Essays: Trauma as Mineralized Body

If you cannot find it in your own body, where will you go in search of it?
The Upanishads

This morning, I felt like a length of fossilized wood, my body having turned to stone. I was lying in my bed, white sheets a blanket of fresh snow glinting near my mineral-laden bark. Every time I imagined getting up, my torso and limbs tightened. I was stuck. I wasn’t able to move for more than an hour.

My freeze response this morning was kind of like this, but without all the great scenery and gentle animals. A Fairy Tale, by Arthur Wardle, oil on canvas. Image used in accordance with U.S. public domain laws.

This happens sometimes. It’s one of my responses to trauma. Most people have heard of fight and flight, two physiological reactions to threats and perceived threats. There are two other, related responses: freeze and fawn. Many people who’ve been traumatized have some combination of these four responses. I’ve experienced all four, but my primary responses are flight and freeze.

Of the two, I like flight more. Much more. At least with flight, I’m in motion. I feel like I’m getting away from a threatening situation, my body moving, machine-like, under its own direction. Freeze is worse because I have all the emotions associated with flight, yet I have to experience them wherever I happen to be when the freeze response starts. Inside, I might be saying, “Just move. You’ll feel better if do. Start with a muscle, any muscle.” Yet I can’t move. I can’t speak. I can’t even think properly because my limbic brain has sand bagged my neocortex, which can only watch on, enfeebled.

You wouldn’t have known what you were seeing if you had walked in on me this morning. You would have seen a woman in seeming repose staring at a ceiling fan, its faux-wood blades smearing with soothing regularity.

Aside from the discomfort of the freeze response, I hate freezing because it’s triggering. The first time I froze was when I was thirteen years old and my father’s best friend began molesting me. I also froze in 2009 when I was sexually assaulted. Powerlessness, shame and despair are associated with the freeze response. It’s no surprise that people who freeze when being molested, raped, and sexually assaulted have higher rates of post-traumatic stress than those who don’t. There’s more self-blame associated with freezing than with the other responses to trauma.

I had physical symptoms this morning, too. A migraine. A tinnitus flare-up. Burning mouth syndrome. These issues, along with my freeze response, were my body’s way of dealing with distress I experienced yesterday. Along with three other psychiatric survivors, I was invited to share my account of abuse within the mental health system with a local healthcare organization. As I listened to the other women’s stories, I felt like my heart was being fed into a meat grinder, stuffed into a casing, and sewn back inside my chest. Those are the strongest, bravest, most intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure of sitting alongside in a long time. The day took a toll not just because I shared my story, but because we shared our stories. Nobody should endure what we and so many others have endured. Nobody should have to live with the trauma that led us to seek care or the additional trauma that seeking care can lead to. Nobody should have to face the very real risk of being retraumatized every time we tell our stories in the hope that healthcare might improve, that others might understand us, and that we might be able to speak and write our way back to life.

Though I still feel crystalline, I am moving, albeit slowly. I’m writing slowly, too, with my fossilized mind.

Everything I need to know is in my body and always has been. The body is a great teacher, and I am trying to learn from what it is telling me rather than vilifying it. The more I can see why I am freezing, as opposed to resisting the response, the more I am able to see what my body wants me to pay attention to. Today, I am paying attention.