Body memories

[Ed. note: I wrote this a week ago and immediately got stuck in anxiety about posting it. Vulnerability is hard, and it’s scary to imagine how people might feel or react, even when deep in your heart you know that you’re just telling your story. And even if you’re a person who preaches being brave, it doesn’t mean it’s always easy. It’s terrifying. But here’s the thing: vulnerability brings healing, to yourself and to others. And also, there’s this, that was a perfectly-timed reminder (thank you, Laura):

So with that: press publish. Vulnerability is bravery is healing.]

When people are surrounded by something all the time, they naturally become an expert on it. Sometimes that can cloud their perspective – they forget that not everyone else knows everything that they know.

My brother probably forgets that even the basics of coding are not necessarily common sense. My husband might occasionally have to remind himself that not everyone knows the basics of what our healthcare system involves. I live autism and language/learning disabilities day in and day out, and have for years. Invariably, each year when “Autism Awareness” circulates, I find myself thinking, “really? But we all KNOW about autism.” Well, I do. And my coworkers do. And the colleagues and contacts I follow on social media do. But everyone? No, they don’t.

This is all normal. We live and breathe something and so to us it becomes obvious.

People who don’t deal with anxiety might not know what it’s like for someone to experience it (which is a large part of why I write about it – education, and to reduce stigma, and encourage bravery). The same can be said with trauma. It occurred to me recently that I write a lot, in great detail, about anxiety. And the response is always overwhelmingly positive, from the texts and messages and emails that I receive. But while I’ve certainly acknowledged trauma in posts, I actually haven’t written that much about it. Part of that is I didn’t feel a need. Part of that is I didn’t know where to begin. Part of that was, quite honestly, fear – because while I know most people would have a positive reaction, I also know that not everyone else would. And I talk about facing fears and being real and being brave, but oh, it can be scary and hard.

Anyway. One day last week on my drive home from work, I was thinking about a conversation I had  had with a friend who was experiencing a recurrence of a PTSD symptom. Particularly, I was thinking about how most of us experience(d) symptoms, but they aren’t necessarily talked about. And so, just as with autism or coding or healthcare, other people just don’t know. And how could we expect people to support us, advocate for us, be our cheerleaders, if they don’t know what we experience?

So I decided to start here, in the mixed-up middle, because that’s always the best place to start.
People hear about PTSD and might think of flashbacks, of a soldier hearing a loud noise and bolting under the table, thinking he’s back in Afghanistan. Flashbacks are real, and they certainly exist for sexual trauma as well. I have heard from many survivors that flashbacks are the hardest symptom. For me? One of the hardest parts was what I call body memories.

The best way I can explain this is, have you heard of phantom limb pain? How someone can have their leg amputated, and cognitively know their leg isn’t there, but they feel it, and it hurts? Body memories for me were like that. I would get a feeling being touched, being invaded, and I would feel it in my body as if it was happening. It wasn’t a flashback. I knew exactly where I was, I wasn’t dissociating or losing time, I was going about my day. But while my brain was very present in the here and now, my body was stuck in the past.

Certain touches, or even smells or places, or memories would trigger it – but sometimes it would happen from nothing at all. Let me tell you – it is a very hard thing to be at work, smiling and confidently working with students, but inside have your skin be crawling with sensation.

I draw attention to body memories because they happen. And they are often invisible. In college sometimes they’d leave me curled up under blankets in bed, but over the years they became quite functional. You’d never know it was happening unless I told you.

Which is why I’m telling you.

(For the record – they happen much less frequently now, fairly rarely. And when they do, they don’t last for days and weeks on end. And they don’t paralyze me the way they used to. (A lot of which I attribute to not hiding my stories as shameful secrets anymore). But as with anything, they could come back. Things come and go in waves. The difference is, as I said to my friend, it’s no longer like falling off a cliff and shattering into a million pieces. It’s more being a strong tree, rooted in the ground, during a storm. You’ll sway and bend, but you won’t break, you won’t uproot, you won’t shatter, you won’t die. You will survive. )

And I’ll end this right here, in the middle, too. Because there will be more to come. There needs to be, you know? Nobody should have to suffer in silence. Nobody should feel that people don’t get it, and so therefore they can’t talk about it.

Next time you’re at work and someone acts “off” – maybe their brain is stuck in a memory. Maybe their skin is crawling. Maybe not, but statistically? It very well could be. So smile at them and send them love and compassion. They will feel that you’re a safe person, and maybe that’s all it’ll take for them to talk, to let it out. That’s how it happened for me and I am grateful every single day for those people who became my safe harbor, who helped me become that tree rooted down in the ground, who helped me know that I. will. not. break.

Use your voice

And use your voice, every single time, you open up your mouth.

(My Chemical Romance)

One of the most empowering moments of each week is at the beginning of my yoga class. We stand at the top of our mats, with strong legs, rooted down. As we reach up and bring our palms to heart center, our teacher invites us to gaze down or close our eyes. She tells us we are going to open class with the sound of a single ohm, and then she says:

“And as I always remind you: of all the things to fear in this world, do NOT let the sound of your own voice be one of those things.”

That reminder, that statement, sends chills up my spine. It makes me grow a little taller, breathe a little deeper.

I used to fear the sound of my voice. I used to keep opinions and thoughts and worries and fears and dreams and desires and stories to myself. It’s scary and it’s vulnerable to speak, to make noise. It invites in the possibility that we may be quieted, diminished, dismissed, ignored, berated. Amidst those possibilities, it seems safer to wilt and hide from the sun.

The thing is, nobody is every really ready to use their voice. Nobody walks into yoga thinking, “Today I’m ready to chant ohm with my class.” Nobody wakes up thinking, “Today I’m ready to tell the world my story.” If we wait until we’re ready, we will be waiting our entire lives. This is the truth.

So instead, we have to just do it anyway. Sometimes in small whispers and sometimes in loud bellows. Last winter I posted a baby step post, and then I told my stories, and then one day I just said, “It’s time.” And then I wrote it and sent int into the world.

Turns out, using your voice, speaking your truth, doesn’t break you. Quite the opposite, in fact. It sets you free. It connects you with others. It invites in conversation. It helps dispel others’ shame. It sets off a ripple of bravery. It’s all good, wonderful things.

The other day I said to Laura, “Remember when we thought that we would go to the grave with it as a secret? I never, not in a million years, thought I’d be here. But look at me – standing in the sun.”

Using our voice gives us power. It raises us up. Makes us grow. Dispels fear. Washes away shame.

So, maybe you don’t feel ready. It’s okay. Go ahead anyway. Chant that ohm. Tell your story. It will not break you. Stand tall, root down, turn toward that warm sun.

In a week and a half

A week and a half ago (is that all it’s been?) the Trump tape came out. The next few days I was filled with anger. We took to social media, I mainly lived on Twitter, and we expressed our outrage and disgust. The debate followed and more anger followed. Everyone knows this story. This is nothing new.

And then this past week I still felt angry and fired up. But Friday night, I deflated. Maybe I just am not meant to be angry for so long. Maybe it was bound to happen no matter what. Maybe a balloon can only get so big before it’s bound to pop.

And I lost it. Not in a crazy way. Not in a meltdown way. But anger turned to tears and I cried. And periodically this weekend, my heart has felt heavy.

It’s great – truly – that this tape, and its results have inspired thousands of women to share their stories. Check the Twitter threads #whywomendontreport and #iamasurvivor. Look at what Kelly Oxford started, simply by inviting women to share their stories. People started talking and sharing stories that maybe they had never shared before. People are connecting and talking. And maybe, as a friend suggested, this is the beginning of a revolution.

But that doesn’t change that there are still so, so many girls and women that are in pain and hurting and I just want to hug them all. And where it gets me the most? That we can all share our stories, I can scream my stories from the rooftops over and over again – but girls are going to continue to be assaulted. People are going to continue to be abused. In talking, we’re collectively healing, but we’re not stopping the problem.

There’s so much that I want to DO. And I don’t know how to do it. I want to work on laws and policies around rape and assault. I want to end the backlog. I want to create more online support, particularly for children and adolescents who are too afraid or unable to tell their story to an adult in person – but with the advent of technology would seek out support online. I want to tell my story over and over again to anyone who wants to hear. I want to listen to anyone who needs to tell theirs. (Because if statistics are accurate – which they are, they’re statistics – there are a lot of people out there with stories.)

I am sick of people referring to someone sharing their story as “personal”. “She keeps sharing so much personal information,” or “Why is she telling the world about that – it’s personal.” Must I scream it until my throat is raw – it’s not personal. Nothing about it is personal. The events (which were crimes. Don’t lose sight of that.), the shame, the guilt, the fear – we made them ours, but they were never supposed to be ours. We don’t have to carry it anymore. It’s not personal. It had nothing to do with us.

The thing is, I don’t know what I can do or how to do it. But tonight, I can write. And it’s not new, and it’s not eloquent, and it’s not brilliant. And so be it.

Paris and Plants (guest post)

This morning I woke up to a message from an old friend, asking if she could send me something she wrote, something that she didn’t feel ready to publish with any identifying information, but something that she would love to have “held” for her, in this space. I told her to send it along, meaning it completely when I said that I would be happy to read anything she wrote. I will let her words speak for themselves, but I just need to tell you how much my heart warmed when I read her reflections. Because, despite themes of sadness and grief, it was just so real and relatable, and that’s the goal, right? To say the things that are hard to say, because we are not the only ones who feel them.

Paris and Plants (by Andie Kates)

I’ve been spinning my wheels this week. I’ve been trying to hold in one hand current events and the necessity of being an informed citizen—while in the other hand clinging tenaciously to the personal need to keep myself grounded. Interestingly, a main source of hope this month has been my much-adored spider plant. I haven’t been able to put this sentiment into words, though, especially against the backdrop of recent global politics. I want to try and translate the connection that only seems clear in my head. Not sure how this will work, but figure I may as well try.


I was buried in work on Friday, November 13th; when I first heard people talking about the attacks in Paris that evening, I had no idea what had happened. In all honesty, I felt no shock with the news. I felt no outrage. I felt a tired sense of, “Oh, again. Oh, this again.” It didn’t sound like cynicism inside, but a desensitized self-protection. Oh, this again—in Paris, so we notice more than when this happens in Beirut. Oh, this again—a sense of safety shattered in a second.

I have resistance to follow the news these days. My desire to be an active, compassionate citizen is no match for the heaviness of loss that seems too familiar. I hear the echoes from last year when Michael Brown was murdered and Ferguson, Missouri erupted in pain. The calls for justice and change spiraled across the country, aftershocks of outrage and solidarity permeating conversation and consciousness. Black lives matter. Syrian refugee lives matter. All tragedy seems connected in emotional memory. Another example: while the Western world holds Paris in its heart this week, I find myself back at the Boston Marathon. That afternoon, we used Facebook to tell our loved ones we were safe and alive because reception for phone calls was impossible in the immediate aftermath of the explosions.

And Paris also brings me back to years prior— when the phone call came on a sunny Saturday morning in January saying a close friend was dead. And I laughed because I had just talked to him yesterday, and seriously, this isn’t a funny joke. And it wasn’t. An icy blue morning, a phone call, and then nothing seemed clear despite the sky.

Unexpected loss and a struggle to understand the why –it may be November 2015, yet I circle back to that May afternoon. That May afternoon I came home and found his body on my bedroom floor. A logical part of me knew immediately he was dead; my body went into shock. Other parts of me could not comprehend the split second in which life divided into a before and after. It has taken the better part of eighteen months to understand that his death wasn’t my fault.  

This week, too, a teenager drowned in the local river and a family friend died from complications of alcoholism.

I want to say to France, and to the world—these are moments when feeling connected hurts too much to stay with it for too long. These are days when every moment, every loss, seems connected and I find myself unable to let another tragedy into my heart. Paris—I know you’re hurting, the whole world is hurting. Our human capacity for cruelty is too real. And in raw honesty, I’m trying to stay grounded this week. That’s pretty much it. I’m also trying to figure out what my role is as a white woman laden with privilege in a world where it’s only too easy to ignore others’ pain. How do we reconcile privilege and responsibility with raw humanity? –and know it is a privilege to step back and say I can’t feel another tragedy today.

In my dreams this past week, I had the opportunity to say goodbye to him. In this dream I was not too late; though I still couldn’t save him, I could hold him as he died and he was not alone. It was the first non-nightmare I’ve had of him since that May afternoon. Twelve hours later I’m riding the train with a coworker when the real memories come without warning. His body—lifeless, still as stone. That intestinal fear and urge to flee.

Paris, to be honest, feels far away and impersonal.

Paris, is it arrogant and selfish to say that I am not a stranger to our quotidian human pain? I find myself unable to be present for yours. I avoid the news with compunction. I find myself unwilling to talk about it with coworkers and friends. Despite the reality of Syrian refugees, I find myself unable to separate loss from loss, memory from memory.

I hate acknowledging this. I know it is selfish and arrogant, albeit self-protective. I do not enjoy recognizing that I cannot disentangle myself this week. I know that on other days, other weeks, it feels easier, and I can more strongly turn outwards to embrace the rest of the world. I do not enjoy admitting that I feel too scared to do that today. Or, that I do not want to try.

In the same breath, gigantic loss can begin to heal in the smallest of moments.

My spider plant has had an offshoot for months. In the past week, small root buds have started to poke their heads out of the baby. In my morning plant-watering autopilot, I almost walked past it without pause. But I did a double take on Thursday, turned around, and cradled the tiny green leaves in my hand. This is life. This is life growing in my living room. Can you believe how incredible it is? In the face of destruction, exhaustion, and fear, this little spider plant is ready to take root and grow. It’s thriving.

I don’t consider myself a gardener, and while I love the outdoors I wouldn’t say I have a green thumb. The animals and plants I’ve loved have so often died suddenly, unexpectedly. I don’t always trust myself to care for others.  But this morning, a few days after spying the roots, I went to the hardware store. I bought more potting soil, came home, repotted the larger plant, snipped the baby from its offshoot, and buried its rootbuds in new soil. I put both pots near the window and am now watching the sun shine down on them. I’m waiting for growth, eager as a child. I also notice a fearful part of me hiding in the back of my heart waiting for it to just shrivel and die.

The story I hear in the back of my heart is that those I care for and love most deeply all die. Such is life—it does tend to end in death. Younger, hurting parts, however, believe that those friends and loved ones died because of me. I was the poisonous common denominator, the notorious cause of death. The trepidation I feel watching the plants this morning is real—but Adult Me knows that as elegant –and negligible—as my own existence may be, I’m just not omnipotent. And certainly not responsible for the entire universe, or capable of innocuously causing such destruction. Our loved ones die no matter what we pray; tragedy happens sometimes and we don’t know why. Today I know that my spider plant—my spider plants—are green and strong, watered and soiled, soaking in the November sun. This single moment feels like a miracle and the rest is not mine to know.

I wish there were a clear cut way to close out this reflection. It’s safe to say that I can find no resolution, no summary, no epilogue. Life goes on. Spider plants give me hope when humanity doesn’t. I have a newborn plant growing in the living room: small solace to global grief, but simultaneously hopeful. Will the plants thrive? I have no idea. Maybe they’ll shrivel up in the next week and I’ll be left with pots of dirt and regret. Maybe the spider plants will continue to propagate and I’ll give them away as Valentine’s Day gifts because our apartment simply can’t hold that many babies. I have no way of knowing.

What I do know: the sun continues to rise each day. The temperature continues to drop. The leaves are all but gone and December arrives in nine days. There’s no backing up or starting over—there’s just here and now. I can, and do, ride waves of helplessness at times and on heavier days, nihilism. I alone can do nothing to heal Paris, the world—not one person alone can do this work. Yet I also know that on a sunny morning in November, I can dig my hands into potting soil, water the plants, watch the sun, and see what comes next.

Andie Kates is 25 and currently living in Boston. She is grateful to Jen for the opportunity to share her writing!


Acknowledging it

You know how some days you feel down and blah, and sometimes you’re okay with that, but sometimes it makes you panic, Ohmygod what if this feeling doesn’t pass, what if I never feel happy again, what if this is my new normal, I don’t know why I feel this way, the walls are closing in, I’m drowning, I’m regressing, all my hard work is undone…..and you go from 0 to 100 in about three milliseconds? (Or maybe you don’t know….but humor me).

Anyway, in processing that idea the other day, I was saying how cognitively I KNOW it always passes, I know that even months of a hard time don’t last forever, and therefore one day of feeling down doesn’t automatically equal a lifetime of it, but that it’s hard to remember in the moment. So one thing I said (half jokingly but also half totally serious) is that maybe I need a note on my phone that’s called “When I feel Crappy or Low”. Under that super creative title (…..) would be a few to-do items.

First is acknowledge what is contributing. Because as humans we can feel blah and we can feel down and we can feel upset for no reason, but as I am learning, there’s almost always one contributing factor. So first up is to figure out what the factors are. For me, there’s a list of “high-flyers” – events, people, thought patterns, or memories, that, more often than others, contribute. So first would be a checklist of those items (which would be more specific than this): Is it the weather? Is it a family member? Is it that grief? Is it that memory? Is it that anticipation of a change that’s coming?

I’ve found that almost always acknowledging it makes a difference. It instantly helps me feel back in control. It’s the flipped switch from Ohmygod I’m drowning, I’m out of control, everything is pressing on me, I’m infused with tidal waves of chaos to Oh. I’m in control. It’s just x, y, and z, and it’s not everything, and it’s not an internal malfunction, it’s an external rainshower that’s getting me a little wet but I’m fine, we’re fine, I’m fine.

Do you know that feeling I’m talking about? Kind of like in grad school when there was a huge paper to write or test to study for – it initially feels so big and so impossible to ever figure out. But as soon as a to-do list is made and it’s broken down, it’s manageable and you return to I can do this, this is doable.

The next thing to do, after acknowledging to myself what it is, is to focus on it more. This is so damn counter-intuitive. When something is upsetting, we want to ignore it, want to push it away, we don’t want to spend extra time and energy thinking about and talking about it. But – it works.

With the disclaimer that it often initially feels worse.

When you choose to focus in on it, whether it’s to write about it or talk about it or draw about it, or whatever it is for you, you might feel that tightness in your chest get tighter. The tears that you’ve held back might come. You might end up gasping for air, or you might feel the pain even stronger. Hold on. Because if you continue talking, continue writing, continue letting it out – you will then feel the release. You’ll feel your chest relax, you’ll notice the tears stop, you’ll notice you feel lighter, you’ll notice you feel better.

In the moment? So hard to do.

But maybe that’s what the reminder is for, that’s what the list is for.

Because it’s worked before. It’s been true before.

It applies now.

Inside a hard time

[Editor’s note: I feel compelled to preface this by telling you how vulnerable I feel in posting this. I realize that vulnerability comes from fear of being met with shame. Being shut down, being quieted, being negatively talked about. But, I will write it anyway. Because I channel that feeling that I have when I read a blog post that deeply resonates with me, that makes me think, “Wow, someone else really gets it. Someone else was brave enough to write about it.” And I hope that maybe I can evoke that feeling in just one person. And should that be the case – should one person feel grateful, relief, companionship, then the vulnerability was worth it.

I have written and re-written this post many times, ever since my wonderful dad suggested that I write. During many versions, I added in something at the end to the effect of, “But I am okay! Don’t worry about me! I’m fine!” Which speaks to my fear of worrying others, of wanting to do everything I can to keep those in my life calm and happy. But I am gently putting those fears aside. And writing what’s real.]

Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Not if they are wounds that were never processed. Events from a month ago, a year ago, two decades ago, can and will still affect you.

Events and memories that you had buried deep within you, taped up, and topped with a sparkly pink bow, will not be fooled, and will still find their way to the surface, claw their way out, and demand to be acknowledged and processed. Gates will be broken down, dams will be breached, and it will rush at you, over you, through you, just as a flood does. Five weeks later, you will still be waiting for the waters to abate.

Old habits and behaviors will rear their heads. You will initially welcome them back without a second thought. You will initially forget to question them.

You will initially try to fight it. You’ll think things like, I shouldn’t be feeling this way or What is wrong with me? and I’ve been fine for so long, I should still be fine.

Your chest will constantly feel constricted. So will your head and stomach, but it’s in your chest where you’ll notice it at all times.

You will sleep, a lot. You will have little energy. You will throw your energy into work, and collapse after. Weekends will be hard.

You will inwardly laugh when one of your students says, “You are just so happy! Are you ever NOT happy?” and you will respond honestly but simply, and say, “Sometimes I am happy, but sometimes I am mad or sad, too.”

You will remind yourself to eat, despite a lack of appetite.

You will go to new types of appointments and cry. You will cry a lot. You will realize your voice is flat. You will talk about events and memories. When she asks you if you want to process x, y, or z, you will laugh, and tell her, “No. So I guess we should.” You will realize that these appointments, this new methodology, might be the key to your lock.

You will start to have a few minutes, an hour, maybe even part of a day here and there when the tight compression in your chest lifts. When you notice that you can breathe. When you haven’t cried. When your voice is a little more sing-songy. When you can think about people and places and memories without waves of nausea and dread.

And then those moments will end.

You will feel a true acceptance of where you are, of what’s happening. You will understand that it was kind of inevitable. You’ll get that while it might not have happened this year, it would’ve happened eventually. You will trust that it can’t last forever. Eventually the waters will subside. Eventually the floods will stop.

And so you will just keep going, minute by minute, day by day.

Because there’s no other option.

And you remind yourself of your beloved poem that you post every solstice, and you take to heart the words:

So do not lose heart
when vision dims.
Journey forth
as best you can-
bloom when you are able,
rest when you must,
keep faith,
keep always
towards the light

Grounding my body.

I have been thinking about the point where the body and the mind split.

Usually I would never try to do that. I’m all about bridging the two, integrating, getting everything in balance.

But lately I’ve been in an interesting space, where pulling the two apart is necessary. And it’s hard to find that point.

When I think about “grounding,” historically for me it has meant bringing me back to the present, getting my brain remembering where I am, what’s going on, and focusing on the here and now – rather than spinning years into the past or miles into the hypothetical future. Grounding for me has been like meditation. Focus on the here and now. Focus on the 5 senses. Focus on what you can see, hear, and feel. Grounding for many I know means taking a deep breath when your brain is taking you to places you don’t want to go. It’s taking a minute in your office to center, or going for a walk during lunch. Grounding – almost literally – is bringing yourself back to the ground, rather than floating off into the abyss of memories, thoughts, worries. I would imagine that many of you reading this are nodding, saying that you do this all the time, even if you aren’t consciously participating or realizing it.

Lately, though, none of those strategies have worked for me. And it’s easy to immediately react with why not, why isn’t it working, let me run through everything I’ve tried, why am I still anxious, why am I still going over past events and memories, why am I stuck on certain thoughts, why why why. (Shockingly, that doesn’t seem to help.) What I’ve realized is that all of my brain/mind grounding strategies are continuing to work wonders. I do them without even having to think about it, more often than not. But it’s my body that needs grounding. And that’s harder, because that’s not something you can control with thoughts. It’s also harder to talk about, for me. While I have spent the last few years sharing the thoughts and inner workings of my brain, anything to do with body feels vulnerable and scary to share.

Grounding techniques help my brain stop spinning. But they don’t stop the anxious pit in my stomach, or the tornado that whirs around in it. They don’t open up my chest so I feel like I can breathe again. They don’t stop the pounding in my eyes and in my head. I believe that we all have experienced something traumatic, or extremely emotional in our lives. Thinking about that event in your own life, can you now see that difference in how you’ve experienced it over the years – sometimes ruminating, thinking, obsessing, remembering, grieving, in your brain, but other times feeling it, literally, in your stomach, in your heart, in your head, in or on your body? Whether it was the death of the loved one, a car accident, a traumatic injury, a sexual or physical assault, an invasive medical procedure, a disease, an intense altercation at work, an emotionally-taxing event – it goes on and on, and it all had an effect on both brain and body. And just as you might keep reliving it in your brain, you might keep reliving it in your body, too.

So. How do I ground my body? What do I do in those times when I’m happily going about my day, and my brain is quiet and calm, focused on work and life, but my body is stuck?

I actually don’t know.

Yoga helps. Bodywork helps. Massage helps. Sometimes exercise helps.

But the rest, I’m still figuring out.

Does this make sense? Can you relate? What do you do to ground your body?

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