Rewiring a traumatised brain: ‘You’re safe – I’m here for you now’
The more I discussed my childhood experiences, the more I realised that being inappropriately touched had ruined me
I hear some people have trouble with therapy, that it can take years for them to open up to their doctors, let alone cry or break down. Not me. Day one, I told my therapist, Amy Bernstein, “I’ll just tell you everything , and we’ll go from there”.
I was assigned to her after revealing, during an initial interview to determine the appropriate therapist for my needs, that I’d been touched as a child. I hadn’t planned to bring it up at all, but I was asked directly, so I said, yes, you could say that. (At the time, I avoided the word “molested.”) And yes, it still crossed my mind.
To be honest, what happened had always felt like such a small thing. Many others have had it much worse; I counted myself lucky for only having been touched in subtle ways – a male relative digging his hands in my tiny skirt pockets to “feel around for change”; another bringing his hand to my crotch when he thought I was asleep. These were two of a handful of men who violated me.
Amy recommended books to help me understand what had happened, but I put them down after just a few pages, thinking, “This isn’t for me! My thing is too small.”
But then, as tends to be the case with therapy, things got harder before they got better. I returned to one of the books Amy had recommended, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk, to try to understand my visceral response to remembering.
Van der Kolk is a psychiatrist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder and has worked with a broad range of clients, from veterans to sexual assault survivors. The Body Keeps the Score hinges on his idea that trauma is stored in the body and that, for therapy to be effective, it needs to take the physiological changes that occur into account.
Trauma produces “a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity” and, also, “compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive,” van der Kolk writes. For survivors of sexual assault and other traumas, the amygdala, which initiates the body’s fight or flight response system whenever it perceives danger, can remain activated long after the threat has subsided. In the present, survivors relive their traumas in the form of fragmented images, sounds and emotion that the brain can’t register as belonging to the past. Many people also experience dissociation, which can manifest as literal desensitisation in parts of the body or the inability to describe physical sensations.
This knowledge resonated deeply. The more I discussed my childhood experiences with Amy, the more I realised that being inappropriately touched — between the ages of six and nine — had ruined me. Thoughts of my childhood violations were previously mild interjections in my day, but now they hit me like hot flashes, making me cringe and hyperventilate at work; then, alone at home in my room, cry for hours. I had never felt safe in my body as a child and, as an adult, it had become a protective shell, shutting down during moments both innocuous and intimate, like massages or, perhaps obviously, sex.
I read van der Kolk’s book because (as you can likely tell by the premise of this very column) I like to “troubleshoot” myself and take proactive action to fix whatever needs fixing. The results were a mixed bag, and I’m learning that this is one area in which I need to be patient and, more important, gentle with myself.
He writes that there are three avenues for recovery: “top down, by talking, (re-) connecting with others, and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us”; “taking medicines that shut down inappropriate alarm reactions”; and “bottom up, by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.”
Survivors usually need some combination of the three methods, writes van der Kolk, but the latter – the mind-body connection – is most neglected. His work is predicated on integrating body-focused treatments into trauma recovery work, like yoga, role-play, dance and meditation. Another method he suggests is writing and keeping a journal.
I’ve tried some of these approaches, though not consistently enough to say what “works.” Reinhabiting your body is scary when it has never felt like a safe place, and the process has been slow and excruciating. The very methods that are meant to help are hard to stick to; meditation, for instance, makes me hyperaware of sensations I’ve worked hard to avoid. Still, there have been some moments: Last summer, a personal trainer assigned an impossible exercise – to jump from a squat on to a box and up into a pull up – and I cannot understate the delirious joy I felt when I actually managed to do it. I felt fully embodied then. That’s what I’ve had so far: moments.
It took a while to rewrite what I think of as my “trauma script,” in which I minimised what happened, because I loved the people who had hurt me. Rationalisation was much easier than recognizing the gravity of what was lost: an innocent, healthy childhood and an introduction to sexuality on my terms.
As I write this, I’m wary of being viewed as a victim or even a survivor – any language that defines me based on what was done to me, as opposed to an identity I chose. I was also afraid my story would diminish the experiences of those who have had it much worse. But I felt so lonely for so many years. There were many times I wondered if maybe 6-year-old me had misread what happened, and I don’t wish that painful isolation on anyone.
One exercise Amy has recommended is to soothe my younger self. I don’t have any recollection of a version of me who did not know adult things, so when I find myself angry or defeated by the injustice of my loss, I imagine the child I’ve seen in photographs: two thick pigtails, an ugly sweater, a hand on her hip.
Sometimes, I lay in bed and voice a belated consolation for her: “You’re safe. I’m here for you now.” – New York Times