June 29, 2006

A Body of Knowledge

This is the second in a series about trauma and memory.

Body memories, at their most general, are simply any situation where the body is hanging on to old painful sensations from past traumas. That doesn't mean that they have to hurt: they can surface as tension, illness, or bad posture. They can also take the form of a kind of flashback, as if the body is replaying a painful incident.

I had body memories for years without realizing what they were. In one case, I thought that there was some sort of evil spirit in my bedroom that was trying to hold me down and assault me, an experience which I've heard echoed by other survivors. And for years prior to that, I had recurring sharp pains that I tried to ignore. My denial went like this: "It's either some kind of sexually transmitted disease, or it's nothing, and I don't want it to be an STD, so I'll just assume it's nothing and hope it goes away." Not great logic. But many of us hold on to our pain that way because it has some kind of message that we are not yet ready to accept.

In retrospect, I was sending up all kinds of emergency flares. Control issues, phantom pains, a series of dysfunctional and often abusive relationships, blank swathes of absent childhood memories.... But it was not until I got into twelve-step programs and started to work toward having more safety in my life that my memories could surface. It was then that I encountered a book called "When You're Ready: A Woman's Healing from Childhood Physical and Sexual Abuse by Her Mother." Author Kathy Evert talks about her entire experience of recovery from abuse. It made me realize that what I had been experiencing were, maybe, might have been, body memories, which came as a shock - if an immediately denied one.

And with that shock of recognition came a flood of information. One child in my system, the one who had been so attracted to the book in the first place, put it down halfway through to write her own story of abuse. As it became clear that we had experienced body memories all along, and as the intense denial lessened, those physical pains became sharper and more explicit. I learned that the best way to deal with them was with compassion. Whether I was experiencing my own burning and intrusive memories, or the blunted and detached feelings filtered through someone else in my system, the easiest way through them was to embrace what my body was telling me, accept its feelings unconditionally (without worrying about what they meant), and respond with compassion.

Those memories can be as vivid as if I am re-experiencing a rape, but others are less difficult - and harder to identify. For years I slept on my stomach with one leg crooked out to the side. I could not figure out where this position came from; it didn't seem normal It also took me years to be able to touch my toes; I could not even do it in childhood because my hamstrings and hips were too tight. Once I figured this out, I realized that both situations had the same cause: my body naturally wanted to snap into a protective ball, and was keeping my knees tight and trying to bend them up at night for that very purpose.

In "Heart-to-Heart Talk: A Client's Guide to Transformation in Psychotherapy," therapist Julia M. Landis explains that "When therapy is working, it inevitably leads us to surface long-repressed bodily memories of trauma.... During the course of successful therapy, we become unfrozen over and over again. Many of us are shocked to realize just how much we've been through. The benefit is that we become much less reactive and far more responsive to life. As trauma is healed, we recover more of our courage and have much more to bring to the world as a result."

I hope that someday people will look back on this statement as a hopelessly quaint relic of the past, but today it is a fact that every human body collects unresolved traumas. We are crawling toward the point of having a way to heal from each kind of trauma at the moment that it occurs, but these tools are not yet sufficiently widespread. And we certainly don't know yet how to reliably recognize unresolved trauma, much less how to explain it to others or help each other move more quickly toward healing. Some individuals have some good ideas about these things, even extremely effective ideas, but we need this information to be so widespread that very young children can absorb it. It isn't until people grow up with these skills, until they become part of our basic assumptions about how the world works, that humanity will find peace.

comment on this piece. (c) 2006 catherine h.