I spent such a long time telling myself that my body is not a battlefield. I let my body process trauma in the way it needed to, comforting myself with the words “my body is not a battlefield”.
Content Warning – trauma, abuse, sexual assault, PTSD
I was reclaiming my body from someone who had abused it, someone who had encouraged overfeeding it, someone who used it for gratification even when I was barely there, someone who influenced the clothes that I would put on it (only dark colours, to make me less visible), someone who controlled how much makeup I could wear (no lipstick – it was obviously a barrier to prevent him from kissing me. Heavy makeup was met with disapproval, no makeup was greeted with disappointment).
When I was deep in the grip of PTSD, my body’s reaction felt like a long delayed echo: whenever my then-boyfriend raped me (I’m sorry for the stark word, but there really is no euphemism for rape) I would freeze. I would completely dissociate from my body. I wasn’t there. I was seperate, watching what was happening from somewhere on the ceiling. I often say that it must have been like fucking a corpse. I was freezing, and I wasn’t there. I was an empty shell.
Fight, Flight or Freeze
When I started therapy, “freeze” had yet to be added to the “fight or flight” list of responses. My reaction to being attacked repeatedly fit neither of these responses: I hadn’t fought back, and I hadn’t run away. If those were my only two options, then surely I hadn’t been in any danger during these attacks? Surely they weren’t actually that bad if I hadn’t been driven to either response?
I punished myself for freezing. I argued that what had happened was “consent under duress” – not rape. I didn’t deserve help, because nothing had really happened, had it? Everyone ends up having sex when they don’t want to sometimes, don’t they? Isn’t that just life? So how could I take up resources that were meant for women who had really been harmed? I should be able to just get over it on my own. It wasn’t that bad.
Except that it was.
I woke up countless times a night, a silent scream being forced from my lungs. I tried so hard to scream, but I couldn’t make a sound.
I stayed awake for three days straight after I spotted someone on the scaffolding outside my bedroom window at 3am. Even my bedroom, miles away from my abuser, wasn’t safe.
In the middle of a lunch shift, I hid under my bed in the restaurant adjacent flat for 30 minutes.
I found myself wedged in kitchen cupboards, with no idea of how I’d got in there, or when.
I thought my car radio was fucked up and getting terrible feedback, until I realised that the awful sound was actually coming out of my mouth. I’d been screaming for 15 minutes, while trying to retune the radio.
I heard voices. I had to constantly wake myself up to tell the voices to be quiet so I could actually sleep.
I masturbated compulsively, desperate for the endorphins that would help me pretend to be normal and functioning, at least for a couple of hours.
I had dreams where I was trying to escape from my ex, but I could only run in slow motion while the rest of the world around me moved at a normal pace.
And when I began to understand that my body had frozen while I was attacked to protect me, to keep me alive and give no reason for me to by physically hurt, my body started having thrashing fits.
It was a strange experience, usually occurring when I had just settled myself down to sleep. I’d start kicking my legs, like I was trying to shake something off. This feeling then spread to my upper body, and I’d start to contort myself, flinging my arms out to push whatever-it-was-that-wasn’t-there away, flopping around like a landed fish.
I physically couldn’t stop myself. I’d settle after about 20 minutes, physically exhausted. Then I’d be able to sleep for a bit.
By this time, I was having counselling through Rape Crisis, and it was bringing up all sorts of repressed memories. The plan was for me to look at these repressed memories, understand that I had done nothing to cause them, examine them, and then put them away. They were my memories, but they didn’t quite belong to me: they were things that had been done to me, not by me.
My counselling sessions were beginning to teach me about being kinder to myself, which sounds like a washed up and overused platitude, but in reality it’s incredibly powerful.
My first major act of self kindness (beyond allowing myself to eat, and buying myself little presents constantly – hello credit card debt) was allowing these thrashing fits to take place, uninterupted. I stopped trying to fight the compulsion to kick and thrash around. I stopped disociating when it happened.
Instead, I told my body “look how strong you are. Look how you’re fighting to protect us. Look how you kept me alive.”
I told my body that I understood why it had frozen before. I told my body that it was ok that it was “punching shadows” – trying to physically fight off a memory that was hurting me so much.
I told my body that it was not a battlefield, that it would eventually understand that there was nothing left to fight against now.
Eventually, my body did understand. The fits lasted for less and less time, until they eventually stopped altogether.
Nowadays, I’m having to return to this reminder that my body is not a battlefield. I’ve had fibromyalgia for perhaps two years now. It is thought that there is a strong link between fibro and past trauma, physical or psychological.
I view my fibro as my body once again trying to protect me from that big bad whatever-it-is out there. The best thing I can do is to listen, and show myself some kindness when I need it.
When I’m exhausted, I let myself sleep (whatever time of day it is).
When I’m in pain, I make sure that I’m warm enough. I’ll burrito myself in a blankey, make sure my achy bits are supported by extra cushions, and I’ll binge watch the Mindy Project.
I’ll ask the South African to help me massage my lymph nodes (which hurts like bitch-it-fuck, but feels so much better afterwards).
I’ll let myself eat whatever my body tells me it wants.
I try to be gentle with my body, and not resent the extremes it’s going to in order to protect me from this big bad whatever-it-is.
I want to work with my body, not against it.
Because my body is still not a battlefield.
It is my home.