By Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP
For most of her life, Lucille had loved escalators – those amazing and efficient moving staircases that smoothly glided up and down in department stores, hotels and airports. She marveled at their construction and how they made life and travel easy and convenient.
Then one day, there was nothing marvelous, easy or convenient about escalators.
She was surprised – and shocked – that escalators suddenly seemed very scary. In fact, she found herself panic stricken when she stood at the top of the smoothly running steps of an escalator.
Just the thought of placing her right foot on the first step as the stair moved downwards felt serious, like certain death.
She knew that this frozen and body-tightening experience would be called a “phobia” in the world of mental health but felt embarrassed to discuss this strange experience with anyone.
This panicky feeling was not only embarrassing, it was also awkward. She often traveled and often stood frozen at the top edge of the escalator while pedestrians hurried past. More often than not, she retreated to hunt for the stairs or the elevator, or both. They weren’t always easy to find and especially inconvenient if she was toting a cumbersome suitcase.
But most of all she was mystified.
She had used escalators for decades in stores, airports, subways, museums, hotels and other places. She couldn’t remember a single painful or difficult incident on escalators recently or as a child. If anything, escalators had been common during her travels for business and pleasure through the years.
Then one day, she and her husband were offered a gift certificate to a bed and breakfast inn in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She breathed a sigh of relief – no escalators there! – and they drove to the inn, formerly a copper baron’s fancy mansion, in the small town that was the center of the highly prosperous copper mining industry in the 1800s and early 1900s.
On a whim, she had her husband decided to visit an old mining site that had been turned into a museum.
After the couple wandered through the various displays, they arrived at the main feature of the museum – the actual mine shaft where the miners descended into the darkness of the mine, going deep underground to chisel out the copper in the rocks.
The miners entered and exited the shaft by a crude kind of moving wooden stairs where men sat three abreast, shoulder to shoulder. The photo display showed actual miners -- likely immigrants from various countries of Europe -- on the steep stair, lunch buckets cradled on their laps, their faces dirty and grim.
Lucille remembered that her paternal grandfather, an immigrant from Italy, had toiled in the coal mines in western Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. She realized that the mining companies there probably used a similar mechanism to take miners into the earth.
She imagined the incredible fear that men like her grandfather and others must have felt on the first day that they were instructed to enter the mine. How terrifying it must have been for these men, used to picking lemons and olives in the bright sunlight of their homeland, to descend into pitch darkness of noise, dirt and dampness.
Because Lucille was familiar with Family Constellations and ancestral trauma, she understood that remnants of her grandfather’s terror had awakened within her.
Back home, she shared her new awareness with her constellation group and began to experience a great appreciation for the sacrifices that her immigrant grandfather, coming from a poor village, made daily to financially support his family.
The facilitator gave Lucille an opportunity to step into the field, as the space for healing work is often called, to thank the grandfather for his sacrifices and acknowledge his courage in facing his daily terror.
She was directed in a simple ritual to build upon that acknowledgement. She began to feel her tension loosen, with tears coming to her eyes. She remembered her father telling the family how his father seemed angry all the time and “was mean to us kids.” She knew that men of the grandfather's generation did not talk of embarrassment or shame and certainly did not seek out psychotherapy to discuss their feelings and troubles.
After her constellation session, she continued to repeat thoughts of appreciation and gratitude, sending them to the spirit of her grandfather. When she left for her next trip, she stepped on the escalator with ease – and a great sense of gratitude.
About the author
Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP, is a board-certified psychodrama trainer and certified constellations facilitator and trainer in private practice in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. She has presented at many state and national conferences, including the 2011 and 2015 constellations conferences. She is the author of Integrating Psychodrama and Systemic Constellation Work: New Directions for Action Methods, Mind-Body Therapies and Energy Healing and other books about alternative psychotherapies and methods. Learn more about Karen and her books, programs and trainings here.
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