Most of us look at our past as...the past. As in yesterday's news. Been there and done that. Maybe we learned a lesson or two.
But for some of us, those of us marked by trauma, the past isn't behind us. Or at least, it's not always behind us. Sometimes it's right beside us. Sometimes it's right inside us.
The past, for some of us, is alive. That's how Bessel van der Kolk describes it in his bestselling The Body Keeps the Score. And that's how he explained it to Kate Bowler on her amazing podcast, Everything Happens.
If you haven't watched Bowler's TedTalk, please do. Right now. It details how Bowler was diagnosed with cancer. Far too young. Far too frightening. And that experience took her out of her conviction that everything happens for a reason and left her stranded at everything happens.
We know that place, don't we? Betrayal. The place where awful things can happen for absolutely no good reason at all. Or at least no reason that makes sense, that we're willing to accept. And no, "my husband is an idiot" isn't a palatable reason for infidelity. Neither is, "to teach us something," even if this pain does, in fact, often teach us something.
But back to Ver Der Kolk. He was on Bowler's podcast to talk about trauma, which is his speciality. Bowler herself experienced trauma when sick, when she discovered that the doctors she turned to for healing weren't available to her unless her insurance company said they were. She felt betrayed and abandoned by a system she had believed had her back.
Yeah, I saw the parallels too.
And I felt such recognition when van der Kolk said for those of us who've experienced trauma, "the past is alive". The way he describes it is that trauma shows up in our bodies in a way that feels immediate. We're walking along the street and notice a man who reminds us our abusive father. We don't think to ourselves, "that guy looks like Dad", our bodies flood. Our breath becomes shallow. Our vision narrows. We want to fight. Or flee. Or freeze. Sometimes, when it's someone with whom we have a relationship, we want to fix.
All trauma responses. All alive. All immediate.
As van der Kolk puts it, "Before too long everything sort of starts disintegrating because your whole body keeps behaving as if you’re back there again."
Back there again. In the past. Except it's our present. And so we dissociate from our bodies. Our brain tries to tell us we're safe. The danger is past. But our bodies are saying, no way. Don't believe you.
Reconnection is the way out of this past-present. Putting our brains and our bodies back on the same team. For van der Kolk, that path is through movement. Yoga. Martial arts. Dancing. It's about being alive, he says: "...your body is both a source of pain and a source of pleasure. So if you if you cut off sensation your body, which many times traumatized people do somewhat successfully, you also cut off your avenues for pain and for pleasure and for change reality and feeling satisfied and feeling alive."
The key is re-embodiment. Finding our way back to our bodies. Integrating those trauma experiences into our present so that we can examine them as what happened (past), not what's happening (present).
I turned to EMDR many years ago, which is something else van der Kolk recommends. It's feels very hocus-pocus-y but, let me tell you, it worked for me and for so many others with whom I've spoken about it.
In the meantime, be gentle with yourself. Find something that reconnects you with your body. Yoga worked for me though there were times when, on the mat, I felt so vulnerable and naked and scared. Stay with it. Breathe through it. Running also worked for me. This is me getting stronger. Faster. So did hiking. I see. I smell. I hear.
And when your husband is 10 minutes late and you go into that nononononononono, where is he this is happening again (yes, I've been there), try to recognize it as a trauma response. It is your body hurtling you through time right back to where the injury happened. Try and feel your body right now. And, if you feel safe enough with your partner, tell him what happens to you when you're in that trauma response. Try to enlist him to support you. This isn't about you being unreasonable or refusing to "move forward". This is about you experiencing a trauma response. This is about you trying to find safety. This is a physical manifestation of your wound. It is, until you heal, beyond your control.
I want that for everyone who comes here. I want all of us to learn how to find that safety in our own bodies. Then and only then can our trauma truly be something that's in the past.