Today’s post links to My Chronic Fatigue Story 2, where I started recognizing how hard it was to say “No.” The images and concepts here reveal a little of its origins and how invisible adverse childhood events or “ACEs” influence my symptoms of chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This process has been evolving since my last post on IBS and art in October. There is a joy and a tenderness as I integrate these experiences. I will share more detailed interpretations, pearls, and science in the future. *I’ve updated the title to better reflect the content of this post.
Last summer I started working with two new forms of trauma therapy (1)art therapy and sensorimotor psychotherapy to help me address nervous system patterns that are driving my symptoms. I’ve been using a trauma perspective as my primary approach to healing (2)see The Chronic Illness Model and something is shifting. Even as my symptoms of IBS are continuing to worsen ever so slightly I’ve also had short periods where there has been a little more movement. Where my gut has briefly softened and let go a little. I’ve started sleeping a little more deeply – and for a bit longer – for the first time in years. And in the past month I’ve taken a few walks on an impulse after writing for a number of hours and getting overtired. I have actually been energized by these walks rather than becoming more tired. This is a first in 7? 10? 20 years?
I offer the images in this post as an example of the process of trauma therapy that is usually so hidden from view. It is neither fast nor clear. It is not linear nor predictable. Yet it is deep, intelligent, honorable work. Because our bodies have a language of their own. And the blue print that underlies our chronic symptoms and illnesses is one of health. Given the time, the tools and the support, these patterns can heal.
Getting to play as a part of listening and tuning into my gut, whose worsening symptoms prompted this latest series of trauma sessions, is freeing. It is helping to liberate the part of me that has learned to contain. That wants to Do Things Right and can have trouble sitting in wonder with first attempts and creative projects. A part of me is still learning how to say “Yes” to who I am and to what lies inside.
There is a gift in the process of letting go. Of Taking up Space. And Making a Mess :-).
In this process of drawing, inquiring, and listening I am discovering the extent to which my belly has been holding patterns – of tension, of anger and helplessness, of the impulse to hide and be invisible. The tension has served as a boundary – a protective space – in an attempt to feel safe as a child. One that tried to keep out the invasive words, the ever-present advice and the lack of tender connection. To hold back my mother’s doubts about my ideas and her suggestions on how to better execute my plans. This is one of the ways my body took on the function of “No” when other attempts were not effective.
The tightness and holding I feel in the muscles of my abdomen – and that seem to be inactive in the muscles of my intestines – are still trying to keep those unhelpful words and unwanted interruptions at bay. Even now, in almost every conversation with my mother, even after all these years, the patterns of interruption – and my attempts to keep them out – remain essentially unchanged. Even after trying to communicate this “No” as an adult, using words.
Sure, I’ve gotten better at it – and I appreciate having her in my life – but ultimately I still feel a need to deflect these misattunements.
This is an example of invisible adverse childhood events. Of a subtle and easy-to-dismiss form of relationship trauma – an experience where there were no options to keep the unwanted out and to invite in the safety of connection and of feeling loved and seen. Where escape was not possible and my nervous system resorted to the immobility of freeze. Because the state of freeze is the default – the last resort – when no other options exist.
This is an example in which simple, subtle, normal-looking interactions have lead to states of freeze. This stems from a loss of vagal nerve functioning (also referred to as “the social nervous system”). This is the part of the parasympathetic nervous system that fosters tend and befriend, rest and digest. The system that can dial down the effects of fight and flight and help us find the place of calm. That prevents us from disconnecting and getting lost in states of freeze.
It is the social nervous system that enables our guts to function normally. It is the availability of this system that is involved in healing chronic fatigue and the symptoms of IBS.
I am clearly safe now. And even as a child I was not actually in any danger. But a child’s nervous system does not know that it is safe if it doesn’t experience affection and closeness – or the effectiveness of boundaries and “Noes.” The social nervous system needs to experience bonding, connection and safety in order to grow and develop. And a child needs to share and get help in regulating feelings – of love and affection, of fear or anxiety, of sadness or anger in order to develop a sense of being secure in the world and in relationships. Adverse childhood events play a remarkably potent role in shaping our nervous systems and risk for chronic illness, including those that are hardest to see.
I am growing my ability to experience connection with others in my life. But the repair and development of the social nervous system takes time.
I know that my mother loves me. I know she has nothing but good intentions. But it doesn’t change the fact that some of her own unrecognized trauma – which is not her fault or of her own doing – makes it difficult for us to connect. And that much of that connection feels invasive. I’ll describe some of the ways that mother-child bonds get interrupted by common yet poorly recognized events, including around the time of birth, in a future blog post.
In the long run, these are survival patterns that have gotten stuck.
Patterns from childhood can last long into adulthood. They are usually subtle and buried by the time we grow up. And they often need assistance in order to resolve.
In my explorations the circle keeps emerging.
When I painted the first circle in January – the one at the very top of the page – I was standing in the physical world – on the side where the challenges and fears and opportunities inherent to life in the physical plane are molding me. And I was looking through the portal into a Galaxy. A Holy Space filled with Shooting Stars and Peace and Possibility. I could almost see the Universe on the Other Side. The place where I Am a Soul – a Soul who has no judgment, just curiosity to learn as much as I can from this experience of being human.
I painted this week’s circle on the other side of the last one. After I finished painting with my mop I sat on the table next to Sue, my therapist, and together we looked at the droplets of white paint that I had scattered all over the black paper. It didn’t quite land in my mind until after I’d left that we’d been looking through the portal from The Other Side this time. Sue and I had been sitting in the Galaxy.
This week I got to sit in the Universe. Where I am Loved for Exactly Who I Am. As I Am.
I carry the Galaxy within me.
In the Galaxy, Anything is Possible. I get to be fully who I am without advice or the need to be “fixed.”
I am not broken. And I do not need to hold myself back.
OHHHHH it was FUN!
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