Life is rife with existential dilemma. No one really knows what's going on here, but we go about our business as though we do. We ignore the fact that we are floating in space, held together by unseen forces, animated by energies that we label yet don't comprehend beyond our limited powers of reason and observation. I mean, what the actual fuck is happening?
Our eyes open after a period of deathlike repose where we do something called dreaming. Science boils it down to nonsensical brain activity, but shamans think otherwise. They understand the non-duality of existence. Have you ever smelled something in a dream... felt something as though it were touching your skin or woken up in tears?
Our brain diligently registers and compartmentalizes every single thing we experience. The maddeningly loud drip of a leaky faucet. The emotional tone of a text message. The bitterness of a rancid walnut.
Functioning in this paradox of constant uncertainty we learn to rely on the finite nature of things. Experience teaches us that every sensation has a beginning and an end, that life goes on despite a precarious balance of odds.
This summer I took a trip to visit family that answered many important questions about my health, specifically in terms of genetics. The trip made it abundantly clear that I come from a long line of neurotics, and I say this with the utmost tenderness. Imagine an entire culture recovering from generations of war and genocide. From the sadistic witch trials of the middle ages to the unimaginable horror of the second World War. I love a lot of things about German culture. The cheesecake. Impeccably efficient infrastructure. Milli Vanilli. But beyond the happy color schemes, neatly tended window boxes, and the milkiest chocolate on earth, there is a darkness.
On my trip I went to the village where my grandmother retreated with her children while her husband was at war, and in case you are wondering, he, like most civilians, was forced into military service and not a supporter of Hitler. There was no voluntary enlisting for poor folk back then. You were a man so you went to war, the end.
During air raids over the village they all hid inside of a bunker- essentially a man-made cave no bigger than the entrance to a house where one might find a butler and a coatrack. Small, dark, narrow, and covered with tree branches for camouflage. It was here they would pile, waiting for hours at a time, as bombs raped the surface of their fields. One of my mother's earliest memories was watching a cow being blown to shreds as it stepped onto a landmine. She was sent out to beg for eggs, butter and milk with her great grandmother, Oma, who was said to keep stale pieces of bread hidden in her apron for her great grandchildren. Upon hearing the explosion, Oma fell down, her face covered in gravel and blood, as my mother stood in terror. My mother remembers this as though it happened yesterday, and even now, almost 70 years later, will freeze at any unexpected sound.
Needless to say, my experience was humbling and gifted me with a new sense of compassion, and traced back to their original context, the behaviors and rituals I grew up resenting suddenly took on new meaning.
"Remember that to remain stuck is to believe that the past is more powerful than the present. It isn't." -Catherine Ann Jones
Before leaving, my therapist reminded me to practice curiosity and welcome the intuition of the moment rather than default to my old pattern of hyper-vigilance. Easier said than done, but I managed to stay mindful whenever anxiety (mine or someone else's) began to rattle my sense of equanimity. She also sent me off with an aromatherapy necklace, which I found immensely helpful. As soon as I arrived in Frankfurt I found an apothecary where I bought an ounce of therapeutic grade essential oil. When the energy in the room became overwhelming (after all, I am an empath and I feel other people's energy as though it were my own) I would lift it up to my nose and inhale. It's amazing how pheromones can trigger old neural pathways. And how a small piece of cotton soaked in Swiss Pine combined with slow breathing is enough to interrupt any pattern.
All the women in my family have some degree of anxiety disorder, and most of them suffer from one chronic auto-immune disease or another. Come to think of it, most of the women I know suffer from low-grade chronic anxiety. Some are on prescription medication, and the ones who aren't are either white knuckling it or using alcohol, marijuana, sex, work, or even their children as alternate coping mechanisms. Alcoholism, addiction, incest, physical or emotional abuse, or some other on-going trauma, and according to recent findings the odds of developing an auto-immune disease by the time they reach the age of 45 is staggeringly high.
When healing from complex trauma, the goal is to support the nervous system while it learns to file things into proper context. This process does not happen overnight because damage to the pre-frontal cortex of the brain (where our emotional center organizes and evaluates information through our senses) takes a really long time to heal. Meanwhile, a noise that someone else tunes out keeps you from being able to concentrate or hold a conversation. Because you're wired like a cat your body remains in high alert until your nervous system gives clearance which might take seconds or days. And when you don't function the way other people function, the stress and fear of being defective can stall progress.
Maybe the hardest thing about healing from trauma is not being taken seriously by those who don't understand or who don't want to be reminded of their own vulnerability. Being shamed for a process that you have no control over because it's rooted in neurochemistry is one of the hardest, and most common, things people go through. Often, the very people who use shaming tactics are the ones who passed these traumas down to us. Our families.
Growing up I heard, "Don't be so sensitive" more than any other phrase. And today, I can understand why. Being sensitive was a weakness that my mother, her mother, and her mother's mother could not afford. In the absence of compassion and information, the only way to get through trauma was to walk around it and never speak of it again. But sadly that thinking led to behavior that was self abusive and abusive to others.
What my ancestor's needed to survive is not what I need. And by freeing myself, I honor them.
I believe most disease is linked to genetic memory stored in our DNA- the neural software we're born with. I also believe that taking action steps to reinforce new and different perceptions, patterns, and reactions is how our cellular intelligence re-organizes itself and heals. In other words, Nancy is on to something. In my DNA lies the remnants of historically traumatic moments. Like a virus, they have the ability to remain dormant until the right cocktail of sound, smell and fear arouses them into wakefulness.
When you begin to take yourself seriously, healing begins. Trust that you won't be exploited, ridiculed, or lose credibility as the result of honoring your body's honesty. Trust that setting boundaries is sometimes the kindest, most loving thing you can do in your relationships. These are the things I hear myself telling people healing from adrenal fatigue, complex trauma, and general life weariness.
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