About that trauma that lives in the body…

Content Warning: PTSD in real life, abortion on TV, sexual assault on TV, same-sex intimate partner violence on TV

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When I was 18 or 19 years old (1998ish), I was an undergraduate teaching assistant for an introduction to women’s studies course at UMass Dartmouth. The class was held in the Women’s Resource Center (now the Center for Women, Gender & Sexuality), which was tucked away in the ground floor suite in one of the dorms. To enter, you had to walk down a wide paved path on a slight hill surrounded by trees. At the bottom of that path, and at the entrance to the building, is where I had my first trauma response as an “adult” (that I now know is called vasovagal syncope common in folx with PTSD).

We were watching If These Walls Could Talk (1996) in the lounge where class was held and during the scene with Demi Moore’s botched abortion, my body became increasingly hot and light; I felt like I was suffocating. (Just looking for the clip on YouTube just now made me queasy.) From what I can remember, I thought I was going to throw up and I ran out of the center and out of the building desperate for fresh air. I landed on the pavement in front of the door. I remember moist air, wet ground. I don’t know exactly what happened after that. I’m sure people followed me (certainly the professor and perhaps my then-girlfriend?) and got me back inside safely. I don’t remember how I got home, but I do remember the profound visceral sensation/knowledge that I had personally experienced what I just witnessed in the film—a “back alley” abortion. But I hadn’t, not in this body. Instead of brushing it off as a fluke/unexplained medical thing, I let myself feel/believe that I had died from a botched abortion in a previous life. I know. That’s delusional, right? I didn’t share that feeling with many people at the time, but over the years I’ve come to realize that perhaps my body knew something my mind didn’t. I don’t mean to say that my body and mind are distinct in the Cartesian mind-body dualism, of course, but as a survivor of various forms of violence in this life/in this body I know that there are experiences that your mind protects you from, and who’s to say past experiences from other lives aren’t included?

I was a baby feminist and still learning my way around the issues then, but that experience turned me into a fierce advocate for safe, legal, affordable, and accessible abortions for all.

I’m writing about this here—where I usually write about women in graffiti art or Puerto Rican Rican identity—because the other night I had a vasovagal response triggered by the Silent All These Years episode of Grey’s Anatomy. (I should note that there was a trigger warning at the beginning of the episode but I missed it.)

There are 20 years of living, loving, and surviving in between these instances, but this time I was better prepared to handle my response. Aside from putting my thoughts somewhere, maybe this blog post will be helpful because I’ve got coping tools and I want to share them.

The episode is described fully here, but in a nutshell the episode centers survivor studies of sexual assault and intimate partner violence through an estranged bio-mother/adopted daughter narrative and a ER patient/doctor with a history of abuse narrative. I can’t type out more than that, not only because of spoilers but also because the episode was so difficult for me to watch, and honestly I missed a lot of it.

I was sitting on the couch, and from the moment Abby (the ER patient) walked into the ER and bumped into Jo, I was nervous. She had a cut on her face and the way she was describing what happened was textbook IPV rationalization—just fix it so I can go home and get on with my life. Jo—a survivor of intimate partner violence herself—sensed there was more to the story and asked to examine her more fully. They lifted Abby’s shirt and revealed her abdomen and that’s when I got dizzy…all I remember is blue and purple and ribs and pain and fear coming through the television screen and sticking to my body, now heavy. Abby, it turned out, was brutally sexually assaulted.

I’ll be 40 this year and I can sense when I am about to faint way before it happens; I can make sure that when/if I do faint, I can do it “safely.” I did not faint, but I did disassociate from my body momentarily (flight of the fight/flight/freeze phenom) right there on my living room couch sitting next to my husband. I curled myself into a ball to ease my stomach, turned away from the screen, and closed my eyes to try and regain my composure. He checked in and I said, “this is so stupid I haven’t even experienced this.” He quickly responded “well, maybe not this trauma and not in this way, but other traumas happened.” His affirmation actually helped me move through the symptoms that were obviously a result of being triggered. I realized I was trying to move out of my body so I didn’t have to feel what was going on. By acknowledging that I was being triggered, that other traumas happened, I was able to come back to my body using the skills I’ve developed in my embodied therapy sessions.

I unrolled myself from the fetal position, sat up, slowly, because the blood was not yet returned to my brain and I put my hand on my chest—the part of my body which felt the heaviest, the most suffocated. This is the hardest part of being in your body for me: finding where the body has mapped the memory, finding where it holds the weight of the trauma. I took a deep breathe and it only went so far as the tippy top of my sternum. I began breathing through the blockages by imagining my breath as white light until I could feel it deep in my belly and then coming out of the crown of my head (yes, like you do in yoga). I brought compassion to that trauma response. Instead of running from it, I ran to it. Embraced it even. I sat upright and planted my feet firmly on the ground. I reminded myself that I am here, I am safe, I am an adult, and I kept my hand on my chest until the fainting sensation passed and I returned to a non-triggered state. This took most of the episode.

I will never really know if my triggers are from this life or from former lives. If they are from my personal experience or from an intense capacity for empathy. But I do know how to work through the triggers in a way that empowers me because it gives me back my body. It gives me back a relation to my body-those triggers are alarm bells from a body that is trying to protect me from further harm. I don’t have to leave my body or escape it. The work is realizing I can feel safe in this moment, in this life, in this body by recognizing that I survived, I am surviving, I am survivor.

And surviving is a practice, a journey not an end.

Author: Jessica N. Pabón-Colón

Dr. Jessica N. Pabón-Colón is an Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY New Paltz. Follow her on Twitter @justjess_PhD

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