June 13, 2009
Body Memories – The Body Remembering
In the television show “One Life To Live” — Bess tried to rescue Jessica one more time by taking baby Chloe and going on the run. Their secret had gotten out — baby Chloe belonged to someone else and the dear little one was not Jessica’s baby at all.
Tess was angry with Bess for trying this last stunt. Every time Bess looked in the mirror, she would see Tess’s angry face making comments to her. Tess had plenty to say — she was not at all impressed with Bess.
Meanwhile, Jessica was tucked way down inside. She had no awareness that she had driven hundreds of miles away from her home. She didn’t know she was in trouble or that she was about to lose her baby. She wasn’t aware of much of anything.
Despite Tess’s protests, Bess was determined to do what she defined as protection of Jessica. It was Bess’s mastermind plan to switch the babies so that Jessica would never know that her own baby had died at birth. She was determined to never let Jessica feel the pain of having lost her baby. She really believed she was helping by hiding out of town.
But they were found. Their safe person, Broady, found them. (That’s quite an appropriate name for the safe person, don’t you think?!!!)
With the secret out, Bess had no other option but to let Jessica remember the truth of what had happened. Bess did not know if Jessica was strong enough to handle the emotional pain, but there was no more blocking out the reality or dissociating away the truth. Jessica was going to remember.
And Jessica did remember.
Painfully, reliving minute by minute, even having body memories of giving birth to her child, Jessica remembered detail after detail of the incident that had previously been totally dissociated from her awareness. For months, Bess had completely held those memories from Jessica, but the dissociative walls between the two of them were no longer necessary. Bess was letting Jess remember.
Jessica remembered going into labor, birthing the child, and seeing that her child had been stillborn. She recalled the plan of switching her baby for another newly born baby, and she knew that she had to return baby Chloe to her rightful mother.
Jessica was addressing her pain. She was remembering in an emotional and physical way. She felt the labor pains, and recalled the birth of her baby as if it was happening all over again. She felt the emotional agony of losing her child. She remembered all that had been dissociated from her awareness.
And she was strong enough to handle the pain. And by doing so, she will be able to heal.
The writers of “One Life to Live” provided a fairly accurate portrayal of this process, for sexual abuse survivors with dissociative identity disorder even if it was fast-forwarded in typical soap opera fashion. But for a television show, they did pretty good.
In real life, body memories are a common occurrence for trauma survivors.
For most survivors, the body memories are much more involved, and occur as a much longer process. They will happen more frequently, and not come in such a neat package. But the point is, the body will remember the trauma, and the body will feel the same physical sensations all over again as it “tells the story” of what happened.
Body memories are the body’s way of remembering, storing, and telling the trauma. The survivor’s mind may have blocked out the pain and created dissociative walls around the traumatic experience, but the physical body itself can remember the trauma through cellular memory.
Sometimes survivors experience the body memories separately from intellectual understanding or emotional remembrance of what happened during the trauma. Dissociative survivors will feel intense body pain and have no idea why they are hurting. When the body remembers the traumatic incident at a different time from when the mind remembers the incident, it can feel very crazy making. The therapeutic goal is to put the various pieces together so that the survivor can work through, process, and heal from the memory as a whole.
The body feels the trauma in much the same as in the original incident and the various physical attitudes occur as if the trauma was happening all over again. The physical pain, shaking, trembling, jerking, physical reactions, intensity, and various body responses happen in a similar fashion as in the original trauma.
For most sexual abuse survivors, body memories will also involve feelings of pleasure or physical response. This creates a particularly difficult emotional dilemma for the survivors, as it is difficult to reconcile the pleasure responses that occurred during the middle of an abusive event. But the body, being a biological entity, cannot distinguish safe touch from abuse, and if stimulated correctly, it will naturally respond. Survivors often feel a great deal of shame about this reality, and will need to discuss this situation in their therapy.
Body memories are an important piece of the healing work. The body can say a lot about the incidents of abuse, and it really is impossible to re-create a body memory when there was no memory in the first place.
Because of that, body memories are often helpful in breaking through the denial layers of dissociation. The body may remember moments of the abuse that were too emotionally difficult for the survivors to manage, but by truly listening to their bodies, survivors can learn a great deal about their histories.
What is your body saying to you?
What does your body remember that your mind refuses to think about?
What does your body remember that you don’t want to hear?
What will it take for you to listen to your body? Your body was there for the abuse too. Maybe it knows more than you think it does.
Kathy Broady LCSW