I grew up with the understanding that “real men” don’t cry, and fear is never an option. Often, I was reminded of my emotional weaknesses and in hindsight, the “alpha” in my life regretted not “forcing me to eat glass” so I’d toughen up.
As an adult, I’ve spent more than 20 years trying to identify what’s fundamentally broken in me, making me so much weaker than everyone else. Then, one day, my counselor tells me to read “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. because what’s wrong is I have Complex PTSD.
I was thrown by this diagnosis. I had never been to war or been in a major tragedy, how could I have PTSD? As Van Der Kolk demonstrates in his book, trauma comes in a multitude of shapes and sizes and can start at a very young age.
Through patients’ stories like Noam’s, a 5-year-old boy that witnessed the first plane hitting the World Trade Center from his classroom, Van Der Kolk compassionately relates different types of distressing experiences to their complicated effects on the mind and body.
To process the experience of running to escape falling debris and worse, Noam thought of ways to save people with giant trampolines, should there be another attack.
From there, Dr. Van Der Kolk broadens the scope, looking at patient backgrounds spanning all walks of life, including veterans with PTSD, adult children of alcoholics with C-PTSD, and anxiety. Next, he shines a light on the paths and tools we can use to return to a healthy equilibrium.
Doctors could never identify the causes of my nausea, migraines, etc. These ailments were assumed to be year-round allergies. In “The Body Keeps the Score” Van Der Kolk shows the physical chain reaction that occurs when a survivor’s “trigger” gets pulled.
While allergies played a part in my discomfort, the residual signals shooting through my vagus nerve were at the core of my ailments. My ruminating and self-loathing kept the cycle going. This is where meditation, mindfulness, and yoga can offer some relief.
“How well we get along with ourselves depends largely on our internal leadership skills,” Dr. Van Der Kolk said in the book. “How well we listen to our different parts, make sure they feel taken care of, and keep them from sabotaging one another.”
Independently, talk-therapy is beneficial, but he suggests adding Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy to piece especially disturbing memories back together. This process focuses on the patient’s recollection and guides them from the past to present, then to the future.
“EMDR loosens something up in the mind/brain that gives people rapid access to loosely associated memories and images from their past,” Dr. Van Der Kolk said in the book. “This seems to help them put the traumatic experience into a larger context or perspective.”
From this book, I’ve come to understand that not only was I not defective, but my psychobiology was doing exactly what was intended to survive. Now, I’m in the process of putting the pieces back together so I can better leave them behind.
To learn more about “The Body Keeps the Score” and the science behind trauma, visit Dr. Van Der Kolk’s website at www.besselvanderkolk.com.