Updated: Jun 8


Last summer, Merel and I casually ate a weed cookie. This wasn't a heavy duty weed cookie by any means. It was pretty mild and the friend who had given us the cookie said that when she ate one from the same batch she played some fun board games and 'had some giggles'. This was not my experience of the cookie I consumed.


After we ate it, we were sitting on the couch watching 'Girls', (as one does when you have a body high) and I suddenly began to 'zone out' and move into spontaneous shaking with my body that lasted, off an on, approximately five hours in length. My pulse was well over 150bpm and my body was in a complete state of fight/flight. Merel had to move me down to the floor and hold me on a yoga mat while my body shook and released. Had this experience only happened the once I would have said that it was definitely some type of adverse reaction to the god damn cookie. The thing is, it didn't happen just once, it happened four more times, spontaneously during the night for the same amount of time. I couldn't control it, I couldn't stop it and I didn't know when it was going to happen again. Thank God I was living with Merel and that she is such a compassionate and loving friend, as it was truly a terrifying experience and I needed her support. Of course, we were all greatly concerned about what was going on with my body. So I reached out to my family doctor and did all of the tests. I even wore a holter monitor over the span of 72 hours so that he could check my heart health. Everything came back 'normal'. This shouldn't be surprising to me. As someone who has been living with chronic, invisible illness for close to two decades I am used to hearing the words 'everything's normal', even when I know very clearly that it isn't. The closest thing that my friends, family and I could come up with as an explanation is that I had an adverse reaction/overdose to a thyroid hormone that I was taking and it put my body into a state of 'hyperthyroidism' for an extended period of time. While I think that's probably at least part of it, I also believe now that there was something more at play.


I don't have children. I don't know what it feels like to give birth - but I couldn't help but wonder if it mirrored what I experienced those five times my body went into spontaneous shaking/convulsions. At certain points Merel would be holding and coaching me, much like I envision a doula would do with a woman in labour. The energetic and emotional waves pulsed through my body, mirroring contractions that afterwards brought a sense of release, relief and insight. It was truly one of the most terrifying experiences I have ever had in my life. I was conscious during the episodes, but zoned out. I was aware of what was happening, but it was a feeling that I couldn't control my body or the processes it was experiencing. The last time it happened, we decided to call my mother over to supervise me, as she is a retired nurse of 40 years and we felt it was important for her to view my state in real time so that I she could help me better report to my doctor what was happening. My mom, completely at a loss and quite upset when she saw the state of me, continued to say 'this is not psychological, this is physiological'. She sat with me that night from 2am-5am saying reassuringly 'It's ok - it's just been a while since I've worked a night shift'.


I am still processing the fear and uncertainty of these episodes - what they were, how they happened, what was going on with my body. To be honest, the experiences felt so insane and unlikely that if I had been alone and Merel and my mom hadn’t been there to witness them I might have a hard time trusting that they had actually happened. When all of my medical tests were complete and came back 'normal', I asked my doctor out of desperation 'well then, what WAS that?' He replied graciously and humbly, 'this is just one of the examples of the limitations of western medicine. We simply don't know'.


Almost a year has passed since the onset of those episodes and, with lots of time for reflection, research, processing and understanding, I believe that what happened to my body was a miraculous act of spontaneous healing and release, triggered and induced perhaps by the weed cookie or the thyroid hormone overdose, or both. But a spontaneous act of healing and somatic stress release nonetheless.


I shared my experiences with my therapist - an incredibly wise man with a background in somatic psychotherapy. He has studied the healing modalities of many different Indigenous populations (including our own) and has a perspective on mind/body connection that I have never experienced before with any other psychotherapist that I've ever worked with. His reaction was curious but not entirely shocked or surprised. I first went to him six years ago with obvious symptoms of post traumatic stress, though it went unrecognized by any other health professional I had seen prior. 'You needed somebody trauma informed', he said to me years later, once I was aware enough to understand that what I was experiencing was connected to trauma and the nervous system. The problem was that no one else that I had seen was trauma informed, and my symptoms were written off as individual phenomena, neatly placed into diagnostic boxes that separated each part of my body from all of the others. My therapist's recommendation for the episodes: allow them to happen. Don't judge them. Don't try to stop them. So long as I had done medical testing and knew that it was nothing hugely threatening to my overall health, I should let my body do its thing.


Dr. Peter Levine is a psychologist, researcher, and former stress consultant with NASA who specializes in working with trauma and stress-related disorders. He is the developer of Somatic Experiencing, a body-oriented approach to treating trauma which focuses on processing traumatic memory, calming the nervous system, and releasing traumatic shock from the body. The approach was inspired by his observation of trauma recovery behaviours in nature. By observing mammals in their natural habitat, he observed that upon stressful encounters with other animals, they would often go into a state of 'freeze' out of safety and life preservation. Once the threat dissipated or disappeared, the animals would shake, shiver, quiver, and release the traumatic stress that had been circulating in their nervous systems due to the attack. This wasn't something that happened every so often - it was a regular, repeated occurrence amongst mammals in the wild. Dr. Levine began to experiment with these practices with his own client base and observed that individuals who had experienced life threatening events long ago had the capacity to release the stress stored as a result of these events through shaking, shivering and spontaneous movement. They were able to process what had originally happened to them that had induced their bodies into a 'freeze' state where they had remained for years and sometimes even decades. Adult clients that he was supervising began releasing stress from events that they had experienced in childhood that they had not been able to remember through cognition and had not been able to process using traditional talk therapy. The hugest requirement for their bodies to be able to access these release states were extreme safety in relationship. It was as if their bodies knew exactly what to do. They just had to be given the right support.


Upon further study of this process, Dr. Levine discovered that it was not only 'Big T' traumas that could be resolved, but also, though slightly more challenging, pervasive ’little t’ traumas that were stored in the nervous system from long term, ongoing stressors in a person's life. He also discovered that it was not necessary for the individual to remember specifically what they had experienced in order for their bodies to release the contained stress from their nervous system, but that it simply required attention to body sensations in a safe and supportive environment.


Its difficult to describe what it feels like to be living in a functional freeze state. The best depiction is to say that it is like having the gas pedal and the brakes on at the same time. Numb and paralyzed on the outside but with active fight/flight energy happening inside.

You are dissociated on the day to day, but with unprocessed energy inside of you ready to be easily activated by any event that reminds it of the past. You could easily say that it's likely that a large percentage of the population is living in this state, (myself included) - never learning how to process our emotions around events that happen to us, and not understanding that what we refer to as 'trauma' is not only reserved for combat veterans, first responders or natural disaster survivors. Trauma is, in essence, any event or experience that overwhelms the nervous system that we don't have the safety or support to process at the time - from the seemingly 'small' and 'meaningless' to the more obviously life altering. Our systems contain the experiences of our lives (so long as we don't process or move through them), which link heavily to our self created belief systems about ourselves and the world around us. Trauma is any type of unprocessed stress that remains, unresolved in our nervous systems. It is subjective, different for everybody, less about the type and extent of event that causes it, and more about how it impacts us internally, as individuals. As Gabor Mate so eloquently puts it 'trauma is not what happens to us, but what happens inside us as a result of what happens'. And what happens inside us lives on and waits for daily experiences that remind our nervous systems of the past, when it is once again activated, leaving us to feel (consciously or not) like we are reliving the original experience.


Without my initial understanding, this type of trapped stress processing is exactly what my therapist had been working towards with me over the past six years. Guiding me to feel into my body sensations by locating them in my body, and teaching me how to release them and to move this energy through. The process has been painfully slow, as, in order to survive the ongoing, unrelenting nervous system activation that I have been living with for so long, I have had to disconnect from my body in general. It has taken time for me to reconnect with it and it has required a great degree of safety to get there. It has been the secure attachment/relationship with my therapist that has allowed for this to unfold and it has taken years for my system to develop the necessary degree of trust and safety with him.


There are various ways to facilitate the movement of this stored stress response. The best ways that I've learned are through the following:


1) crying
2) shaking
3) sweating
4) yelling (or making any sound)
5) laughing
6) active breath work

All of these methods, though simple in nature, are easier said than done. We live in a culture that trains us to suppress our emotions OR to take them out on other people. Rarely are we taught how to take responsibility for our feelings and we are almost never taught what to do with them when they arise. We are taught that vulnerability and emotional expression is a sign of weakness. Meanwhile, our brilliant bodies know exactly what they are doing, but we rarely let them do it.


Back to my weed cookie experience - it is my belief now that what occurred was that my body saw an opening. The onset of COVID was obviously monumentally stressful and my nervous system was already far too full. Whatever the trigger (the cookie or the thyroid hormone) I believe now that my body saw an opportunity to release some of what was stored inside of it, because it had to. There was simply no room left to experience and survive COVID and everything else that comes along with that. My body did me a favour, albeit a terrifying one, and took me into a state of spontaneous nervous system stress release. After each of these episodes, I would become incredibly, ravenously hungry. My appetite kicking back on to signal that I was ready to receive nutrients again. Fascinating. I had experienced a similar thing only once before in my life, the first time I attended a Sweat Lodge Ceremony in Kenora. After the first round, my body moved into spontaneous stress release through uncontrollable crying, shaking and trembling. Not surprisingly, the elders there knew exactly what this was and how to guide me through the process, their ancient practices holding a deep wisdom that moves beyond what we have been able to 'prove' with modern science. Afterwards, I ate like an animal.


There are other ways that I have been working on continuing this process during my every day life, one of which being to recognize and engage in my body's natural, healthy aggression. This involves a large amount of reprogramming because part of my survival has been to always try to 'keep the peace' no matter what. Relational conflict feels life threatening for me. I have a very difficult time relaxing into someone else being displeased with or heaven forbid angry at me. In order to begin to process the stress that I have suppressed for so long I have had to begin to do things like set boundaries, communicate preferences, express anger, set limits with my time and energy, say no, express my needs and basically any/all of the things that were societally trained out of me as a human and especially as a woman.

Societally, men are not supposed to be sad or afraid. Women are not supposed to be angry. How often do we hear anger or assertiveness in women associated with ‘craziness’, ‘hysteria’ or being 'out of control' - societal conditioning at its best trying keep us small, controlled and to suffocate our healthy aggression, our power, our life force.

Due to this fucked up programming, things like setting boundaries still feel paralyzingly terrifying to me and continue to require constant practice. Merel, having travelled this path for longer than I, demonstrates these practices in our friendship. When, through my conditioning, I try to unconsciously prevent her from feeling anger in our home she gently responds with a loving but firm 'fuck that' and tells me to mind my emotional business. They're her emotions, after all, not mine, and she is entitled to have them. If I don't like it, well then, that's just too bad. She teaches me what the healthy expression, ownership and responsibility over anger looks like, as it’s something I’ve not seen before. This emotion frightens me, never having learned how to express it in a healthy way, myself. Her refusal to tone herself down to make me more comfortable demonstrates to me my own conditioning and shows me that it is not only perfectly acceptable to have and express emotion, but it is necessary for authentic connection. I am also learning an appreciation for spontaneous movement and for doing things like dancing in my kitchen - blasting the music and allowing my body to pulse and move naturally, in the ways that it craves. It's a slow progression to allowing this motion, as I've spent most of my life trapped in a contained and contracted state. It's flow, it's expression, it's intuition, it's spontaneity. Engaging in these practices feels strange - like learning a new, foreign language. Which is why I’m grateful for the teacher in that cookie. However scary the experience was, it gave me the opportunity to get out of my own body’s way. It demonstrated to me how much my body contains that requires acknowledgement, release and expression. It exemplified my body’s brilliance at knowing exactly what to do, despite all of my efforts to shut it up, contain it and keep it quiet. Thank you, body. Thank you, cookie. Thank you Peter Levine and other pioneers in the field who are beginning to bring these wise practices that we can use to facilitate our body’s natural healing capacities into the mainstream. And thank you to our brilliantly wise Indigenous peoples, who have been the keepers, holders and true teachers of this sacred knowledge for centuries. Thank you crying, thank you shaking, thank you dancing, sweating, yelling, singing, writing, speaking, laughing, sharing, running, MOVING. Thank you for all of the ways that we can express and release what is inside of us, as we need to, now, more than ever. Our world needs it.


References


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDlR-wl7iFI&t=31s


https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/somatic-experiencing


https://traumahealing.org/se-101/


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgdCsfBXnHA


















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Dearest blog subscribers,

I am so excited to be embarking on this podcast mission with Michele Berthiaume, NP where we are creating space for the sharing of the human experience.


Please join us in listening to episode one. We’d love to have you on this journey with us. Listen via the link below or through Spotify. ❤️

www.unravelingpodcast.ca


Welcome to Unraveling - the podcast. Join us as we share stories and explore topics around emotional wellness, trauma and healing. Through our conversations, we aim to unravel who we are and the lives we lead in the hopes of reconnecting with our authentic selves.


All my love on the healing path,


Reilly

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It's hard for me to realize the full extent of time, effort, pain and stress that I’ve exerted over the years trying to stay thin. I cannot believe how long I have tried to control and micromanage my body. But then, like any other pattern in my life that I examine closely, when I look deeper, it makes perfect sense. This awareness has been gradually unfolding for me over the past few years as I’ve begun to slowly uncover and heal from decades of controlled eating, exercise fixation and an overall obsession with weight and body image.

Beginning to peel back the curtain on the underlying beliefs about my body has felt challenging to say the least, as well as shocking, frustrating and confusing and disorienting. For most of my life I genuinely had no idea that they were even there. They were such an accepted and normal part of my every day existance that I wasn't even aware I had them. I am not trying to guilt or shame myself for this. I understand now why they existed, and that helps. It helps to recognize the narratives that have run so deeply through my psyche for so long. After all, you can't free yourself from a prison that you're not even aware that you are in. If I could go back twenty years and tell my 14 year old self one thing it would be this:


'always question the things that society tells you will get you the love you so desperately crave'.

For most of my life, I thought I was doing things so right. I have always considered myself to be a very healthy person - and on the surface I was. I exercised regularly, I ate low fat, nutrient dense food, I took pride in making sure I was following public health guidelines around exercise and weight management. But underneath all of that, was a deep suffering and a pain that no one, not even myself could truly see.


You see, I grew up in the 90s, when diet culture, fat phobia and ideas around health were hugely attributed to BMI. I absorbed that information and those belief systems like a sponge, soaking them in from a young age through the shows I watched, the magazines and I read, and the subtle and not to subtle conversations that were everywhere I went - at school, from teachers and peers, at home from family members and throughout the media I was consuming. The message: thin = healthy, good, worthy of love, ‘fat’ = unhealthy, bad, unlovable.


Looking back on it now, it blows my mind how ingrained and normalized these messages were. When you look at it objectively, you realize how insane it truly is. I didn't know that there was anything wrong about my eighth grade teacher announcing to the class that she was going to get running pants that would increase her sweat outtake so that she would lose weight, or with my aunt making a pig face when I prepared Mac and Cheese as a child, suggesting that this food would ultimately 'make me fat', or my middle school friends pinching the thin layer of skin on their bellies, renouncing bread for the foreseeable future. The messages ran deep - deep to the point that I would find myself, as a thirteen year old, stick thin girl, staring into the freezer as I reached for the ice-cream and thinking to myself 'I will eat this now, but the moment I begin gaining any weight I will stop...'


I thought what I was doing was noble, and it was celebrated as such. I took pride in my daily runs and visits to the gym. Peers and family members would salute my exercise regimen and I was praised by coaches and teachers for 'taking care of my body'. I wanted to be healthy. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to be fit. The problem was, emotionally, not much about what I was doing was healthy for me. Sure, exercise is important, but rather than doing it out of care and love for myself, I was approaching it from a place of control, dominance and numbing. Intention is everything.


I didn’t think that there was any harm in my behaviour. I have always been very small in stature (the 'correct' body type by society's standards) with a large amount of thin privelege. I had muscle tone, appeared fit and was encouraged to continue to 'take care' of that. What I didn't see was how completely consumed my life had become with how much I exercised and ate - so much of my thinking and energy wrapped around ensuring that my body achieved a specific beauty standard. There was just no space for entering into a dialogue or a healthy relationship with my body. I was too dissociated from it, numb, angry and forcing it to do what I wanted it to do - stay thin, stay worthy, stay lovable.


Looking back now, I can see that exercise was the first addiction that I ever developed in my life. I feel slightly proud of this as it was an extremely adaptive behaviour that was highly praised by those around me. I wanted to be good, after all. You wouldn’t know that what I was doing was actually a version of self harm because of the way that it appeared and how it mirrored so many normalized, cultural belief systems around 'health and wellness'. Almost everything that I did was fixated on how/where I could get a workout in and how I would be able to force and maintain my 'thinness'. Hours and hours spent staring into a mirror, pulling my gut in, ensuring that I had that perfectly flat stomach, not a centimetre of fat in sight. I avoided 'fattening' foods like butter, cheese and anything deep fried - believing the social myth that 'fat' foods made you fat. It is hard for me to acknowledge that I did this to myself, even now. But beginning to explore these thoughts and behaviours has led me down a path of understanding about myself that goes back. Like, way back. Early childhood back.


What I’ve come to see for myself is that in order to truly understand behaviours around food and exercise (the compulsive types) I have had to move beyond surface level thinking around diet and body image and use a Trauma Informed perspective. I have had to understand how early relational patterns, developmental needs and nervous system responses all tie in to the decisions I am currently making, the behaviours I exhibit and the coping tools I so brilliantly and adaptively choose.


For me, restricting and controlling my body and diet was a survival strategy that allowed me to hold some semblance of safety in my life. Those behaviours gave me the sense that I had some form of control over what was happening around me, over making sure my needs for connection were met. Where I felt like I couldn’t control anything else, I could control what was and was not going into my mouth. As my exploration of developmental/attachment psychology has progressed, I've begun to understand at a deeper level just how adaptive these behaviours truly were. Through studying the work of Dr. Gabor Mate I've learned that, as children, if we are not getting our emotional needs for safety, recognition and acknowledgement as our true, authentic selves met, the safest way for us to continue on is not to realize that our caretakers can't or won't meet those needs, it is to adopt the belief that there is something inherently wrong with us. We are dependent on our caregivers for our very survival. To understand that they can't meet our needs is too terrifying, too unbelievable, too destabilizing. If it is us that is the problem, well then, that is something that we can actually do something about. We can make our selves better. We can try harder. We can continuously change our behaviour in order to make ourselves more worthy of love. What better and more acceptable way to do so than to try to achieve a perfect body - though I can think of many other approaches that I tried, too. (*See perfectionism, in general).

In my own experiences, I have also been able to link my eating behaviours to nervous system function. I started to notice that I would use eating behaviours in order to either up-regulate or down-regulate my stress response as needed. Having grown up in a deeply stressful and unpredictable home environment, it was rare for my system to find a sense of safety and regulation. My stress response was groomed and primed for easy activation, making it difficult for me to achieve a sense of peace and stillness inside myself. After all, we learn how to regulate our stress response through our early relationships with our primary caregivers. In fact, one of the first ways that our nervous system becomes programmed towards regulation is while we are being breast fed by our mothers. Think about the soothing effect of the feeding on the baby, the oxytocin and dopamine flooding through its system, the gentle gaze/eye contact with the mother, the calm, warmth and safety. This early connection/attachment is what allows the 'rest and digest' branch of our nervous system to develop. Without this developmental requirement, we are stuck in a chronic stress response that we struggle to soothe. As Alanis Morissette sings in her recently released song 'Rest', 'We are a country desperate for the embryonic', and we will go about achieving this in any way that we find available to us.


Enter 'disordered' eating behaviours.


In my case, I believe that it was also my sensitivity and empathic nature that played a role. I have always felt things deeply and intensely - a superpower often viewed as a massive inconvenience by our production and consumption based culture. As a child, my big emotions were too much for the adults who hadn’t sat with their own. In order to get my attachment needs met I had to shut them off. I got the message, in order to be loved, you have to stay small, controlled, managed, suppressed. There was a protective voice inside my head reminding me that I had to stay ‘safe’ at all costs. I did that by:


Holding in. Suppressing. Perfecting. Containing. Controlling. Not having big, inconvenient feelings. Stuffing them down. Blocking them off. Keeping myself small and acceptable. Not rocking the boat. Not expressing emotions. Not showing my anger. Not being ‘too much’. Not being ‘too loud’. Adapting. Adopting. Being ‘good’. Being ‘nice’. Being ‘pretty’, ’delicate’, ‘fragile’. Doing the ‘right’ thing.

The list goes on and on. As I developed, I learned that if I could control my eating and my body shape I could block the flow of my emotions that I have been so afraid of and not risk rejection from the people who I needed the most to survive - my caregivers, my peers, my culture. AND, like any other coping strategy, it worked brilliantly, until it didn't.


Gradually, my nervous system became overtaxed and the obsessive exercise proved to be too much. The stress hormones that I had been running on for so long by overworking, perfectionism and controlling my internal experience began to take their toll. My body began to collapse, my adrenals burnt out, I became overwhelmed, stressed, and autoimmune ridden. All of the years of self suppression had caught up with me. A survival strategy gone awry, as they often do.


Now, in order to get well, I am having to reprogram my system and change my belief systems around what it means to be 'healthy'. I am having to do everything that I was always told not to do - eat more, exercise less. I am having to begin to actually listen to my body, which for now, really just wants a fucking rest. I am having to process the emotions that I have been running away from through compulsive exercise, food control and other numbing, dissociative behaviours. AND, I am having to question and deeply examine toxic diet culture and cultural belief systems around beauty and 'wellness'. The takeaway:


If something serves to disconnect you from yourself, your power, your wholeness and your inherent, existential beauty that is not 'health', that is brainwashing.

Cognitively, I know now that it doesn't make sense that these new actions of mine will mean rejection, but emotionally, that is something else altogether. How hard it is to release of one of the things that allowed me to feel in control of my safety and connection needs. In order to tolerate it, I'm having to explore it slowly, in a way that my nervous system and inner child can handle. If I push myself too far, it won't work. I have to listen to those protective, survival mechanisms that worked so well for so long. I have to ask them what they need and find other ways to give that to them that doesn't involve pushing myself to the brink of exhaustion. Even as I write this blog I am having to pause and ask myself if I'm going too hard and overdoing it. Retraining the brain and nervous system takes time. So I breathe, I ground and I cut myself some fucking slack.


I want to live a healthy life now, more than ever. I've just realized that my idea of health has changed. Now, I understand it as paramount to the degree of relationship and compassion I have towards my myself, my inner child, and all of my various inner parts that have been working overtime to help me, even if they have gone about it in ways that have appeared harmful in the long run. It's not easy, it’s a process and I'll be working on it for the rest of my life. But, it's a start and we have to begin somewhere on this path of remembering who we truly are. I have no intention of no longer taking care of myself or of neglecting my health needs. Quite the opposite. I desire to take care of myself in a much more holistic and all encompassing way and that involves flexibility, openness and consideration towards my emotional and spiritual bodies as well as my physical one.

When I look at my body now I'm starting to see a vessel brilliant in its intelligence and love for me. A being that always wants to keep me safe, whatever the cost. An entity that is ever changing, ever evolving, that holds the sacred potential to grow a human life. How amazing is that? Mainstream diet culture would have me view it as something to control and ‘monitor’, to restrict and to shove into a box of social and cultural idealism. It would have me use up all of my energy, money and other resources trying to achieve a beauty standard that it has intentionally created in order to maintain its grasp over my entire life. But I’m no longer buying that bullshit. The curtain has lifted. I have much bigger, better, interesting and more important things to do with my life, thank you very much. Number one being to enjoy it.


For now, I will continue to adapt my diet in ways that make me feel good in my own skin, give me energy, vitality and allow me to live my life to the fullest (with a side of fries and coconut ice-cream because dairy gives me a stomach ache). My appearance will continue to change and evolve naturally with time and age, I'm sure. And as it does I will continue to remember and honour that young girl examining her belly in the mirror and will never forget how brilliant and brave she is - because that's all she ever really wanted in the first place anyways, to be fully seen and loved by me.


References:


https://drgabormate.com/culture-good-health/



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