It was a late July day and the clocks were striking noon again and again. That was the right time of summer – sun was high, waters deep and warm. Ripened wild raspberries and blueberries were abundant in the forests. The labyrinths of cemented sidewalks and melting asphalts of overcrowded cities were leading to suffering those who did not find a way out and flee. Therefore, I got a ride to a faraway town on countryside and settled down for few days with my friends.
I had no expectations for my visit, so we just sat in the garden and talked for hours. Made some lunch and talked more. In the summer the twilight dwells almost till midnight and by the time it started to get dark, our stories got deeper and shadier as well. Facing the statistics of trauma in everyday so-called normal lives we had a lot of stories to get into. A lot of my friends are fixing their anxieties, depressions and other conditions, and going through various therapies as well as books.
Everyone can be traumatized
So, the remaining days I spent reading a book from my friend’s library – The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel A. van der Kolk. That was an antipode to the chill lounging around the garden; eating sour cherries from the trees and sipping the occasional bottle of beer. The opening passage of the book is inviting yet frightening: “Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.”
The statistics in our post-soviet corner is as gloomy as that. That is to say, if not worse. Both World Wars stomped back and forth over this tiny piece of land. All our grandparents were involved in war and our parents grew up under occupation. We were thrown in the beautiful capitalism and globalization as if nothing had happened. Indeed, a lot did happen but not enough was shared and understood.
Body keeps the score
So, a book like this explains the crippled facades and suggests about the pain everybody holds back within. It clarifies the funcions of trauma in the body, the mechanisms of trauma represion and the changes in behaviour that we come up with in order to survive. It is a very heavy reading material as it gets graphic and could possibly trigger somebody already suffering. I would say this is a read for professionals or people involved with supporting traumatised people, not a typical self help book.
There is a similar but lighter read (if you are not suffering terribly and you are not a war veteran or sexually abused as a kid or you have those experiences but are afraid to triger the memories) on this same topic. I would suggest a book When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. It explains how trauma keeps living in our bodies and shapes our functioning. The author Gabor Mate is a Hungarian born Canadian doctor whose family partly survived the holocaust. Both books show how excess stress and no treatment predispose people to varying mental and physical health conditions.
Van der Kolk uses his experience over multiple decades to prove that trauma is a very real and serious health issue in the West, if not the most urgent one. And not only health is at stakes but also relationships, communication, employment, education as well as crime, family abuse and substance addiction. And even if nothing seriously bad has happened to you, you might recognise somebody in your circles that has always just seemed turned off or numbed, like an aunt that never even bothered to speak to you. Or that teacher who was super sensitive and overreactive, not really controlling the situation and bursting in tears far too often. Or you had a best friend whos family was more in your house than in his or hers. Emotional neglect is hard to spot because on the surface everything is functioning but parents no being able to attune to their kids do a great deal of damage to their kids even if they love them dearly (as any parent does).
Trauma is embodied and body can be healed
What the neighbor of my friends loved was mowing her lawn. From the other side of the fence it looked like an obsessive preoccupation and either something was not quite right with her or that already was her therapy. Van der Kolk suggests the therapies that integrate the trauma but do not relive it as the most useful. Last chapter introduces to therapies like EMDR, yoga, drama theatre, neuro feedback and other, backing it up with examples of recovery and scientifically proven success. Although we sadly see that people tend to regress as well. Getting the access to the feelings of your body would be suggested as the starting point – own yourself.
It was refreshing to feel my body against the slightly colder water as we went swimming to the nearby lake. I was zoned out in my book most of the time and going somewhere pulled me back to reality. The water pacified me, and the smell of water plants reminded me of the sunny days of childhood that we spent on the riverside. At one moment I started to worry that I might someday trigger forgotten memories, as Van der Kolk explained those are stored on a neurological level and are not accessible and cannot be talked about the way regular memories can be. I smelled the crushed calamus plant in my palm and nothing bad followed. Moreover, its root could be used as a calming herbal tea as I learned from another friend taking care of her anxiety.
Never underestimate the effects of traumatic events
On the last day of my now-reading-retreat my friends left the town early and I stayed alone, deeply immersed in the final chapters. A lady from the post with an A4 sized letter in her hand freaked me out as she quietly had walked past the gates and sneaked up my bamboo reclining chair where I sat reading – already terrified by the trauma described. I guess my body was keeping the score while reading, the more I took on me, the more a discharge was needed.
So, on the way to the bus station I got caught up in the heaviest thunderstorm that summer. I was passing the church square as suddenly the dark clouds burst open. The big linden trees by the church were of no help from the downpour – for a moment I thought how church can be both your therapy and your repressed memory. Then I crossed the square and got in the bus with water dripping from every piece of me and giggled in relief that this is no big deal.
But heavy rain can be traumatizing, hurricanes do tear down cities; it was 13 years since Katrina hurricane in this August. Some people have got over it, their party spirit and carnival masks of Mardi Gras do not hide anything buried, they are strong. Yet some keep their masks to obscure the pain when celebration is over. After reading the book I never underestimate somebodies’ struggles, because I know, the body is keeping the score and it is draining and demanding. If you believe this kind of insight might help you be more empathetic, I highly suggest you read it now.