I’ve had increasing symptoms of constipation for 10 years or more, and in retrospect it’s been there in more subtle ways for most of my life.
It’s common to have gastrointestinal symptoms in chronic fatigue and I’ve tried many therapies, from dietary fiber, psyllium and mineral oil; to probiotics, pancreatic enzymes, “stomach acid” and enemas; to Chinese Herbs and acupuncture, ayurvedic herbs and treatment; to homeopathy and more.
Most of these treatments have either caused problematic side effects or have only addressed symptoms in a temporary way. Despite all the trauma work I’ve done the symptoms have slowly been worsening.
I am continuing with a variety of treatment approaches, including juicing and the GAPS diet (for 1 1/2 years so far), daily walks and most recently functional medicine.
Meanwhile, I’m using the context of trauma and The Chronic Illness Model to look for the underlying intelligence that likely lies within this symptom. I have resistance to this process, which is a normal part of working with feelings and sensations that are linked to trauma, but I am slowly chipping away at it.
In today’s post I’ll be sharing the most recent insights and metaphors I’ve discovered as a result of this exploration and how constipation may represent one of the many symptoms of childhood trauma.
I woke up at 12:45 am a week ago and because I was wide awake I decided to use the peaceful quiet of early morning to bring my attention to the issues in my abdomen. Trauma work tends to need the presence of a supportive, nonjudgmental and skillful other person (such as a trauma therapist) but I’ve developed tools through my years of training and personal work that I often use outside of sessions. So I started a conversation with my belly.
I first noticed the familiar sense of anger and tension I’ve been coming to recognize in this area of my body. I’ve become more aware of this in recent years and was reminded of it when writing the post on invisible childhood trauma. There was little support for emotional distress when I was a child and these feelings had nowhere to go. When expression of the strong feelings we all have is not possible, emotions such as anger, anxiety and grief can become repressed, such as through the trauma responses of freeze and immobilization.
One of my patterns has been the unconscious stuffing of these feelings into my gut.
What emerged in my exploration was the image of a huge round stone lying on top of me, centered over my midriff. It looked like the type of moss-flecked rocks we see in the foothills of Colorado – similar to the one below, whose rounded shape I have always found comforting and beautiful.
The fact that I found the image beautiful instead of scary was intriguing. It’s part of the gift of trauma work, in that there are always resources hiding amidst the fear, the anger or the wreckage.
I looked at the mental image in more detail in my mind’s eye and saw the Rocky Mountains in the distance. More beauty.
I noticed that I felt hidden beneath this enormous rock that was so much larger than me.
I felt wonderfully invisible.
This rock was like a fortress that sheltered my soft vulnerable underbelly.
I noticed it’s qualities of shielding protection rather than its weight.
I stayed curious even as I noticed how immobilized and trapped I was beneath it. While I couldn’t sit up with it on top of me and couldn’t reach out, or move, or connect with others, I noticed in the exploration that I really didn’t care.
I preferred having a protector.
This is how survival patterns of fight, flight and freeze are designed to work in the face of threat. They emerge in times of need. When there is sufficient time and resource and we successfully overcome or escape a threatening situation, our brains get the message that we have survived. Our nervous systems can then shift out of defensive patterns and back into states that support rest, connection and safety.
The Resources Within
As I stayed with the image I let myself enjoy the sensations of support from the rock. To my surprise, I realized that the qualities of the rock were qualities I crave.
This is another example of how trauma work is eternally full of the best of surprises.
I let myself notice the qualities of earthy, downward solidity of Groundedness.
The hint of Stillness.
I then started to feel them in my body. In the firm tension in the front of my abdominal wall. And then in a gentle, solidly reassuring kind of way, I started to feel the sense of secure support in the front of my arms and legs. And then also in my torso.
Metaphoric stones and rocks have served me in my life.
They continue to provide a source of protection that I am not ready or able to let go of. I’ve been working to release the fight and flight energy I still have and the immobilizing state of freeze that keeps things out of sight. The process simply takes time. As such, I still have all sorts of sympathetic nervous system energy that leaks out as occasional outbursts of rage, frustration, and grumpiness. And I still have the brakes holding all that energy back.
What I feel is a willingness to be with the unmoving, hidden invisibility of the stone. And that it’s okay.
The intelligence and persistence of symptoms is just part of the nature of unresolved trauma. As I keep growing my awareness of this pattern I will keep differentiating myself from its pull.
Eventually my body and I will find a way to emerge, know that we have made it and that there is no longer a threat to my survival. These states will then be able to shift. It’s a matter of continuing to work with it.
The Metaphor in Everyday Life
I realized at some point during the exploration that I have rocks and stones in many places in my present life.
When I moved to my house I discovered a stash of smooth round river rocks from an old overgrown garden beneath the juniper in my front yard. I used to pile a few of them up to make cairns.
I had what felt like a crazy impulse about 10 years ago and had a huge 1 ton rock installed in the garden bed by my front door.
I also have small smooth black and gray stones on my bedside table. The feature image at the top of this post shows the pollen and dried tulip leaves I kept after removing the spent bouquet. I found the colors striking.
The image below shows the stones I have on my OTHER bedside table.
And so I noticed with a sense of wonder just how much I am drawn to stones. And just how much I seek to grow their strong steady presence inside of myself. The calm steady quality I seek is the natural state of health and balance our bodies are designed to live in when there is no sense of threat. It’s the state that lies underneath the patterns of nervous system activation that I suspect play a strong role in my symptoms of fatigue as well as constipation.
I’ve had a growing collection all these years and never quite fully seen the metaphor and the links so clearly.
Similar Patterns in the Past
After I had completed the exploration for the morning, I drew the image of the rock I had first seen in my mind, lying on top of me (I traced it with a marker for this post to make it easier to see).
I remembered how I had drawn an almost exact replica of this image in 1993. It was during a period of intense stress when I was a newly minted doctor on my very first locum tenens temp job.
I had consulted a psychotherapist after experiencing difficulty getting a full breath for days at a time. He had asked me to draw what it felt like. I’d drawn this very image. My breathing returned to normal fairly quickly with our work together. I hadn’t continued with any further therapy once my symptom had resolved. It was an early sign, however, of a nervous system that is reactive to stress.
I also drew a very similar image in 1996 or 1997, just at the time that I was beginning to experience the onset of my chronic fatigue. I was working full-time as a faculty physician and was starting to question my choice of career. I had been starting to feel that what I was doing as a doctor was not helping my patients. It felt as though I was hurting my soul. I was also overwhelmed by my schedule and the lack of time for a life outside of work.
The image was one that was filled (overfilled) with anger.
Aliveness Underneath the Trauma Response
I made another discovery during my process when I noticed that the sensations of tension in the front of my body were changing. I started experiencing pleasurable tingling with a quality of “energy.” As I stayed with it I came to realize that this was a sense of ALIVENESS.
This is what is stored within my abdomen as well. It is what has been being protected with all the survival energies of fight, flight and freeze. My aliveness is waiting is to be freed.
The metaphor with my belly is reassuring even as my symptoms persist. The information gives me things to chew on and to continue to explore. I had movement in my gastrointestinal tract the day of this trauma work. Maybe it was related. Maybe not. It is an exploration in the process of evolution.
I’ll keep you posted.
My Big Picture Story Linking Adversity to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome ME/CFS