The Un-Embodied Trauma Body
I love to watch dancers dance. I actually love to watch them walk and move and stand as well. In the arts department at college I could always find the dancers - they stood so full inside their bodies and it seemed magical to me. They used every bit of space inside their skin and seemed to know where their skin stopped and the air began. I could never figure that out for myself.
As a traumatized kid, my body was a mystery to me. I was in a constant dissociative state in my mind which made me feel so out of control of my body. I felt like I couldn’t keep myself contained. I would be leaking out everywhere until finally someone would get the message across to me that I had gone too far - I was too far into their space or I was touching their things or invading their personal space. I was hugging too hard or walking in zig zag lines down the street, bumping into my sister every third and fifth step on our walk home from school.
In performing, I was more drawn to puppeteering than to acting. I loved being able to hold a character’s body away from my own body - to play out scenes and humor and songs and relationships physically relegated to a space outside my own body. As an actor I had to contend with my own body. As a puppeteer, I could hide my body behind the stage and project a different personality to the world through a fabricated body.
Considering how all-over-the-place my body always felt, I could never understand why I recoiled when others touched me. It seemed to make more sense that I would crave this touch, this gathering of my body into secure space. But I hated the feel of my mother’s touch and dreaded her bids for affection - a hug before bedtime, a snuggle on the couch. These felt somehow physically painful and repulsive to me. I was also never comfortable in clothing. I found a few things I could tolerate - underwear that sat in just the right place, cotton shirts that felt heavy and cool. Pants were always a problem. I never found a pair of pants I loved - so I would just wear the same couple of pairs of jeans over and over until I felt like they somehow belonged to my body, if not on it.
Naked was - and still is, even after full trauma recovery - my favorite clothing.
In college, theater students were required to take dance classes. I was intimidated by how much control the “real” dancers had over their bodies and embarrassed as I tripped and plodded across the dance floor in my awkward body. I purchased a green bodysuit with black stripes down the side and inside that bodysuit I finally felt a bit contained in my own body. I was fascinated with the feeling of spandex on almost every inch of my skin, holding my wandering body tightly into the space within the green with black striped body-shaped container. I would sit in the dormitory hallway in my green leotard with my hallmates, absent-mindedly running my hands up and down my legs - the tight fabric helping me feel them as if for the first time - an action that elicited rage and ridicule from a hallmate who called me a fucking pervert for having the nerve to touch myself in his line of sight.
I believe I felt this body disconnect for a couple of reasons. Trauma specialists have their theories and I have my experience. As a child born medically fragile, my body never started as my own. From the time I was 4 years old my body was always up for grabs by anyone wearing a white coat. As a heart patient, having my chest exposed and leads attached to my torso was a common theme for my life. The message I got from the medical community was a strong admonition that my body did not belong to me if I wanted to say alive, because my body could betray me at any time and simply stop moving and living. This persisted long after life-saving surgery and recovery and well beyond the period when my body was safe from further harm from my heart. Annual exams ritualized the doctor grope and the breasts-are-only-in-the-way chest lead invasion into an experience that reminded me once a year well into adulthood that my body was, indeed, not my own.
Then as I grew older, lest I ever begin to feel comfortable owning my own skin, I fell prey to The Gropers. From the time I had the wee-est of breast buds, there were men in my life who felt as if my body now belonged to them and they could do with it what they pleased. Everyone, it seemed, could cop a feel of Mary - the one-armed vet who hung out on the street corner, the very important member of church council, the high school history teacher, the gum-chewing dentist, a friend’s father, the Chinese exchange student. It felt as if I wore a sign that said “Go ahead cop a feel - everyone’s doing it.” But mostly it just felt like my body wasn’t my own. And that I could only endure as long as I wandered off in my mind and left my body behind.
As an adult, I always hated being pregnant and then nursing my babies. Being pregnant felt as if my body wasn’t my own from the inside out. I would simply surrender to misery and pain almost from the moment my babies began to develop within me - becoming immobile with sciatic pain from the first trimester on. Nursing my babies was a breast-groping nightmare relived on the hour - and one I was supposed to enjoy and cherish.
But laboring - oh how I loved to labor and birth those babies! My first four were born with medication over-riding the “pain” of labor and delivering. I was told how to lay, when to push - the clear message again from the medical community was just shut down, disconnect, and let the doctors do their work. What was intended to help me dull and tune out, only heightened my fear level with invasive medical procedures that once again disconnected my body from my experience of my body.
I was determined the last four deliveries would involve nobody but me and my babies and my body working together in the beautiful dance that Nature invented to bring human life into this world. Every contraction became a surge of power of which I was in control. I used beautiful visualizations to connect to my laboring body and my nearly-born babes. We played ball on the beach, we rode waves in the ocean, together we felt the power of two bodies being in control and working and playing together - all the way until they ended their journey through the birth canal, were placed on my scarred chest, and held skin to skin for their first nurturing touch outside the womb. These birthing experiences, in which I had the ultimate control over my body - control of nature’s powerful contracting and pushing forces - taught me the healing necessity of staying in my mind if I wanted to connect to my body.
On my way to recovery from trauma, I read Bessel Vanderkolk’s important book on trauma theory The Body Keeps the Score, and I wept as I read the story of my life. I read the story of how bodies hold trauma and fear and rage inside of them while the mind disconnects and I finally made sense of the story of my own body. And, indeed, the key to my own trauma recovery was to re-write my body’s story. My body’s experience got to feel heard and understood and validated through movement therapy, and the awakening of my senses with essential oils, the gentle self-touch of Tapping into my body’s energy system, and the fluid movements of the Chinese yoga form Qigong. I challenged myself to engage fully in improvisational theater scenes and worked with a mindfulness mentor to stay safely present in my body with my mind. Through each new healing experience I wove the common thread of life-renewing breath. Simply learning to breathe awakened my body to full sensation and challenged my body to create movement and shape and to stand tall like a dancer.
When we care for children with attachment trauma, we should never underestimate the value of teaching our children to live within their bodies. As young children, we watch their sensory-seeking behaviors and wonder what they’re up to - touching everything, screaming to hear themselves scream, laughing too loudly - living awkwardly within bodies they seem to bounce around in, more than they seem to occupy. As teens we watch them learn to either use or abuse their bodies to tune out the body-mind disconnects. They have too much sex, drink too much alcohol and seek out their next high. What they don’t understand is that their bodies never got to tell their story. Their physical bodies never got to feel heard or understood or validated or comforted in a way that felt safe within. Maybe it's time to find that dance class or soccer team or yoga instructor that will accommodate your child's awkward sense of self and help your child find his or her body in the space it occupies.
This work of trauma recovery is the work of putting the person back into their bodies. It’s not easy. It takes dedication and determination. It takes incredible focus (which is on-the-job training). It takes attention to breath and movement and relationship and attention itself. It takes feeling uncomfortable and unsafe in order to reach a place of comfort and safety. And it is so worth it.