“I had learned early to assume something dark and lethal hidden at the heart of anything I loved. When I couldn’t find it, I responded, bewildered and wary, in the only way I knew how:
by planting it there myself.”
A while back someone recommended Bessel van der Kolk’s brilliant book, The Body Keeps the Score to me. I’ve now read it twice. Slowly. I am usually a very fast reader but this is both dense in content (though very readable) and profoundly impactful. It explained me to me. When I finished it the first time I felt I had the answers to so many of my long-held questions. When I finished it the second time, I realized I’d formed new questions.
I love that.
Dr. van der Kolk began his career treating men coming back from Vietnam with what was then called shell shock and went on to become one of the world’s premier experts on trauma, and one of the first people in his field to research and understand PTSD as it relates to survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Trauma physically changes your brain. It changes neuropathways, it changes your hardwiring. It can even change your DNA, meaning that trauma and abuse might be intergenerational for reasons that have their roots both in nature and nurture.
Doesn’t that blow your mind and also make the most perfect sense? All wars scar the ground on which they’re fought, usually for generations to come. Isn’t it the most logical, natural thing that when your body is the front line, the battlefield, that future generations are affected as well?
This is why all doctors should be administering ACE tests to their patients as part of the intake process. It’s crucial information. Adverse experiences in childhood affect all aspects of our health throughout our lives. A high ACE score is an indicator a person is at increased risk for chronic disease, mental illness, substance abuse, and violence.
One of the more persistent aftereffects of PTSD is an over-stimulated amygdala- which means your brain looks for and perceives threats everywhere.
We survivors look for threats everywhere, and as I’ve come to understand more and more- we generally find what we are looking for. Our brains are constantly assessing for threats, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we avoid them. Don’t we all gravitate toward the familiar?
How many times did I avoid the guy that was “too nice” and pursue the guy who was clearly… not? The truth is, the nice guy wasn’t TOO nice, he was just less inclined to harm me and I honestly had no idea what to do with that. That kind of security made me deeply uneasy. If I did somehow find myself in a relationship with someone like that, I’d sabotage it. I’d hurt him. I’d poison the water.
I was drawn to the guy who’d hurt me or leave me. That was somehow safer. I understood that. That made sense to me. That guy? I couldn’t get enough of that guy. That guy felt like home to me.
If you are mired in shame, if you believe your only value is rooted in your sexuality, if pain and abuse are your baselines, you will find people to validate those beliefs, and they will find you.
“Our study showed that, on a deep level, the bodies of incest victims have trouble distinguishing between danger and safety. This means that the imprint of past trauma does not consist only of distorted perceptions of information coming from the outside; the organism itself also has a problem knowing how to feel safe. The past is impressed not only on their minds, and in misinterpretations of innocuous events… but also on the very core of their beings: in the safety of their bodies.”
Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
I was speaking with a survivor recently and she professed her frustration at the way she finds herself continuously seeking out things she knows will harm her or cause her trouble- alcohol, drugs, anonymous sex, abusive partners… She wondered aloud why, when she has already been harmed, she seems intent on finding people, places, and things that will cause further trauma.
She seemed surprised by my lack of surprise. I just kept nodding. “Yes. Yes. Yes, yes, yes.”
We all think we’re the only ones. We all build story around those behaviors. We tell ourselves what those behaviors mean about us and it is seldom flattering. Or true. We use those adverse behaviors to make a solid case against our inherent goodness or worthiness.
Survivors are such good prosecutors.
One of my favorite readers has the user-name moth2flame. She told me that like a moth drawn to a lit candle, she comes back time and time again to this blog even though reading my posts causes her pain by stirring up memories of her trauma. I countered that perhaps it’s really that she is drawn to the light for survival- like a sunflower.
I wonder if we aren’t both right.
It’s interesting. Mary and I use the analogy of sunflowers because so dogged is their insistence on survival that they track the sun throughout the day, physically moving, actively seeking the light. Other flowers remain passive, assuming the sun will come back around the next morning. Survivors don’t count on much- they seldom assume help is coming.
We don’t use the image of sunflowers because they are pretty or happy (although they are) we picked them because they are floral badasses. Warriors.
In many ways, survivors of sexual abuse seem to seek the dark over and over again. We’re drawn to that which is harmful and dangerous. Now, to most people that doesn’t really seem like someone trying to survive, but I get it. I think when we are afraid to sit still for THE pain, the original wound, we seek the smaller, voluntary, seemingly more manageable pains. The ones we’re sure we can control, right up until we cannot. We over-eat, we starve, we shop, we rage, we weaponize sex and work and exercise.
I’ve had several people reach out to me lately about self-harm. People seeking help, information- trying to understand why someone would do such a thing.
In the book, Dr van der Kolk relates having been summoned to stitch up a young woman on three consecutive nights after she’d cut herself. He said,
“She told me, somewhat triumphantly, that cutting herself made her feel much better. Ever since then I’d asked myself why. Why do some people deal with being upset by playing three sets of tennis or drinking a stiff martini, while others carve their arms with razor blades?”
I have to say, it makes perfect sense to me. It’s desperate and dangerous, but I get it. And isn’t it ALL self-harm, in the end? Even the prettied up stuff?Even the perfectionism and the hustle? I battled anorexia during times in my life when everything felt terrifying. I might not have been able to control any of the things that were happening to me, but I could live on two pieces of turkey a day. Well, two pieces of turkey and a lot of wine. If that’s not self-harm, I don’t know what is.
The good news is that the brain is quite resilient- meaning that you can re-train your brain. There is no one pathway to healing, but there are many approaches that work for people. Therapy (CBT, EMDR), yoga, meditation, tapping, neurofeedback, hypnosis, reflexology, medication, prayer… for most of us, it’s not one thing.
It’s important to remember that even as we are drawn to potentially harmful things, we are called survivors for a reason- because we have somehow, someway, found a way to endure. We have insisted on our place in this world. We are strong and resilient and seeking. Always seeking.
Like you, moth2flame. Just exactly like you, sister.
Did you know there are also moonflowers? They only bloom in the dark. They’re these beautiful, luminous white flowers that seem to glow in the night and have the sweetest smell. And wouldn’t you know it- what do they attract? Do you know what seeks them out in the darkness?
Moths do. Of course. Moths do. Those mysterious, fluttery, seemingly delicate creatures that come out at night hone in on these nocturnal flowers. The moths ensure their continued survival by seeking out the beauty that is only found in the dark.
I am writing a book and in order to get said book published it is awfully helpful to make the most of your platform. At least, that is what The People Who Know The Things tell me.
Please consider doing the following:
Come hang out with me on Facebook!
Follow me on Twitter!
Come see what my dog is doing on Instagram!
If you’re following me on Pinterest… don’t. And I’m sorry. I don’t even know how I ended up there…
Patricia Walker says
I think I just reached another level of understanding myself.
Bless you and the work you do!!!
Sincerely, Tricia W.
Ahh, hi there.
“One of your favorite readers…” — thanks, that’s super kind of you to say.
Self harm; oh yes, there’s so many different ways. You don’t have to just cut. Or use food or work, although I’ve done those two in the past. You can use the people in your life to hurt yourself with, too. And that’s the worst, the absolute worst, when you do that. (Okay, when I do that. I don’t know if anyone else does.)
One tiny correction. The pain isn’t just the triggering of memories — that’s probably the least of it.
The pain is seeing sunshine when you live in the dark. Of feeling kindness from a stranger when you feel so wretched and unworthy. Kindness cuts as sharp as any knife ever did. When you are full of self-loathing.
The pain is the barbed end of hope that you’re afraid to hope. That baited hook dangling there, and you think you’re a wide-mouthed bass about to be snared and eaten for someone’s dinner, because hope is always misleading. Impossible to keep from feeling, but so often dashed.
I love the sunflower for that information — I didn’t know that about them.
And turns out I didn’t get burned by the fire like I expected, did I? And I’m not quite as much in the pitch dark as I used to be. Oh, there’s still shadows; lots of them, particularly some times of year they can be pretty deep shadows. They are right now. But even if I’m not totally in the sunlight, I can feel its warmth sometimes and not cringe away. I can be like that sunflower, and even lean towards it.
I’m leaning now.
In Others' Words says
it’s super true. You are. xoxox
Well, you’re all over in my journal as my favorite blogger. 🙂 <3
Meredith W. says
So happy to know you are finding rays, if not days, of sun.
Oh Meredith W – you have so been one of those rays, I hope you know that.
This time of year is so hard — I seesaw from despair to… horrible despair. I hate short days and darkness and cold and family centered holidays and all the fake brightness and cheer and must-dos and stress and bustle. The holding up my end of pretending to be normal.
So when Laura pops up in my inbox, or you chime in with some kind words of support.. believe me, it matters. It. Matters. More than you will ever possibly begin to know.
Thank you. <3
Oh my. The Body Keeps the Score is so DENSE and feels like, what I can only imagine would be, reading my own therapist’s notes on me and our sessions…
I remember the first time I took the adverse childhood experiences test. I was a freshman in college and in psychology 101, and the professor administered the test to the whole class. Maximum score, being the maximum shitty childhood – 10. My score – 8. Then she actually asked those with a score of zero or more to raise their hands, which means everyone’s hand went up. Then she moved to one or more. A couple hands actually went down, and I would have bet money those people were lying. She went up in numbers from there. I quickly realized that my score was going to be far higher than the majority, if not the whole, of the class and that I would be left with my arm in the air, like a lone mast of trauma standing in an empty parking lot. So I just put my hand down. It was one of the first experiences I recall of being out on my own and starting to realize that so many parts of my life had been so, so messed up and not at all normal. (Side note: I still to this day have NO idea what her point was in that little hand raising exercise….)
Then I look at the graphs of the correlations between higher ACE scores and all of the “bad habits” of adulthood. It’s like staring at this giant omen of what my life will be. And yet, there’s still a small but furious and fiery part of me that says, ‘fuck you’ to all of those graphs, that says I will NOT bend to those numbers, that I will not be a statistic. That small part of me is fiercely determined to break out of the cycle that I was born into and to shatter the chains of the things that have happened to me. Some days, it is hopeless and beyond exhausting and I want to quit. Other days, the voice becomes a touch more coherent and yells just a little louder than it ever has.
It’s like you have looked into my life with your descriptions of actively seeking out the people who will harm you, whether or not it is conscious. And each time I was hurt again, by another person or myself, there was this sigh of relief and surrender, like what was always going to be finally just was. The shame in that is deafening to all hope and light. But you’re right – that is what feels like home. Danger was home. You say self-harm is “desperate and dangerous,” and I just have to think that those two words are the best descriptors of what has been nearly my whole existence: desperate and dangerous.
And MOONFLOWERS. Seriously? Nature cannot get any more perfect. There are days I can fight to be a sunflower. But some days? Some days, I am a moonflower and just have to continue existing in darkness while trying with every fiber of my battered heart to still find beauty. Turns out, it may be possible.
In Others' Words says
I love you.
Me too, sister. Me too.
Reading your comment is the most ‘not alone’ I think I’ve ever felt.
In Others' Words says
And this is how it works.
I hope it’s okay if I feel a certain kinship with you.
I don’t know what my ACE score would be, but I’m sure my hand would have been up with yours. However, what a ridiculous teacher. Not a very good psychology professor!!
I wonder how many people looked around, and like you, lowered their hands early.
I’m not sure how old you are… but I love your fierceness of spirit. I was like that in high school. I had one aim, and one aim only — get out. Get. Out. As soon as I could.
And I did.
But I didn’t really. Not mentally, not emotionally, not all those impacts that I had no idea about.
So you have that fierceness, and you have the wisdom to be in therapy and working on it all, too.
Good job. Go, you. I have so much hope for you even when I know you don’t hold it for yourself. Can I hold it for you? Is that okay? I would like to do that, if it is.
In Others' Words says
And this is how it works.
I found an ACE test online.
Oddly enough, I also scored an 8. If it was the same one.
In Others' Words says
I’m sure it is.
Thank you for your note. It means a lot to me, and yes, I also feel a certain kinship with you, and I think it is that “me too” experience that Laura refers to. I am certainly not in high school – haha. I will be 30 in the spring. And yes, I also had the single goal of getting the hell out. I did my junior and senior year of high school all in one year so that I could just leave. I was 16 my whole senior year and turned 17 right before graduation and leaving home. I fled to Europe for six months to do volunteer humanitarian work, and it was long before days of me having an international phone plan, so there was no contact with my ‘home.’ Then came undergrad, jobs, grad school, etc., and I’ve still never gone back for any significant amount of time. But like you said, so many parts of me are still stuck and imprisoned back in those years and in that place. My level of tolerance for that imprisonment is waning daily, which I guess is why I’m doing the work. Some days I forget though and just get too tired…
I value the hope you hold for me so much. If it weren’t for the hope that other people carry for me, I’d likely have none… So thank you. Thank you from my heart.
Well I did know you were younger than me. I’m 48 — didn’t get into therapy until 41 and my kids nearly grown, and I’ll carry that regret for the rest of my life, because it sure affected my parenting way more than I would have wanted it to.
I also graduated at 17. Turned 18 in October. Moved across country a month later. I’ve been back to my home state twice: once to get my car and then for my dad’s death and funeral when I was 23. I have no interest of even entering that entire state.
And yet in therapy Monday night, I was in the basement of that house and it was right there and I was right there — and he got me to walk up the stairs and that wasn’t much better but I went out the back door and at least I was outside, outside that house — it was cold but nothing would make me want to go back in.
I know it sounds silly how real that all was, but probably not to anyone reading here, I suppose.
I’m glad you’re doing the work. And I’m glad you’re doing it with more years ahead of you to enjoy the healing. Stay with it. It’s painful as hell, I know, and sometimes never seems to end or have hope, but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other you get somewhere — maybe slowly, maybe in fits and spurts, but somewhere. And somewhere is better than back there. Way better.
Meredith W. says
moth2flame, I love this so much. SO much. You see what you are doing, don’t you? You’re taking someone else’s hand. YOU ARE OFFERING HOPE TO RACHEL, and when I first “met” you here, you didn’t even believe hope was possible for you. I might be dancing in my office chair just a little bit. Maybe more than a little bit.
“Somewhere is better than back there.” Your brain knows this now! It doesn’t feel like it all the time, there are still too many dark moments and dark days, and not enough answers for all your questions–yet–but you are moving forward. There is daylight, even if not completely in your grasp. Hang on! Like you, I am counting the days–down to only a week now–when we will be getting more sunlight every day instead of less.
Hi Laura – thanks for sharing this post again. When I read it last time I bought the book. Only part way into it, I couldn’t believe how relatable it was! Made me sad and happy at the same time- I looked him up and discovered I lived a block away from his center in Brookline 20 years ago and had so many feelings of sadness and regret that I didn’t find him then. Trying to stay with gratitude so I don’t continue to sabotage the progress I have made. As you know it is not easy. So I put this book down and bought the Power of Now for a different focus. Sheila xo