Dr. Nadine Burke Harris recently gave a Ted Talks which blew my mind. She spoke about the physiological ramifications of long term childhood trauma. Of course, this hits close to home for me and I’m going to use Dr. Harris’s analogy here because, quite frankly, I’ve yet to find a better one.
Let’s start with the question of what is the human response to danger? Imagine you’re hiking deep in the woods. And then you turn a corner and there’s a bear. The moment you see this bear is also the same moment you have the terrifying realization that he sees you too. What happens to the human body? The brain’s stress response system becomes activated. The hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary gland which sends a signal to your adrenal gland. Immediately stress hormones are released. Cortisol and adrenaline flood your blood stream and in one heartbeat they’re throughout your entire body. Your pupils dilate, your heart races and your airways expand. You’re ready. Fight or run for your life. And this is an incredible response.
If you’re in the woods.
And there’s a bear.
But what, in Dr. Harris’s words, if that bear comes home? What if the bear lies in wait every single day, in your most sacred places – your living room, around your dinner table, in your bedroom?
This is what is called prolonged trauma exposure. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not a psychologist, psychiatrist or even a psychotherapist. I am a survivor who has done so much damn research to try and answer questions that really can’t be answered in my lifetime. If ever. And my journey to survivorhood has lead me to this: childhood trauma has an incredible prolonged effect on not only the psychological self (which is obviously a massive growth factor in childhood), but how our physiological pathways respond to every day stimuli – in other words, our physical make up. And this every day stimuli for people without this exposure is inconsequential to their daily activities. But not so for a survivor.
It is starting to become a well-known fact that exposure to early childhood trauma results in impairment in the nucleus accumbens – the pleasure and rewards center of the brain which is the control for substance dependence. It inhibits the prefrontal cortex which is the impulse control and learning regulator of the brain. MRI results of victims of childhood trauma have shown distinct differences in the amygdala – the part of the brain that controls fear response. It even affects how our DNA is read and transcribed.
Our biological pathways become altered the more that bear rears his ugly head and long term effects of this leads to increased risk of heart problems, cancer, mental illness (as in my case) and a massive propensity towards suicidality. Dr. Harris’s research has led to the realization that individuals who have experienced increased amounts of childhood trauma (violence, sexual abuse, neglect, parental substance abuse, war, etc.), are twelve times more likely to commit suicide than those without exposure.
What I heard is: I am twelve times more likely to take my own life.
That right there my friends pisses me off. The very fact that people like me, through no fault of their own have experienced such horrific experiences are now at risk of these maladies is quite frankly, unjust.
But maybe that is part of the rage that still speaks to me. The rage that still burrows itself underneath the skin of a survivor and breeds. This rage, this over-abundance of emotionality, can turn into mental illness. Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, you name it. It’s there. Childhood abuse primes the brain for future mental illness.
There we have it folks. The fight or flight is always on. The rage has a nutrient rich home in which to proliferate. But what do we do with these feelings? What happens after the therapy session is over, after the layers of the abuse have been peeled away, shed like reptilian skin? These unregulated emotions remain in a state of what I like to call Mr. Hyde. When particular triggers are present, the Hydian quality bursts forth and the survivor is almost entirely unable to control this influx of emotion. There is no emotional regulation and all a survivor sees is that bear in the woods and the fight or flight instinct takes over. This is what is called a dissociative state or dissociation.
I used to rapidly and frequently experience these dissociative states. In fact, I spent quite a few years with Mr. Hyde over my shoulder, ready to unleash the assault of cortisol and adrenaline – and I never chose flight – I was a fighter. Over the years of therapy and with the ability to unleash my story with the unwavering love and support of my husband, I learned to control that emotionality. I satiated Mr. Hyde and my world started to depart from the State of Nature – the fight or flight.
But not always.
A little while ago I experienced a very intense trigger. It was very late at night after a party when I was confronted by a particular individual who I perceived to be a threat – aggressive, suggestive, predatory and very much drunk – and my world split in two. After well over a year of Mr. Hyde’s slumber, he reared his head again, ready for the fight. And I wanted to fight. I wanted to rip, tear, break, destroy. I couldn’t contain it.
My husband knew immediately what was happening to me and although I don’t remember much of what I said or did (this being a part of the dissociative state), I do know he got me out of the situation, ushered me into a taxi and took me home. But I do remember saying to him on the way home, “I wanted to kill him.” And I meant it.
“I know,” he said. He did know but he also knew that wasn’t who I was.
When we got into the house, my emotions were no longer in my control. All the hatred, rage, fury, injustice of my past, grief, everything overwhelmed me and I could think of nothing but burying my face in a bottle of vodka and proceeding to destroy my life. Maybe down too many pills – maybe take them all with a gin chaser. All these thoughts came flooding as I closed the front door behind me.
My husband looked at me and I just said to him, “I’m not okay.” The tears came, angry and hot. I doubled over, grasping my knees, my party clothes soaked with sweat. I was gasping, overwhelmed.
“I know you’re not, baby,” he said. And through my haze, I saw my runners chucked to the floor in front of me. I looked back up at him, confused. “Put them on,” he said.
I took off my jewelry and put on the shoes. When I looked back to him, still pitifully crying, he took my sweaty hands and shoved boxing gloves on them. He then took two targets and placed them on his own hands.
“Hit the targets, left then right. Slow.”
“Huh?” I’d never boxed in my life. And it was 3 in the morning. And I was drunk and crying and furious. I just wanted to keep drinking and create violence all around me.
Violence – then I got it. It takes drunk me a little longer than sober me to get there, but I always do.
I reared up my left arm and with all the force and rage and anger I had in me, smashed that target like I wanted it to explode.
It didn’t explode, but I almost did. My face twisted with malice, I slammed my right fist into the other target. Another sob tore through me. I slammed my fist again, harder, hearing the perfect slap of contact.
“Focus on the center. Keep your elbows up. You wanna knock him out? You gotta make it count.” I heard my husband’s voice smooth in my ears.
You wanna knock him out? Fucking right I do.
My fist made contact again, slamming so hard I felt the reverberations through my arm up to my shoulder. He stepped backwards with the force.
I did it again, with each punch tears coursing down my face. I imagined all the hurt inside me, all the abuse I took, I imagined the abusers, I imagined all those assholes who ever tried to hurt me, or did hurt me, or told me I couldn’t be anything. I imagined that drunk guy earlier that night and how much I wanted to tear the skin right off his face.
And I slammed my fist into every single one of them. Over and over and over until I couldn’t breathe. My husband holding the targets, repeating “Good, faster, left, right. Make the contact. Keep your wrists straight. Elbows up. Don’t stand on the balls of your feet.”
And I listened while I punched and my punches became more forceful, more effective. It felt like I dealt a thousand punches, fight or flight and I was fighting all the fight I’d had built up inside me for a lifetime. Until finally I doubled over, gasping, crying. Satisfied.
“Good,” he said to me, gently pulling the gloves off my raw fists.
I straightened up and looked at him, dried tears on my face, fatigue overcoming me, and said: “Can we do this again? But not at 3 in the morning?”
“Absolutely, my love. Now let’s get some food into you.”
We haven’t stopped boxing since that night. But my aim is much better now.
My point is, fight or flight, those biologically ingrained pathways, the way our brain is structured, is just about entirely out of our control. If we are victims of childhood trauma, it’s almost inescapable how we will react in certain situations – how our brain regulates and processes stimuli. Once we have been exposed to that trauma, once the bear has been invited in, it’s almost impossible to change our physiology. And it sucks, big time.
But our outcome does not have to be dictated by the bear. We do not have to be slave to Mr. Hyde or fight or flight. What we can fight is for the person inside, not the victim, not even the survivor, but the person who will thrive.
All it takes is a little boxing at 3 am.