. She’s excellent at giving advice and the part truly heard her words, even though I hated it. That thrust me into the worst dark night I’ve had. Seemingly all my remaining trauma was triggered. I was so enraged I wanted to throw things. Physically, it felt like I had the flu. It was agonizing yet so typical of insight cycles: at first, the realizations feel lovely and liberating, but then they reveal their painful side. Some of my parts panicked that if I let go of attachment and the compulsion to help, I had nothing left, I was nothing. Buddhists would call this insight into anatta, non-self.

When we became closer with my friend again, that closeness also healed some wounds. If I had got to know him earlier, the severity of his issues would have messed with me. Yet at this stage of my life, together with his deep caring and some unusual emotional skills, they just propelled me towards recovery. We had another argument, where I managed to maintain a loving presence without getting the slightest bit triggered, I healed some more. Funny how it works. The dark nights began revolving around my health. It seemed like the ”illusionary” problems were gone, leaving only concrete, life-threatening issues.

While the constant dark night cycles, at their worst happening 3–4 times a week, were intensive and sometimes draining, the severe physical fatigue was by far the worst part of the Review phase. It began 1.5 weeks in, only letting up when I cycled to the stages of Arising and Passing Away and Fruition, which are energizing. Interestingly, during this period I once reached a Fruition (culmination of the path) when doing IFS and once when a friend hypnotized me.

The fatigue often left me bedridden. Once I did IFS on two consecutive days and got so sick I struggled to sit up to eat. Trauma work in general makes me exhausted. People often assume that’s because it expends energy, but I believe for me it’s because trauma affects the autonomic nervous system, and ANS dysfunction is also central to CFS/ME. After five grueling weeks, the exhaustion started easing a bit, with better days interspersed with really bad days, but sadly some of it appears to be lasting, with my sympathetic nervous system apparently continuing to operate in a state.

In Closing

This is really a story about the intersection of chronic illness, trauma, spiritual practice and friendship. While I’m focusing on trauma healing here, the meditation breakthrough was about much, much more than that, and a lot of it is difficult to put into words. Especially letting go of attachment feels challenging to explain: simultaneously caring deeply yet not-caring. It is not directly related to my recovery, but it should help prevent future trauma.

I feel like I’ve healed basically all my trauma, with one exception. My medical trauma is a form of continuous trauma (CTS): I really am extremely unsafe in the medical system, to the point it endangers my life. (More about these concepts in my article on medical trauma.) Most of the time I feel cheerful and content, though sometimes it gets to me there is practically nothing in my life, and that I get nowhere near enough support with my illnesses. In other ways, I feel very lucky, even blessed.

While there is significant controversy on what enlightenment means, especially to one’s emotional life (e.g. can enlightened people act like dicks, my own experience of first and second path attainers is: definitely yes), it’s usually considered separate from emotional healing. For me, the first path did nothing for my trauma, but then again, I was living in the eye of the hurricane when it happened.

Insight stages are not supposed to be about personal development. Yet for me, Buddhist practice has always felt highly practical and interpersonal. Long before this year, friends have given me important insights and spurred my practice. The Buddhist canon has a lot to say about friendship and community. In a core tenet of Buddhism, you take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, the community. For me, the idea of solitary practice makes no sense. We are all interdependent. I feel incredibly grateful to have had friends who helped me reach a place I never thought I’d get to. Now it’s my turn to pay it forward.

Journalist, medical writer and patient activist, author of 17 published books in Finnish.