Survivors' Voices: The Body Keeps the Score, Part 2
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. The first part of the post is here.
Note: The following reflections include references to self-harm and (as is typical on this blog) sexual abuse. Please read with care.
I started having severe anxiety while I was still in the abusive environment. After being horribly shamed for having a panic attack by one of the Sisters who abused me (“You’re lucky it’s me you’re dealing with because any *normal* person would think you were being *ridiculous*!”), any time I started to feel stressed or anxious even after leaving the convent, I started panicking and felt intense shame and fear, often leading to more panic attacks, which manifested in not being able to breathe and shaking violently. I often dissociated in stressful or triggering situations, to the point where my body didn’t feel like it was mine anymore and I couldn’t even get in touch with my own emotions or thoughts because my mind was blocking me from feeling/thinking them.
While I was in the abusive situation, I had several symptoms. I have a clear memory of asking someone to repeat something, then being completely unable to focus on or comprehend what they were saying. It was like I couldn't control my focus. I remember driving back onto campus after a break (I was abused in college) and feeling a physical sensation of weight and despair as we pulled into the parking lot, like a switch was flipped. My body knew something was wrong long before the rest of me did.
It took me a few decades to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between my brain, body, and the abuse. Before the abuse, I was a strong, fit, and confident athlete with options to play my sport in college. In the years after, I began to care less about my physical appearance and used food as a coping mechanism. The weight gain was helped through excessive drinking and lack of desire to exercise or play the sport I loved and continue to love today.
I have struggled with depression and anxiety as well as what I have come to recognize as complex PTSD. My body was rewired through my abuse and I don’t really know what it is like to live as an adult without these challenges or relying on medication to balance out my brain chemistry.
I experienced a lot of shame around my body - if anyone commented on my clothing or how I looked (even in a positive way), my gut would get all twisted up and I would start dissociating again and try to hide my body from view. Sometimes when triggered I would find myself unable to move - my whole body clenched up tight, sometimes shaking violently, sometimes just frozen, unable to do even basic things like reach for a drink of water or even say anything or ask for help. Often when triggered, I lost the ability to speak and became so overwhelmed with thoughts that repeated abusive words that had been spoken to me that I couldn’t think about anything else except how deficient, ridiculous, and stupid I am.
I began self-harming - cutting, burning, and otherwise physically torturing myself - as a way of dealing with the physical effects of the abuse and trauma. Self-harm gave me a physical outlet for the psychological, emotional, physical, and spiritual distress I was in. It helped me feel more in control. It hurt, of course, but that was part of the point - I needed to punish myself for how stupid I'd been. After all, I felt I deserved it - the pain, the abuse, the physical aftereffects of the abuse. Nothing else provided the same sense of simultaneous punishment and relief. Now my body also bears the visible scars of my own self-harm instead of just the invisible scars the trauma left behind.
Being triggered is a constant adrenaline and cortisol rush. This feeds the inflammation in my body, damaging my joints and major organs and retaining weight. It’s the continual exhaustion (adrenal fatigue) due to chronic (long-term) exposure to stressful situations. In the short term, it is the panic that the terrible thing is happening again. Right here. Right now.
We are spiritual, physical and emotional beings. When we are ill or injured in any way, all three areas are impacted. Therefore, all three need to be addressed in healing. The other morning I suffered a severe nightmare related to my church abuse experience. My heart races and pounds during these nightmares, and I felt the impact of the nightmare the rest of the morning. Towards evening I engaged in yin yoga practice emphasizing what it is you wish to release. I told myself I want to release the trigger of Asian priests as my abuser is Filipino. I want to stop being traumatized in my dreams where I have no control. In bed last night I played softly beside my pillow a meditation of a novena prayer for surrender. This morning I had a dream. It was related to the church, but for the first time I did not suffer from a nightmare. Instead, I felt calm and at peace. Upon awakening I felt free. I truly believe I won’t suffer another nightmare again. Yin yoga is much like trauma release yoga. I find it extremely beneficial along with deep diaphragmatic breath meditation that stimulates the vagus nerve which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms the sympathetic, which is the flight or fight response. It’s soothing for the nervous system and calms the overactive brain.
The physical sensation I experienced for months was as if my soul was trying to tear itself out of my body. It wasn’t just a pain in the pit of my stomach, or a headache, or a tight chest, it was a distinct tense pain around the outline of my entire torso and chest, up into and around my head. Needless to say I had never experienced a sensation like this. Psychologically, the trauma was sharp and recurrent. Have you ever been driving on a highway when you see a car fly into your blind spot, and you know you have no time to react, so in those milliseconds you just pray they don’t hit your car? My trauma felt like this, but then after that moment of shock and hope and milliseconds of waiting, the car does smash into yours, sending it into the opposite curb, and sending you into a daze. And unlike a real car accident, you have the feeling of this cycling over and over again - surprise, desperate hope, catastrophic impact, disorientation, and confusion.
I had no clue that most of my medical issues were related to the abuse until I read “The Body Keeps the Score.” That book was an incredible eye opener for me. I learned HOW and WHY I’d become so sick in so many ways. In a nutshell, the body’s evolutionary fight or flight mechanism was meant to flood the body with stress chemicals that allowed our ancestors to escape the imminent danger of a lion or bear. Fast forward thousands of years. That same mechanism that worked so well for the short-term threat of a wild animal does not serve us well when we are assaulted by a trusted member of the clergy. The assaults by clergy create a rewiring in our brains, and as a result, those caustic stress chemicals that so brilliantly saved our ancestors from their immediate threat instead get stuck in an “on” position. They repeatedly flood through our immune system, nervous system, digestive system, and endocrine system. This often manifests as widespread illness that can affect us for the rest of our lives, long after the abuse ends. Doctors’ training does not prepare them to recognize the underlying cause, so we languish in deteriorating health… until we wake up to the need for processing the trauma that is the root cause.
My therapist introduced me to the book "The Body Keeps The Score" last year - shortly after I had undergone two gyn related surgeries, and before I experienced a TIA (mini/warning stroke). But the 'scorekeeping' started long before that, as early as 2011. I did not experience the full vengeance of those who blamed me for this abuse (it is still hard for me to say this word) until 2012, but I knew in 2011 what was coming. Between 2011 and 2014, I had two ruptured ovarian cysts, developed a growth in my lung, developed gallstones resulting in emergency surgery, developed early and fast onset cataracts in both eyes, and was found to have a tumor on my brain stem. (She and I are on good terms - I have named her 'abby normal,' with a nod to Young Frankenstein). I have to believe that all of this is a function of my body keeping the score, and am working actively and creatively to find a way to heal, before this abuse - and the subsequent trauma related to that abuse - does me in at an early age.
I was raped for over ten years by priests and others starting at age 5. I am now 71 years old and have well over 30 diagnoses, most of them chronic and/or permanent. As a teenager and young adult, I developed breast cysts, recurrent urinary tract and vaginal infections, anal fissures, abnormal PAPs requiring surgery, and dental and jaw problems. By the age of 45, I had a massive breakdown with major depressive disorder and severe PTSD. Along with that, over the years I developed IBS and GERD, liver dysfunction from all the medications, severe migraines, fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivities, COPD, unexplained rashes, arthritis, lymphedema, TMJ, swallowing dysfunction and a number of other ailments. Recovery for me did not even begin to truly move forward until I pursued both psychological treatment and support, AND somatic/body work modalities that helped to extract the terror that got trapped in the body tissues.
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.