Re-learning My Bodymindspirit Through Trauma Studies
To complete #DomesticViolenceAwarenessMonth I felt a need to return to my past thoughts on my abuse and trauma, as well as new concepts and frameworks I have been engaging with. This semester I am taking a trauma studies course, these past nine or so weeks have left me sitting with so many thoughtfeelings that I assumed would easily spill out of me. But instead they have settled in. Sitting in the back of my mind, replaying on a loop, connecting back to my memories to try and explain them now through a new lens.
I find myself watching past-me’s actions and choices, analyzing them and providing new meaning. Taking down my new “facts” about myself before/during/after the trauma.
Here I want to spend time piecing together these fragments of time, knowledge and memory--perhaps to reveal and create a new space of engagement. Or at the very least, provide you all with a list of books and articles.
What to do with the silence of trauma?
With the stillness, the hours and days lost to staring at walls, the lost time? With the desire, somewhere, to speak and the overwhelming reality of hiding, repressing, compartmentalizing, sectioning your shattered pieces and hiding the ones that are irreparable. As Gabriele Schwab writes, experiences of trauma such as genocide, war, and rape can lead to soul death and social death (4). And, as Bessel van der Kolk explains in The Body Keeps the Score “These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption” (Van der Kolk, 21). That I can still hear in my head my abuser saying that I was like a broken plate, and no one else besides him would ever want me. I remember breaking a mirror and cutting my own body open. A rupture searching for feeling.
What does the process of bringing these pieces back together look like? Can they all be found?
Anzaldúa writes about these cycles of trauma, the ruptures, the splitting of self, and the journey to put ourselves back together again (Coyolxauhqui Imperative) in “Now let us shift…the path of conocimiento...inner work, public acts” where she describes the seven stages of conocimiento.
The first stage of conocimiento: El arrebato...rupture, fragmentation...an ending, a beginning.
“With each arrebatamiento you suffer un ‘susto,’ a shock that knocks one of your souls out of your body, causing estrangement. With the loss of the familiar and the unknown ahead, you struggle to regain your balance, reintegrate yourself (put Coyolxauhqui together), and repair the damage” (125)
Image from Entre Palabra e Imagen: Galería de Pensamiento de Gloria Anzaldúa. The image shows a yellow bridge with a person crossing under the threshold labeled fissure, crack, aperture, gate, rajadura, agujero, hueco, rupture. At the end of the bride is a drawing of ‘el cenote’ labeled as "pool of images”.
“rupture n., v. To say rupture is to refer to the many ways
in which body breaks. Layers of tissue confronting
the world. Skin, tendon, bone: we pretend we are not
fragile” ( Zwartjes, 17)
Arianne Zwartjes in her book Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy continues to return to rupture as a means of describing the ease with which our bodyminds puncture, crack and break--but also have the potential to heal, grow and rebuild. That these processes, like Anzaldua describes, are cyclical and they change us. “Definitions for the word “recover” include: to get back something previously lost. To bring the self back to a natural condition. To return to a suitable or correct state. To return to a previous state of health, prosperity or equanimity. But healing from wounds actually changes us. We are a different cluster of cells, blood vessels, and tissue once remodeled” (42).
These differences go deeper than the fresh skin of a scar, as trauma irrevocably changes our brains, our perception, our feelings and our senses. In reflecting on my own life after with trauma I continuously return to my silence, and the suffocating realties of depression, dissociation and depersonalization. This is why I think I felt so drawn to Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score, because it offered explanations and answers to my losses.
When describing his findings from fMRIs of patients dealing with PTSD he explains:
“Our most surprising finding was a white spot in the left frontal lobe of the cortex, in a region called Broca’s area. In this case the change in color meant that there was a significant decrease in that part of the brain. Broca’s area is one of the speech centers of the brain, which is often affected in stroke patients when the blood supply to that region is cut off. Without a functioning Broca’s area, you cannot put your thoughts and feelings into words. Our scans showed that Broca’s area went offline whenever a flashback was triggered. In other words, we had visual proof that the effects of trauma are not necessarily different from—and can overlap with—the effects of physical lesions like strokes.” (van der Kolk, 98)
“Deactivation of the left hemisphere has a direct impact on the capacity to organize experience into logical sequences and to translate our shifting feelings and perceptions into words. (Broca’s area, which blacks out during flashbacks, is on the left side.) Without sequencing we can’t identify cause and effect, grasp the long-term effects of our actions, or create coherent plans for the future. People who are very upset sometimes say they are “losing their minds.” In technical terms they are experiencing the loss of executive functioning.
When something reminds traumatized people of the past, their right brain reacts as if the traumatic event were happening in the present. But because their left brain is not working very well, they may not be aware that they are reexperiencing and reenacting the past—they are just furious, terrified, enraged, ashamed, or frozen. After the emotional storm passes, they may look for something or somebody to blame for it.” (van der Kolk, 104-105)
This loss of verbal language also feels like a loss of time, or loss of a grasp in the present. Someone asks you a question, and on some level you process this but you are incapable of answering or moving or responding. Further, as van der Kolk explains “When words fail, haunting images capture the experience and return as nightmares and flashbacks” (van der Kolk, 100). Meaning that while I perhaps couldn’t articulate my trauma, it was having free reign in my mind to play and re-play and re-play and re-play the events.
In Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma, Gabriele Schwab states, haunting legacies are “ things hard to recount or even to remember, the results of a violence that holds an unrelenting grip on memory yet is deemed unspeakable. The psychic core of violent histories includes what has been repressed or buried in unreachable psychic recesses. The legacies of violence not only haunt the actual victims but also are passed on through the generations” (1, Schwab). These strong psychic connections between memory and language within trauma both become erased and just out of reach. Memories and language can feel like a void presence, or in other words, like a haunting. Schwab invites us into the silence, “Sometimes breaking down is an attempt to heal. Sometimes the breakdown of language forces us to listen to the silence, to acknowledge the gap, to inhabit it and rebuild the world from inside out” (50) and “Trauma kills the pulsing of desire, the embodied self. Trauma attacks and sometimes kills language. In order for trauma to heal, body and self must be reborn, and words need to be disentangled from the dead bodies they are trying to hide” (41). Writing about my trauma has been a means of accessing this language for the first time that speaking about it has never afforded me.
This brings me to three connecting paths I want to take you down.
Repetitions, Cycles and Timelessness
Repetitions, Cycles and Timelessness
I always find myself returning to repetition and cyclical healing, returning to Anzaldúa:
“The stages of conocimiento illustrate the four directions (south, west, north, east), below and above, and seventh, the center….In all seven spaces you struggle with the shadow, the unwanted aspects of the self. Together, the seven stages open the senses and enlarge the breadth and depth of consciousness, causing internal shifts and external changes. All seven are present within each stage, and the occur concurrently, chronologically or not. Zigzagging from ignorance (desconocimiento) to awareness (conocimiento), you may in a day’s time go through all seven stages, though you may dwell in one for months. You’re never only in one space, but partially in one, partially in another, with nepantla occurring most often--as its own space and as the transition between each of the others….Bits of your self die and are reborn in each step” (123-124)
Which you can read more on here [Am I #Healing Yet].
However, here I want to sit with repetitions in a new frame: The repetition of trauma experiences in my life. Krizia and I have often joked about how our lives were cosmically set up for us to experience again and again these pains--and that we were also meant to cosmically find each other (but that’s for another time). However, when I was reading Haunting Legacies I was particularly struck by this passage:
“Some lives are hit with catastrophic trauma over and over again; then trauma, with its concomitant strategies of survival, becomes a chronic condition. Defenses and denial become a second nature; traumatic repetition becomes a second nature. Trauma as a mode of being violently halts the flow of time, fractures the self, and punctures memory and language. And then there are those afflicted by what Freud called ‘Schickalsneurose,’ that is, a ‘fate neurosis,’ who seem to be living under a bad spell, haunted by a curse that often precedes their lives, an ancestral curse perhaps, hidden and intangible, relegated to secrecy and silence” (Schwab, 42).
However, the Freudian way of addressing these trauma repetitions as a means to “conquer” or “master” an event on an unconscious level haven’t fully explained my own actions of consciously knowing I am sabotaging myself and wellbeing through risky and dangerous actions. As van der Kolk explains, this compulsion to repeat comes from a need to experience emotion after with trauma leaves you feeling numb and lifeless. “Many traumatized people seem to seek out experiences that would repel most of us and patients often complain about a vague sense of emptiness and boredom when they are not angry, under duress, or involved in some dangerous activity” (76) because “activities that cause fear or pain can later become thrilling experiences” (77). These realities from van der Kolk’s patients provided an explanation for my own actions, actions that I have felt deep shame and guilt about, which I have written about in past #SundaySentiments. That this entanglement of searching for emotion and feeling can lead you to increased danger, anger, arousal, pain, excitement, and then always a deepened feeling of loss and depression and self-hatred. This cycle of emotion and pain mimics all too clearly the oft-used cycle of abuse chart:
Tensions Building: Tensions increase, breakdown of communication, victim becomes fearful and feels the need to placate the abuser.
Incident: verbal, emotional & physical abuse. Anger, blaming, arguing. Threats. Intimidation
Reconciliation: abuser apologizes, gives excuses, blames the victim, denies the abuse occurred, or says that it wasn’t as abad as the victim claims.
Calm: Incident is ‘forgotten’, no abuse is taking place. The ‘honeymoon’ phase.
That you become trapped in the cycle of needing pain to find excitement or happiness, “When you can’t be fully here, you go to the places where you did feel alive—even if those places are filled with horror and misery” (van der Kolk, 151).
This continuous return to the past through flashbacks, memories, or re-enactments of similar situations keeps you lost in the past in the present to a point where life feels timeless. Both never-ending and quickly passing you by. Through flashbacks you are constantly on alert for intrusions from your past into your present (and the future). There is no foreseeable reality or way to know when the flashbacks will end. Through dissociation and depersonalization you feel like you aren’t even experiencing your present reality, a bodymind mechanism for survival. You become disembodied to be stuck in a numb and foggy state with your trauma overtaking reality and yourself. You become stuck where you desperately need to escape from. If we were to engage with psychoanalysis it would explain that the unconscious is timeless and the unconscious is also where our repressed memories and traumas are housed. Always ready to be psychically engaged or triggered, but also shrouded through repression taking years to untangle and understand.
2. Body Pain
What happens to these repressed memories and haunted memories when they aren’t consciously engaged with?
“Traumatic memories come in flashbacks or nightmare. They come in the memories of the body and its somatic enactment. Traumatic memories entraps us in the prison house of repetition compulsion. To the extent that we are successful in banning thoughts and memories, we become a body in pain, leading a somatic existence severed from consciously or affectively lived history” (Schwab, 2). Therefore, even if we ignore or repress these memories the signals from our body about “danger” continue. And these continuous danger signals mean a constant stream of stress hormones on the body. Or as van der Kolk writes “the body continues to keep the score” (104). This “score” becomes apparent through physical symptoms such as “...fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases (114). More presently, those of you who have experienced a panic attack or a frightening situation may have experienced the dorsal vagal complex (DVC) in effect “This system reaches down below the diaphragm to the stomach, kidneys, and intestines and drastically reduces metabolism throughout the body. Heart rate plunges (we feel our heart “drop”), we can’t breathe, and our gut stops working or empties (literally “scaring the shit out of” us). This is the point at which we disengage, collapse, and freeze” (169-170). Showing that the “freeze” option like fight/flight has felt symptoms in our bodies as well. That we shut down, check out, become numb and lifeless. “Once this system takes over, other people, and we ourselves, cease to matter. Awareness is shut down, and we may no longer even register physical pain” (171).
I don’t have the energy to fight anymore, and I find myself “checking” out and mentally disappearing from painful situations more and more often. That this immediately takes me back to my abusive relationships, to every time I have been physically or sexually assaulted, to now every time someone raises their voice at me or starts an argument. Do I have chronic fatigue, chronic pain and my whole host of diagnoses because of my constant trauma responses? Because of my PTSD? I understand that this can be contentious because so many of us with chronic pain and physical symptoms and disabilities get dismissed by medical professionals because it is “all in our head” or it is “just anxiety” or “just depression”.
Our physical pain is real, as is our mental and spiritual pain--I am just waiting for medicine to catch up. For my medical providers to actually communicate rather than further sectioning my body and treating those symptoms as if they are discrete. I am waiting for my whole self to be understood and seen.
3. What story am I telling when I tell “my” story?
Desire: “Damage narratives are the only stories that get told about me, unless I’m the one that’s telling them. People have made their careers on telling stories of damage about me, about communities like mine. Damage is the only way that monsters and future ghosts are conjured. Eve Tuck & C. Ree “A Glossary of Haunting”
I look back on “my stories” I have shared in the wake of “me too” and the desire to have these words and memories housed somewhere besides my own bodymind. And I see, an attempted constructed timeline, descriptive events, and a desire for people to “understand” who I am and how I am. That after with trauma you are left with this often invisible void inside that impacts every relationship you have with others. And all too often these relationships too, like yourself, are fractured and fragmented and perhaps broken beyond repair.
That I had been isolated and fed the story that my friends and family didn’t really know me or what was best for me, that they wanted to make me unhappy by leaving my relationship. Or I was forced to remove people from my life, I was completely alone.
In this loneliness there became a need to reach out, to provide a sort of explanation or reconciliation for my behaviors that I felt guilt and shame about.
And I have constructed many such narratives and stories. I have presented them to classes, at conferences, during workshops, during my own classes, and through my own writing here. As van der Kolk explains “This doesn’t mean that people can’t talk about a tragedy that has befallen them. Sooner or later most survivors...come up with what many of them call their “cover story” that offers some explanation for their symptoms and behavior for public consumption. These stories, however, rarely capture the inner truth of the experience. It is enormously difficult to organize one’s traumatic experiences into a coherent account—a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end” (van der Kolk, 99). That yes, these stories are still true, but there is still so much that cannot be captured in words and so much that escapes from me when I try to grasp it. Who are these narratives serving? What is the purpose of recanting my own trauma for others to “understand”? Is there a way to do this that doesn’t feel like giving up the parts of me that are left? Is there a way to do this that doesn’t feel like I am encasing myself in my trauma?
Coda: When I am telling my story, where do I end? And start?
I think about the oil from Enbridge’s Line 3 that entered the Prairie river on March 3, 1991. The largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.
1.7 million gallons of crude oil into the same river that was in the backyard of my parents first house on the iron range Minnesota.
That the pipeline had ruptured, spilling out its contents onto the frozen river. They say that the ice stopped most of it from entering the waterways, stopping its inevitable move into the Mississippi. But I can’t help but feel the impact of this poison. I can’t help but to draw connections to the cases and cases of cancer in my hometown decades later.
Was this from the oil, or from the years of mining, from the paper mill at the center of town whose smell lets me know that I am home. Beyond my hometown, the ground and lakes of my home state have continuously been poisoned. Leaving behind fear of the contaminants and poison I may have consumed. I remember back to my house the second year or college, and how we had to leave for a month and couldn’t drink the tap water because the ground had been so poisoned by General Mills. That so many lakes have become unswimmable because of human waste or fertilizer, that many cities still cannot drink the tap water because of waste from large corporations.
Can you map your own exposures to toxins?
It makes me grieve for the open wounds snaking across the midwest in the form of oil fields, and in the form of the violence that spreads outward from them. That we need to consider the impact of trauma beyond the individual, as this seeps into communities and families. Through domestic violence, sexual assault, missing women and children.
“Trauma affects not only those who are directly exposed to it, but also those around them. Soldiers returning home from combat may frighten their families with their rages and emotional absence. The wives of men who suffer from PTSD tend to become depressed, and the children of depressed mothers are at risk of growing up insecure and anxious. Having been exposed to family violence as a child often makes it difficult to establish stable, trusting relationships as an adult.” (Van der Kolk, 20).
The realities of trauma are never experienced solely by yourself. It seeps outwards, creeping. Erickson in A New Species of Trouble defines a chronic disaster as “one that gathers force slowly and insidiously, creeping around one’s defenses rather than smashing through them” (21, Erickson). These chronic disasters, such as the pipeline leaks or natural disasters, induce as “lasting sense of dread” (147) because they slowly become a reality and have often already begun before they are detected (151). Further, they don’t ever end “Invisible contaminants remain a part of the surroundings, absorbed into the grain of the landscape, the tissues of the body, and, worst of all, the genetic material of the survivors. An all clear is never sounded. The book of accounts is never closed” (148). These materials too, like traumatic memories, seem ghostlike and can haunt you (150). The toxins and PTSD flashbacks continue on.
Anzaldúa, G. E. (2015). “Now let us shift…the path of conocimiento...inner work, public acts.” In G. E. Anzaldúa & A. Keating (Eds.), Light in the Dark/ Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting identity, spirituality, reality. Durham and London: Duke University Press (117-159).
Erickson, Kai. (1994). A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters. W. W. Norton and Company: New York and London.
Schwab, Gabriele. (2010). Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma. Columbia University Press: New York.
Tuck, Eve and C. Ree. (2013). “A Glossary of Haunting”. Handbook of Autoethnography. Ed. y Stacey Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, and Carolyn Ellis. Left Coast Press. Pp. 639-658.
Van Der Kolk, Bessel. (2014) The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking: New York, New York.
Zwartjes, Arianne. (2012). Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City.