Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Walking Around The Block

[This essay first appeared in the Winter 2023 Special Issue of Passager Journal. It’s written in a longer format than my usual posts, so please take your time reading it. Although it is not about dreams, I wanted to include it here, because it relates to the many posts I’ve written about how trauma, grief, and other kinds of life-changing events can influence our dreams.

“Walking Around the Block” is a very personal take on how trauma may come to us not only through our own personal experiences, but also through the experiences of others in the past, and through the conditions of the world in which we live. These kinds of traumas are what IFS (the Internal Family Systems model of psychotherapy) calls “legacy burdens.” Legacy burdens are burdens that are not intrinsic to our own psyche, but instead are inherited from our ancestors, our culture, and the society that surrounds us. We are all affected by legacy burdens, and such burdens appear in our dreams as well, which may become a topic for a future post. In the meantime, I’m including this essay here, because I believe it is vital that we all consider just how much we affect one another. We suffer together, and potentially heal together, so we all need to consider our impact on future generations and on the world we’re inhabiting right now, for better or worse.

While some of the images at the beginning of the essay may be triggering for some people (and if you need to stop reading, definitely do so!), please know that this story moves toward resolving the harm that such harsh images can stir up. I believe it’s essential that, whenever we are courageous enough to let ourselves be stirred, it is vital that we keep walking until we come all the way through the experience and into a new place. And, when we walk in courage and vulnerability, it is best that we do it together.]

Seven years before I was born, my parents had a ghastly car accident. They were on the freeway, on the way to a wedding; my dad was driving when a tire blew out. He lost control of the car, which skidded across the median strip into oncoming traffic and was then struck and spun and finally crushed “like an accordion” (my mom told this story so many times that I’ve memorized the phrases she habitually used). Fortunately, my parents were not wearing seatbelts, so they were thrown clear, probably through the windshield, at some point before the front seats were obliterated. Dozens of cars were involved in the pile-up, but theirs were the only serious injuries. Both were “given up for dead” at the scene. 

I know exactly what that scene looked like, not only because of my graphic imagination, but because there are large glossy black-and-white (thank god) photos of it. These gruesome photos were shot by “an ambulance chaser” who sold them to my parents later, so that their lawyers could extract evidence of the cause of the crash. When I was a kid, the photos resided in the attic where my sisters and I, exploring, would periodically dig them up and bring them downstairs, so we could ask my mother to walk us through the story once again. Hearing it was both horrifying and oddly reassuring. I knew that my parents would ultimately come through, and that the happily-ever-after conclusion was my own eventual birth—my whole existence, in fact. The appeal of the story seemed to be the same for my sisters, and even, perhaps, for my mother who was always willing to tell it, as if the telling made her believe in her own survival.

Between the story and the photos, we’d all get pretty buzzed on adrenaline. I remember my hands and feet tingling, my lips going numb, my throat getting tight; I remember a weirdly ecstatic light-headedness. (I can remember this vividly, because as I write about it now, I’m feeling a lesser version of that same buzz.) When my mom died over sixty years after “the Accident,” my sister mailed me a big box of her possessions which included those photos. And when I went through them, telling my partner Holly the story just as my mom had told it, I felt the same symptoms, the same odd ecstasy—and afterward, a headache, nausea, and a shimmering anxiety I couldn’t shake off for several days. I haven’t opened the envelope of photos since; they live in a box at the back of a closet, or maybe in the garage. I don’t need to go looking for them.

Anyway, I know what they show. The smashed car, the debris scattered on the pavement, the blur of people being helpful or getting in the way (the police hadn’t arrived yet). My parents are the only ones not moving, not blurry. My mother is that gray, human-shaped mound on the road shoulder, with a blanket or tarp from the trunk of somebody’s car drawn up covering her face. She told us that “most of the bones in her body” were broken (not actually “most,” but many: both collarbones, one leg, a hip, several ribs), and she was badly concussed. She remained unconscious until she “woke up in the ambulance with a mouth full of teeth.” My boyish-looking dad sits slumped like a broken puppet with a stained jacket, too big for him, around his shoulders, and a spill of black blood all down the front of his white t-shirt. He had a concussion like my mother, plus a broken toe, a sprained back, and a shattered jaw. The blood came from his jugular vein; his throat had been sliced open by a large shard of glass. He would have died within minutes, except for the miracle that there happened to be a surgeon stuck in the ensuing traffic jam who happened to have a clamp in his medical bag. I don’t know whether the photo was taken while my dad was bleeding out, or just after the bleeding stopped. His expression is dazed and faraway, as if he’s watching himself die, but from a distance.

My sisters and I would gape at the closeness of this close encounter with death, and stare at my bloody young father, my covered-up mother. We passed the photos around with shaky hands. According to my mom, my dad could remember the whole Accident, though he rarely talked about it; she herself only remembered fragments, in flashbacks, much later. He remembered losing control of the car, shouting her name, and then overhearing someone at the scene who gestured toward her body, saying, “this one’s dead.” In the hospital afterward, Dad had to be brought to her bedside in a wheelchair again and again, because he couldn’t be convinced that she was alive. Her actual, living face was less persuasive than the mental image of her dead one. I know it was cathartic for Mom to tell us the story, but it probably left her feeling shaky, too.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yes. My own inheritance from my parents’ Accident was a heady mix of strong emotions and vivid mental images leading to some false conclusions that have remained extraordinarily tenacious. Although I know better, I somehow still believe that my own body went through that Accident, or at least that I am doomed to play out versions of it in my own life, to revisit it again and again. I anticipate horrors around every corner. An accidental blow-out on a sunny summer day can suddenly lead to a catastrophic, whirling loss of control, and a devastating, black-and-white still shot of chaos. Of course, while accidents do happen and change is always happening, crushing crashes are certainly not inevitable. Maybe I’ll eventually persuade myself. 

The biggest inheritance I’ve received from the Accident, however, actually adds something to my life rather than taking something away, even though it makes life feel precarious. (I notice that the words “precious” and “precarious” only differ by two letters.) Because of my parents’ story, I know, truly, that I might never have been born. And so I also know that having been born is something. Having been born is not irrelevant, not to be taken for granted, not incidental or accidental. 

For the past three years, I’ve been trying to live with—and learn from—the horrors of my own post-traumatic stress disorder following a major spinal surgery that set off a landslide of crises and losses for me personally in a world where crises and losses are everywhere. My PTSD didn’t just come from the surgery, of course. The condition that’s called PTSD rarely if ever develops from a single catastrophic personal trauma. In my case, there had been a degenerative neuromuscular disease, and a series of smaller nightmares leading up to the surgery. No trauma really exists in isolation, since anyone who experiences anything will have a previous history of other experiences, which will predispose that person to be more or less susceptible to being harmed by whatever is happening now. 

I’m not alone in my trauma history. There are always repercussions from anything that happens to anyone, and the cumulative cause-and-effect can be passed on through generations, which means that not only do we gather more and more burdens as we age, we also inherit whatever was too heavy for our parents to carry, especially if their own parents left them a back-breaking load. The good news is that when we manage, somehow, to lay down (and learn from) our own individual burdens, we protect our descendants, and the people around us, from inheriting our pain. We might even resolve the unfinished business of our ancestors simply by not perpetuating it. Of course, this works laterally as well: we all influence each other, whether we’re family or not. But parents’ trauma histories do have a particularly high impact on how their children’s traumas will play out. 

After weeks in the hospital, my own parents were released into the care of my mother’s parents. It was not a healthy arrangement. My grandmother was disapproving; she nursed a heartbroken conviction that both of my parents were going to hell since they’d renounced their evangelical upbringing, and her grim, reproachful, sorrowing silences were impossible to ignore. Meanwhile, my awful grandfather baited and shamed my father again and again with the “just joking” suggestion that he had “fallen asleep at the wheel.” 

My parents could not work, could not drive, could not pay rent, and so could not leave my grandparents’ house. They couldn’t have a private conversation or even touch each other for weeks, since it was a small house and they had to sleep separately in the living room (my mom on a couch, my dad—whose back didn’t allow him to lie flat—in an armchair) just outside my grandparents’ open bedroom door. I don’t know what burdens of their own might have made my mother’s parents as unhelpful as they were, but the broken connections implicit in the conflicts and confinement of this arrangement were almost as traumatic for my mom and dad as The Accident itself. Here, in one small house, were parents and adult children harming each other, passing their traumatic histories back and forth, deepening each other’s wounds.

Retelling this familiar tale, I intended “to make a long story short…”—but it looks like I’m making a long story long. It was certainly a long story for my parents. In a sense their story never ended, and the whole point of telling it is that the Accident seemed to go on and on, like one car skidding into another all over the freeway, one impact leading to the next in my parents’ lives, and then in the lives of their daughters. I’m wondering now how such endless stories can be told differently, so that all the moving vehicles might finally come to rest. In the haze of oil smoke and exhaust, somebody will get out of their overheated, idling car, hike past the long line of stalled traffic with a medical bag in hand, and place a clamp on a vein to “stop the bleeding.”

It has taken me three days to write the last few paragraphs, to get my parents past the Accident and out of my grandparents house at last. It was several interminable weeks for them, before they were finally rescued by my other grandparents, my father’s parents, who paid the deposit and first month’s rent on a small apartment and bought them a second hand car so they’d be able to return to their jobs eventually. Even as further trouble kept coming for my parents, there were gaps in the relentlessness of their long story, where they could rest and heal. 

But the relentlessness always resumed. My dad’s jaw had been wired shut during this time, so he’d been sipping his miserable meals through a straw. He was so excited when the wires could finally be removed that he indulged in a steak dinner immediately. That night, shortly after they’d moved into their own place, he woke my mother, clutching his stomach, groaning, “I’m dying.” It was an ulcer, though they didn’t know it at the time; all they knew was that they had to get him to the hospital. He was too sick to drive, and she had a cast on one leg from hip to toes and on one arm from shoulder to fingertips. They called 911, of course, but—wouldn’t you know it?—there was a minor hurricane going on at the time (at least it was a minor hurricane) and the dispatcher said there were no available ambulances. 

So, my mother had no choice but to get behind the wheel. Neither of them had driven since the Accident, and these weren’t the best circumstances for restoring their confidence. With her one good leg, Mom worked the pedals, and with her one good arm, she steered. Dad, in agony in the passenger seat, shifted gears whenever she stepped on the clutch and shouted at him. The rain lashed down, the dark was impenetrable, and the gale-force winds hurled trash cans at the windshield. The main roads were closed, and every side street came to a flooded dead end. They couldn’t get the car into reverse, so she made innumerable U-turns in narrow alleys, and soon realized that there was no way they were getting to the hospital. So she gave up and drove to my grandparents’ house (not the miserable grandparents’ house, but the helpful grandparents’ house). Finally, I’m coming to the point of my story.

My helpful grandfather wasn’t particularly surprised to see them, and wasn’t particularly worried. The arrival of his frantic daughter-in-law and apparently dying son at three in the morning in a hurricane didn’t faze him. According to my mom, he just shrugged on his overcoat and said (I imagine he drawled), “Well, you know, when the horses had colic, we’d just walk them around until they got over it.” My grandfather was a Baptist minister, not a cowboy or a farmer, but he grew up in rural Sweden where everybody had horses and it was a long way to the nearest hospital, or veterinarian. He wrapped my dad in a blanket and walked him around and around the block for hours. And by the time it had gotten light, and the hurricane had blown over, and they could get my dad to the hospital and find out he had an ulcer, the crisis didn’t seem so critical after all. My dad was okay, though he didn’t eat steak for a while. 

The family mythology of the Accident, accompanied by graphic images, fed an adrenaline addiction in me that the culture at large cultivates in all of us. We seem to trade in shock stocks that are always on the rise. So I came to associate the alarming, painful events depicted in those photos with being energized and alive. The quivering thrill of catastrophe is incomparable. Whether it’s experienced directly or just stimulated by a story, this perceived danger drives the autonomic nervous system to pour every bit of life force into survival, pumping us full of an energy so compelling that we cannot help but live. Afterward, we’re exhausted—almost high, but also empty. The way it’s supposed to work, once the danger is past, the body rests and returns to equilibrium, reminded by a calm environment and caring people that safety is possible, that ordinary stimulation is enough to live on. But if the danger signal gets sent again and again, then there’s no reassurance, no escape, no return to normal. There is no normal. A final burst is kept in reserve for emergencies, but after a while everything looks like an emergency and we’re constantly firing off what little we’ve got at nothing, wasting our life force on nothing. Worst of all, we become fundamentally disconnected from ourselves, and especially from all the other people who seem to have gone on without us.

Our culture sets us up for easy adrenaline addiction through violent entertainment, stressful competition, high-risk short-term pleasures. Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before, but we’re addicted so we don’t do anything about it, or can’t do anything about it. Maybe I believe that I’m only alive when my body’s playing out a life-or-death scenario in my imagination if not in action. But the truth is, it’s rarely life-or-death—it’s always life-and-death. Life includes small, quiet encounters with mortality all the time: something ending, giving way to something else. I could be savoring and sharing the cycles of endings and beginnings that repeat routinely but are subtly changing with each repetition. 

Get this (I remind myself): I don’t have to to fight for my life in order to be alive. In fact, the fight takes the life out of me. The less I have to fight the better off I am. Wouldn’t it be enough, just living and eventually dying, alongside our loved ones, in our own time, in our own way? Life’s not the accident or the ulcer or the hurricane; it’s not the surgery or emergency; it’s the walk around the block as the winds blow themselves out and your father tucks a blanket warmly around you, and keeps you walking until morning.

The Accident and its aftermath was horribly hard on the young people who became my parents, of course. Hearing about their trauma, I got to realize that their lives were not about me; their lives were their lives. I couldn’t help but notice that these two twenty-one year olds on the way to a wedding on a hot July day, were not “my mother” and “my father,” they were Shirley and Philip, who were not expecting to become my parents any more than they were expecting The Accident to happen to them. The Accident shaped them, but it was only part of what shaped them. I had a place in their lives, but I didn’t define them either. And I don’t want to define them now. Yes, both got stuck in what could be called PTSD, a kind of adrenaline addiction. In terms of trauma’s influence on their lives, Shirley could be described as “freezing,” while Philip “fought” and “fled.” Their trauma responses impacted their daughters, and later their grandchildren. But both Shirley and Philip also recovered, to a considerable extent, and lived, day in and day out, for many years, through many experiences. Both died in their eighties, with their daughters and grandchildren nearby, loving them. My own catastrophic accidents and aftermaths in the course of a lifetime have affected me, too, of course, sometimes in ways that echo my parents’ experiences, often not. It’s how we live the everyday that distinguishes us—not the shocks that force us to react but the ways we walk with our reactions, covering the same familiar territory: eating, sleeping, relating, circling the neighborhoods of normalcy.

Shirley told the story of the Accident for some of the same reasons I need to tell my own painful stories of illness, surgery, grief, PTSD. These reasons fall into categories that are either helpful or not—sort of like the strategies of the helpful grandfather and the awful grandfather. Like the awful grandfather, unhelpful reasons are focused on getting an adrenaline-fueled reaction. Telling stories to stimulate excitement is not necessarily harmful, but it’s certainly not helpful. We often do it because teasing out more emotion has become habitual; we’ve been scared into believing that life requires the utmost intensity of us and that connecting with others involves attracting their attention dramatically. This is, unfortunately, a slippery slope and can lead to manipulative behavior like that of the awful grandfather. Anyway, there are much better reasons for storytelling. Like the helpful grandfather, helpful stories try to evoke courage and coping, not over-reaction. When we share the story of a terrible experience with the intention to encourage and connect, when we have compassion for ourselves and gratitude for own survival and pass it on to the next generation, it is life-giving. 

Dividing my grandfathers into the “awful” one and the “helpful” one is actually problematic. Do I need to divide my ancestors between the bad guys and the good guys? It’s true that one of my grandfathers used shame as a power play and was selfish and destructive in many other ways, while the other tried hard to be a good person, shouldered his responsibilities, and attempted to serve others. It’s true that some of my ancestors were Nazi collaborators, and others were artists, farmers and civil rights activists. But even the best of them—the best of us—were and are sometimes troubled, sometimes angry, sometimes hurtful. Even the worst of them—the worst of us—were and are capable of generous gestures and thoughtful moments. 

I learned from my own PTSD that trauma causes shame, not because there’s anything shameful in being traumatized, but simply, biologically, because being in a traumatic situation makes the autonomic nervous system disconnect us. When we become stuck in a trauma response, as in PTSD, our social functions are impaired: we cannot make eye contact or smile authentically; our adrenaline pumps when we feel threatened, and we react in anger or deploy tricks to protect ourselves; we feel small and helpless, and this translates as a physical sense of shame even if we know there’s nothing to be ashamed of. This kind of shame is contagious, from ancestor to descendant, and right now in the present generation from one person to another. But other cycles are operating as well. 

In the immediacy of traumatic pain and loss, that which makes life most meaningful may be sacrificed temporarily in favor of mere survival, but when PTSD makes that trade-off chronic and the suffering keeps coming, I invite my parents and grandparents to walk around the block with me. I invite those who are here now, and those who will come after us. And I try to receive the invitations that are extended to me. By disabling our capacity to engage with others, PTSD causes despair. More than anything else, healing calls for reconnection with the trustworthy people and humble routines that make life meaningful. Sometimes, even in desperate circumstances, a walk around the block means more than a rush to the hospital. My own PTSD got reenforced because each time I started to settle down to that everyday kind of comfort another emergency came along. So now I practice walking back through my stories slowly, sharing them with an awareness of those who are listening, emphasizing the pauses between the crises, the love and support, the parts where telling it will not crank adrenaline or jerk tears but instead can encourage us all to take a breath in the stillness before morning, after the winds have died down, when the rain-wet pavement smells like gentleness. 


  1. Kiera O'hara

    Dear Kirsten,
    I see that you wrote this over a year ago, but it has such power and immediacy. I am very grateful that you had the courage and persistence to write it.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Kiera. I’m grateful that you read it—with courage and persistence, too 🙂

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