Welcome back to Work Harassment in the Sex Place, a series where we explore what it means to work passionately with the one you’re passionate about. We’ve covered a lot of ground already—from discrimination to dismantling your defense mechanisms. If you’re just joining us, you might want to go back and read the introduction to this series before digging in.
Generally speaking, this series is not about “advice.” Because advice can only take you so far in love—and in co-living, co-creating, and co-working. The rest is a messy mix of gut instinct, sheer luck, and divine intervention. And sometimes, it takes a pretty big scare before you realize just how magical your partnership can be.
So, this week, I do have some nuggets of advice to impart about trust after trauma. Without giving too much away, let’s just say I had a pretty terrifying, pretty magical experience—and these are my takeaways. Whether you believe in God, the power of the universe, or the power of people coming together in crisis and in community, I hope you’ll find some wisdom in what follows.
Take separate vacations. Then prepare for the best—and worst—possible scenarios.
Can you imagine a guy who thinks that winter in New England is too mild? He needs it colder, icier, more rugged? When everyone else dreams of a tropical paradise; papaya mornings, coconut oil, brown skin and a sun snooze, he wants to go ice fishing. That’s my husband, Joe. I find it hard to honor this quirky piece of relationship diversity, when I’m convinced he’s crazy. But rather than shame him (“What, are you—you want to go to the arctic in February??”) I’ve finally learned to bless him in his difference… and take separate vacations!
So when my friend Puja offered a yoga and writing retreat for women just south of Puerto Vallarta, I jumped. I knew from friends who had been there that you could only reach the remote Mexican seaside village of Yelapa by boat, that it was an indigenous community where there were no cars and no electricity. You walked through town on paths shared with donkeys, school-children and women carrying bundles on their heads. As I cleared snow from our monstrously steep icy drive for what seemed like the hundredth time that February, I counted the days till departure.
Follow your instincts. Then ask for help.
I used to work as an Outward Bound instructor in hiking, sailing and canoeing; I hiked over 200 miles in Yellowstone Park the summer I worked there in College, I spent a summer in my 20s doing basic training with the Israeli Army. It’s fair to say that I’m extremely comfortable in my Teva’s and shorts, hiking up a trail, looking for a waterfall that I’ve located on a Topo map. On the third day of the Yelapa retreat I was doing just that. At the front of the pack, leading a subset of the women to find a swim hole we’d been told of under the waterfall. Alisa, my ally in adventure, and I found the first waterfall, jacuzzied our shoulders under the rushing stream, sun drenched, wedged between two rocks, singing at top volume. Ever the outdoor leader, I wanted every woman there to have this peak experience. So one by one, I showed them how to grab me by the wrist for best grip, as I pulled them into the safe spot between the rocks for their private Jacuzzi. They beamed.
“Alisa, do you want to go up to the upper waterfall?” I asked. Puja and I had been to this glorious spot two days earlier with an 11-year-old native guide and I was pretty sure I could retrace his steps.
Energized from the Jacuzzi, I set a pretty fast pace up a steep incline. Before I realized it, I was off the trail and on some loose gravel at about a 45-degree pitch. My footing was not good and I could feel my heart pounding. Breathe. Slow down. Get your bearings.
“Sara, come down from there!” I heard Alisa say with alarm in her voice. She knew I was a competent climber and she sounded worried. I made it back down to the trail and felt relieved. Still, the waterfall that we’ve just bathed in is rushing just below us and I knew we were in a precarious position.
“Let’s backtrack and see if we can rejoin the trail,” I suggested.
We head back, and to my surprise—I won a navigation award in the Israeli Army—I cannot find the trail that we were on just moments ago. I experience a bit of vertigo at this. Then I hear Alisa’s voice rejoice.
“It’s here. I’m on it!”
I take a step in her direction. She’s only about two paces away from me. How did I miss it? My next step is on to a solid, flat, boulder, about six feet in diameter. In one more step I’ll be back on the trail.
Scream like your life depends on it.
To my shock, my weight is enough to loosen the “solid” boulder from its perch on the cliff. Suddenly, I am tumbling limb over limb, bouncing off jagged, flesh-hungry rocks. Dressed only in a worn bathing suit, baseball cap and well-worn Tevas, I am accelerating in my descent. Having walked this path with care just two days prior, I know that there is nothing to break my fall. And with that memory I’m struck with the horrible knowledge that I will die, with a thud and a snap, at the bottom of that rocky arroyo. With that gruesome thought emerges a wordless scream of desperation: Noooo! Life, I am deep in love with you. I choose life, I choose to live. And then, seemingly involuntarily, I do scream out loud for life.
At the final precipice, ten feet above the arroyo, a small tree, no more than an inch in diameter, broke my fall. Terror shifted to awe in a moment’s awareness that I had not died. I felt the egg-sized protrusion on the left side of my forehead, saw the blood oozing from deep gashes on all limbs, felt a searing pain in my chest where I’d been struck by a boulder, and I was conscious. Breathing. Alive.
Like a mom who lifts a car from her child in superhuman strength, Puja leaped those ten feet from the rocks below to my side. She put her hand on my heart and held me. And immediately I began to sob from shock and pain and relief. Alisa, whom I’d left on the trail above, was at my side in equally record time.
Later, when we could laugh about it, Alisa swore that the tree had not been there on our ascent. “I beamed it to you with all my force,” she said.
We were about four miles upstream on a rough trail that the women of the writing retreat had taken with our guide. Half of us had traveled by foot and half by horseback. Someone gladly surrendered her horse to me and four women hoisted me up into the saddle. I could not sit, but could wrap my arms around the muscled neck of my equestrian savior, a placid surefooted soul named Colorado. I remember being simultaneously in excruciating pain and ecstatic joy at the beauty of the mountains against an azure sky as Colorado shuffled me down the hillside, step by step. I was alive.
Trust After Trauma—Trust women. Trust your body. Trust your capacity for healing.
Back at our hotel, a place not incidentally called “Casa Milagros,” (house of miracles) the women crafted an operating table for me out of massage table and white sheet. Pavarti, one of the 18 writers in our group who was also a medical doctor, spoke first: “You’ve got abrasions on 80% of your body and deep flesh wounds just below both knees, left shoulder, right thigh, back and head.”
Relieved to be receiving medical attention, I was also fearful at my prospects for recovery. Were there internal injuries to lungs, or spleen; blood loss, concussion? In a remote Mexican village far from hospital, drugs or electricity how would I heal?
Celia, the only nurse in a village of 1,500, began to clean my flesh wounds and gave me a tetanus shot as well as antibiotics. Parvati asked her for an opinion, “Do you think we should cut this flap of skin covering the deepest wound on her right knee?”
I was barely able to speak, but out came the words, “Hey, it’s my body, no cutting!” My breathing deepened, my heart calmed, and I felt grateful for my voice and the steady, gentle, skillful care of these women as they cleaned and bandaged—and agreed to cut only one flap of my external wounds.
From the edge of the cliff, I am given my life back and its taste is sweeter than our breakfast papaya.
I slept deeply that evening, waking only once, as if in a dream to hear the women calling my name and my husband’s in song, “Sara and Joseph, God bless your love,” a chant Alisa had written for our wedding three years ago, moving me to tears of gratitude and joy, holding me in life.
Take the time you need. Know that you know your relationship better than anyone.
The next day, I felt sore in every crevice, battered and beaten. I still couldn’t lift my left arm above shoulder level and it hurt to breathe perhaps due to broken ribs. Alisa, who was there the day I met Joe at Shadow WorkⓇ, offered to go call him.
“We’ve got to let Joe know what’s happened and that you’re alright.”
“Why not, sweety? He needs to know.”
“Alisa, you know Joe. When you go to the phone and explain to him that I’ve fallen 40 feet off a cliff, nearly died, am in a village with no doctor, can’t come to the phone, but am healing just fine, he’ll go ballistic. He’ll be on the next plane. I think I’ll heal best by being here and resting in the warmth and the writing and the women till Sunday.”
In Yelapa, we’d worn very little and so you could see the imprint of the fall all over my body. But as I waited for my reunion with Joe — who was flying in from his chosen February vacation in Northern Minnesota — at baggage claim at the airport, I was dressed for winter again. Only the flesh on my hands and face was exposed. I was desperate to tell him. But Patty, the ever-reliable friend who picked us up, was there to greet us right on time, and I wanted to wait until Joe and I were alone. We embraced, kissed, held each other. Me with utter gratitude, and Joe still unaware that this airport reunion was any different than the countless others we’d had before.
Patty helped us get our bags in the car. Joe got in back and held my hand. “Honey, what did you do to your hand? You’ve got a serious gash here.”
If only he knew.
“I fell,” I said in my most understated tone, holding my breath. Not yet. I didn’t want to tell him in the car.
When we were a few miles from our house, it began to snow, and the rural roads leading home were slick. On one rise, we skidded and the car did a 180, heading for the steep precipice on the north side of the road. I gasped, winced and let out a scream.
“Hey, it’s cool Sara,” said Patty almost defensively. “Just a little skid. I’ll have you home in a minute.”
If only she knew.
Last but not least: Believe in miracles.
We got home. Turned on lights. Unloaded our gear and lit a fire in the wood stove. Our winter re-entry ritual. Taking a deep breath, I turned to Joe.
“I have something to tell you. But I think it’s best if I show you.”
I began to take my clothes off. Layer by layer until I reached the flesh. I watched Joe’s eyes widen, then glisten.
“What happened honey?” he said, holding me close now.
I was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. “I was on a hike with the women, and I fell . . .” I tried to describe the indescribable. “When I knew I would die, I bargained with God. No. I cannot leave Joe here at the bottom of this Mexican Arroyo! This is not how it’s going to end. We’ve pledged each other the next 65 years. I felt like it was the angels of the babies to come who caught me on the edge of that precipice.” Joe and I had been trying for several years to conceive.
I slid off my pants to show him the place by my right hip where the tree had broken my fall.
“Can you see that?” I asked.
“There’s a bruise there. It looks like someone’s handprint on your butt and pelvis.”
“That’s exactly what I thought. Do you think angels have hands?”
It took us two years of healing to conceive our babies. When the twins Maya and Sam were finally born I knew for sure: angels do have hands. Really tiny ones.
If you’ve been through a traumatic experience, whether solo or with your partner, it can affect how you heal and move forward together and believing in trust after trauma. We do couples work to build skills and resilience in relationships—reach out to us anytime if you’d like to chat. Because the world is, and will continue to be, messy and unpredictable. We’re here.
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