I don’t feel safe enough to speak my truth.

If I don’t speak my truth I feel as if I might die.

***

I desperately need people to like me.

I desperately need to act with integrity.

***

I desperately need people to approve of my every action.

I desperately need to feel free and unscrutinised.

***

I need to feel safe.

I am not safe.

I am never safe.

***

A week ago I woke up and was about halfway to the bathroom when my body announced to me: “I think I’m dying”.

Something sprang in my neck, followed by a sharp cramp that would not let up regardless of how still I held my head. I yelled, and then stopped yelling because that hurt more. I crawled back to bed and tried to find a position in which my neck would not cramp. No position worked for longer than a minute – within a few minutes I was crying from the pain, soundlessly and without moving my head.

Fortunately one of my neighbours is a body therapist. She twisted my neck back and forth, clicked it into place (I screamed quite a bit), and for the rest of the day I was able to move, cautiously. “It’s because you clenched, during the night,” she said. “Because of yesterday’s stress.”

“I know, I do that,” I responded, exasperated with myself. On the surface, I handle (short-term) stressful events well. But the day after, I invariably wake up with a cramp in my back, or a shoulder that feels dislocated, or a migraine.

For the rest of the day I wobbled around from couch to floor, occasionally spasming up and dissolving every time into panicked, tired tears. That was the strangest: the tears. Each time I felt a cramp I started crying involuntarily.

It felt as if my body were acting out, punishing me, screaming at me “danger, danger!”

I felt like a scared child, and the feeling was entirely kept within my body, because every time I’d tap into my heart, into my deeper inner voice, I’d experience a large, unruffled sense of calm there. Yet, despite the underlying assurance from my heart that all was well, my body was intent on warning me furiously against impending death.

The day before had been a difficult one on the farm where I live. We’re an assortments of households here, an ‘unintentional community’ if you will, at least tangentially invested in each other’s lives. One of my neighbours, whom I really like and am quite close to, went through a personal and medical crisis and I found myself somehow in the middle of it. There were phone calls to and from the landlord. There was involvement from other neighbours, and accusations flying back and forth, text messages and screen shots being sent, and in the middle of it all myself, googling what to do, trying to be as helpful as possible without being intrusive (at one stage I really thought my neighbour might die).

Everything turned out fine, turned out well even, but it took a few days. At the height of the crisis I found myself doing what I often do, what I’ve done since childhood: slipping into calm supportive mode. Totally chilled. Watching series with my neighbour while I surreptitiously checked her vital signs every 15 minutes. Trying to make it clear to everyone involved that I was not judging, not prying; being almost cringe-inducingly tactful. Feeling overwhelming compassion, but also the ever-present urge to be needed.

Was I doing this from a place of empathy, or because my identity lies in being useful? Who the fuck knows. Both, I guess.

The next day was the neck cramp day. My neck got better fast, but for the past week my body has been sending me all kinds of distress signals. Severe back pain. Slight nausea. Waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to fall back asleep. A near-constant headache. I keep reassuring my body: “You’re okay. The crisis is past,” but like a screaming infant, my body refuses to be calmed down before it is good and ready.

Someone I follow on Instagram posted the other day “If you listen to your body when it whispers, you will never have to hear it scream”, and I thought FUCK YOU.

She meant well. Listening to your body is generally a good thing. But if your body has been through trauma, then any hint of new danger will make it scream anew. Your body holds the fear of all the times something terrifying happened. My body tenses up when men move or speak aggressively. It clenches whenever someone I care about appears to be in danger, especially if I cannot help them. When my defences are particularly low, at night I have recurring intrusive thoughts of my loved ones’ gory deaths and wake up with a migraine. When I myself feel in danger – when my heart is broken, or my finances look bad – my back and shoulders become a plethora of knots, often so stiff that I can barely sit or stand.

My body screams regularly, without warning, without offering up a whisper first. To say that it is screaming because I did not listen to its whispers is to speak from a place of almost unimaginable privilege.

It’s not the message that trauma survivors need – or anybody else, for that matter. What we need to know is that it’s okay to sometimes feel as if we’re going to die – we’re not doing anything wrong.

We’re not failing in our self-care practices, or not being mindful enough, or bad-adulting, if life feels suddenly and inexplicably hard. (But also, it’s fine if we ARE neglecting self-care or not being mindful enough, because life is weird and there are no fixed rules for successful living.) We need to know that it’s okay that we feel deeply unsafe, and insecure, and torn between opposing needs like wanting to be liked by everyone and wanting to feel authentic.

That last one is my particular struggle.

In the wake of the farm-wide crisis, with whispers of possible evictions doing the rounds, several neighbours asked me what had happened and gave me their opinions. I found myself mediating: giving the absent person’s perspective, trying to advocate for them, without offending the ones that I was talking to. Trying to tell the truth without oversharing. Trying to be polite without picking sides. I tried to come out the entire drama looking lilywhite, yet it felt as if everybody was misquoting me, assuming I was “on their side”. I felt profoundly fake somehow.

At one point I even lied: A neighbour asked me point-blank whether I’d done something, and, panicking, I denied it. (The thing in question was a wobbly choice I’d made during this whole drama). That night I lay awake, nauseous. I tried to listen to my body, tried to regulate my breathing, but every time I’d tap into what my body was feeling, a rush of panic would threaten to overwhelm me. So in that moment I decided to override my body with my mind. I felt too unsafe within my body to let it be in control. It was trapped in a childlike cycle of panic, and it was time for my mature self to call the shots.

And so I reasoned things out: I was feeling panicked because I felt dishonest and inauthentic. But I was scared of being honest, because then people might not like me, and I have internalised the idea that my survival depends on being likeable.

So I was caught between two needs: I can’t exist if I am not honest. I can’t exist if I am not liked.

Well then, said my mind. The answer is simple: Choose honesty. Because honesty feels more intrinsically important, whilst I actually know that I will indeed survive if I am not liked by everyone. (In fact, when it finally happens, being disliked often feels like a relief.)

So the next day I contacted the neighbour in question and told her that I’d lied, that I had indeed made that wobbly choice she’d asked about. “I feel confused and torn between everybody,” I told her. “I want to be honest and I also don’t want to pick sides. And also, sometimes I make bad choices, and I didn’t want to look bad.”

“We like and accept you just the way you are,” she responded. “And I understand your inner conflict. I won’t ask you any further questions.”

And this is what flooded through me, the moment I got her response: The remembrance that I am no longer a child in an unsafe world. I am an adult and I’ve got my back. Even when it feels terrifying, I can choose to act with integrity and the results will confirm that I made the right choice (even when I do piss someone off).

My survival does not depend anymore on my family liking me or on being super useful. And every time I choose to act from a place of authenticity, my body believes a little bit more that I am truly safe.

I might never be fully free from the panicked messages my body sends me whenever a situation reminds me of past traumas. But the wisdom in my heart grows more assertive. I know what to do when I am panicking: I honour my body, I am gentle with myself, but I do not give in to my most panicked demands. And I call upon my community, the community I have gradually built by choosing to be authentic again and again.

(I still have a headache but my body is no longer screaming at me, merely grumbling. Onwards!)

1 thought on “When the body screams: On trauma and feeling safe

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