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HEALING IS IN THE ROOT SYSTEM
how trauma shows up in the body, again & again
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It’s raining in Kansas City, where I sit as I write this, and water droplets are clinging to the window. The sound of cars driving past reminds me I’m a body with ears that can hear things. I often forget that I have a body. When a therapist asks me where I feel something in my body, I can never pinpoint it. It’s everywhere or nowhere or somehow both at the same time.
My therapist (let’s call her J) has been dropping some real bombs lately. First, she said, “Our nervous system does not know that space or time exists.” When I drove into Kansas City on Sunday after a few days in Arkansas, I felt a shift in my body. I had spent the week in Bentonville happily alone, reminding myself that I am someone I actually enjoy hanging out with. As the stretch of highway became more and more familiar, I became tense. I felt my throat close up and could barely feel my toes. The intrusive thoughts flooded in. I love the Midwest, but the middle of the country holds so many selves that are hard to look at.
I continue to be in awe at how heavily my body is impacted by what I have experienced. Today, I told J that it’s been hard for me to give people an honest answer when they ask how I am. It’s been even harder for me to be honest with myself about how I actually am. If I think about my trauma as a landscape, I’ve explored all its terrain. I have learned to become a tour guide of the terrain for therapists, people who read my work, and those I’m in relationship with. But the terrain isn’t enough.
One place I’m really seeing it come through with my vaginismus. I fully thought I could tackle it through physical therapy alone, but I am realizing there is a mental block I can’t get past.
J and I started a session talking about the comfort I used to feel in chaos. I spent much of my teenage years and early 20s in unhealthy, sporadic, and infidelitous relationships. I loved sleeping with men and the validation it gave me. This felt comfortable for many years, so much so that when I started dating my now-husband, DJ, I pushed him away because of how different–how safe and permanent–he felt.
J asked about the first time I ever felt abandoned. I talked about when my mom told me she was going to the store and didn’t return for months. Then, I started to talk about when my mother kidnapped me, but before I could finish, she stopped me to ask why my throat sounded so constricted. I hadn’t even noticed.
I’ve seen so many therapists over the last decade that I’ve repeatedly told the story of my childhood–terrain tour guide. It starts the same way each time–in the third grade, getting picked up from school by my mother in the middle of the day. We walked the backroads to a hotel because she said taking the main roads could result in an unwanted run-in with my “unsafe” father. Next thing I know, I’m in the back seat of a grey Caddilac on my way to Houston with a strange man and my mom. Everything from there on comes back to me in fragments.
I continue, and J stops me and says to take a deep breath. She notices my pinhole throat. When I read a poem about my father in a bookstore, I noticed my closed throat–words barely escaping. Mid-sentence, Siri mistakenly interrupted, forcing me to breathe. As I drive by the Boston Market that I ate at with my parents every Thanksgiving, I hold my breath so long I almost pass out, even though it’s a completely different restaurant now. How the air smells in this city as it rains hasn’t changed, and I hate how it feels to inhale memory.
I logically know I’m in a safe place. I have a great support system. I am in a secure relationship. I no longer live in a toxic home. I have tools and resources that I once didn’t. But my nervous system does not know space and time exist. It doesn’t know I’m almost 30. It doesn’t know I don’t live here anymore. It doesn’t know all these years have passed. And I know the little parts of me are just trying to keep me protected–almost as if I’m constantly braced for impact.
I told J that I’ve gotten pretty good at coping and managing my mental health day-to-day, and it’s true. I think back to therapy in my early 20s when I would arrive in my unwashed pajamas, unfed, curled up in a ball in the waiting room, tears pouring out of me. I don’t have panic attacks where I want to thrash against a wall or break windows. But my trauma has gotten good at disguising itself inside of me. It has deep roots; these days, they live in my pelvic floor and throat. They stop me from speaking eloquently, reading my poems confidently, wearing tampons, or even being physically intimate with my partner.
I knew trauma work would be lifelong. I just didn’t think it’d feel like hunting down a Horcrux each time. J and I have only just scratched the surface of my vaginismus, intimacy, pelvic floor issues, and truly my entire story. But I did tell her how frustrated it made me that my pelvie floor issues started shortly after I met DJ. I told her how angry it makes me that I’ve finally found myself in a safe, healthy relationship, only to have to completely shift, change, and relearn how I am intimate because my body decided to find another place to pinhole.
J told me it makes sense my nervous system is so dysregulated. She asked me to tell her what I saw outside the window, and I know she was trying to help me ground, but I am told over and over again I have a dysregulated nervous system, and I don’t know how to regulate it. I’ve iced my vagus nerve. I dance and shake. I have named five things I can see, four things I can hear, three things I can touch, two things I can smell, and one thing I can taste over and over again. Again, I know the terrain. I tell J this, and she tells me healing is in the root system. And now, the untangling begins.
I am reading this book right now, and it’s RUINING ME.
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