Updated: Nov 28, 2019
Powerful metaphors for healing trauma.
I try to stay away from Netflix series because I don’t want to get hooked into them. An ongoing goal of mine is less screen time and more creative time. But Netflix is so darn comforting and understanding when the creative juices aren’t flowing. So when a TV series titled The OA was recommended to me by friends and family at a time when my creative juices were but a trickle, I decided to check it out.
I was soon hooked, and it didn’t take me long to watch both seasons. A month or two later I watched the first season again (something I’ve never done before). It was while watching the first season for the second time that I discovered one of the reasons I found The OA so compelling and, at times, so moving: The OA is a wonderful allegory for healing trauma.
Below is my attempt to elaborate on The OA as an allegory of healing trauma without giving too much away about the series (I do give some details away, so watch the first 3-4 episodes and then read this post if you want to avoid spoilers), but first a few words about trauma.
Trauma happens when an event you experience overwhelms your capacity to feel, express, and move how you need to move so that the experience gets processed (sequenced through your nervous system) and integrated. If you don’t receive the support you need to process a traumatic event, the emotions, sensations, expressions, and movements stay stuck in your body. War, car accidents, and rape are examples of experiences that overwhelm our nervous system’s capacity to integrate.
Children’s nervous systems are overwhelmed by painful breaks in connection with caregivers, and by neglect and physical abuse. These kinds of traumatic experiences are known as Attachment Trauma. Attachment Trauma is arguably the most impactful type of trauma because it starts early in life (often in utero), because it goes on for years (unless the parents are doing their inner work to heal their own Attachment Trauma and changing their parenting style) and because it forms our deepest beliefs about ourselves, others, and life. Some of us had better childhoods than others, but all of us suffered some degree of Attachment Trauma. For more on Attachment Trauma, I recommend Bessel Van Der Kolk, Gabor Maté, Sarah Peyton, and my book Meet Me In Hard-to-Love Places: The Heart and Science of Relationship Success. If you want to improve your relationships and deepen your NVC practice, I highly recommend learning more about Attachment Theory and getting support for your Attachment Trauma. Alright then, back to The OA. Alright then, back to The OA.
If you don’t enjoy Thrillers, the OA may not be for you. I’m not sure I would put The OA in the Suspense/Thriller category, but it certainly has many gripping scenes, some that are quite intense and some that are violent. But none of the intense or violent scenes is gruesome or gratuitous. To me, The OA is more of an exciting, inspiring, and moving drama that explores fascinating ideas and themes about life, death and what it means to be human.
The OA as an Allegory for Healing Attachment Trauma
The main characters in The OA are held captive in an underground prison by a scientist. The prison cells are made of glass, so the prisoners can hear and see each other, but they can’t touch each other. Unresolved trauma keeps us imprisoned in the beliefs we form, as a result of the trauma, about ourselves and about life. Beliefs such as I’m not enough as I am, The world isn’t safe, I can’t trust anyone, I’m not loveable, and so on, are examples of the beliefs formed out of trauma. Furthermore, just as the glass cells block the prisoners in The OA from being able to touch each other, so do our beliefs keep us from being able to truly “touch” each other with our full authentic selves.
Through their attempts to escape, the characters learn something powerful and beautiful about themselves that they would not have learned had they not been imprisoned. Through healing our trauma, we learn things about ourselves and discover gifts that we would not have learned or discovered otherwise.
One of the very moving and inspiring elements of The OA series is the perseverance of the characters. They fail again and again in their attempts to learn important information that will help them escape, but each time they regroup and try again. They have this incredible perseverance because they have each other. It also takes immense perseverance to heal our trauma, especially our deepest wounds, and having others with us on the journey is essential.
What they fail to do again and again is stay conscious under extreme circumstances. They need to stay conscious amidst the extreme circumstance in order to learn the information they need to escape. Healing Trauma is done by staying conscious while gently working through the sensations, emotions, expressions, and movements related to the trauma stuck in the body, all with the support of a skilled therapist who helps you titrate and pendulate your way through. The characters in The OA do not have a therapist or the option to gently titrate and pendulate. Their only tools are sheer determination and great courage.
Healing trauma can be very difficult because parts of us believe we will suffer the same consequences we suffered when the trauma occurred – we’ll be rejected or humiliated or shamed or left alone or punished in any number of painful ways. And all of these consequences are deaths to the false ego. When traumatic events are extremely overwhelming, we only survive them by cutting off from all sensations; we remove our consciousness from our bodies. This is known as dissociation. It’s as though parts of us have to die to survive the traumatic experience, and so healing that trauma can feel like you really are facing death. The scientist who has captured the prisoners is researching near-death experiences, and so his prisoners truly are facing death when they are forced to participate in his research. He wants to prove there is an afterlife and thus free people of their fear of dying. However, unbeknownst to him, his research may also hold the key to his prisoners’ escape.
When healing trauma of any kind, it is necessary to attune to the body and feel the sensations and emotions therein and to move the body in ways that allow it to integrate movements and sequences that were never completed. We find the movements by tuning into the body while we speak about the trauma and following the energy that arises. This can be powerful, vulnerable and beautiful work. The prisoners in The OA slowly discover that there are movements they need to learn and do together in order to escape. Not only do they need to learn the movements, but they also need to do them with perfect feeling. As someone who loves to dance and stretch and move my body in all sorts of ways, I absolutely loved this aspect of The OA and this metaphor for healing trauma.
The goal of the prisoners in The OA is the same goal of healing trauma: freedom. In The OA, the freedom desired by the prisoners is the freedom to build the lives they had planned to build before they were captured, as well as the freedom to love and touch each other. When healing trauma, the freedom we’re after is the freedom to be our full authentic selves, to follow our dreams, and to truly love and touch each other.
If you’ve seen The OA, I’d love to know what you think of how I’ve interpreted it. And, I’d love to know if you see other metaphors that I’ve missed