- Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
The Story My Body Told
I remember the day I said, “The only purpose for my body is to carry my head around.” I really knew better when I said this, but it was how I lived my life and it still felt true.
The term mental health is probably a misnomer. It signifies our western cultural emphasis on the mind over the body. What I discovered is that I could change thought patterns, but it would never release the trauma embedded in my body.
The understanding of how my trauma was embedded in my body came slowly and the evidence was a physical reality that I had accepted as ‘normal’ my entire adult life. My trauma was in my hips and my hands.
First my hips: I often joked about how I slept like a chicken on a rotisserie. My theme song could have been, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” It was my hips. They would ache deep inside of me during the night and no amount of tossing and turning brought relief. My dad’s hips hurt too. I thought it was hereditary.
Then I went to Yoga and I heard the instructor say that pain is held in the hips. I was not convinced, but I was glad to learn poses that helped to some degree. They said the pose released the pain. It was an interesting thought. (More about trauma and the healing effects of Yoga will be highlighted another day.)
Then I went to therapy and began to release the pain from what appeared to be every part of me. It had to be in every corner of me because it just kept pouring out. One morning I woke up and realized that my hips no longer hurt. Maybe it was the bed; the true test would be if I travelled and slept in different beds—that always made it worse. I discovered the bed didn’t matter and as I began to understand my body better, I knew that pain was not the pain of sleeping on too hard a surface, but something very, very deep inside of me.
The second realization had to do with manicures. I knew, without understanding the language being spoken, that no one wanted to give me a manicure. I saw the looks that were exchanged and felt the shame of being told to relax—again and again and again. I couldn’t explain that I thought I was relaxed. I tried breathing. I tried distracting myself. Nothing helped. Then I found someone who was patient with me and we just worked it out.
Then I went to therapy and my hands began to relax—but not completely. By this time, I knew there must be something, some memory I had not reached that was still holding the pain in my hands. Then we found the memory of when I slipped off a cliff and clung to tree roots until rescued.
Slowly, I began to put the pieces together. I had been waking up clinging to that tree root every day. I was holding onto my life with my hands. One morning while processing this memory, I actually woke up trying to climb over my pillows. I realized, the sense of dread I felt every morning was the knowing that I had to face another day clinging to my life.
I remembered the year when I took my painful hands to the doctor. She ran a test for rheumatoid arthritis and it came back inconclusive. She asked if I typed and I said minimally so she said I had Carpel Tunnel and Fibromyalgia. I was thankful to wear braces on my hands, but never believed that was the problem. I simply learned that if I was under too much stress, it was going to show up in my hands—and I didn’t really know what relaxed felt like.
The last time I went for a manicure, my dear nail technician who has taken this journey with me, said, “I have never felt your hands this relaxed.” Neither had I!
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel A. van der Kolk, states, “As the ACE [Adverse Childhood Experiences] study has shown, child abuse and neglect is the single most preventable cause of mental illness, the single most common cause of drug and alcohol abuse, and a significant contributor to leading causes of death such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and suicide.”
This is a truth that my body knows. To repress my story, I had to disengage my brain from my body where the trauma was being held. Infants are born completed connected to body sensations, but because of abuse my body registered every internal sensation as trauma. We kind of understand that stress is a ‘body killer’ but I believe it is difficult for us to accept the extent that this is true.
Those who have experienced childhood trauma reap a lifetime of physical repercussions. Childhood trauma isn’t something that ‘happened to us’ in the past. It is something that continues to exist in our bodies until healing occurs.
For some of us, it is water under the bridge. My optimistic self doesn’t want to say that, but there are ways that I was affected by my trauma that I can help, but probably never completely change because I did not seek help until I was 61. Never once did a doctor ask me if I had experienced childhood trauma. It was not on the intake sheets I completed. The sheet did ask if I had ever experienced depression. Well yes, but the solution to that was medication and the possibility of trauma was never discussed. It wasn’t that they didn’t care; they just didn’t have trauma as a root cause of physical problems on their radar.
Until the division between our understanding of our bodies, trauma, mental health, and physical health changes, we will simply need to be advocates for each other and ourselves. Most importantly, we need to understand that without help, the children around us who have experienced trauma are holding it in their bodies.
We can try to teach children to control their behaviors (very ineffective and less than helpful), but true healing will only happen when we help them release the pain from deep inside where it is being held. Our very insistence in controlling the behaviors (crying for instance) that the body is using to release the pain is embedding it even more deeply. Their bodies need to release the story before they reap a lifetime of physical repercussions.
Ask me, “Does trauma affect your body?” I will tell you yes. My body held the story.