Have you ever stopped to consider your body? I mean really consider it. The way it does hundreds of things with no conscious thought. How it keeps you alive by breathing and keeping your heart beating and blood pumping. How does it know how to heal that scrape or infection? Where did the knowledge come from for your blood to clot when you bleed? It is an amazing entity. The more that we find out about the body, the more that we realise that there is still so much to know!
The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk is a book that I found both interesting and horrifying. Interesting because it is packed with facts and data and information about trauma and how it affects the mind and body, even if it happened years previously. Horrifying because I read it and recognised myself on too many pages of the book. I didn’t want to relate to it in any way other than an intellectual manner, but there I was, being described in print.
And the body keeps the score. Doing TRE last year to release some trauma left me in a complete panic attack. There was nothing and no-one threatening me. I was safe, in my flat. Yet, a full-blown panic attack hit me, just from lying on the floor and letting my legs tremor for a while.
Then there was the 6pm meltdown I had every night when I came out of hospital. Why 6pm? It was the time that I had chosen to die. My rational brain was ready to move on and just put that shit behind me, but my body was having none of it. Nuh-uh. It was telling me that it was terrified and panicked and remembered it very clearly. It was filled with anxiety. My brain had little compassion, thinking that it just needs to get over itself. I was here. No death had actually occurred. Move on.
The body also responds to certain stresses in a specific way. There were many times when I did not want to have intercourse with my ex-husband, but he was not too accepting of no and I felt that I had to “do my duty”. I felt guilty about the state of our relationship and how most likely that he was right – I didn’t put in enough effort; I was not spontaneous often enough; I didn’t love him enough; I wasn’t supportive enough; I didn’t understand the real nature of relationships and how they worked; and all the rest of it. I was aware that I had put in place avoidance tactics, like working until 1am when I knew he would be asleep when I got to bed, and making sure that I was up by 5:30am, long before he would be awake to tell me off for not coming to bed when I was instructed to do so. The guilt and the condemnation, both from him and inside my head, would build up and I would give in and do the deed. I often wondered if this was why prostitutes participate in substance abuse – letting your body be used in ways that you did not want it to be out of sheer necessity. It felt like chipping away at my soul – little by little losing pieces of it and stumbling further and further into an abyss of darkness, where there was a dearth of feeling. An emptiness so profound that it felt limitless. And if there was feeling, it was so overwhelmingly sad and angry that it would mean I could not function in the every day, so the feelings got squirreled away into the darkness, not to be looked at, examined, touched and DEFINITELY not to be felt.
And my body did not like this. There was a clear trend – whenever we had copulated and I had felt like I did not want to do it, then I got a bladder infection. Without fail. I got them monthly. Sometimes I had only one clear week before I got another one. If it wasn’t a UTI, I got a yeast infection. Many times I had both. It didn’t matter how much I avoided sitting in baths or wet swimsuits, did a wee straight after him and I had finished, wore cotton panties and did all the things that you are supposed to do to prevent this, they kept returning. I even had a barium meal to check if there was a problem with my bladder. Eventually, after I had left the marriage, I recognised the pattern. My mind had been saying no, no, no on repeat and I didn’t want to be there and be a part of the act, and my body responded.
We can mostly all feel when there is something not right in a situation. My gut “tells me”. I get a tension near my diaphragm, or a sinking feeling or a nervous flutter. I am learning to pay attention to that. There were some major decisions that I made in my life where I ignored my gut, to my detriment. How interesting it is that your body has a “second brain” in your intestines. There are neural cells in your gut, in your heart too as a matter of fact. When the gut is attempting to get my attention, or I can feel in my heart that something is very right (or very wrong), then I cannot disregard that – those neural cells are there for a reason! Yes, physiological ones, but I don’t think we can discard the other roles that they play for us. I don’t believe that they are imagined.
What about the fight, flight or freeze response? It is astounding how quickly your body can interpret the cues around it that there is danger of some sort and almost instantaneously give you the adrenaline shot you need to react. The issue of course is when you don’t do flight or fight, but just freeze. That can store in your body as trauma. Ever heard of muscle memory? It doesn’t just pertain to your gym sessions.
Both as a child and as an adult, I often had to adopt the freeze response. It was my go to place. You can’t outrun your parents when you are young. When you get to the stage that you can, it would make matters worse if you picked that option. The survival strategy was freeze, so freeze I did. Even my mind would freeze – disconnect from the situation, looking at it and hearing what was going on through what felt like a long dark tunnel. I literally feel like I am leaving by floating away out of my head. I can’t think straight, I can’t formulate responses, it takes all my effort to focus on what the other person is doing or saying. I want to crawl into a hole and be in as small a ball as possible. My body reacts without me telling it to do so. And once it is primed with this response, it is not easy to reverse that behaviour. I can recognise it earlier now and try to do some practical things to stop it in its tracks – walk away from the situation, breathe deeply, meditate or be outside with no shoes on in nature. I still cannot stop the reaction altogether. Maybe I will never master this.
We attribute feelings and reactions and mental disturbances to the mind alone, but the body is there, in clear partnership, playing its role – remembering and reminding.