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Hello again Lovelies!
It’s Monday. The other Monday, that is. Which means it’s time to announce my book of the weeks.
If you missed the Book of the Weeks 3/13-3/26/2017, click here to read my review of ‘Fig’ by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz along with an exclusive bonus interview with author Sarah Schantz. You definitely don’t want to miss reading her thoughtful answers.
This week, I am taking a break from the beautiful escapism of fiction to introduce you to what I consider to be the definitive text on PTSD. Sorry guys, no author interview this time, but read on; The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk is a book which should sit on every curious learner’s bookshelf.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma
by Bessel van der Kolk
a review by Elizabeth “Betty Mama” Brico
I survived atrocious abuses. Abuses against my body, my mind, my spirit, and my sexuality. Abuses which burrowed into the pit of my being, took seed, and grew into PTSD. Abuses which altered even that ineffable essence which I once believe unalterable. I lived with this reality for eight years before discovering Bessel van der Kolk’s ‘The Body Keeps the Score,’ but it was not until reading this text that I began to truly understand the changes which my trauma effected upon me.
‘The Body Keeps the Score’ distinguishes itself from the thousands of other trauma texts on the market by the authority of its message. This book is masterful both in its scientific veracity, and its ability to carry a compelling narrative. Van der Kolk speaks to the readers in an approachable tone that can be understood by the average intelligent layman, but he also pulls from his extensive research background to validate his claims with a stockpile of legitimate, verifiable scientific studies. Although I find the theories behind math and sciences interesting in general, I am rarely able to read them. I will usually discover, half-way down the page of a textbook, that I have instead been imagining the scene of a teenage alien’s first concert. ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ is the only book-length PTSD resource that I have encountered which is able to engage my creativity-seeking mind while providing legitimate new information.
The basic premise of ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ is that trauma is held by the body. Even when, and in some instances because, we dissociate emotionally and mentally from our trauma, our body captures it. Trauma becomes imprinted as hormonal changes, muscle tension, physical pain, etc. The physical manifestation of trauma can take a form as relatively benign as a headache, or as fatally destructive as an autoimmune disorder. Poets and spiritualists have long tried to convey this understanding; that the body acts as a camera even while the mind’s reel is rendered useless by overexposure. Bessel van der Kolk uses hard science to confirm that this poetic sentiment is actual fact. He describes the ways in which traumatic stress triggers bodily changes that lead to a host of physical difficulties, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and even some cancers.
The book engages readers by introducing us to several characters, each of whom are real-life trauma survivors that van der Kolk worked with or interviewed. These range from childhood incest suivors, to domestic violence survivors like myself, to combat veterans. The text is careful to cover the range of PTSD causes, without lending any of them validity above the other or labeling anything as a “worse” or “weaker” trauma.
I was immediately invested in the stories, because I saw myself, or a possible self, within each of them. These stories recur throughout the text, and reveal different components of the survivors’ unique journeys toward healing. Just when I felt the text was getting a bit too jargon heavy, I was re-engaged by a snippet of narration about one of the survivors. It truly is a masterful text in this sense; able to deliver information in a way which meets the human love for storytelling.
I have to admit that alongside its brilliance, novelty, and evergreen importance, this book is also disturbing. And actually quite triggering for me. I have written frequently about my distaste for “trigger warnings.” Don’t worry! I’m not suggesting that one be added to ‘The Body Keeps the Score.’ Actually, my experience with the book is a prime example as to why I don’t like trigger warnings. I was not triggered into a flashback by reading about another person’s trauma (as far as trauma depictions go, the ones in this book were relatively tame); nor was I overly upset by the correlation of various physical complications to trauma. This book disturbed me because it made me realize that I am an extremely dissociated person.
In one section of the book, van der Kolk describes a patient who could not feel him prodding her foot. She was not paralyzed. She didn’t have nerve damage in her foot. She was simply so dissociated from her body that she was unable to feel parts of it if she wasn’t looking at them while they were being touched.
I thought that was incredulous. How could you not feel your own body if it was being touched? If anything, wouldn’t surviving trauma make you more attuned to bodily touch? Hyperarousal and hypervigilance are common symptoms of PTSD. How can you experience those and then not even feel your own foot?
Fast forward a few evenings. I was sitting at the table having dinner with my family. My girls were eating. It was a rare night when they were both enjoying their food, so I was able to relax and eat; no cajoling or threatening to get bites into mouths. Then my husband scoffed lightly and said, “What, you don’t love me?”
I had no idea why he was saying that. He has PTSD himself and is prone to paranoid self-doubt, but this seemed inexplicable even for him.
“I was playing footsie with you,” he explained. “You didn’t flirt back or respond at all.”
At first I thought he was messing with me. I had told him about the case study from the book. It was too similar, and too easy a prank to play. But after extensive prodding which made me seem like the paranoid one, I realized he wasn’t kidding. He had been touching my foot. And I hadn’t felt it. My feet were under the table. His feet were the table. I wasn’t expecting to be touched. So, besides the touch itself, I had no cues telling me to expect sensation. Which meant that my dissociated body did not experience sensation. Just like in the book.
I read through the book feverishly after that, playing the dangerous self-diagnostic game which vulnerable studying psychologists are warned against. This was a few months before my abuser re-entered my life, during a time period when I had been feeling relatively unaffected by my trauma. It was infuriating to learn that I was actually practicing deep-seated avoidance, and that my body was manifesting the symptoms my mind was denying. I blamed the book for enlightening me to this new, disturbing reality.
But just because something is uncomfortable does not mean it is useless. After the shock of this revelation subsided, I was able to engage with the text on a deeper level. ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ was no longer outlining a hypothetical side-effect of trauma; it was describing my life. As I continued reading, I became better educated about the causes and reasons for dissociation. I began better to better understand when and why I was experiencing dissociation, and I also began to identify when my dissociative state was harmful, and when it was helping me survive through a difficult time.
‘The Body Keeps the Score’ did not just trigger a difficult new understanding. It also helped me begin to navigate the process of healing. While reading this book cannot replace individual therapy, the last chapter does provide guidelines for practical ways to heal the traumatized body. The book stresses the importance of professional help; van der Kolk repeatedly espouses somatic therapy. Unfortunately, somatic therapy is still considered a “fringe practice” and is therefore unavailable to people in the “impoverished” income bracket. Thankfully, the final chapter also describes yogic and massage practices, and other mindfulness techniques, which any person can do on her own in order to begin the process of healing her body.
One of the most depressing aspects of PTSD that I live with is the fact that I am stuck in this body for the rest of my life. When this knowledge flashes into my mind, I begin to experience the shadows of suicidal ideation. I begin to want to escape my battered flesh; I begin to hate the body that has suffered such extensive abuse, and I yearn for a body that is innocent of violence. I know that having access to somatic therapy would change my life. I also know that as long as my family is poor (and there is no end in sight), I will not be allowed to fully heal. ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ is important to me personally because it explains the legitimacy of somatic healing using clear, field examples and repeatable studies. This is the text which can move somatic therapy from fringe practice to best practice, and thus launch a healing revolution.
I recommend The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk to anyone who has ever suffered a trauma, whether she believes herself traumatized or not. I recommend The Body Keeps the Score to anyone who loves someone with PTSD. I recommend The Body Keeps the Score to anyone who wishes to better understand the phenomenon of violence, the effects of trauma, or the fascinating complexity of the human machine.
So, what are you waiting for? Pick up your copy today, on Amazon.com:
Do you have a favorite text about PTSD or mental illness/healing?
Would you like to add anything to my book review?
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