Here is my current, somewhat incomplete take, on my life story – or the story of my life as I understand it right now (part 2 is here). Based, in part, on the instructions from the Storytelling for Changemakers guide by the School for Change.
I kept getting stuck. The fear I was feeling was paralyzing me. And I had been so excited when I quit my corporate job in April 2010. I was finally on my way to truly live authentically me, something I had vowed to do in July 2007. I just couldn’t get beyond the fear!
I had so many ideas! I wanted to live in community, build a healing house. I couldn’t even get myself to move to a sunnier neighborhood. Sure, I did a lot of things. I wrote a masters thesis on Overcoming Stereotypes against Singles. I got trained in Nonviolent Communication. I learned about Interpersonal Neurobiology and how our brain gets shaped by the relationships we are in. I used all of this to heal myself from the trauma I had experienced. Or so I thought.
Things came really bubbling up when I started another relationship with a man. I got triggered right and left. The smallest things seemed to upset me. I tried to change, to get myself under control. It seemed the more I tried, the more I lost it. My anger against myself, my self-hatred, and disgust increased. It flared up almost all the time. And I had no idea where it was coming from.
Then I started to read a book that changed everything for me: Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score.
I came to the United States in 1987 to work as a full-time volunteer with a German organization, Action Reconciliation/Service for Peace, designed to reconcile the crimes of the Third Reich, something I wanted to do desperately. During my volunteer time I met two men who I thought would be partners in my quest to make the world a better place. The first one raped me on our first date. The second one married me, so that we could stay together when my visa ended, and then emotionally and sexually abused me. Although the marriage barely lasted four years because we had a child, the abuse continued, enabled by a flawed legal system, via court case after court action.
Trauma impacts our sense of safety. According to van der Kolk, relationship trauma undermines our sense of safety especially harshly because we turn to others for safety in the case of trauma. Our first line of defense against the dangers of the world are our relationships. When those relationships become their own source of danger, nothing seems safe anymore. No wonder I was so scared!
To regain a sense of safety, I needed to reconnect with my body (the focus of this post) and build nurturing relationships (something I will explore in a future post). The problem was, though, that I had learned to ignore my body in a childhood home that overvalued the intellectual. Bodies were just there to transport our minds. This is probably what made me more vulnerable to the men who raped and abused me. I did not know how to read my body’s sense of danger, so I ignored it. Only later did I realize that it had been there – and then blamed myself for not heeding the warning.
So, my healing task at bottom is to create a sense of safety in myself, counteracting the fear of that body, of the bodily sensations that have been so confusing to me. When I don’t understand something, for example why I married a man who would abuse me, I don’t feel safe. As I begin to understand why I had ignored my body’s warning signals, I am learning to hold myself with compassion. In the past, I didn’t know when I noticed the sensations what to do with them. Only later, once I had experienced the abuse, did I understand them. That’s when I started to beat myself up over not listening to my intuition. Now I understand why I hadn’t listened to my intuition: I didn’t know how! I had never learned how to trust my body. More likely, I learned the opposite: I couldn’t trust my body because it would explode in anger, expressing emotion when I tried so hard to be the unemotional intellectual. Thus, I started to suppress my emotions even better, learning to ignore the sensations that came with it. Now, I am tasked with learning to sense what is going on in my body to establish a sense of safety. At least I can already “feel my feet” now, something that seemed baffling to me only a year ago. So, I am on my slow way toward healing!