I learned not too long ago that there is a scientific connection between traumatic experiences and our mental, emotional and physical health. And there’s no time limit on when it might rear its ugly head. It’s important we address our traumatic experiences before they manifest into serious health issues. Thankfully, there are useful resources to help us break free and thrive. In his life-changing book, How the Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk proves there is hope for those who may have lost theirs.
August 2020, I found myself in the back of an ambulance suffering from excruciating abdominal pain. I was shocked to learn after a battery of tests I have kidney disease. Those who’ve spent a minute with me will attest I live a super healthy lifestyle. I eat and sleep well, use non-toxic products, and read a plethora of wellness materials.
Despite following a healthy regimen, I continued to feel fatigued and often experienced debilitating pain.
The root of my problem would come to light via an über-resourceful trifecta: my therapist, the Jocko Podcast, and Cracked Up: The Darrell Hammond Story. Within a matter of days, all three referenced Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score. And my health improved with the turning of each page.
“Traumatic experiences leave traces on our minds and emotions… and even on our biology and immune systems.
—Bessel Van Der Kolk
I refer to my mother as Cadillac. It’s a self-preservation mechanism. A therapist once recommended I choose a nickname for her because he said, “She didn’t protect you, in fact she deliberately caused you harm, and thereby doesn’t deserve such a distinguished designation.”
Cadillac is mentally ill and struggles with addiction. Vodka, muscle relaxers, pain pills, cocaine, marijuana, chain-smoking… whatever calms the dragon. Her malignant narcissism impedes her ability to feel empathy or have regard for anyone except herself. She exaggerates her personal achievements, thrives on sex appeal for attention, believes no rules apply to her, manipulates others for personal gain, is aggressively violent, and is void of remorse for wrongdoing.
As her only child, I’ve discovered her overdosed and lifeless multiple times. I’ve witnessed her aggressive behavior towards strangers and the facial lacerations and broken bones she received during bar fights. I’ve awakened to twilight phone calls from police officers who discovered her passed-out in public, sometimes with broken bones. And I’ve experienced ICU doctors placing her on respirators and feeding tubes, concluding she’d never recover.
She always recovers, telling fantastical lies and blaming others for her near-death experiences.
My childhood friends who knew Cadillac thought she was amazing. She was beautiful and dramatic, a beloved elementary school teacher. But, no one saw the monster she became behind closed doors, weaving between good and evil with ease.
Narcissists pretend to be kind. They turn it on and off like a switch. I’ve experienced it time and again. Cadillac would befriend people quickly and without vetting. I’d return home from school to find strangers living in our home. Sometimes men, sometimes women.
But, within weeks her unrelenting paranoia would incite a vengeful falling-out. In retribution, her friends would rob us blind. Furniture, heirlooms and all.
My trauma bond with Cadillac developed through abusive manipulation. I was an eager to please little girl who yearned for love and validation. I felt an intense obligation to protect her, even from herself. After her maniacal outbursts, I’d clean up, lock away my pain, plaster-on a smile, and navigated the world with neurotic compulsion.
The trauma I endured at the hands of an abusive malignant narcissist with an addictive personality has manifested persistent asthma, Scarlet Fever, an enlarged spleen, IBS, PCOS, endometriosis, infertility, miscarriage, fibroadenomas, diverticulosis/itis, adrenal damage, and kidney disease. This is how trauma wreaks havoc on our bodies. This is how our bodies keep the score.
“Somatic symptoms for which no clear physical basis can be found are ubiquitous in traumatized children and adults. They can include chronic back and neck pain, fibromyalgia, migraines, digestive problems, spastic colon, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue, and some forms of asthma. Traumatized children have fifty times the rate of asthma as their non-traumatized peers.”
—Bessel Van Der Kolk
Throughout childhood, I was obsessed with earning exemplary grades, possessing flawless looks, and being the consummate good girl. I’d craft each day with hypervigilant perfection. It was a means to superficially escape her drinking, drugging, violent outbursts, habitual lies, and multiple toxic marriages.
Adults who knew Cadillac would advise me with a pitiful tsk-tsk, “Take care of your mama.” In hindsight, I realize how asinine those tsk-tsk-ers were. I was a child. A traumatized child. They knew my story. They knew she abandoned me at age four, moved thousands of miles away, and spontaneously returned days before I entered the first grade. If I was responsible for taking care of her, then who was responsible for taking care of me?
FIGHT AND FLEE
The day I left for college, Cadillac launched her best and final assault. Steps from crossing the threshold, I could see her diabolical mind refusing to relinquish sadistic dominance.
In short form, she instigated an argument, pulled me by the hair, and repeatedly hit me. For the first time in my life, I reflexively returned the favor. With one strike across the face, eighteen years of remorseless physical abuse was over.
Sometimes I think I should be ashamed of my retribution. I’m not. The chronically sick little girl who slept on the floor of her locked bathroom for safety felt nothing short of victorious as she placed her house key on the kitchen counter, pulled the front door to the hell house closed, and hoisted herself behind the wheel of a musty getaway U-Haul.
A few months into my freshman year, my grandmother called requesting I do a Cadillac well-check. She claimed Cadillac was alone, incoherent and suicidal. After a two-hour drive, I found Cadillac strung-out and despondent. Her fragile frame weighed all of ninety pounds. She was in need of a shower, a meal, and a hardcore detox.
And so I threw on my trusty cape, rented a U-Haul, boxed her belongings, and brought her home with me. This was our codependent waltz. She created problems, blamed the world for her problems, and insisted I fix the problems. In the truest sense of dysfunction, we thrived on codependence.
After each of Cadillac’s maniacal escapades, I picked up the literal and figurative pieces and constructed a beautiful exterior world. But, my interior walls were crumbling.
I can’t remember the last time Cadillac acknowledged my birthday. The last time I spoke with her, she called every day for two weeks obsessing over a birthday gift for her new boyfriend. So, I expected her to call on my birthday a few days later.
The sun rose and set on what would be my 50th trip around the sun, without a peep from the person who brought me into the world.
My being shifted that day. And as I drifted to sleep late that night, my sense of obligation to her died. It felt like a true birthday.
HEALING AND HELPING
As my body began to heal, I commented on an Instagram post providing encouragement to those on wellness journeys. I received a direct message from someone named Lauryn. Something about my comment encouraged her to reach out. The sweet communal universe was at it again.
Lauryn and I communicated with brutal honesty right off the bat. Our mothers are malignant narcissists. We endured maternal abuse. We struggle with codependency. And we’ve experienced kidney disease. Lauryn shared with me how our kidneys holistically house fear. We grew up in fear. And our bodies kept the score.
TO SHARE OR NOT TO SHARE
I tossed and turned, twitched and wriggled over whether or not to share my experiences with Cadillac. Here’s a window into my mind…
Thought: People will think you’re a kook.
Counter Thought: You’re only as sick as your secrets.
Thought: Cadillac will lose her sh*t.
Counter Thought: If she wanted compliments, she should’ve behaved better.
Thought: Think you were dealt these cards to help others?
Conclusion: F*ck yeah. WE WRITE AT DAWN!
When we’re sick, we need our mothers. But, what if you don’t have one? What if the actions of the one you had actually made you sick?
I’ve learned with 100% certainty Cadillac is not fixable. But, I’m fixable. I’m a survivor and a healer. And if this raw, stomach churning journal helps one person, it’s worth the compulsive twitching and wriggling before clicking publish.
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
—Bessel Van Der Kolk
THE END. AND THE BEGINNING…
In closing, I feel an insatiable urge to submit the following declaration.
To the Woman I Once Called Mama,
I love you. And I love the mama I always hoped you’d become.
You destroyed me over and over. But, I’m no longer the shy, malleable little girl I once was. I’ve clawed out of the burrows of heartbreak and carefully sculpted myself and my children into happy and whole human beings.
Human beings you will never have the honor of knowing.
Your resilient, kind, compassionate, generous, intelligent, flourishing, take-no-sh*t daughter
No matter the source of your trauma, I encourage you to order Bessel Van Der Kolk’s life-changing book. Let it be your north star to recognizing the effects of trauma and how to manifest a path to healing. —xo