The Body Remembers
The relationship between emotional abuse or neglect, addiction, and chronic illness
When I was a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to escape to another plane, land, world, universe, WHATEVER — where I could practice the magic I KNEW was somewhere within me, and be listened to, loved, and appreciated for exactly who I was.
I was the kid toting around a blue college-ruled notebook from the 80’s on the school bus, writing short stories during field-trip days. I wrote about finding a mystical book in a beach cave that opened a portal — and benevolent orphanage owners who took in any and every kid off the street and treated them all as if they were his own children. I jotted down sense memories of my grandmother’s basement — and the always comforting, nostalgic mildew, linoleum,+ Tide laundry detergent smell. I wrote daily in a slew of journals detailing other children’s opinions and actions against me, and my judgements of their behavior.
My other favorite past time was playing make-believe with fairy forts and damsels in distress in the woods behind our house. I always wanted to be the damsel — the one receiving instead of giving.
If you haven’t caught on by now, I was an only child.
I was an only child, raised by a father dealing with untreated depression, addiction, and anxiety, and a mother who enabled my father’s anger and isolation through codependence and emotional care-taking.
I learned very early on that expressing my emotions, especially if they could be classified as a derivative of anger or pain, was not safe. I had to take care of my caregivers before they could take care of me. My frustration, my loneliness, and eventually, my panic, was best dealt with alone, preferably outside, often written down instead of shared. So I wrote, and I isolated, and I dug deeper and deeper into the depths of my own capacity for fantasy — because that was the only place I ever felt secure.
“Trauma literally inhibits brain development — skewing the mind towards avoidant, anxious, and dissociative behaviors.”
Recently, I learned about Adverse Childhood Experiences— or ACEs, defined by the Center for Disease Control — and how they can affect everything from our behavioral patterns to our immune function in adulthood. Two thirds of surveyed adults reported at least one adverse experience, and the more experiences reported, the higher association with issues such as depression, addiction, low income or unemployment, diabetes, and heart disease. Interestingly enough, these experiences do not have to manifest as physical or sexual abuse. Far more culturally accepted, emotional abuse actively curates our body’s ability to process stress and adverse situations. The CDC defines emotional abuse as having:
A parent, stepparent, or adult living in your home (who) swore at you, insulted you, put you down, or acted in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt.
In addition to the CDC’s research, the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America published findings back in 2014 equating childhood trauma to PTSD. Trauma literally inhibits brain development — skewing the mind towards avoidant, anxious, and dissociative behaviors. It also affects hormonal and immune reactions associated with that trauma. Meaning that the experience of maltreatment as a child can make your body more susceptible to disease and auto-immune responses as an adult. In addition, these manifestations are not merely “psychosomatic,” they are in fact measurable physical symptoms. Being triggered is a real thing. So is becoming physically ill because of panic you didn’t even know you were suppressing.
I was born with asthma. I suffered through monthly sinus infections when I was a tween, treated with round after round of heavy antibiotics. I was diagnosed with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) by the time I was sixteen, and told to eliminate all possibly inflammatory foods in order to heal the damaged inner lining of my digestive system — caused by the years of antibiotics prescribed to treat my overactive immune system. At twenty-seven I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an auto-immune disorder that directly affects my thyroid gland’s ability to manufacture the essential hormone. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Yes, I have experienced several ACEs, and more than a little trauma when it comes to my upbringing and the behaviors it necessitated. My body reacted to stress, panic, or trauma triggers as if they were physical viruses hell bent on bringing me down — when in fact the reaction only ensured that I stayed down. The physical memory of fear and the consequences for expressing my needs is now programmed into my body’s defenses. This has also manifested in my behavior, namely though isolation, retreat into fantasy, and compulsive and addictive reactions. I developed other fantastical escapes for myself throughout the years, namely in terms of emotional dependence, unhealthy attachments, and substance abuse as avoidant and numbing tactics.
By now, I’ve been lucky enough to figure out that what I’ve been doing hasn’t been working. Now, whenever I get a cold, or experience something akin to a depressive episode or compulsive acting out — I have to examine both the physical and emotional triggers I may be experiencing. The only way I know of to “handle” these reactions is through gentleness, curiosity, and asking for help when I need it. I have spent the last five years investing in my mental health, and now it’s time for me to invest in my physical health. I feel proud to say that I have come a long way from the little girl who didn’t believe healthy attachment was possible, who relied on her depression as a friend and used it to justify her continued isolation and detachment from the connections she so dearly desired.
I am fortunate to have a medical professional in my life who is more focused on causation than symptoms, and more than willing to investigate every possible avenue available besides medication. Never before has it been so physically obvious to me how much my body needs help. The chronic fatigue, hormonal acne, digestive pain, and panic attacks that I have taken for granted for so long have finally gotten to the point where I can no longer ignore them. I’m committed to doing whatever it takes to heal my body, because it’s the only one I may ever get.
Simply knowing that I am not alone, I am not crazy, and there are processes sowed within my hormones, my muscle memory, my immune response, that are reacting to things that happened a very long time ago — helps to get me through the darker days. Learning to express myself through words, and use the fantasies I am capable of spinning to my advantage — to create worlds, find clarity, rewrite history — have been my greatest tools. This is my true magic, and I am incredibly grateful that it only took me 27 years to discover it. Leaning into the healthy connections, the unavoidable conflicts that arise between friends and in relationships, standing my ground and expressing and honoring what I truly want — that is what the rest of my life is for. This is how I continue to heal, and honor that I am not, actually, a victim. I am only human, and my first responsibility should and always will be to myself.