The Body Keeps the Score


Over the last two years since I had a major breakdown in May ’18, I’ve done extensive personal research on a wide variety of topics related to my mental health.  I was partially driven by a desire to find alternative treatments to harsh psychiatric drugs, as well as better explanations for precisely what was happening in my brain, explanations Western psychiatry could not provide.  Over time, the more I researched, the more it became clear that trauma was typically at the root of a person’s severe mental illness.  Not always, but most of the time.  I recalled my therapist’s words from 7 years ago, when he stated that he doubted the existence of mental “illness” as we currently define it, even severe disorders such as schizophrenia.  I thought he was nuts at the time, but after what happened to me, and given my deeply traumatic history, I was certainly willing to give trauma-based theories another go.  Gradually I came to understand that I have the complex version of PTSD, which in me manifests as bipolar and psychotic symptoms.  To psychiatrists, I have a chemical imbalance that gives me “bipolar disorder with psychotic features”.  To a trauma-informed doctor or therapist, however, I have a much more complicated set of brain interactions occurring that are not only NOT treatable with drugs, but CAN be treated with any number of legitimate therapies that psychiatry isn’t even willing to try or test because they compete with their (very profitable) drug treatments.

I had a vague picture of the kind of brain damage that can occur in traumatized children and adults from participating in online support groups for people with c-PTSD, but it was not until I read “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk MD that I truly gained a good understanding of the very hard science behind current trauma research.  The basic premise is that our physical bodies store our memories just as much as, if not more than, our actual brains, depending on the memory.  Many physical maladies can be traced to traumatic experiences, as can mental ones.  In many ways, I felt like I was reading a book about myself because I related to so many of the patient stories that are related within it, as well as to the kinds of emotional and physical effects that trauma has upon a person over time.  Where psychiatry looks at mental illness and immediately subdivides it into ambiguous categories, largely for the purposes of insurance and drug prescriptions, trauma-based viewpoints look at mental illness and understands the symptoms as maladaptive brain reactions to frightening situations that seem to have no end.  If you can retrain the brain not to constantly function in a fearful state, you can help restore balance to a person’s life, often without medication.  Psychiatry says this is impossible and won’t even fund research to look into it: trauma researchers are finding otherwise.

I am also finding far greater personal help and health by following a trauma-informed philosophy towards my mental health than a pharmaceutical one.  While I currently still take medication, and may indeed have to for the rest of my life, I can feel far greater progress towards wholeness as a person by undertaking personal work on my trauma than I ever have by just swallowing my pills every day, or even augmenting my meds with exercise and other lifestyle changes.  It was simply impossible for me to ever achieve anything resembling happiness from just taking meds, and while my manic and psychotic episodes were frightening for myself and those around me, I now understand why they occurred and can take something positive away from them.

Make no mistake, this is a heavy book to read, especially if you have your own traumas to deal with: you’ll almost certainly run across at least one patient story that resonates with you.  Myself, I resonated with a lot of them, from the sexually abused kids, to the kids who merely grew up in “angry” houses, to the kids who just weren’t validated as people, to the woman who suffered from surgical trauma.  I was also, coincidentally or perhaps synchronistically, dealing with an emerging repressed memory that, in hindsight, my subconscious had been warning me was going to surface for at least two or three weeks beforehand.  I spent two days asking myself if I was really remembering something that happened or if my mind was just making shit up, and in reading through my c-PTSD support groups, discovered that I was having a very common experience.  Psychiatry thinks that the phenomenon of “repressed memories” is complete bunk and that vulnerable patients are just “remembering” things implanted by overeager therapists, but many of these people have no therapists to implant ideas into them.  They’re just going about their lives, working on their trauma in the best way they know how, and BAM, they’ll either have a specific traumatic memory emerge, or like me, will just be overwhelmed with the sense that “something bad” happened to them, but they can’t remember what.

After two days of that, I decided it was time to read Dr. van der Kolk’s book, and it blew me away.  I found almost my entire psychological profile explained in simple, yet scientific detail that was easy to understand.  Everything about me, from my difficulty dealing with most other people, to my detachment from certain aspects of life, to my manic and psychotic episodes, and even the more recent problem of dissociation, and especially my lifelong anger problem, were all clearly laid out.  The combination of dealing with the surfaced memory and reading the book was incredibly clarifying, as though I had been looking at my life through a long telescope that was missing a lens, so I could never get a clear picture of anything, including why I had always been so angry.  Knowing specifically why that was the case seemed to have an almost immediate liberating effect, and I found that the almost subconscious buzz of anger that has underlain my entire life since the age of 6 (or before) had disappeared.  Solving the equation of my anger gave me understanding, and for me, that has always been something that will allow me to put a troubling issue to rest.

I still have a lot of work to do.  Just reading certain sections of the book, usually about people talking clearly and openly about their trauma, or acting it out in a theater workshop, made me anxious, so I don’t think I’ll be doing those things just yet.  I’m an extremely private person and have a hard time crying in front of anyone, even my husband, so personal therapy may continue to be a frustrating venture for both myself and my therapist until I can crack through that veneer.  There’s plenty I can and should do on my own, though, all of which is detailed in the back of the book, along with scientific rationale for why those things work: everything from yoga to Shakespeare.  Yoga, walking, and meditation I can do myself, but at some point I may have to pursue some of the other options for treating the traumatized brain, like neurofeedback, which has an amazing effect on the brain.

Perhaps the most important message the book has is its attempt to draw attention to how prevalent trauma really is in our society.  Our biggest threat to public health and the economy isn’t any of the things most people think it is: it’s child abuse.  $1 spent on the prevention and treatment of childhood trauma equates to $7 in *savings* later on in terms of welfare, imprisonment, and other factors.  Our society is doing everything upside down when it comes to preventing the problems that it claims to feel the most anger about, but it’s clear from current sociopolitics that the people in charge do not care about solving the problem of trauma, largely because so many of them are the *cause* of trauma.  Until we solve that problem by voting for progressives who care about the physical *and* mental health of our citizens, all of them, we will continue to spend billions on easily preventable issues in the name of maintaining patriarchy.

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