The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk is one of the hardest books I’ve ever read. Dr. van der Kolk dives deep into trauma and how to heal from it in an incredibly touching way. This book ripped me open and gave me tools to look deeper into my pain and understand what I need to heal from it.
In some ways, I feel like I have regressed to my childhood self over the last year, wanting to be taken care of and comforted in ways that I wasn’t cared for or comforted when I was a child. Being confined during the lockdown put me back in the frame of mind of the girl who foiled her bedroom windows because she wanted her external environment to match her internal environment. While reading this book, I had so many nightmares and flashback memories. Things I hadn’t thought about in a decade or more. Things I thought I had worked through and moved on from. Even now, they still felt so real. So fresh. So painful.
I was diagnosed with severe Crohn’s disease at 8 years old but I had kept my illness a secret from everyone for over a year before I finally broke down and told my mother. I didn’t want to be blamed or to be a burden. After admitting my secret, I was blamed and constantly reminded of what a heavy burden I was. I hated my body. I punished it for not behaving how I thought it should behave. It was the enemy for much of my life. My body had been keeping the score, a high score that didn’t equate to winning. Dr. van der Kolk discussed the Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACE) study which explores the impact traumatic childhood experiences have on an individual’s mental and physical health throughout life. The types of traumatic experiences are tallied into an ACE score, the higher the score the higher the chances of health issues and other life struggles such as financial problems or suicide attempts. In 2020, my book club read The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity by Nadine Burke Harris. In addition to discussing generational trauma, ACE scores and their long-term health consequences, she also provided the ACE test. I took the test and was heartbroken, but not surprised, to see the results. My ACE score is 8 out of 10.
Growing up I would foil my bedroom windows and it would be so dark that you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. I didn’t want to see anything, especially myself. I hated looking at myself and even now as a healthy adult, I don’t look in the mirror much. I hated what was staring back at me. Some monster consuming me from the inside out. Dr. van der Kolk wrote, “It’s amazing how many psychological problems involve difficulties with sleep, appetite, touch, digestion and arousal. Any effective treatment for trauma has to address these basic housekeeping functions of the body.” I truly believe my Crohn’s developed from my childhood trauma. I was always scared. I got hit and yelled at every day. I never felt wanted. There weren’t many people in my life that made me feel really loved and even some of them hit and screamed at me constantly. My Crohn’s symptoms kicked off after the death of my grandpa, right before my seventh birthday. He was the only father figure I had ever had and one of the few people in my life that didn’t hit or yell at me. When he died, the world became a much darker place. I never felt safe again. Almost immediately, the digestive issues began. It wasn’t long before the blood started coming out and didn’t stop for almost 15 years. As I got sicker, my home got more volatile. As the abuse escalated, so did my disease. It became a vicious cycle that wasn’t broken until I moved away from everyone I knew.
It took me years of working on myself, often in isolation, before I began heal. I couldn’t heal my body until I had healed from some of the emotional pain I carried. It took so long and I had so many setbacks because I was afraid of feeling. I wasn’t just afraid of feeling pain, I was afraid to feel anything. I was afraid to let myself feel happy or get excited or even feel a bit of relief when I made progress or accomplished something. The anxiety of feeling, or even the potential of feeling something, would send my body into a full blown panic. Dr. van der Kolk stated, “The more people try to push away and ignore internal warning signs, the more likely they are to take over and leave them bewildered, confused, and ashamed. People who cannot comfortably notice what is going on inside become vulnerable to respond to any sensory shift either by shutting down or by going into a panic – they develop a fear of fear itself.” This was me. I was so afraid to feel anything that I remained in constant flare for almost 15 years.
Even though I’ve always known, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I could even admit to myself that I was an abused, traumatized child. Dr. van der Kolk wrote, “Dissociation is the essence of trauma.” I’ve lost a lot of my life to dissociation, feeling utterly disconnected from myself and the world around me. I have many memories of abuse but not many of happiness. People have reached out to me acting like we are long lost friends and I have no idea who they are. I can see from their Facebook that we went to the same school and have many of the same friends but I have zero recollection of them. This has led to me being accused of a lot of things, being a heartless bitch mostly. And I do feel bad for not remembering them, especially when I ask my grandma if she remembers them and she’s like, “Oh yeah, your friend that spent the night over here?” I have had to deal with so much guilt and shame around this. I still feel bad about it but the reality is that it isn’t my fault. I was a very ill, traumatized child, living through abuse day in and day out. My brain did what it had to do to protect me as best it could.
Many times, I was so disconnected from my body, trying to avoid the constant pain that, in a confused insomnia-induced haze, I would wonder if I was even alive. I didn’t feel like a whole person. Just a head with no body, floating in the darkness. I would wonder, “Is this death? This darkness. This nothingness.” Then the pain would return and as much as I hated it, it would be a relief. The pain meant I was still alive. I would think to myself, “I’m not dead yet.” In many ways, pain has been my refuge. Something I didn’t want but needed in some twisted way. It’s how I know I’m still here and I still have a chance to improve things.
Dr. van der Kolk stated, “The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe.” When I started trying to take better care of myself, I decided to get a massage. The first time, and several after to be honest, were not very pleasant or relaxing. I would often still feel just as tense or even more so when it was over. The masseuse would keep saying, “You can relax now,” and I would be so confused because I thought I was relaxed. I didn’t even realize just how stiff my body was all the time. There was an incident when I was sixteen where two large adults, who claimed to love and care about me, pinned me down, bent backwards on a bed, and choked me. I only escaped by digging my nails into the arms of the woman choking me until she bled. When she panicked and backed away, he let go. I had a lot of lower back and neck pain after that that continued well into adulthood. As I began to practice yoga, I started to notice how much I hated backbends. Not only did my low back ache, but I often felt panicked as my spine started to arch. I didn’t feel safe in that position because of the trauma inflicted on me. It’s still something that I have to work on and while reading this book, I found myself avoiding backbends completely.
I used to think that kids needed to be spanked when their behavior was “out of control,” but the more I work on healing myself and the more I learn about childhood trauma, the more I’m against spanking. It’s not ok for the adults with all the power to abuse children into behaving a certain way. My cousin and I often got spanked for fighting with each other. They would yell at us, “Don’t hit,” and then repeatedly hit me so hard I couldn’t sit down. It didn’t teach me not to hit. Quite the opposite. I got in fights all the time. I didn’t know how to resolve my disputes other than to hit and yell because that is how the adults around me dealt with their frustrations. If you want your kids act better, you need to act better. You need to model the behavior you expect instead of beating the shit out of them and then laughing about how they are a mini you. All that does is perpetuate the cycle of abuse. All that does is pass trauma down from one generation to the next.
After undergrad, I worked as a teacher’s aide in a behavior modification class at an elementary. We had a first grader everyone called, “Out of control.” The woman I replaced had even quit because she was convinced he was possessed by the devil. He would often talk about his dad hitting him with a board at home and then he would get in trouble at school and they take him to the principal’s office to get paddled, with a board. When he would come back to class, tears still running down from his red swollen eyes, the teacher would ask if he was ready to get back to work and the first grader would look him directly in his face and calmly respond, “Fuck you.” Paddling him didn’t change his behavior, it just reinforced that adults are abusers who can’t be trusted. And also, fuck them. I totally relate. Getting spanked didn’t make me respect more or behave better. It had the opposite impact on me. It made me have a absolute lack of respect for authority. How can you respect people who are doing exactly what they are telling you not to do?
There were many times during the process of reading this book that my boyfriend came in to find me having just cried, crying or about to cry. Then he would just hold me. It was exactly what I needed, to be cared for and comforted like I never was as a child. I’m so grateful for him. I never thought I could be in a loving relationship with a man who supports me so much on my self-healing journey. He shows up for me in ways that I didn’t even believe were possible. We’ve been together for about three years and I still get scared sometimes. It’s hard for me to understand and accept that he can love me and not expect anything from me in return.
While this book was devastating in many ways, it also gave me so much hope and optimism. The way we view mental health as a society is changing and Dr. van der Kolk provides examples of the incredible healing transformations of so many brave people. I have healed so much through yoga and reading about how yoga and other movement based therapies have helped others is very inspiring. I became a yoga teacher to help others move through their trauma and learn to release their stored pain and suffering through mindful movement like I did. Watching my students heal right in front of my eyes has been truly magical. There are so many treatment methods discussed in the book and I can’t wait to explore more of them. I will definitely read this book again in the future but for now I have much to process. If you’re interested in learning more about trauma and how to heal from it, read this book!
Rating: 5/5 Stars (although this seems low considering how much I got from this book)
If this book sparks your interest, join my online book club! We read and discuss many life-changing books.