On Tragedy and Healing


The person in the dark denim jacket was collapsed on a table in the dining room.

Another worker went over to check on them. I thought to myself, “How unusual. I haven’t seen a heroin addict in here for a long time" assuming they were nodding off. At that point, I was more concerned with the fact that there were two small children eating in the house of hospitality that day. It always hurts when the kids come in.

I continued to do my work: scrubbing the sixteen burner stove, washing dishes, clearing tables, greeting people. Then I saw the same guest collapsed across the counter near the salad station. I walked over, leaned in and said quietly and gently: “I need you to move.” Turns out they felt sick. They were nauseous. I asked someone else to get extra help. Asked the person if they needed a chair. Understand, I needed to help them, and I needed to get them off the food counter. We finally got them in a chair. Did they need us to call 911? Yes.

On the phone, the question came, does his stomach hurt? I asked. We asked. The person was hunched over and rocking by this time, in pain. “I’m female” came the voice. I leaned down. “What’s your name?” She looked up at me, eyes blood shot, clearly in distress. I could see then, a butch woman who had been living hard on the streets. We had all mis-gendered her, seeing only the short tousled hair, the loose denim, the hard planes of the face, the missing teeth. “I have HIV and haven’t been taking my meds.” Back to rocking.

When the paramedics came, they asked her a few questions. She requested that she be able to take her food to go. I quickly packed up some bread and salad, but couldn’t find an extra jar for soup. Some other guests at her table helped. When I returned with the food, the paramedics were getting her up, one on each side. This next part is what killed me, and is the reason I’m writing this down:

She immediately put her hands behind her back, wrist over wrist, awaiting handcuffs.

One of the paramedics said, “You don’t have to do that. We’re not the cops. We’re paramedics.” I followed behind, with her food bag, talking with one of the women holding a clipboard. I explained about the HIV and meds. I gave her name. The entire time I walked behind her, she held her hands in that handcuffed position. She had asked for help the only way she knew how –  by laying across the food counter. She had wanted the paramedics to come. Yet part of her knew, just knew, she was being arrested.

Hands behind her back. Wrist over wrist.

It felt like a tragedy to me.

What sort of life has she lived so far that even in asking for and receiving help, she expected punishment?

And how do we do this to ourselves? What boxes are we living in? What shadows? What do our bodies know that we can’t even speak of? What punishment, or rejection, or pain waits coiled inside?

How can we help ourselves heal? 

Philosopher Michel Foucault tells us that we have become our own jailers. He was right. We can also, however, help one another to become free.

What is your story, of pain and imprisonment?  What is your story of healing?  How are you learning to unlock cell doors?

We need to listen and to look, in order to change. And yes, the implications here are large.

Later that day, a blind man sat at the piano and played for us. It sounded wonderful. The dining room shook with applause.



Thank you to everyone who gave me a birthday present by donating toward ceiling fans for the soup kitchen! You helped a lot – $325 worth – and three fans are now installed.

20 Responses to “On Tragedy and Healing”

  1. Jocelyn

    Thank you for sharing the experience with us all. Insightful, and interesting. This story helps me to think of my own experiences and my own internal thoughts that prevent somethings sometimes. I think though, that it all will come together and make sense at some point in time. I don’t know if we forget that which makes sense, and yet hold it in our spirit or if we will learn why we make so many rules for life and thought and then evolve onward after that. Either way, right now, we do live with restrictions physically and mentally. It is a privilege to be able to take a moment and rediscover that which may or may not be preventing us from change, evolution or help. :)Thank you T. Coyle.

    • Thorn

      Jocelyn, I’m glad the story gave you a chance for self-reflection. I hope we all can do more of that in the coming days. We internalize so much pain and fear and bury it so deeply that we can forget its there – but it emerges in our words or actions all the same.

      And you are right, we can also remember those things that enable us to get help, and to change. That is the blessing of it all.

  2. Ione

    This is so moving, and revealing. I’ve always been aware of authority exhibitionism and bullying by the police, the vulnerable and oppressed in society being an easy target for police hit numbers. Bless you for your work, we are one human society and can all reach out a hand to help another, we are all of the same earth. When I see the police bullying someone and If I cant intervene, I stand and watch, I stare, and I make sure the policeman knows I am watching. May we all be witness and fully ‘present’ in society, and help where we can. Accountability nudged by even small gestures such as a small blond girl staring and muttering a curse. We all matter, and we should make ourselves matter.
    Best Wishes Thorn,
    Ione x

    • Thorn

      Ione, cop watch is important. I know a several people locally who are involved in that – who record everything when they can. I, too, always stop and watch, to make sure things don’t escalate.

      So many are vulnerable. The thing is, we do also jail ourselves. We don’t always need an external authority to do it for us. That is one thing I’m interested in, that is a larger conversation than I wanted to get into with this particular post: how do we break down our inner jails *and* how do we look at the ways that socially, as a group, we give our power away? We are seeing so clearly in the US right now how at large and as a whole, the US people have given our power over, hoping for safety, or for less personal responsibility, or… any number of reasons. We are paying a hard price.

      I want a world in which we help one another to heal and become more autonomous and free.

      thanks for writing in.

  3. Jim Dickinson

    That is very sad and horrifying on so many levels… and, sadly, she might actually have wanted to be arrested and taken to prison – as it is one of the last providers of free health care for those that have absolutely nothing. I have known people that have actively broken the law to get an operation or other medical care through the prison system. Food, shelter and free medical care at the cost of freedom, dignity and potential serious abuse from violent inmates. What a place we live in that would force such a choice on someone… It is my fervent hope that ACA somehow, someday leads to nationalized health care. I hope she found relief and true care and am glad you were there for her.

    • Thorn

      Jim, I have also seen people commit petty crimes in order to get back through what I call the “revolving door” of prison. A place where they will get three meals a day, and a bed – yes, despite the threat of violence. These are so often people with some form of health trouble, mental illness or any number of factors that make caring for themselves difficult.

      It is pretty terrible that we can’t figure out how to care for one another better.

  4. Bari

    This is such complex and painful stuff.

    One thing I’ve seen to be true in my work (I am a somatic coach and spiritual counselor, among other things) is that these “prisons” so often become embodied responses. The conscious, thinking brain turns off, the body goes into survival auto-pilot. We do an action enough times, our body goes into muscle memory when a similar-feeling situation arises. We lay down the memories of repeated actions in our muscles, nerves, cells. So how do we move out of learned behaviors? What I’ve seen help is a combination of community support, focused intention, and really most importantly, diligently practicing new actions. A consciousness shift often really only impacts the brain. It’s a good and important start, but for so many of us really falls short of true change and healing. So we decide “today I’m going to live as though I believe this new thing”. Then we enact it, physically and simply and repeatedly. We acknowledge the survival strategy “hey look, my hands are tugging to cross behind my back”, we thank the strategy while acknowledging that it is not currently useful “blessings and gratitude to you, survival strategy, for having helped me survive up til now… and in this present situation you are not actually the most helpful strategy”, and we figure something else out to try instead, and do that. And we keep practicing the new strategy until it starts feeling more normal. It’s hard and often tedious work, but one of hte few ways I’ve actually found that this kind of cellular healing can happen.

    So much of this lives in the body. Returning to the body and enacting new practices, and *practicing* them regularly, I find is often the way to get this to change. But it doesn’t happen in isolation – we are also collective creatures. We look to others to figure out how to be in the world, and to help us orient. And it also has to be said, we cannot heal if we’re still in the midst of trauma – maybe today I wasn’t arrested but if I’m still living in a situation where I very well could be arrested tomorrow, why would I try and change a survival strategy that has actually helped shield me from some amount of harm?

    it’s complex and painful stuff. Thank you for bringing up the conversation.

    • Thorn

      Bari, thanks for sharing your experiences. Good perspective.

      I agree with you. In my own work I’ve found that only when I started to engage the body did I open to emotions and memories that had been buried. Allowing them to rise to the surface over the years and continuing to work with the body has really helped with my healing and integration.

      and yes, your penultimate paragraph brings out the larger conversation I alluded to when I said the implications are huge. Our whole society helps us to keep these structures in place – our internal wounds prop up the very systems that rewound us and others.

      We need one another. We need to learn to care for one another. We all try in our different ways.

  5. Fourge

    This was very moving; thank you for sharing it all. As it is, my own mind tries to shield itself from feeling something too deeply. Yet thankfully, I break through my own barrier to feel sympathy, even empathy. That’s my box. That’s my rejection, a rejection of feeling too deeply for petty sake of the alleviation of reality itself. It’s my pain, too, to not be able to relate even on an emotional level if not by experience. And I get analytical, too much in my mind and not enough in the heart and soul of feeling. It separates me. My body knows what it’s doing. My mind does, too. My soul is no fool.
    How am I learning to unlock the cell doors? With posts like this, from you and from others. With the female who needed help. With the children eating in attendance and the blind pianist. With the girl who came into the sandwich shop last week and told my co-worker and I how her father was very ill, and with the little boy breaking the rules by wildly running his bicycle all around the shop today. By the woman who felt she knew the specials on the menu better than us workers, trying our paitience. By us workers having a laugh, despite the labor of the day.

    My story (so far) is about drifting away from the core of deeper connection, getting back to it, even deeper than before, and drifting away again. “A cycle. A circle. A chicken and an egg.” Of course, there are backstories, which always tend to connect with the main storyline. All of it is important, both the hero’s story, AND the “villain’s.” Both the jailer and the imprisoned.

  6. rain crowe

    Thorn, I have been in a trauma healing process for the last two years. Just the other day I shared the narrative of my time at a major mobilization in 2008 where I was attacked by riot police, and subsequently imprisoned and experienced the requisite humiliation, threat, and dehumanization that so many prisoners face. I was fortunate to have aid in being release, folk to meet me on my exit from prison, and abundant magical and physical aftercare. As I was telling my narrative to my therapist, I was embedding it with a constant self invalidation of the pain I experienced. I was and still am so conscious of race and class dynamics with regards to the industrialized prison complex, that I couldn’t allow myself to accept my own suffering. I couldn’t allow myself to honor my own terror at the rape threats, my anxiety about being in enclosed spaces, and my experience of utter powerlessness to change external circumstances of discomfort and danger for myself and those around me. Everything in my story was repressed because of the need to punish myself for having privilege and access to resources. I have held myself in that prison, avoiding the truth of that one experience, and in true pattern form, all of them-from infant neglect and abuse, to being bullied, to sexual assault, and on and on. My experiences could always be diminished on the perceived hierarchy of suffering as “not that bad” because so many have it so much worse. But the refusal to accept those experiences did traumatize me, and that my self expectation of unconditional resilience compounded it, have kept me in a cage of self denial. This cage keeps me small, self policed, self contained, self limited, unable to release and breathe larger in to the life that spirit is calling me too.

    The more I’ve learned about trauma and patterning the more I can see the chronic personal, familial, and cultural ptsd on the faces and in the bodies of those around me. I see it in horizontal oppression, as those in the groups that I organize or pray with, aren’t able to diffuse the institutional violence and its complex consequences of accumulated harm, and therefore direct it towards those who have less or no power to hurt them. I see it in the misplaced concentration of aggression towards those who could and might be our very allies. We hold ourselves in the jails of never being good enough, of no one being good enough, and so we flail and miss the mark as to what the true enemy is, not who. The systems of oppression that constantly create the unnecessary circumstances of scarcity and deprivation, of competition and betrayal, of objectification and estrangement. To stand aside from a victimhood narrative while accepting that life has thrust upon me disempowerments that I did not ask for or deserve, and request the deserved support in healing, is to release myself from incarceration. To extend that to the web of life around me is to be a spiritual abolitionist.

    I have so much respect for your writings and teachings. Thank you for sharing yourself with the world in this time.

    • Thorn

      Rain Crowe, thank you for sharing this powerful story with us.

      “To stand aside from a victimhood narrative while accepting that life has thrust upon me disempowerments that I did not ask for or deserve, and request the deserved support in healing, is to release myself from incarceration. To extend that to the web of life around me is to be a spiritual abolitionist.”

      Those words feel so strong and true to me. Thank you one thousand times for writing them. Thanks for your bravery in sharing. May your healing, and our healing, continue.

      And should I ever wish to quote – with credit – any of the above, may I?

    • Madelon Wise

      Thank you, Rain Crowe, for this insightful and brave comment. I love the post, Thorn, and have been thinking about it for days. But Rain’s comment reflects much of what I observe around me. I think we have an entire nation of trauma survivors. I see it everywhere I go. Thank you.

  7. Beth Adele Long

    Painful. Beautiful. True.

    I could not read this to a friend today without weeping. And that, in itself, was a tiny, important movement of the jail door towards opening.

  8. David Salisbury

    After reading this I could honestly not think of any helpful actions or words of wisdom. Only tears. I can only pray and remind myself that we can only move forward, one foot in front of the other.


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