KNEESAA'S LESSON

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.


"No matter where we are, the shadow that trots
     behind us is definitely four-footed"
                    Clarissa Pinkola Estes

          We named Kneesaa after one of the Ewoks in Star Wars. Actually, her full name is Princess Kneesaa, but I don't ever recall using the whole thing. I guess that would have been reserved for the show ring.

          She recently turned thirteen (that's 91 to you and me) and I took the time to watch her behavior that day thinking that I might get some insight into her health and longevity. She rises early each morning and makes her way down the darkened stairs just ahead of me. I've never heard her trip. She knows I'm not going to open the garage door before I light certain lights, grab her bowl and boot the computer, and while she's not exactly patient, she respects my routine.

          I'm not the sort of person who spends much time in the wild, but I appreciate what it may have to teach us. I know that when my patients get better, they somehow gain access to something primal and instinctive, something whose expression is not ordinarily allowed in our culture, and certainly not in a typical physical therapy setting. I've written of this process many times and the technique I teach at workshops elicits movements of this sort.

          However, Kneesaa's about as close as I ever get to a wild animal, and if I'm ever going to learn about instinctive behavior, I guess she will have to do. Fortunately, I've found that this miniature schnauzer is more than enough.

          I first read Peter Levine's ideas about human response to and recovery from trauma several years ago. I referred to it while writing "The Suppression of Flight,"* which detailed my own experience with traumatized and chronically painful patients. In my opinion, Levine's insights and clinical observation are a valuable addition to the literature and I want to explain what he says in this and two subsequent columns; "Perseus' Shield" and "Take Wing."

          Our home is not far from the street where my neighbors walk their own dogs. All of her life, Kneesaa has taken a post in the picture window, quietly alert to movement from either the right or left. As soon as another canine enters her realm, she throws a fit. Growling and barking loudly, she races to a far window in order to further pursue this intruder, and then she quietly returns to her post, often to fall asleep.

          I really don't like a yappy dog, but I've never been able to quiet Kneesaa for long. Some time ago I recognized her behavior as natural to the breed, and, at least, schnauzer's don't shed so it's a kind of trade off I learned to live with.

          Levine describes trauma quite simply as "an overwhelming event." It may or may not include injury, but, it is full of threat and uncertain outcome. The human response is physiologic, biologic and inevitable. He contends that humans do not recover from trauma when something interferes with the completion of its physiologic response, and I agree entirely.

          It is generally agreed that the popularity of Star Wars is partly due to its mythological origins. That is to say, its characters are deeply symbolic and the story touches our core, and, like all myths, it endures.

          It occurred to me as I watched this old dog fully experience and recover once again from the threat of another, in fact, experiencing an overwhelming trauma, that she was just living up to her name. Aside from being cute, the Ewoks were fierce, courageous and territorial. How could I expect this mythological creature to behave any differently?

          All I have to do now is see the therapeutic effect of this instinct, and that is the subject of next week's column; "Perseus' Shield."

          * P.T. Forum Nov. 27, 1992 (copies available from the author)