Survivors' Voices: The Body Keeps the Score
As you may know, The Body Keeps the Score is a pioneering book on trauma and healing by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, which some abuse survivors have found helpful (although the book and author are not without controversy). Many survivors have told me about the whole-body impacts that can last a lifetime, so this month I invited our Survivors’ Voices panelists to share a bit about the physical effects of their abuse.
I would experience quite often, an "out of body" experience. I knew I was in the room in present form, but my mind would be out in the hallway running. I learned this was a "freeze" state which protected me for decades. As soon as my mind began to experience fear, it would leave my body. It was the way my mind protected me from receiving more abuse. My mind left the building but my body was there again and again. I had severe stomach problems which were "unexplainable.” My doctor prescribed me all forms of medication to minimize the discomfort which I experienced daily in one form or another. I could not lose weight despite multiple attempts at weight loss efforts. My body wanted to hold on to the weight to protect me even more. When I left the abusive environment, I began to focus on my mind, body, and spirit. The weight started falling off and my energy level returned. My stomach no longer needed medication because I had the time to eat healthy foods. I was not eating under stress anymore. I could hear God telling me to "Be Still" and not run anymore. Recently, I had a set back when I began to study the affects of my abuse. My body entered in a frozen state of living. I realized that my recovery from the decades of abuse will take much longer than I hoped. Each flashback takes less time to grow through it. I learned not to rush through the recovery and allow my body the rest it needs. One day at a time!
I have issues with this particular book (the controversy around it is google-able), but the underlying point that stress and trauma are bodily experiences as well as mental and emotional ones was transformative for me. I used to get such intense muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, etc around men… all those physical anxiety symptoms kept me from sleeping at night, which then affected everything else. But then, the best things I’ve done for my healing have been bodily too. Coming to experience myself as strong through running and swimming and hiking, experiencing joyful movement in dance… it has all helped a lot.
I didn't realize the extent of bodily harm that resulted from childhood clergy abuses until I experienced re-injury as an adult when I went to the church for healing. The bodily injuries of childhood were amplified after trusting the church with my story. As a child in catholic school I was constantly on hyper alert mode. This made it impossible for me to use the bathroom at school. The panicked fear lead to lifelong complications in my gut, intestines, in my bowels. My natural digestive system would shut down when I was afraid and ashamed. Re-injury by catholic leaders in adulthood led to medical and surgical treatments. Another strange bodily experience showed up in my early menopause years when I experienced hot flashes. The body heat normal to hot flashes activated intense feelings of shame, followed by panic reminiscent of childhood injury and adulthood re-injury. The heat created by a natural hot flash felt the same as heat produced when a body feels shame, thus, when I had a hot flash I felt shame followed by panicked alarm bells sending me into flight and freeze modes. Damn, I knew what was happening but changing this situation took years. I was so angry at the church for screwing up my natural sensory system. Vipasssana meditation and drumming significantly aided healing and recovery of my body, mind, and spirit.
I’ve heard that all of the cells in our bodies regenerate about every 7 years. It hasn't been quite that long yet, but it is a relief for me to think that one day, I will have a body he has not laid a hand on. I wait for the day that my mind catches up with my body and regenerates, too, so that my skin stops crawling with the memories.
If you have experienced any form of abuse by a Catholic leader and would like to share your own thoughts on this or future topics, I would be grateful to include your perspective. You can find information about joining the Survivors’ Voices Panel here: An Invitation for Survivors.
Please subscribe to hear more survivors reflect on this topic next week.