This relatively new book by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk takes a deep dive into the brain, mind and body, as they relate to trauma.  I haven’t yet finished it but didn’t want to delay sharing it with you.  I wrote briefly about this topic after reading What Happened to You?  by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey.  This book similarly considers the overall impact of how trauma impacts the physical body, including triggering the fight/flight response.  I find it so refreshing to experience the aggregate pulling back of the curtains on what really happens to us when we live in fear over time, both acute, and chronic.

But I didn’t need to read these books to deeply know the truth of this.  After losing our daughter Alexis I haven’t spent a day with our son Zach in his nearly 23 years of life without the cold, shriek awareness that Zach can die at any moment.  I will save that for a longer chat, but rest assured living in chronic fear takes a toll. 

Fortunately I have already benefited from the old “mind-body” connection and rely on the cues it gives me to make decisions.  The result is deep knowing and confident decision making.  I have reached a point where I don’t even need to ask myself if something is a “good” idea, because all I need do is sit still for 60 seconds in the quiet, suspended moments of silence to see how I “feel” and that gives me all the direction I need.

But I wasn’t always so skilled at listening to my body as it screamed for my attention.  Until I began a stillness practice and got curious about the relationship between my mind and my body, it was as if they were two separate entities, and often in opposition to each other.  I didn’t realize that my back pain, colitis, weight fluctuation, random seizure, migraines and a whole host of other frustrating and painful physical states, were really just a result of me pushing all the stress down and trying to out run it.

Fortunately, my mind and body didn’t give up on me and I suppose we now, all play together nicely, or at least, in an awareness that these are components of the same being, not meant to be at odds, but to work in concert, together in the smoothest ways possible. Here’s an example of a time when I hadn’t yet learned to integrate the two, and couldn’t hear my body talking to me until it paralyzed me:

It was Summer of 2007.  I’d gotten certified as a Legal Nurse Consultant, and started my business working with lawyers on their medical cases.  But as with any business, it needed time to grow.  And it wasn’t growing as fast as my bank account demanded, so I was considering picking up some nursing hours over the summer to supplement my consulting income.

I was torn about this.  And I knew I was torn, but I didn’t listen to mind or my body.  When my conscious mind told me this was a bad idea, that my heart was too broken to take care of sick kids, that I should be more patient and the rest would take care of itself, I ignored them.

As a reminder, not only did our daughter Alexis die at 13 months and 5 days old, but our son Emanuel also died at birth.  I delivered and watched him draw his last breath all on the same day, and at the same hospital where I’d worked for many years.  And i continued to work as a nurse, at that same hospital on the same unit for several years after Emanuel’s death which was sheer torture.

So when I wanted to pick up some nursing hours to augment my income, I thought I was being kind to myself by applying for a nursing position at an agency that would assign me to another hospital.  At least this way the people I would work with wouldn’t know my whole ridiculously sad story, and I could do my nursing work in a bubble of sorts.  Soon my consulting income would far surpass these earnings, so I knew it was temporary.

But my body was keeping the score.  I applied on line, fulfilled all requirements, documentation and licensure.  The day came for me to go to an in person interview.  It was a Tuesday morning in July.  After getting Zach on the bus (for the extended school year program) I began to feel the anxiety rising.  I remember getting a cup of tea, which I could not drink, and trying to calm my nervous system which within no time, was running wild.

My heart began racing.  I wanted to take my shower and dress for the interview but the task of figuring out what to wear was overwhelming.  I stood in my room, trying to choose something, so I could get cleaned up and on my way.  Being late is a sin I try not to commit.

But there were bricks in the pit of my stomach, the kind that pile up slowly, but that eventually become the stomach itself, and I couldn’t breathe.  Everything in my body knew this was not the right course of action for me, that being around babies when mine had died was not a healthy choice for me, that I’d spent enough years taking care of others and needed to be more attune to what I was experiencing.

But I was way too good of a sport (#asleep and focusing on finances), to listen to my body that was trying to tell me the score.  I pressed on.  I got myself dressed and keys in hand, did what I often do when I become paralyzed:  I called my Mom.

As I lay fully dressed for the interview, on my back, on the floor of our living room, phone to ear, Mom helped walk me through the sheer panic (which I didn’t understand at the time) and helped ground me.  She helped me understand that yes, this plan all made sense, except that it didn’t.  It wasn’t right.  Even if I didn’t know why, at that moment, I could trust myself that this was wrong thing for me.

I hung up with Mom, and called the agency. I cancelled the interview, apologizing for the inconvenience.  And immediately I felt the physical relief of honoring my body’s alarm system that was sounding for a major emergency.  Within a few short minutes I no longer felt like vomiting, and the shakes were reduced to a tired body that felt like it had been through a major ordeal, which actually, physiologically it had.  There was danger.  There was a threat.  There was conflict.

And then, it was over.  And so were the physical symptoms.  I don’t recall what I did for the remainder of the day but it probably had something to do with promoting my consulting practice.

The culture we live in teaches us that the mind and body are separate.  That the value of a body is how “good” it can look, how “strong” and how “sexy” it can all be.  We should be thinner.  We should not feel aches and pains.  We shouldn’t feel tired.  There is a pill or a shot or a beverage for all of these things.  And there are short cuts to achieving these outcomes in our bodies, like diets and plastic surgery. 

Our culture does not teach us, and fails to inform us that the body is simply an expression of the mind.  That our bodies are the literal manifestation of all that is happening within.  So the mind demands respect, needs care, attention and a chance to protect, and advocate for, our entire beings.  Unfortunately that leads to us treating mind and body like they are two separate stores in a strip mall, instead of being at Costco, where its all connected.  (Thanks for the indulgence on the metaphor!)

The bottom line is that for most of us, if we think about it, our bodies always speak the truth.  We may drug them, or deprive them, or over strain or train them, but the big picture of how we fit, or don’t in a particular situation, job or social engagement is always ready at hand.  We just have to sit still long enough to hear and absorb its messaging.

Since that July Tuesday in 2007 I never thought about going back to nursing again.  And although my heart is in the nursing profession, and I love staying credentialed so I can practice, I maintain a commitment to myself, that when something feels that wrong, there is no way it can be right for me.

The body DOES keep the score.  See if sitting quietly for five minutes today allows you to hear or receive something you have been blocking by staying on the move, and/or anesthetizing.  The ”right” thing is always available to us, we just have to be courageous enough to let it emerge.

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