The Physical Side of Trauma
I often write about the holistic impact of trauma. When we go through abuse or trafficking in childhood, there is a dramatic effect on our entire being. I have discussed many aspects over the years including my beliefs, my emotional response to life and relationships, and my parenting. But I haven’t discussed one important part of trauma recovery. It is one of the most important parts, but for me, it has recovered organically as a result of the emotional and cognitive work I have done. Maybe that is why I haven’t discussed it. Or maybe it is because I see it as so private. Or maybe I don’t want to be that vulnerable.
But I think it is important to highlight how my physical body has handled the trauma, and more importantly, how it is doing today. I think that many people wonder about the toll of this kind of sexual and physical trauma on a small child. And other survivors wonder if they are the only ones experiencing the physical symptoms. So I will share my experiences because that discussion needs to happen.
Trauma in My Body
My dissociation made it impossible to remember the physical sensations of each traumatic incident, and for that, I am grateful. But my earliest recollection is a body filled with pain. After I dissociated and stopped dealing with my experiences on an emotional level, I began to feel them physically. The emotions had been tucked away in my organs, muscles, joints and bones, and they weren’t welcome there. My muscles and joints have always been the loudest when it comes to pain. The tension in both caused an early arthritis when I was in my twenties. Some days, I had trouble walking in the morning because of the pain. My hips and hands were the worst. I found it difficult to write. Even a thank you note was difficult.
My immune system was bogged down in the trauma and was no longer able to fight the smallest of colds. Almost everything turned in to a raging sinus infection, bronchitis or pneumonia. In my teens, I had viruses that no doctor could name, even after multiple blood tests. They would tell me that my white blood cell count was high, but they didn’t know why. I had fevers constantly, even when there was no other indication of illness.
But the worst was the affect on my reproductive system. All of those organs stopped functioning. I didn’t ovulate, which caused amenorrhea. My glands were swollen, making intercourse painful. The fertility problems I was experiencing were so significant I felt like I couldn’t even claim womanhood as my own. So the shame from my abuse was exacerbated by these challenges. Even when I did get pregnant with the use of fertility treatments, the pregnancy was a difficult one.
Why is This Happening?
The physical ailments were made worse by the seeming lack of cause. I didn’t have memories of my childhood, so even when a doctor did ask if I had experienced trauma, which was rare, I could not say yes. Most of these problems were attributed to stress, allergies, stress, anxiety, stress. You get the picture. Nobody knew what to do for me, which of course, increased my stress.
I tried changing my diet, my environment, my exercise approaches. I even tried changing my clothing. I took medication. I got massages and did yoga to calm down. While some things helped, nothing worked completely. And usually, the effects were temporary.
It was not until I started the difficult road of recovery that I began to see results. Interestingly, I was so bogged down in the emotional deluge that I didn’t notice for a while. It took years before I stopped to take a breath, and noticed that it had been a long time since I had felt a particular pain or run a fever for no reason. Over time, I noticed that my organs were plugging back in. The amenorrhea vanished. The swelling reduced dramatically. And I went from getting sick five times a year to twice a year. And with kids, that’s good.
But the most noticeable change has been in my chronic joint and muscle pain. Now, it only comes when I am about to retrieve a memory, and it is a great indicator for me to tune in and pay attention. My body posture had straightened dramatically from a defensive posture, which I used to protect my torso. My overly curved spine is almost completely vertical at this point.
But over the past week, I had a sensation that my neck, shoulders and back bones were floating in place, as if they weren’t being supported or held in place by my muscles. They seemed to be shifting a bit more than usual. It was strange, but not bad.
Then today, I realized that strange feeling might actually be “normal”. I went to a massage therapist, which is something I do a couple times a year. It is never pleasant like I hear from others. I do it for rehabilitation because my muscles are so tight. It is usually an hour of painful digging in to tight, tense places in my neck, shoulders and back. So I braced myself for the normal dig in to my shoulder where there has been a rock of a muscle knot for twenty years. Nobody has successfully released it, but everyone tries. Some get close, but it always come right back.
So I braced.
And it was gone!
That constant physical reminder of my past had vanished completely.
And so, I enjoyed my massage today.