In my memoir, you will read about my biological mother’s mental illness, her misattunement to my needs and emotions, and my difficulty to reconcile my fear that I must please her or risk angering and disappointing her. On numerous occasions, she asks impossible things of me. I sometimes reason that if I obey her, she will love me, and if I disobey her, she will not.
In the book titled The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., discusses disorganized attachment, which often occurs in children who experience “seriously disrupted emotional communication patterns with their mothers” (p. 122). Studies have shown that kids who do not connect with their mothers because the mother is misattuned to the child, hostile, or needy, develop “an unstable sense of self, self-damaging impulsivity (including excessive spending, promiscuous sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating), inappropriate and intense anger, and recurrent suicidal behavior” (p. 122).
I realize that my biological mother’s emotional withdrawal, or her erratic responses and behaviors, taught me “to anticipate rejection and withdrawal” (p. 123). As van der Kolk suggests, I had to “cope as well as [I could] by blocking out [my] mother’s hostility or neglect and act as if it [didn’t] matter, but [my] body [was] likely to remain in a state of high alert, prepared to ward off blows, deprivation, or abandonment” (p.123).
To have words for the impacts of what I went through as a kid is both highly disturbing and validating. I see how I survived through the coping mechanism of denial—how I tried my best to ignore my childhood and my past, preferring to go about my business as if nothing bad had ever occurred. I immersed myself in schoolwork and sports. Achieving high marks and working to be a stellar athlete distracted me from the truth about my childhood.
Intermittently homeless and dealing with food insecurity as a child, I developed disordered eating. Even now, though I can logically understand my responses to food stem from my unstable childhood, I often struggle with food–what to eat and how much as well as how to avoid triggering my digestive issues, inflammation, and migraines. Basically, I am regularly torn between feeling like I can control my eating behaviors and fearing that I can’t. My inner child says it’s not my fault; she lets me be the victim. My adult self says I can do anything I put my mind to; she is a control freak.
The real me sits somewhere in the middle, straddling the blurred line between weakness and strength, compassion and determination. Here is a simple analogy: I want the donut because it tastes good and I believe it will comfort me. I eat it because I believe I deserve comfort. HOWEVER, I don’t want the donut because I know it is not a substitute for the mothering I didn’t get. The donut is not considered a healthy choice, and its comfort will be temporary at best, so I don’t eat it. Also, I do not want to be a victim of my childhood, using food as a surrogate mother—I am stronger than that, and I must be my own parent and choose the “healthy” option. THEN AGAIN, if I only have one donut, I am allowing myself to enjoy life, which I also totally deserve. Surely, one donut won’t cause me to be unhealthy. Surely, eating a donut will prove I am not battling food addiction. Eating one donut will prove I have balance, freedom, and restraint. BUT after I eat that donut, I might regret it because even though the act of eating it reveals my strength, it also reveals my weakness. It reminds me that a donut, for me, is never just a donut. THEN, this is all so complicated and frustrated it pretty much paralyzes me. So I eat two donuts or three. Or all of them until the only thing left to contemplate is my shame over not being able to stop eating donuts. The addicted mind operates on a string of lies, attempting to find truth or peace that never comes.
I don’t go through such neurosis every time I eat something, but this is a glimpse of what the impulsive mind does—it becomes a monkey, swinging from branch to branch, questioning and approving decisions until it is too exhausted to continue. The monkey will either land on yes or no, and then, the swinging begins again.
I have found myself trying to explain my reasoning, my “issues” on this topic of binge eating, usually after responding to a food situation in a way others find strange or unnecessarily aggressive. Once, while in college, a friend took a pretzel from my baggie of pretzels without asking. I snatched the baggie from her and berated her for “taking my food without asking.” She felt unreasonably chastised, but what was worse was her inability to hear my apology and explanation for why I reacted like a wild animal fighting to protect its most recent kill. Logically, I knew one pretzel was no big deal, but because of my trauma, I had instinctively reacted out of fear. Trying to get someone to empathize is a losing battle. Most people cannot wrap their minds around why someone would react like I did over a bite-sized carbohydrate. Or they say something like, “Wow, why do you have to make things so difficult? It’s just a pretzel.” Well-intentioned words keep the cycles of inferiority, insecurity, and weakness going. Shame and guilt follow, and depression, self-loathing, and more comfort-seeking, often through food, will likely result.
In my experience, many people do not understand how deep the anxiety goes for a person who has had an abusive childhood. The donut analogy and pretzel situation are just two examples, and I consider myself fortunate enough to be able to logically understand how much my childhood continues to impact my life. Every day, I work to be better, more empowered, balanced, and “in control.” I equivocate a lot. I consider “what ifs.” I defer to others. If I express my needs, I do so with an edge of guilt and frustration because I know that by doing so, I risk being judged by others as someone who is too picky or bossy or anxious or neurotic or high-maintenance or demanding or needy or difficult.
Telling a traumatized person to stop being traumatized is akin to telling an anxious person to relax. It occurs to us that if relaxing and recovering were that easy, we’d certainly have done so by now. Van der Kolk reminds us that “the engines of posttraumatic reactions are located in the emotional brain” and are exhibited as physical reactions (p. 206). The rational brain cannot eradicate emotions or sensations.
Healing the body and mind requires one to own oneself. Van der Kolk explains that “trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself […] The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind—of your self. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed” (p. 205). I have been working on this. The act of writing my memoir has provided many, many years of practice in understanding why I am the way I am. I haven’t been able to conquer the food issue yet, but I know all recovery takes time.
Writing my memoir is one of the best things I could have done to heal my trauma.
One of the physical manifestations of processing my childhood trauma was chronic neck pain and stiffness. Another was chronic migraine—debilitating, stabbing head pain, inability to think, transient aphasia, and light and sound intolerance.
I have sought various doctors and treatments, have undergone numerous scans and tests, missed dozens of social engagements, and spent thousands of dollars trying to get over my ailments and fix my body. I have done yoga, taken meditation courses, tried every diet you can think of and all the vitamins in the alphabet, slept more, slept less, drunk celery juice and protein shakes, et cetera, et cetera. I kept thinking, just one more week of x and my neck and head will get better—just a few more yoga classes, just two more hours of sleep or sunlight, maybe a vacation, less screen time. Maybe if I quit my teaching job, start jogging again, give up alcohol…None of those combinations worked. Until, finally, something did.
Here is the list of some of the treatments that have finally come together to bring improvement for my neck and head pain and stiffness, with the greatest relief coming after #5.
- Botox for migraine
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
- Physical Therapy
- Nurtec, an abortive migraine medication
- Finishing my memoir and signing a contract for publication
It seems remarkable, if unbelievable, that my neck and head pain was largely due to writing the memoir and spending hundreds of hours drafting, revising, and perfecting scenes from my childhood. Literally, I was so focused on the past—on looking back—that my neck stiffened so much that I could no longer turn my head. It was as if my body were forcing me to look forward. It wasn’t until I finished writing the book that I could give myself permission to stop looking back.
I truly believe that writing my memoir brought up trauma I had suppressed so that I could heal it…but I couldn’t heal it until I forced myself to deal with it.
Childhood trauma finds a home in the body. Chronic stress produces cortisol, and over time, it fatigues the adrenal system. There are very real, detrimental consequences for adults who survived traumatic childhoods. By no means have all of my mysterious “issues” disappeared. The healing journey is quite a challenge, and every minor improvement brings more hope.