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My Journey with Southernwood

By Elizabeth Simons on Jul 4, 2006

Oil Dispersion Baths as Therapy

When I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia I felt both distressed and relieved. Distressed that I suffered from a chronic condition for which there was no cure, and relieved that I could finally put a name to the cluster of symptoms that had plagued me for most of my adult life.

Although there were good days when everything seemed to go well, I had far too many days when I ached all over. There is nothing more humbling than pain. It doesn’t matter what its duration, it stops time and puts your reality into a tight box that feels like a life sentence.

In addition, my relationship with food was tenuous. I slept poorly, had difficulty concentrating, and suffered from chronic indigestion. Despite a vigorous exercise routine I felt tired most of the time.

As a child I remembered feeling sudden, sharp pains in my body. Eating often resulted in heartburn, so I developed a love/hate relationship with food. Pain made it difficult to concentrate and do

Fibromyalgia trigger points

my schoolwork, but because it had no outward manifestation I was accused of being lazy. If the grown-ups around me said I wasn’t sick, then maybe I was making it up. I submitted to their authority and denied my pain. The result was a persistent lack of awareness in how I felt, both physically and emotionally. I cut myself off from my body and became depressed.

Early last winter I received an email from a friend, Christian Wessling, M.D., about an oil dispersion bath workshop in St. Louis (only a three-hour drive away). The workshop, led by Thomas von Rottenburg – a naturopath who maintains an active practice in Berlin and lectures internationally – would teach participants about this unique therapeutic modality.


I was intrigued and wrote back that I would be delighted to participate. When I told him about my fibromyalgia, Dr. Wessling suggested I could serve as a case study for the group. This put me in a tailspin. Did I want my personal issues aired before a group of strangers? Dr. Wessling assured me the participants would not be judgmental. I wasn’t convinced. Should I go? Should I not go? I continued to vacillate until the last minute, when some unseen force propelled me toward St. Louis.

It turned out to be a turning point in my life. The group was indeed open and warm and not the least bit judgmental. Besides, the focus of the workshop was not on me but initially on experiencing – or “proving” – the essential oils by inhaling a drop of oil on a cotton ball. After a couple of minutes we talked about our reactions. Only after we had created a “picture” of the oil’s essence were we given its name.

I was fascinated with the process, and with the similarity in many of the impressions. As each person spoke, it felt like we were helping a being emerge, a being who could guide us in our explorations toward balance and wholeness. We then discussed how each oil could be used for various illnesses.

On the second day we began the bath processes. In my “case study” role Dr. von Rottenburg took a medical history that not only addressed my physical symptoms but probed into painful childhood experiences. I could easily talk about my fibromyalgia pain, but telling him in front of a group that I had been physically abused as a child was like reopening a wound. I felt terribly vulnerable. Hesitantly, I talked about how I had never felt understood or accepted as a child.

When Dr. von Rottenburg asked what I wanted to accomplish, my first thought was, “freedom from pain, of course.” But then I realized what he was asking. What did I want to learn from my illness? What did I need to know in order to heal my pain? These were powerful questions, and I didn’t have an answer. I just wanted to retreat into the abstractions that separated me from my feelings. These well-known abstractions had been my principle survival tools. But now I was being asked to look into my soul and find out my needs. Was I ready to let go of the past? Did I really want healing or did I merely want to talk about it?

Dr. von Rottenburg determined that the best oil for me would be southernwood, an oil with strongly masculine qualities, chosen for its ability to break up stale and hardened emotional baggage from the past that hindered development.

After the consultation I had my first bath. The water felt comfortably warm as I eased myself into the tub. The bathing area was small, so it was a tight fit as the participants crowded around to watch the demonstration. I was too self-conscious to know what, if anything, I was feeling. Should I put my head under water? Was I allowed to talk?

Each participant was invited to express what he or she saw in and around me. I heard various observations such as “congestion in the chest,” and “little energy in the legs.” I wondered how much was actually “seen” and how much was guesswork.

After the bath I stood up and was wrapped in a sheet. Then I was taken to a darkened resting room where I was tucked up tightly in woolen blankets and left undisturbed for an hour.

I didn’t know what I should be thinking. Thoughts swirled. Should I be pondering the past? Taking an assessment of the present? Should I be feeling something new?

The workshop ended the next day. During the drive home I felt the southernwood’s power begin to emerge. Painful childhood memories surfaced, accompanied by familiar feelings of fear and abandonment. The southernwood’s lingering fragrance clung to my hair and clothes, and it felt like being in a sheltered embrace. Driving home alone in the dark, I felt an overwhelming urge to put my hand on my heart. As I did so I felt a deep warmth, as if I were being embraced by an angel. After I got home I went to bed in the clothes I was wearing because I didn’t want to lose that presence.

The story could have ended here, with that cozy glow. But it was just the beginning of the journey. Changes began to take place, but they were so subtle I had to quit thinking about them so I could notice what was happening.

The first thing I noticed was that I was mostly free from pain. It continued to diminish during the next five months, during which I had six more baths. I kept up an exercise program I had begun several months before, pushing myself on days when I would rather have stayed in bed. Although my joints no longer hurt, I was plagued by lower back and neck pain. After a bad cold temporarily shelved my exercise routine the pain disappeared. I had been working too hard! I cut back on the intensity and my energy level increased. Best of all, I have been pain free ever since.

All my life I had hated having a body, hated having to feed it and move around in it. Because I was unable to deal with my memories I developed an eating disorder in preadolescence that effectively numbed me to all sensation. During my twenties I sought out dangerous situations so I could feel something.

I am slowly learning that food is not dangerous, that the act of eating is not a minefield. I deny myself nothing. In the past the only way I knew something was bothering me was when my eating got out of control. Now I know eating is not the problem; the inability to know my feelings is the problem. When the old fears rear up I try to pause. I don’t always know what I’m feeling, but I am learning to be more aware so I won’t fall into old habits.

Another amazing thing happened during a visit with my mother. We had a very difficult relationship while I was growing up. Her childhood with an alcoholic father had left her ill-equipped to handle five children, especially a headstrong daughter. She felt it was her duty to curb my willfulness. We ended up fighting a great deal, especially when I was a teenager. The raging battles left scars on both of us. While we got along fairly well in adulthood, I had a lot of residual emotion to process. I carried my childhood woundedness and feelings of being misunderstood like a badge.

Being an intuitive person, she sensed something had changed within me. Although I wasn’t in the mood to do so, she insisted on talking about the past. We sat in her kitchen and explored those painful days together. I was finally able to tell her how misunderstood I had felt as a child, and she was able to tell me that raising children had been very difficult for her.

And then, after a long pause, she looked at me and said she was sorry for the things she had done when she was out of control. I was astonished. Was this my inflexible mother, the one who fiercely resisted change?

I sat across from this transformed woman in her eighties and whispered, “I’m sorry, too.” In that moment all the feelings of being un-mothered left me. In that moment we redeemed the past. Never again would I need to tell my sad childhood story. It was no longer sad.

Not all my discoveries were pleasant. I experienced an upwelling of emotions that felt out of time, feelings of abandonment, trauma, fear and rage. It felt as if they were swarming through me, wanting to seize my soul because they were afraid of vanishing. After all, hadn’t they been my perceptions for most of my life?

I thought back to the first bath and remembered all those people looking at me lying in that tub. The memory made me flush with embarrassment and anger. What was I thinking, to do such a thing? I had allowed myself to be totally exposed. All my childish neediness, all the invisible marks from sexual abuse, were imprinted on my body. The water could not cover my shame.

Soul pain is a funny thing. I was very good at manufacturing what looked like pain while hiding from the real thing. When I finally had to face the real feelings the force was terrible. I cried for a week. Toxic tears, I called them. Wave after wave came over me until I thought I could bear no more.

And then the pain stopped. It had worked its way through at last, and I realized I could choose how I reacted to situations and people. When that realization appeared, even the memory of the pain vanished.

The last bath brought the most dramatic change. I discovered my body. As I was lying there in the resting room I suddenly saw myself as beautiful. Really beautiful, with all the lumps and wrinkles and sags. All my past experiences had shaped this body, and its strength and wisdom and potential were lovely to behold. I no longer longed for the bloom of youth. I gave up punishing myself for my perceived shortcomings and let go of trying to achieve an impossible image. I have since quit weighing myself.

The marvel of being human is that there is no age when we stop learning. Sometimes, when things start to slow down and I begin to feel impatient with the seeming lack of progress, I ask myself what it is I need to learn. What am I avoiding by wanting a quick fix?

In the beginning I thought all I wanted was freedom from physical pain. I thought the essential oil baths would change a few things and put me back on my destiny path without my having to do anything. Little did I realize how much this oil would ask of me. Before authentic change could occur, I had to establish an authentic relationship with the powerful being of this southernwood, listen to what it had to tell me, and refrain from orchestrating the process.

Now there is nothing I cannot accomplish.

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First published in LILIPOH #44 - Summer 2006: THE ENCHANTED EARTH.

LILIPOH
is a unique quarterly wellness magazine. LILIPOH presents the anthroposophical approach to life first systematized by Dr. Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher, scientist, and educator. LILIPOH offers a special focus on health, homeopathy and naturopathic medicine, Waldorf education, biodynamic agriculture, nutrition, the arts, and community life!