I’m no masochist, but I get very disturbed when an adult chipmunk makes no effort to sink those long, corn-colored teeth into my fingers when I put my hand around them. This sorry fellow not only made no effort to bite—he made no effort to move, either.
A week ago, while watering plants out front, I noticed Darter the cat paying too much attention to a small rotten piece of wood on grass. Must be a frog or toad, I told myself gently pushing her aside to peek under the old branch. It took me a second or so to realize I was not looking into frog eyes, but into the glassy, tranced-out face of a chipmunk.
Instinctively, I placed my hand protectively over his body. Luckily, I was wearing garden gloves, because I fully expected a fight. None came. He lay in my palm like a clump of cold clay. I hurried him inside, expecting to find harsh wounds left by my huntress cat all over his spent body, but his wounds had come from a different source.
All the fur had been scraped off his back haunch, his back legs were swollen, and there were holes in his belly area and groin. His tail was broken. I suspected he’d had a collision with a car instead of a cat. He’s come to me to die, my mind whispered as my hands squirted tiny amounts of antibiotics and anti-swelling medication into his unresponsive mouth.
I work as swiftly as possible, because it was clear to me that my touch was sending him deeper and deeper into shock. Quickly, I swabbed the dirt and gravel off of his bloody haunch and rubbed some healing salve on his scrapes to ward off infection. I gently tried to get him to take some electrolyte solution from a syringe, but the liquid just dribbled out his mouth.
“Okay, okay, I get it,” I whispered to him. “I’ll leave you alone and let you rest, you poor, sweet, hurt boy.” I placed him under pieces of fleece blanket in an old birdcage, set half the cage on a heating pad, covered the whole thing with a dark towel, and left the room. For the next few hours, I could not get the feel of his coldness out of my hands, or the vacant dullness of his eyes out of my thoughts.
I gave him one more dose of medications before going to bed, placed a dish of electrolyte solution near him, and named him “Crash” in light of his particular catastrophe. I fully expected him to be gone and stiff by morning, so you can imagine my surprise when I entered my small “healing” room to find him scurrying under his blanket. He’d drunk up nearly all of the liquid in his dish, to my amazement and joy. It’s shocking what the right drugs can do.
But just like the day before, when I put my gloved hand over him so that I could give him his medications, he went still, and the small light in his onyx eyes flickered and died. Again, I did my tasks quickly. When I set him back down on his blanket, he rolled off of my hand as though in a coma. Fight. Flight. Freeze. This is the way of mammals in danger. We’ve all heard about the fight or flight response. Not much is ever mentioned about the third aspect of that survival trinity—Freeze.
It just so happened, however, that I was learning all about the Freeze response in a book I’ve been reading about healing from trauma. When fight and flight have been exhausted or are impossible, all mammals—from chipmunks to humans—instinctively drop into an “immobility” or “freeze” response. Writes author Peter Levine in Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, “The stone-still animal is not pretending to be dead. It has instinctively entered an altered state of consciousness shared by all mammals when death appears imminent. Many indigenous peoples view this phenomenon as the surrender of the spirit of the prey to the predator, which, in a manner of speaking, it is.”
According to Levine, the final phase of this process—if a creature survives the freeze response—is to discharge all of the pent up, traumatic energy stored in the body. Animals achieve this by trembling, or shuddering for a length of time. Levine claims that humans often stop at the freeze response, block the rampaging, terrifying energy, internalize it, and then carry the harsh physical and psychological effects of post-trauma for the rest of their lives.
Trauma for animals is being chased and eaten. Trauma for humans can be anything from car wrecks to accidents, to the sudden death of a child, to a bad birthing experience. My good friend Robb had sent me Waking the Tiger, because I told him that although people often think of me as being very brave and calm during catastrophe (cancer, my house burning down, accident scenes) I was wondering if what was really happening was that I just went numb, or “froze.”
Crash had come along to show me just what the “immobility response” looked like. It is frightening. In my hands, he felt like something going dead, rapidly. And for three days, it was like that whenever I had to pick him up. In his eyes remained that vacancy. It was as though he had already checked out and was somewhere else, which I now know he was.
When people bring injured animals into WildCare, the local rehab center I volunteer with, they often say about that animal, “He wasn’t afraid of me at all! I could hold him and so could all my friends. It was like he trusted us!” Such moments are not about trust. They are about freezing terror.
Sometimes women stay with men who are viscious. People say, “Why doesn’t she leave?” How do you leave when you are psycologically, physiologically frozen? Sometimes we expect those around us to fight, or to flee when catastrophe strikes, and don’t realize they are past that. They are numb, frozen, immobilized, traumatized.
On his fourth day with me, Crash began his instinctive healing process. It came from somewhere deep and clean inside him, and it was truly awesome to behold. By this time, I was keeping him on a high shelf outside, where the sounds would be familiar to him, and the rhythm of nature, soothing. My gloved hand closed around him, and I felt, again, that frozen lethargy overtake him. But then, as I hurriedly administered those wonder drugs that had given him a new chance at life, I noticed that he began what I can only call “reverberating” in my palm. His body entered a deep tremor that I could feel all the way into my wrist. It came steadily at first, then in waves.
I finished up by putting salve on his mending scabs, and as my hand entered the small door of the birdcage to release him, he bolted out of my fingers like a greased piglet, and bounded around the cage. I left quickly with my heart singing. By late that afternoon, he’d chewed his blanket into small pieces and constructed his own “bomb shelter.” Into it, he carted all the acorns, apples, corn, and sunflower pieces I’d given him that morning. Yesterday, he bit me—hard.
The change in his presence is startling. He is alive and vibrant again. So often in my life I have heard the phrase, “just shake it off.” Now I know just what that looks like, and just what amazing benefits doing so can bestow.
Like many people, I have accumulated a lifetime of traumas large and small that need to be “shaken off,” and their damaging energy discharged in a healthy way. Levine proposes to have crafted a natural method to help people in doing just that. It is based on what Crash showed me. If it works for chipmunks, surely it can work for me.
Next week, I’ll be releasing Crash somewhere where there are no cars and no cats. It’s the least I can do for such a fine and brave teacher.
May you be spared from cat bites, road rash, and monstrous hands, for all the coming days of your life, my amazing little man.