Burn it to the Ground
I was thirty-one wandering around the desert out of my mind. I wasn’t on drugs; I can barley handle aspirin on an empty stomach. I was in a fog of sleep deprivation, watching the sixth sunrise in a row and had I lost track of time. My tent was set up next to a sound camp that pounded electronic music non-stop. The scorching sun rose early and sleep in the day was out of the question. A man in my camp whom I had just met asked me if I wanted to go watch one of the large art installations burn. Montana, a wild bearded man in his late forties was standing before me dressed in a half renfair –half fairy godmother costume. Every year he drives his RV from Montana to Nevada leaving his wife and kids behind for a week to come and “recharge”. I jumped on my bike and followed my new friend through the dusty streets. On the outskirts of the city people were surrounding a massive wooden art piece of two people embracing each other. It was about to be burned to the ground.
Something inside of me started to crumble. I felt claustrophobic and I feared that there was no way out. I looked over at Montana and started to cry. The stranger took me in his arms similarly to the statue that was on fire and tried comfort me. “I feel like I’m loosing my mind,” I whispered in his ear. The hairy man held me as we watched the flames engorge the art that someone took over a year to build. My thoughts were racing and I was convinced I was going to die. I was having a full-blown panic attack in the middle of Burning Man.
Montana saw the fear in my eyes and wisely suggested we go back to his RV and he would make us some breakfast. As I sat outside pushing the omelet around with no appetite I found myself telling him that I had been depressed for as long as I could remember, but the past five years had been the worst.
“You should go see Sonya while you’re here” he said sipping Champagne. Montana went on to tell me a personal story about almost loosing one of his kids on account of something that he had done. It had been an accident but the guilt plagued him for years. He went on to describe the tapping technique called EFT and that Sonya had cleared him of his guilt and depression with one session. “Go see Sophia. Then leave your emotional baggage here on the playa, don’t take it home with you.”
What is EFT and why have I never heard of it?EFT or Emotional Freedom Technique involves several techniques. It uses exposure, positive affirmations, waking hypnosis, cognitive restructuring, and physical relaxation while tapping on a sequence of pressure points (similar to acupuncture) while repeating key phrases out loud. The result is a rapid reduction of maladaptive fear. It has been therapeutically used for veterans with PTSD and for childhood trauma.
For most of my life I felt I was carrying around depression that wasn’t mine. Within the past five years it had escalated into suicidal depression. I had felt alone and isolated all my life. It didn’t make sense because I grew up with a loving family. I had no real reason to be depressed. I had my health, my family was healthy and I had a good life. I wasn’t sexually or physically abused as a child, but emotionally I was tormented and didn’t know why.
That is until I was sitting in the middle of a desert sleep deprived, full of anxiety going through a guided tapping meditation with a healer at Burning Man.
I went to Bikram Yoga training in 2009 on a whim. People transformed throughout the training. I watched people heal from addiction to heroin to all kinds of illnesses. I thought yoga would be my panacea like it was for others. Around the same time I received my license as massage therapist hoping that helping people would be mutually healing. I became more depressed as I realized none of these things made much of a difference. I fought to change the way I felt inside. Initially I tried holistic approaches. I did yoga every day. I tried acupuncture. I saw a shrink. I adopted cats for therapy. I ate right and lived a healthy life style.
The depression was still there. Eventually I gave in and tried SSRIs which I took off and on for a few years. They turned me into a bloated zombie and didn’t solve the underlining problem only masked it. I would get up take a Prozac and put on a happy face, teach a room full of sweaty yogis, give some massages and then go home and fall apart. I started to give up and found myself in a pattern of self-sabotage. I abused alcohol and sleeping pills. I found myself in relationships with draining unstable people. Most days in the back of my mind on repeat was “What’s the point you should just kill yourself.”
I had thought about going to Burning Man for years, after all I was a bay area native. In San Francisco at the end of August every year I would watch people loading up their colorful buses and decorated bikes hugging in the street telling each other they couldn’t wait to get “home”. Why did people consider a week long festival their real home? I knew I wanted to go to experience it at least once and see why people were swarming there.
Why would you go to Burning Man when you were depressed and had anxiety you ask? It didn’t make a difference where I was. If I was at Burning Man or holiday party, with my best friends or working, on a vacation in the most beautiful place in the world or at the laundry mat. I felt the same no matter where I was. I had grown accustomed to the depression. It was a part of me. I felt like I was watching the world through a screen door, the screen being the veil of depression.
The first few days were fun. Another thing I felt guilty for. How can you consider yourself depressed and still have fun? Even though I was chronically depressed, at times I still had fun in my life. The camp I stayed with rode around to the different districts of Black Rock City in the camp’s art car, a fuzzy unicorn cat that blew fire. Burning Man reminded me of the scene in Pinocchio when all of the naughty children visit Pleasure Island before they turn into donkeys. An adult playground where people can escape from the normal mundane and become whatever they want for one week out of the year.
But after six days of not sleeping more than an hour or less a day, the fun was over. I was in a dark, dark place. I had entered a scary neighborhood in my mind. I was starting to hallucinate and hear things that were not there. I accidentally stopped eating and taking care of myself. The month before I left for Burning Man I met with the head of the camp. He said to my friend and I who were going for the first time “Don’t go to Burning Man if you have any emotional issues, they will become magnified there”.
In an open aired tee pee tent, Sonya Sophia walked on stage dressed in an elegant yellow gown. Her humor and empathy relaxed the crowd. She discussed the method of EFT and asked us to follow her in the meditation. Sophia warned us that during the EFT session we could be feeling some strange things come up in our body. “You may experience tingling, intense heat, or you may even feel like passing out. You will be releasing trapped energy from you body. Removing past trauma from you cells. It may come out as burping, heat, energy, hiccuping, laughing or crying.”
As she led us deeper and deeper in the meditation, Sonya asking us to go back to a time when we were a child and we felt scared. I found myself in a house that was very familiar to me. It was the house of a woman who took take care me after my parents got divorced. I couldn’t understand why I was in this woman’s house if the mediation was supposed to lead to me to a place of fear. She was like a grandmother to me. Sonya asked how old your child self was. I was too exhausted to fight the why anymore and went with it. “ The mind will know where to go” I heard Sonya say. The age six came to me. I closed my eyes and started to visualize myself as a child. I was very clearly sitting in the orange chair that I would spend hours in when visited her. I looked like I did in some of the old photographs that had been taken of me.
When my parents got divorced I spent most of my time with an old woman who lived next door to my father. From the time I was two until I was nineteen when she died she had been my babysitter, my mentor and my best friend. When we were together our age difference of seventy-two years blurred away and I was no longer a child and she was no longer old. I didn’t have any siblings or friends except for her. She was old and rarely left her house. I remember her as being a warm kind woman who loved me. When she died at the age of eighty-six she left me everything she had which I used to go to yoga and massage training.
So it was to my surprise that I found myself during the meditation with Sonya in this woman’s house when I closed my eyes.Sonya asked us to ask the little girl why she was so scared and why she felt alone. My six year old self didn’t say anything. She just stared at me blankly and I saw that she was all alone and terrified. That was the moment when I realized what happened. I started crying and shaking uncontrollably. I felt heat being released from my body and a cool blue cool sensation up my spine and in my veins.
The woman who took care of me had accidentally abused me for years. It was a different kind of abuse. It wasn’t physical or sexual. It wasn’t verbal or neglect. It subtle. It was abuse covered up with love. She had shaped the way I viewed the world.
Everything started to make sense. The answers had been there all along they just hadn’t added up until now. She was the reason I felt isolated and depressed. Why I experienced social anxiety and had troubled relationships.
The woman who took care of me had experienced a mental breakdown at fifty, became agoraphobic and locked herself in her house for the remainder of her life. I watched her cry most days in a heap on the couch. She didn’t know it, but she was imprinting all of her gloomy thoughts on to a little girl who was a clean slate. I would sit for hours as she discussed her thoughts about the world and over the years they unconsciously became my own. She would tell me inappropriate stories about her life and her husband in Nazi Germany. Her husband had left her for her best friend and she told me over and over how she would never trust men and I shouldn’t either. Her own daughter had become estranged and ended their relationship. My greatest fear was loosing my mind and dying alone like she did. She was afraid of the world and I unconsciously became afraid too.
I heard Sonya’s voice say “Pick up the little girl and tell her you’re sorry you couldn’t get to her sooner.” I lifted my child self out of the chair and held her, telling her that I was sorry I couldn’t find her. Sonya’s voiced boomed over the speaker “Now get that little girl out of there”.
My mind was blown. Is this really happening? Could it be possible that I was carrying her sadness around unconsciously all this time? Still in the meditation I saw the screen door that lead to the back yard that I would look out of while visiting her. Maybe that was why I felt like I had been behind a screen door all my life, because part of me was still trapped alone in that house.
I opened the screen door and ran out carrying my child self with me. Then I opened my eyes.
After the session was over I waited to talk to her. Still in awe I told Sonya that I had found the little girl and thanked her. I returned to my tent and cried for a long time; the techno music pounded endlessly in the background. I was still full of anxiety because of the lack of sleep, but that heavy brick that had been sitting on my chest was gone. I had found the answer to what had been wrong my whole life and now I could work through it. It wasn’t like I was cured and everything was fixed but I could see light and finally there was hope.
Later that night I jumped onto the art car with all of the people in my camp to watch the ritual of the man burning down. Still digesting what had just happened we approached the massive crowds. Drums were pounding in sacrifice. People were dancing and partying as if it was the last day on earth. They lit the man and he started to go up in flames.
Burning Man was different than I expected. Like a cleanse maybe it was suppose to break you down so that you become so raw you begin to purge. I walked around by myself for a while watching as the man crumbled down into embers. A stranger next to me gave me a hug. I blurted out that I couldn’t believe that there was healing going on amongst all the chaos. He whispered, “Yes you come here to burn all the things that no longer serve you.” The corners of the stranger’s mouth curled up into an eerie smile and he whispered in my ear “Welcome Home”.
For the first time I felt like I was home. I had been reunited with a part of myself that had been lost. When it was over I slept for a week. For months after I had vivid dream that I was wandering the desert.
For the next year I worked on myself and further dissected the emotional issues that went along with being raised by a mentally ill person. Initially I felt guilty about where my depression had come from. I kept telling myself that my abuse wasn’t as bad as other people’s abuse because it wasn’t physical or sexual; regardless it had such a confounding impact on my life. I came to my own understanding that abuse can absolutely be subtle and it’s important to recognize that abuse is not black and white. What I learned is that no matter what happened in our childhood it stays with us. The good and the bad. It may be so deeply covered and hidden, but it doesn’t go away.
I didn’t make it to Burning Man this year because I started a BSN Nursing program, my goal to become a Midwife. I am no longer depressed. I haven’t been since the day I figured out where my depression was stemming from. Of course I get the blues from time to time but now it happens for appropriate reasons. Sonya Sophia travels the world giving healing seminars. She has made it her life mission to help people help themselves through EFT. I use EFT regularly. It is a miraculous tool for emotional tune-ups. I think of the woman who imprinted on me now as a gift. She was a great teacher in my life and I don’t know where I would be without her.