“The inability to process and express feelings effectively, and the tendency to serve the needs of others before even considering one’s own, are common patterns in people who develop chronic illness.” Gabor Mate, When the Body Says No. This one sentence describes me to a T.
As a child, I struggled at all times to present the front that would get me the most approval and affection, which included a smiling aspect and chronic caretaking of others. All of my life, I have striven to please others, manage others’ feelings and lives, and deny my own needs and feelings. I had no boundaries, and no concept of what that meant. Both of my parents, my father especially, invalidated any physical need I might express.
Their Christian Science dictated that I simply couldn’t experience disease or dysfunction (my father took it a step further for himself by stoically negating his own feelings of hunger or fatigue.) I experienced a constant undercurrent of shame and stress, and fought to tightly contain every part of my body, including any emotions. I buried my anger at the hypocrisy of my parents and their religion, my grief at their emotional distance, and my rage and confusion at their annihilation of my emotional and physical needs through their religious beliefs.
Yet all of that shame and fear and anger remained in my body – unexpressed, unexposed, and uncomfortable – submerged beneath stoicism, anxiety, tears, passive aggression, and codependency. The rage was ready yet repressed, active yet restrained, unable to move but incapable of not destroying.
SPRe practitioners believe that people to whom something traumatic or stressful happens that may or may not be remembered consciously, or who repress big emotions, or who are suffering subconsciously, are somehow able to recreate that in their own tissue in an unconscious effort to prove to the world and the perpetrators that something terrible was done. Visible symptoms dramatize the unconscious. Sometimes we carve into our bodies and our lives a terrible monument to the difficult things that happened to us – things we may not even remember or wish to face.
Those who were taught they had to bear up and bear everything might develop neck and shoulder nerve dysfunction and pain; those made to “stand on their own feet” too early, may develop feet and ankle dysfunction; those forced to repress half a lifetime of anger and grief might develop lung cancer; and those not allowed to express rage, might jam it into their joints and connective tissues as destructive heat and inflammation.
What might you do if you were told over and over that you didn’t have a body when you knew that you did? As the child of Christian Scientist-body-negaters, I appear to have “chosen” an illness; and not just any illness but a fully systemic illness that inflamed and involved every joint and bit of connective tissue in my body: showing externally what had always been internal. I attempted to stop my body from moving altogether, trying to establish myself as a human being with needs, deserving of care and attention.
I believe I used myself as a physical representation to “show” my parents my rage and grief at their depression, repression, anger, and shame. I created a reflection of how I was negated by them, emotionally isolated, and forbidden from experiencing and expressing my own feelings. Creating in my body what was done to me – as proof.
What was done to me was not my fault, of course, and the RA somewhat out of my control, but I did have a choice in what to do about it; to either take action to improve my situation, or to fall into sickness altogether. My way of action was to dive into it: acknowledging my rage and what it may have caused, feeling the grief of parents who couldn’t care for me the way I needed and repressed who and what I was, and soothing and caring for the physical systems that were so stressed.
Gabor Mate again: “If we would heal, it is essential to begin the painfully incremental task of reversing the biology of belief we adopted very early in life.” In other words, everything that was done to us, how we adapted, what we decided, how we view the world – all of it – has coalesced into who we are, but we can decide that it is not who we want to be. I have achieved so much emotional and physical healing in my search through my childhood and belief systems.
When I sat down to write this post, I had such difficulty with it. It took me several weeks to even make a start on it. It is material that I’ve known about, explored with my mentor, Jill, and looked at obliquely, but I don’t believe I’ve ever really written about it. It obviously still rests beneath layers of dust shrouds that aren’t altogether willing to be moved aside.
I believe that in order to heal, we must integrate everything we know about the body’s hormonal and emotional responses, as well as what we experienced as children, what we believe about ourselves, and what we might be trying to show the world that hurt us. Like my mother, I developed an illness that reflected the physical and physiological impacts on my body. Unlike my mother, who was killed by her repressed-emotion-caused cancer, I chose the opportunity to face myself.
I believe I’ve made great strides in healing; taking responsibility for understanding what I may have created. With help, I have tried to untangle the physical causes and soothe my systems, as well as puzzle out the RA as the thing that my system was using to explain itself to itself. And positive things have happened. I still have what I have – the RA – but maybe I’ve been able to keep it from getting worse. I certainly don’t have the type of dysfunction in my hands that a 24-year sufferer would have, although my knees are pretty bad.
Have I been able to slow my RA down or keep it from developing into something else – or worse – through my effort to fully understand it? I think so, although I don’t know for sure. Maybe someday I’ll decide I don’t need to do it this way anymore and will achieve full remission with mobility and reduction of pain. As Jill says, we do what we do until we don’t, so to my fellow chronic illness sufferers – or everyone, really – I pose this question: What might you be carving into yourselves? And what might happen if we stopped doing illness, stopped showing the wound? Who or what might we become?
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