Our Bodies Keep the Score

It was not until I read Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score that I began to consciously make some of the connections that had been swirling in my head for years. Van Der Kolk makes the clinical and scientific case that our bodies and our brains are deeply altered by trauma. He goes as far as suggesting that childhood trauma “is “arguably the greatest threat to our national well-being,” an assessment I’ve come to agree with.

Trauma can mean all kinds of things, but it really can be as simple as a child consistently getting shut down, encouraged to be quiet, not being seen and honored in his or her emotional life. We need not only to be “loved” in some kind of abstract way; we need to feel loved, and when we don’t, our brain learns all kinds of crazy ways of being and coping with that terrifying reality.

If there is one thing in I know, it’s that although my older brother’s final act was indeed awful, Shane wasn’t any more (or less) “evil” than the rest of us. But he was damaged, and his wounding led to, at times, isolation. That combination coupled with the ease with which a person can get a hold of a firearm in the United States is a devastating combination.

Now obviously there are plenty of traumatized people out there who never pick up a gun, but almost as much damage to one’s self and others can be done with a cocaine habit or by cutting one’s wrists or beating a spouse or abandoning children or, shit, even going through life passively and avoiding difficult situations out of fear. Pick your poison: if your internal self is chaotic and unattended to, destructive behaviors will follow.

I stand by my past observation that Shane dealt, particularly in adulthood, with some serious mental illness symptoms, especially paranoia. The easy answer is that genetics was the “cause” of Shane’s struggles and medicine was the “answer” that was missed. The convenience of those answers is why I don’t fully and completely trust them. By my reading, Van Der Kolk’s research and conclusions seem to affirm my conviction that something so much deeper happened in and to my brother (and to, in other ways, many others, including myself). While Shane’s and my traumas and responses to our traumas weren’t identical, there was plenty in our lives that we did share. And because I could never seem to fix the problems that surrounded me, I decided over and over again (at the unconscious level) that I was a failure. I would bet a lot of money that Shane felt the same way about himself even if he wouldn’t have been able to admit it out-loud to another human being.

In Van Der Kolk’s words, “mental health problems, from drug addiction to self-injurious behavior, start off as attempts to cope with emotions that become unbearable because of a lack of adequate human contact and support.” To go a step farther,

“People who feel safe and meaningfully connected with others have little reason to squander their lives doing drugs or staring numbly at television; they don’t feel compelled to stuff themselves with carbohydrates or assault their fellow human beings. However, if nothing they do seems to make a difference, they feel trapped and become susceptible to the lure of pills, gang leaders, extremist religions, or violent political movements—anybody and anything that promises relief.”

In our political and religious discourses, it’s shocking to me how uncomfortable this simple truth seems to both the left and the right. Rather than really dealing with these problems at their roots, we’d much rather create scapegoats and pass reactive, surface-level legislation to alleviate our own guilt, to absolve ourselves of the difficult responsibility of creating better people and communities. Thankfully Van Der Kolk also points us toward ways to heal from our traumas, but until we agree about source of the problem, all our collective talk about solutions basically amount to that of a hamster on an exercise wheel.

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