Many times over the years, people have recommended I read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.
(Or, to give it its full title, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma.)
The book lays out a modern understanding of trauma and describes therapeutic approaches that many traumatised people find helpful.
It also shines a light on the often-shocking ways individuals such as war veterans and abused children were treated in the past. Thank goodness there is more enlightened guidance on offer these days – for those who choose to heed it.
The Body Keeps the Score is widely considered a classic in its field. The more I read of it, the more I see why. As the great Judith Herman (author of another classic text on trauma) has said, it ‘combines the boundless curiosity of the scientist, the erudition of the scholar, and the passion of the truth teller.’
Where trauma meets language
In chapter 14 (‘Language: Miracle and Tyranny’), van der Kolk covers the role of language-based approaches in recovery from trauma.
First of all, he acknowledges that language isn’t all-powerful, and that non-language therapies have a key role in recovery for many people.
For example, a survey of 225 people who escaped the Twin Towers on 9/11 found that the therapies that helped them most were not talk therapies but ‘acupuncture, massage, yoga, and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), in that order’, and that rescue workers had found massage particularly beneficial.
And yet words are ultimately crucial in the escape from trauma:
While trauma keeps us dumbfounded, the path out of it is paved with words, carefully assembled, piece by piece, until the whole story can be revealed.
We know that putting highly personal experiences into words is a challenge even at the best of times; van der Kolk once heard Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan say that ‘The task of describing most private experiences can be likened to reaching down to a deep well to pick up small fragile crystals while you are wearing thick leather mittens.’
And in overcoming trauma, we must also conquer the brain’s natural tendency to keep key regions of our awareness apart:
We possess two distinct forms of self-awareness: one that keeps track of the self across time and one that registers the self in the present moment.
The first of these forms of self-awareness is ‘rooted in language’ and can tell the story of our life, as we perceive it, on demand.
The second is more visceral, and we need to feel safe, and take our time, to put it into words.
(Adding to the difficulty on this score, ‘…the language center of the brain is about as far removed from the center for experiencing one’s self as geographically possible.’)
What’s more, we can’t help but wonder what will happen if, having found the words, we dare at last to share them: ‘being met by silence and incomprehension kills the spirit.’
But we have strong incentives to overcome these challenges, to break through our fears. Unresolved trauma saps our motivation and ravages our health, both mental and physical.
As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself. Hiding your core feelings takes an enormous amount of energy.
Feeling listened to and understood changes our physiology; being able to articulate a complex feeling, and having our feelings recognized, lights up our limbic brain and creates an ‘aha moment.’
van der Kolk summarises this position most succinctly when he says ‘Communicating fully is the opposite of being traumatized.’
Putting traumatic experience in writing
A great many of us – authors, letter-writers, diarists – have long been aware that putting painful truths into writing can be hugely healing.
Taking the next step and publishing what we write can be daunting, but if the author is ready, and the audience is receptive, it can also reinforce that healing.
These days, I research, write and edit for people whose work has ‘a positive social or environmental impact’.
Sometimes that positive impact comes from very hands-on projects – planting trees, say, or running an education programme. The materials I work on could include handouts, project reports, newsletters or web copy, and in some cases I’ll be writing them from scratch.
But sometimes the good that my clients do arises directly from their words – from what they have to say. This would include many authors and academics. In these cases, my role is to support clients to hone their own written accounts.
Last year, writer Sabby Khatri published a moving personal essay about being subjected to predatory racism, and I had the privilege of supporting her to develop and finalise it.
I asked Sabby what it was like to turn this hugely traumatic experience into a piece of writing that she was ready to share with others…
Writing about my experience was an interesting experience in itself.
At first, certain words and phrases kept coming to mind. It was more than ‘l’esprit de l’escalier’ – things I wished I’d said at the time. It was whole phrases and descriptions, and analysis of what had happened. And the words just kept on coming. They were pouring out of me.
As I read and researched more, the tumble of words became difficult to ignore. I started to put the words down on paper. Bits and pieces at first, then whole paragraphs. Scribbled in notes on my phone, scraps of paper at three in the morning. Then I found myself going back and moving things, editing, giving it shape.
At that point I had no idea what it was going to be or what I’d do with it. But as it gradually started to come into focus, I realised this was more than my personal diary style of catharsis. There was a message in this.
From my extensive research, it became evident that predatory racists were not a well-known phenomenon. This was becoming a way for me to tell my story, to be believed and to warn other women of the men who seek out women of colour to date, gaining their trust in order to racially abuse them.
Before my essay was published online, there was a huge build up for me, a huge sense of trepidation, and I’d done a bit of a promo on Twitter. Then, finally, it was published!
There was no fanfare, no slaps on the back. What I did receive were many supportive comments by people horrified by my experience. Support. Anger. Tears. For me. There was no disbelief. No ‘that’s a load of rubbish’.
Over time, more and more people have contacted me to share their support – sometimes the most unexpected of people. There have been two negative comments compared to hundreds of positive ones.
Overall, the piece has been successful in getting my message ‘out there’. To my surprise and delight, I was curated on Medium in three categories – ‘Relationship’, ‘Race’ and ‘Equality’. And Laura Bates from Everyday Sexism said ‘Thank you so much for speaking out about this and helping to open people’s eyes to this awful form of abuse.’
Perhaps most importantly, a domestic abuse organisation has asked me to speak at their monthly meeting to share my lived experience. Speaking is quite different from writing; it’s really nerve-wracking, but so important for me to get my message out as well as I can.
Writing about my experience was a healing process – I needed to fully acknowledge what had happened, and, most importantly, forgive myself for getting into that situation. Rationally I knew it wasn’t my fault, but trauma isn’t rational. Putting everything into words was a very emotional process and not at all linear, but eventually, ultimately, cathartic.
Speaking out is important. When I was about thirteen years old, I asked my parents how I should deal with racism, I was told to ‘ignore it’. This is bad advice. Ignoring it just fosters a huge sense of injustice and impotent anger. However, writing about it gives you the opportunity to put your thoughts, feelings and emotions into words. It helps you to make sense of it – even if it’s only for you. If you share it with others, then you give yourself the opportunity to be heard. Because you have found your voice.
To finish, I’ll add one final quote from Bessel van der Kolk.
The quest to find the words for one’s inner reality can be ‘agonizing’, he says, but ‘Discovering your Self in language is always an epiphany.’
Working on some life writing of your own? Between drafts and unsure of your voice? Get in touch to tell me more and find out how I could help.