let’s talk about trauma

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trauma: 1. an emotional wound or shock often having long-lasting effects. 2. any physical damage to the body caused by violence or accident or fracture etc.

Big, powerful word. It summons up thoughts of war, genocide, violence. Veterans who come home with the invisible wounds of PTSD after having fought in wars. It makes me think about my grandparents who were Holocaust survivors and what they carried deep inside them from what they had lived, from all they had lost. It makes me think about friends who have battled cancer, friends who have lost spouses, friends who – like me – have lost babies. It makes me think about all of the ways life can turn on its head in an instant, when we least expect it, and change us forever – change us down to our very cells.

Did you know that our cells carry our traumas?

I’ve been thinking about trauma lately, naming it, recognizing it inside myself. I’ve been looking at the trauma I still carry – even now, when I am feeling so much better – from the years I felt like such crap because of the auto-immune illness I live with. From the years I was so sick and struggling so completely to feel just a little bit better.

I have spent years – literally years – guided by my primitive/ancient/reptilian brain, living in fight-or-flight mode. I have spent years being cautious, fearful, and so completely careful about every bite of food I took, worried about how each bite would affect my body, frustrated to the point of rebellion that I couldn’t just fucking eat. I developed a superpower during these years: It’s an internal radar that allows me to find a bathroom – anywhere, anytime – within minutes if not seconds. I learned how to manage my condition in often obsessive ways that allowed me to trust my body just a little bit while taking away my ability to ever completely relax.

I developed other superpowers living as a sick person with a hidden illness: I got really, really good at managing my medical care, managing medical paperwork, getting reimbursements. I am the master of customer service calls, especially to health insurance companies. I got really good at researching EVERYTHING and taking what I had learned and the many resulting questions to my doctors. I got really good at developing supportive relationships with those doctors.

Do you see the theme, here, though? I am a fighter, a survivor. If shit hits the fan, I’m exactly the kind of person you want on your team. I fight. I’m persistent. I’m smart. I think 10 steps ahead at all times. I consider all possibilities in advance and I’m always prepared for anything.

But this is a crazy exhausting way to live. Especially when I was already feeling physically unwell. And especially now when I am feeling better.

(Do I even dare write “now that I am feeling better?” Am I really truly feeling better, for real? Can I trust that to be true?)

It’s a difficult lifestyle to unlearn because the trauma is still there – all the way down into my cells.

I was first diagnosed with this condition 19 years ago, after several years of other body challenges. I’ve had years of terrible illness and years with no symptoms at all and no need for meds. I’ve been surprised repeatedly when the symptoms returned, until eventually I came to expect they always would at some point – at least that’s what doctors tell you when you have a chronic condition. I’ve wrestled with whether or not to go on medication, felt frustrated when medication didn’t work or stopped working, and felt tremendous fear at how the medication might be hurting more than it helps.

I am so accustomed to living in a constant state of alert!-caution!-prevention!-attention! that it’s really difficult to turn off. To relax.

To trust my body. To trust that I am well.

The irony: Stress worsens my symptoms. That has always felt like a cruel joke. Just relax and you’ll feel better, I’ve been told, usually by people who are not living with an illness. I ate paleo – gluten free – grain free – vegan – raw – macrobiotic – (whatever) and healed! Try it, it will heal you too! This never helps me, just makes me feel like I’m chasing rainbows. Like I am never doing enough. And it makes me even more terrified of food. And I really enjoy food, a lot. And it’s not like I can just stop eating. Another cruel joke.

So how do we do it – how do we unlearn the fight-or-flight response once it is so familiar, so deeply ingrained in us? Is it possible to release, to heal some of the trauma, to lighten our load?

This is how I start: By writing these words. By naming it. Calling it by its name.

I think we all hold trauma in some form – big or small. I think when we keep it to ourselves, inside ourselves, we allow it to grow bigger, big enough to overwhelm us and drag us down. We are all fractured in some way, aren’t we? We are all imperfect and vulnerable. There is no shame in that. No need to hide our cracks, our scars, our wounds. Our traumas.

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And you? Is there a wound you hold that you’d like to name, to diffuse a little, even to release? How do you do it?

 

 

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seventy-five percent: on nourishment and fear

Nourish

Image source: Nourish Raleigh

Do you like kale? I mean really truly love it? Kale is one of those foods that has two staunchly opposing camps – the kale camp and the anti-kale camp – I have yet to meet someone who is neutral about kale, who could take it or leave it. You either love it or you can’t stand even the thought of it. I’m in the kale camp, but not because I totally and completely adore the taste and texture of kale in my mouth, or its bitter flavor before I drench it in salt, pepper and lemon and saute it in coconut oil. What I like about it is the color and what that dark green (or purple) tells me: I am really good for you. If it’s cooked well, I can even enjoy the chewy grittiness of it. I like the sensation of literally chewing on and swallowing iron and the other nutrients that come in dark leafy greens. And I love kale chips for the salt and pepper and crunch they are vehicles for. But would I eat as much kale if it had the nutritional value of iceberg lettuce? If the experience didn’t come with a message of nourishment? I’m not so sure.

This is the thing, though. I read recently that eating raw kale is not good for you. Raw kale can inhibit the uptake of iodine needed by the thyroid gland, which can lead to hypothyroidism. And it is high in oxalic acid, which binds with minerals in the body and makes them crystalize. These crystals can damage tissues and cause inflammation. So it’s best to cook your kale before eating it.

Okay, I can do that.

But I wonder what the raw food people would say to that. What does that mean for all those amazing “massaged kale” salad recipes out there? What does it mean for the big world of green juices and smoothies? Seems like it is impossible to win if all of a sudden a leafy green vegetable, which even my children’s mainstream pediatrician promotes, is suspect. This is the thing, and the reason I’m thinking about kale at eight o’clock in the morning:

There is always going to be something out there that’s not good for us. 

There will always be a hundred different theories about whether that thing is really bad for us, good for us or benign, and another hundred theories about why. Back in the early eighties when tofu was relatively new to the American grocery scene, pre-Whole Foods when it wasn’t in every store and instead a rare ingredient found in Asian restaurants, it became the new greatest thing, the healthier option to replace meat. At the small health food store in our town, you could find soy products in a hundred forms, but no meat. It was around the advent of soy in our home that the fried steaks and breaded filets of sole my French mom was so good at cooking disappeared and were replaced by spanakopita that was made with ground tofu instead of ricotta, and whole wheat crust instead of filo dough. I actually liked it, though it was definitely not true spanakopita like my Sephardic grandmother made.

But we know now that all that soy is actually not good for you because of the way soy mimics estrogen hormones and confuses the body. The paleo camp has soy at the top of its do not eat list for this and a dozen other reasons, and the paleo diet has in its presentation and coolness factor replaced vegetarianism and veganism as the new hot health trend. In the same way that all the “healthy people” in Hollywood used to be vegetarians, now they are paleo. Please rest assured I am pointing this out for its irony, not because I believe there is any one way for all people to be healthy. I’ve done the paleo thing and I like it for the most part, but for me it’s too much meat – I’m a 3-4 times a week carnivore, not 3-4 times a day. And I actually feel better when I eat some grains on a daily basis. And I love dairy and the goat milk yogurt I make myself is one of the most nourishing things I love most in the world, filled with good, fresh probiotics. And this: I’m not convinced that just because we’ve only been eating grains and dairy as a species for 10,000 years and before that we ate just meat, vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds for millions of years… well, I’m not convinced that 10,000 years isn’t enough time for our bodies to adjust to consuming grains and dairy. But mostly this: I am incredibly resistant to the idea that ALL OF A PARTICULAR THING IS TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY BAD FOR ME. (Except maybe a Twinkie, but there is a big difference between a fluffy yellow thing filled with white stuff of dubious origin with a half-life of a million years and a bowl of homemade yogurt.)

It makes me want to say, Prove it! Prove it for MY body. Prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt that YOUR way will bring me complete healing and consistently radiant health. Forever.

It’s hard to keep up, and I can assure you that I have tried. But not toward a blind goal of generally wanting to feel “better” or do the “right” thing, but to address an auto immune condition in my gut that has been an on-and-off challenge for 20 years. People will ask me, Oh, you’re not eating that, is it because you’re gluten free? To which I once replied, Sort of, about 90 percent of the time. I think it helps, but I’m not 100 percent sure. It’s been literally years since I’ve eaten a sandwich so I’m not sure what would happen if I did. A sandwich. Years. The food I pretty much lived on for the entire 17 years of elementary school (when I wasn’t sent to school with a slice of tofu spanakopita), middle school and high school, and much of college – though by then I had become a vegetarian and incorporated bagels, burritos and pizza to my healthy collegiate diet.

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At some point early in our marriage, probably around the time we had our first child, my husband and I incorporated what we call The 75% Rule. Mostly it applies to what we eat, what we clean our house with, what we clean our bodies with. It also applies to how we parent and to bigger life decisions. I think it’s a very kind and gentle approach to ourselves – guided by the idea that perfection is a trap, an endless black hole that has no end, and if we can aim for doing our best 75 percent of the time, that’s pretty great.

So it means we don’t go into debt buying the $4.00/dozen grass-fed eggs at the farmers market – because even though they are really beautiful and delicious and I wish they were in the budget, our children’s 529 college savings account takes priority. It means we make sure our meat is free of added hormones and antibiotics and splurge on the local, grass-fed stuff once in a while, and we don’t eat meat every day. It means we get some of our fruits and vegetables organic – in particular the ones that are at the top of the eat only organic list – and others non-organic, again because I prefer this to credit card debt of any kind. It means the products we clean our house with are natural, except for the bottle of bleach we keep in the cabinet for unexpected totally gross messes like the dead squirrel one of our cats dragged into the basement last week. It means we don’t spray our lawn with pesticides or chemical fertilizers but will do a non-toxic spray against mosquitoes before they return in the spring. It means we keep a frozen pizza in the freezer for babysitter nights. It means there is always chocolate in the pantry because if any camp believes chocolate is bad for me, I don’t want to know.

It means we do our best without making ourselves crazy, because I know from years of experience that making myself crazy is the #1 worst possible thing for my auto immune condition. Not to mention crazy is not good for my self-esteem or my sanity, and I value my self-esteem and sanity a great deal.

There is always going to be something out there that’s not good for us.

We can spend our lives chasing after the next great thing, the surefire solution to all of our physical ailments or challenges. We can feel constantly like we are never doing enough. And the Enough Trap is in close collaboration with the Perfection Trap in conspiring against us.

Or we can do our best, follow the good feeling that leaves room for the enjoyment of all that is out there, and remember that anything we fear – even if it’s organic, grass-fed, homemade, artisanal, all-natural – as long as we fear it, it will not nourish us. I probably would be fine if I had a sandwich like the kind I used to eat back in high school – roast beef on a French roll with tomato and mayo. I probably would love it, too. Especially with really good bread and really good roast beef and a juicy organic tomato. As long as I could let myself enjoy it fearlessly, just for the purely delicious experience of savoring something good. I’m pretty sure it would taste better than a bowl of kale.