Updated: Sep 23, 2021

I don't like the term 'mental health'. I have felt this way for a long time but haven’t voiced it because I am afraid that it is too controversial of a thing to say out loud or that it will come across as offensive, invalidating or stigmatizing, which is the last thing that I want to do. I especially do not like the term 'mental illness' but have been worried that perhaps my feelings about that mean that I am in some form of denial about my own experience and the experiences of others. I've struggled with these thoughts for a long time now.

We are living through a period of time where mental health is even just beginning to be placed on the map as a societally and culturally 'OK' thing to discuss openly, which is huge progress in comparison to how things were ten years ago. Even in the last five years I‘ve noticed huge strides in regards to how culture discusses the topic. More people seem to be open to speaking about it without shame. The idea that we should hide it is becoming less prevalent and it seems to be becoming trendy to discuss mental health struggles or the support that one is using to manage their emotional worlds. It feels to me like the onset of the Corona Virus Pandemic has pushed this a step further and suddenly mental health is a universally talked about and shared experience. Not only are we all undergoing some version of ongoing stress/trauma right now, but we are in one way or another, experiencing it collectively - though I recognize the very important role that privilege plays in regards to the degree.

But no, I don't like the term 'mental health' - I still don't. Here's why:

I am a long time anxiety sufferer and have been working with some degree of anxiety or another since I was a young child. For most of my life I didn't even know that what I was experiencing was a thing, never mind that it was an experience called anxiety that was shared by billions of people - essentially that it was a human experience. When I was a child I just thought that I must be ‘crazy’ and different from everybody else. I hid my experiences so well in isolation that not even my parents knew how badly I suffered. Then, when I went to University in Guelph, Ontario in 2003 and my anxiety became unmanageable, I saught support from my GP who referred me to an on campus Psychiatrist. The Doctor quickly diagnosed me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, explaining that I simply had a chemical imbalance in my brain, a lac of the neurotransmitter serotonin, that required life long pharmacological treatment to be corrected. 'Ok', I thought. 'The problem is that my brain isn't working properly and I need this chemical in order to function'. It seemed simple enough and I was grateful to receive answers. The only problem was - the pills didn't help. Not really. They certainly didn’t solve the overall problem the way this doctor seemed to suggest they would. When I went back to tell them this I was met with blank stares and a prescription to increase my current does of medication. ‘You just need to find the right medication for you. Try CBT', they would say. 'It's evidence based'. And try I did. I tried with therapist after therapist to social worker to psychiatrist. I purchased 'how to' books on CBT and self studied on my own. I even drove to Winnipeg to seek support and information from a not-for-profit organization that specialized in anxiety. There, I met a lovely peer support worker who was hugely supportive in helping me feel less alone, but wasn‘t able to give me tools or understanding outside of the realm of medication and CBT. I continued trying to seek help and support, in and out of mental health crisis, until my final experience with a Psychiatrist in 2016 resulted in their suggestion that I utilize red wine as a PRN for my anxiety. PRN (pro-re-nata) is a type of 'when needed' medication to be used in emergency situations rather than daily. 'You're not an alcoholic', he said. "If you were, you'd be one already'. I tried that and it didn’t go well. It turned out not to be the solution, either.

What I know now that I didn't know then about CBT, is that, while effective in some circumstances with some individuals, CBT focuses primarily on what is referred to as 'top down' processing, a type of tool that focuses on thought management and 'changing the way you think' which, in turn is supposed to change the way you feel. The problem with CBT for those who have experienced trauma (which I would argue is about 99.9% of the population - if you're human you've experienced trauma) is that we are experiencing #nervoussystemdysregulation. In trauma, memories are stored in the limbic system and the emergency centre of our brain, the amygdala, is hyperactive. It is as though your body is primed for threat, ALL the time. Your brain and body want to protect you from danger. They want to make sure that what happened to you in the past doesn’t happen to you again in the present. They want to do this SO badly, that when they sense threat, whether real or imagined, they shut off the 'thinking' part of your brain (the pre-frontal cortex) in order for the survival mechanisms of your brain to take over and protect you from danger. There is not much room for 'changing the way you're thinking' when the thinking part of your brain is literally turned off.

The game really changed for me when I began my training in Trauma Sensitive Yoga. The TSY training that I was doing educated me on the role of the #vagusnerve. This nerve, which begins at the brain stem, travels down through the body to the stomach and intestines . It connects to a wide range of bodily organs including heart, lungs, throat and fascial muscles. The degree of its ‘tone’ is responsible for the regulation of our bodys stress response system. If our vagal tone is high we are more resilient to stress. If it is low, we become stressed more easily. Most interestingly, in the vagus nerve’s bidirectional communication between the mind and the body, 80% of the communication occurs from the bottom up (ie. from the body to the mind), making what is going on in our bodies pivotal to our mental state. In #polyvagaltheory it is often said that 'story follows state’. In other words, the story that is being told by the mind follows the state of the nervous system. If our nervous system is in 'flight' mode our thoughts will be frightened and racing. If it is in 'freeze' mode our thoughts will be slow and hopeless. And if it is in 'fight' mode they will be defensive, fearful, aggressive and angry. Furthermore, when our stress response system is stimulated and our body is sensing threat, this means that the branch of our nervous system which helps us to feel safe, seen, soothed ane connected is not online. This 'rest and digest' branch of our nervous system, the parasympathetic branch, is what facilitates digestion and absorption of nutrients, as well as recovery from stress and safe connection in relationship. There isn’t much room to digest food or have fun with our pals when our lives are in danger, literally or imagined. This 'shut down' of our digestive system can lead to what is called intestinal dysbiosis or an imbalance of our intestinal bacteria/flora. Keeping in mind that it’s been estimated that we have more bacteria in our microbiome than we have cells in our body, I'd say that could be pretty problematic to our overall health. Add to the mix that a large percentage of our feel good neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, are produced in the gut, it's easy to see how physiological issues in the digestive tract could lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. Essentially, the mind and body are one. The one effects the other in a very real and significant way. So why, when we refer to emotional or behavioural symptoms do we call it 'mental health'?

I'd like to take this arguement a step further and open up about some of my personal physical health challenges that became more clear to me in the winter of 2016. For seventeen years I had a series of physical, mental and emotional health symptoms that were left unexplained by my doctors. After stumbling across an article by an MD who specialized in Thyroid Disease, I came to learn that a lot of the symptoms I was experiencing seemed to match the conditions she was describing. I begged my MD to send me to an Internist who I then asked to have my antithyroid antibodies checked and, as I suspected, they came back off the charts. I was experiencing the autoimmune thyroid disease, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Numerous referals and conversations with my family doctor finally landed me in the office of an Endocrinologist in Winnipeg named Margaret England. Dr. England, who was a staunch feminist from Los Angeles, CA. (how she ended up in Winnipeg, I'll never know) was as blatant with her thoughts about the medical system as she was about her politial views. 'You're not crazy', she told me. 'You're hormonal. All over North America this conditon is being misdiagnosed and unmanaged. It's being treated with anti-depressants when the problem is hormonal. You've been misdiagnosed for close to twenty years and I'm sorry that happened to you. We're going to get you feeling like a human again'. It was one of the first times in close to two decades that I felt validated in my experiences. Dr. England went on to tell me that the medical system is slow to catch up and it takes approximately 20 years after something is 'evidenced' for it to be adopted to common practice. For years, my bloodwork that came back as 'normal' was actually not explored deeply enough to show that my immune system was attacking my thyroid, leaving my cells deprived of energy, my adrenals exhausted, my body inflammed and my brain foggy and tired. This condition was impacting my overall health - including my mental health - in a significant way. There was a very real, physiological reason for so many of my symptoms. The problem was that I had been gaslighted for so long into believing that it was 'all in my head'.

And then, two years ago, while studying the Hashimoto’s expert Dr. Izabella Wentz, I learned that a common symptom of early stage Hashimotos (even before the disease tends to show up in advanced blood work) is anxiety and depression, in particular, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is also common for individuals with Hashimoto’s disease to be misdiagnosed with Bipolar Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder due to the intense hormonal fluctuations that occur as a result of the illness, significantly effecting mood and anxiety levels. This made so much sense to me based on my own experiences.

I don't want to go into a tirade about the various reason why this might have happened to me or about how the system is broken and patriarchal at best and abusive, neglectful and harming at worst. What I do want to highlight, once again, is how the mind and the body are SO intricately linked. My learning continued as I began studying the work of Dr. Gabor Mate, Bessel Van Der Kolk and Peter Levine, and discovered the deep connection between early childhood abuse/neglect and chronic illness. I learned that my early life experiences had shaped my nervous system to a state of perpetual and chronic stress, which impacted my body in a way to facilitate the onset of a chronic illness, and this chronic illness had impacted my emotional health due to the connection between hormones and inflammation on mood and energy. It was all linked. The one played into the other and vice versa.

Back to my original point about not liking the term 'mental health'. Even if you omit everything that I've just shared and simply consider that notion that emotions express themselves in the body, it is easy to see how labeling ‘mental’ symptoms as existing only from the neck up doesn't make sense. That gut feeling you have, the flushing of your face when you feel embarrassed, the racing of your heart when you’re afraid, the warmth in your chest when you’re in love - this exists in the body. They are called feelings because we feel them, we don’t think them. Thought patterns obviously play a large role in our emotional state, but they are not the only players. Our bodies contribute so much more then we can even begin to imagine. I believe that when it comes to mental health, often what we are pathologizing is either a) normal, physiological, mammalian survival responses or b) normal, painful, mammalian emotional states that we are not taught how to process or express including fear, distress and grief. What we are labeling as disease are responses and adaptations that make perfect sense considering the impacts of our environments, early childhood experiences, relationships and even the beliefs and societal expectations of our culture. And in saying this, I by no means mean to invalidate or deny the immense pain and suffering inherent in these conditions. I have experienced it and trust me, I know, that pain is very real.

We have to start somewhere with our societal conversations around mental health. I suppose recognizing that it does exist and is as real and important as any other health related experience is a start. Maybe we‘re not quite at a place where we can recognize the mind/body connection within mainstream dialogue. Maybe just having mental health on the map is enough for now. But I know for myself that recognizing the role that my body has played in my experiences has been life altering. Working with a trauma informed therapist who understands the language of the body has been unlike any work that I've done with a therapist before. At first, it felt frightening to me as it was so starkly different than the talk therapy that I had previously experienced. So much so that it took me several years to fully trust that my therapist knew what he was doing. But the truth was that talk therapy kept me trapped in that space from my neck up - the space where I had resided in order to keep myself safe from feeling the pain that I experienced growing up. The pain that was living, unprocessed, in my body. My work now, is to connect with those physical sensations in as gentle and loving and compassionate a manner as possible, with the support of someone who I feel safe with. I have, after all, been disconnected from them my entire life. This connection is where my healing lies. It's where my relationship with myself is. Its the antidote to the running, hiding, numbing, avoiding and self medicating that I have been doing most of my adult life, unknowingly. It is foreign and terrifying. I am not able to do it on my own. I have had to get help deciphering what these sensations mean, where they live and how I can be with them, as it’s a language I’ve never learned before. This healing I'm starting to do, it has actually less to do with my mind and everything to do with my body.

So, no, the term mental health doesn't quite sit right with me. But I will continue using it because I know that we have to categorize things somehow - and I want to be a part of the movement that begins normalizing these very real, normal, brave and important human experiences. I want to be part of the movement that makes talking about the physiology of trauma as normal to talk about as the physiology of cancer or a broken bone. Because it is as normal as those conditions. It is a real, visceral manifestation of an injury - an emotional one. It is tangible, the opposite of 'woo woo', understandable, and nothing to be afraid of. It is as real and important to our well-being as our physical health because it IS our physical health - it is mind, body and spirit.

With everything happening in the world right now and the impact that it is having on us all, we need these conversations more than ever. I am grateful to be a part of the dialogue.

*if you’re interested in diving a bit deeper into the information shared I recommend reading the articles below and/or exploring the research of Dr. Arielle Schwartz, PHD. and Dr. Izabella Wentz, Pharm D.





Reilly Scott is a singer/songwriter, blogger, yoga teacher and facilitator residing in Kenora, Ontario. She is passionate about combining trauma informed practice and body based healing modalities with the arts to support psycho-education, health and wellbeing.

Listen to Reilly’s music on Spotify, Google Play or Bandcamp.


Listen to the podcast: Unraveling - conversations around emotional wellness, trauma and healing.


Follow Reilly on Facebook and Instagram. facebook.com/reillyscottmusic



170 views0 comments

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

I've recieved many different mental health diagnoses over the years, all from different health care providers. It became more and more shameful each time I would go to see a new provider and received whatever diagnosis of the moment they chose to throw at me and the symptoms I was experiencing. Over the close to twenty years that I was lost within the healthcare system, I was given the following diagnoses:

Anxiety disorder

Anxiety Disorder NYD (Not yet diagnosed)

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Major Depressive Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder

Eating Disorder

Substance Abuse Disorder

Panic Disorder

and the list goes on...

Notice the constant in all of these labels. Disorder. It rings through. This is actually the first time that I've written them all down at once and looked at it. My medical record must just light up like a Christmas tree. Until now, it has been too hard for me to look at this list in its entirety because of the immense shame and stigma attached to it. If I were to internalize these labels and believe them to be ‘who I am’ (ie. I am obsessive compulsive, borderline, an alcoholic, depressed etc. etc.) it would be pretty clear and easy for me to believe that I am ‘majorly disordered’ at my core. And I did believe that for a long time. The heaviness and weight of these labels clung to me for years, ringing in the back of my head whenever I wanted to get close to somebody. 'But you're so disordered' the voice in my head would say, 'and eventually they'll find out about it and not want to be near you anymore. You’re not worthy’.

I am so immensely grateful that my journey has taken me to a place where I have had the opportunity to begin to educate myself with new ideas and modalities that were never a part of the mainstream narrative that I was previously fed.

Never in all of the years that I received these different diagnosis was there any education, communication or awareness around the possible reasons or purpose behind the distress that I was experiencing and the coping tools that I had so adaptively chosen. I was told that it was random, genetic or given no explanation at all aside from that good old chemical imbalance theory.

However, when you get that many labels over the span of two decades you start to begin to want to question things a bit. At least I did. You especially start to question things when the solutions that are presented to you do not actually help. My sense is that this is when labels like ‘treatment resistant’ get tossed around placing the notion of further ‘dysfunction’ onto the individual rather than on the system for the its inability to effectively help them.

Throughout the years I was told many different things by health care providers whenever I would want to delve more deeply into what was going on with me. The most common and prevalent response that I was given was 'don't ask why'. I was very literally told those exact words by a practitioner here in Kenora about six years ago when I was presenting with severe anxiety. ‘What you need to do is just stop asking why and just accept it’ they said to me as they stared into my eyes with concern. They may as well have added ‘and shut up and take your pills like a good girl’. I felt completely and utterly deflated, disempowered and at a loss. The pills weren’t helping, I was in immense pain and I was being told to just accept that this was just the way it was going to be - indefinitely.

I am so extremely glad that I listened to that voice deep within me that told me to continue asking WHY, despite being told by that professional to ignore it, as it lead me to find answers that were so monumentally empowering, life altering and supportive for me.

Gradually, I began to explore and reach outside of what I was being told by the system and eventually one of the things my learning and experiences lead me towards was an understanding of the key role that the autonomic nervous system plays in my health and wellbeing.

The first time I was exposed to this information was when I attended a Trauma Sensitive yoga teacher training in 2016. The training manual explained to me how, just like all mammals, we as humans have survival based nervous system responses that are the product of the degree of threat and safety that exists in our immediate environments. What's more, we also have an unbelievably intelligent internal threat detector system in our brains that stores sensory memories of anything that was threatening to us in the past. This threat detector is called neuroception and it functions completely outside of our conscious awareness. In other words, we don’t choose what to be aware or fearful of, these stored, unconscious experiences do, and they can speak very loudly, even if we don’t consciously want them to.

For example, let's say that years ago when I was listening to 'Wonderwall' by Oasis something scary and threatening happened to me in that moment, like getting in a car accident or being mugged on the street. In the future, every time I heard the song Wonderwall it is possible that my limbic system would associate that song with the painful and dangerous experience that I had had years before and would cause my nervous system to go into one of the three main nervous system survival responses - fight, flight or freeze. Maybe the song is playing on the radio as I wait in line at the bank. Suddenly my pulse begins to race and I feel a panic attack arise. It feels confusing to me because I’m not consciously aware of the song. Or maybe my concious brain doesn’t even make the connection to the song having been played all those years ago during the original event. All I know is my stress hormones are sky rocketing and I’m running towards the exit.

Our system is so incredibly protective and brilliant that it doesn't only remember these hugely threatening and life altering experiences, but it also remembers the tiny threats in our day to day lives too. Things like smaller interpersonal stressors and/or moments where we somehow felt ashamed, disconnected or embarrassed. Our brains and nervous systems can even store body based memories from before we were able to speak and/or make concious sense of the world around us. These are called pre-verbal memories and are experienced primarily as body sensations with no thoughts or cognitive stories attached to them.

It was through all of this learning that I started to understand that much of what I was experiencing as 'anxiety' was actually the 'flight' nervous system response, and what I was experiencing as depression was the 'freeze' response. My body was actively responding to real or perceived threats that it was remembering from my past. Even if there wasn't anything inherantly dangerous in my life right now my body was remembering what had happened and was trying to protect me. We are, after all, brilliant survival machines. Understanding this gave me context for so many of my ‘out of control’ symptoms.

These ideas are the foundation for what has been named #polyvagaltheory, a theory developed and named by Dr. Stephen Porges and aptly described as #thescienceofsafety. Polyvagal theory allows us to learn and understand which nervous system state we are in in any given moment and teaches us tools to begin to actively and conciously change that state. And I'll give you a hint - it does not involve just telling ourselves to 'cheer up' or 'calm down'. Our bodies and our nervous systems do not respond to words. Since these symptoms are coming from the nervous system, we have to speak to them using the language of the nervous system, using body based or 'bottom up' methods of communication. We need to take full deep, belly breaths when we’re anxious, go for a run when we’re depressed and connect with emotionally safe and soothing loved one (pets count!) when we’re frozen or numb.

Polyvagal Theory also acknowledeges the power of what's called co-regulation. Sometimes, it is too difficult or not possible for us to come out of those nervous system survival states on our own. This was certainly the case for me. When we are born the human nervous system is undeveloped. We depend on the connection and what's called attunement from our caretakers in order for our nervous systems to learn how to regulate. If our environments are unsafe or chaotic or our parents are stressed and unable to connect with us in an attuned way, our systems will not develop in a way that allows us to easily self regulate, and we will be more dependent on things outside of ourselves to bring our systems into a regulated state. In these cases, we can connect with another nervous system in a way that feels safe to us and essentially 'attune' to that system. This will support our own nervous system to regulate and find a sense of equilibrium, rest, calm and safety. This, I’ve learned, can be one of the huge benefits of having a safe and comfortable relationship with a good trauma informed therapist, form secure functioning friendships and/or romantic relationships, or even more simply, engaging in connective community activities like being a member of a yoga studio, church or a sports team.

If there was one thing that all of the diagnoses that I received over the years have in common it's this - they all involve extreme nervous system dysregulation. Not being able to calm myself down, or pick myself up, or make myself move when I needed to. Having this information helped me understand how so many of the ‘maladaptive behaviours’ that lead to diagnosis were all aimed at somehow trying to regulate my poor, stressed nervous system. I would do things like drink alcohol when I was overwhelmed, activated or triggered (ie. the flight response), self harm when I was feeling detached, disconnected and lethargic (ie. the freeze response) and lash out when I was feeling angry, threatened or unsafe (ie. the fight response). What’s more, when my survival defences were triggered, the rational, logical ‘thinking’ part of my brain (prefrontal cortex) would turn off. My system didn’t need me to rationalize and plan. It needed me to survive - that’s all it cares about, and that is incredible. That is the opposite of disordered or maladaptive. That is brilliant, protective, adaptive, intuitive, smart.

Having this newfound physiological perspective on so much of what I was experiencing helped me to understand it in a much more compassionate way. I also understood how much of what I had experienced had initially been outside of my control. So many of our coping strategies can carry so much shame, blame and self loathing. We can't understand why we can't 'just stop' certain things, or why we would even engage in them at all. This self loathing only perpetuates the dysregulation and disconnection that we are trying to regulate in the first place, thus creating a viscious cycle that is very challenging to break free of. Add into the mix any interpersonal or relational trauma and you find yourself in quite a stuck spot. Not being able to easily self regulate and/or fearing connection (therefore finding co-regulation challenging as well) is a very easy set up for many coping strategies that are deeply shamed by society in general such as using substances, binge eating, self harm and other very traditionally stigmatized behaviours.

This was the cycle that I unknowingly found myself in for two decades after the separation of my parents at seventeen. Having grown up in an emotionally unsafe family environment with a large amount of unprocessed generational trauma and then having my family unit disintegrate in my late teens did not provide my nervous system with the ability to learn how to soothe and regulate on its own. Chronic and consistent stressful experiences inside and outside of the home created a state of ongoing toxic stress with no safe place for processing. As a result, my nervous system was in a constant state of dysregulation and my body was holding stress from events that had happened years and years and years ago. I was always doing my best, and sometimes my best was using coping tools that were not healthy for me in the long run. They were, however, all I had and all I knew at the time, and they were pretty freaking resourceful, considering. They kept me going. They kept me alive. They helped me to survive. My experiences of going to medical practitioners and being repeatedly told that I was disordered in many different ways exacerbated my symptoms. I was already carrying shame and was very shut down, I didn't need to know what else was wrong with me.

I want to make it clear that I don't want to entirely negate the use and potential benefit of diagnosis and labels for some individuals in specific circumstances. I can completely appreciate that diagnosis can perhaps bring clarity and relief and understanding to individuals looking to understand their own experiences. It is my belief, however, that if these labels and dianosis are given without context or perhaps without understanding of some of the very reasonable and physiological reasons for many of the symptoms that come along with them, it can leave one trapped in a belief system that sees themselves as flawed, helpless, powerless and broken. Furthermore, labels have historically been used definitively, to describe ‘life long’ conditions that require pharmacological approaches indefinitely. But if there is anything that I have learned about the brain and nervous system, it is that it is adaptable, flexible, malleable - essentially it is plastic. Through something called #neuroplasticity, we have the ability to ‘reprogram’ our systems through repeated, ongoing experiences of safety and connection. This can feel strange at first and even threatening if it is unfamiliar to our systems. But, gradually, with practice and effort, is IS possible for our systems to adapt to this new normal. Just as it adapted to the threatening experiences that we were previously exposed to. There is hope. All is not lost.

And I suppose that's why I wanted to write this post. Hope. Understanding my nervous system and beginning to be able to ask myself the question ‘What nervous system state am I in?’ in any given moment is helping me to have a great deal more compassion for myself and my experience. It is empowering me to be able to make choices for myself that support my system in coming into balance and regulation. Even just understanding the WHY has helped me to navigate those states with so much more grace, confidence and power than I was ever able to do in the past. It has also helped me to endure painful states more easily having an understanding of WHY they're there and knowing that they won't last forever. In essence, the WHY is not only incredibly important, it is everything.

So, to the health care practitioner who looked me in the eye and told me to 'stop asking why' I want you to know that I am so beyond grateful that you said that to me because it gave me the important life experience of choosing to hear and listen to my own internal guidance system despite the invalidation, despite the gaslighting, despite what the professionals were telling me, and then discovering that that voice was, in fact, leading me towards exactly what was right for me.

And that is what I want to encourage of anyone reading this. I want you all to hear my story and hear the power in listening to that calm, steady voice inside of you that speaks your own truth to you, despite what the textbooks, evidence based treatments and professionals tell you. Because it is that voice that will lead you to what works best for YOU. And if that involves taking pharmaceuticals and/or accepting a diagnosis that feels right and empowering for you, then that is wonderful, as well. Its your journey, after all, not mine.

Never let anyone, no matter what their title, tell you what your truth is. You are the one living in your body. You are the one living your experiences. And you are the one who will guide yourself, one step at a time, towards your own best version of support, freedom, relief, empowerment and understanding.

Reilly Scott is a singer/songwriter, blogger, yoga teacher and facilitator residing in Kenora, Ontario. She is passionate about combining trauma informed practice and body based healing modalities with the arts to support psycho-education, health and wellbeing.

Listen to Reilly’s music on Spotify, Google Play or Bandcamp.


Listen to the podcast: Unraveling - conversations around emotional wellness, trauma and healing.


Follow Reilly on Facebook and Instagram. facebook.com/reillyscottmusic



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  • Reilly Scott

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

My full story has only been held by two people. Those two people are 1) my mom 2) my best friend, Merel.

Merel came into my life during a time when I desperately needed something, though I didn't realize it at the time. That 'something' I so desperately needed was authentic connection and safety. I think when you have never felt a sense of genuine, authentic safety in connection (or if when you have you haven't realized it) it is very hard to understand. All that I knew I felt around her was a sense of relaxation and that I could take of the 'mask' that I felt I had to wear every time I had an interaction. The mask I wore was to conceal the desperation and fear that I was living with on a daily basis. Feeling the need to suppress and conceal the 'shameful' experiences that had gradually compiled within me over the years.

Around Merel, it was easy, effortless, fulfilling, satisfying, energizing and SAFE. I realize now that the safety I felt was coming from a place of her having begun her own healing work and having the awareness, skills and tools to do things like speak her truth and set boundaries with me, things that I had never been taught to do, or hadn't done in an effort to maintain my attachment needs in the ways that I knew how to at the time. In watching Merel model how to do these things, I felt confident that our connection was safe and secure and that it would be safe for me to do the same and that I wouldn't be rejected or abandoned in our connection.

Slowly, with Merel, I felt safe enough to open up around my experiences - many of which I hadn't shared the full extent of with anyone else. Much of the more difficult things were shared with her via text once she had gone back to the Netherlands (her homecountry) and was preparing to make a more permanent move back to Canada. I chose to share with her over text as that was what felt most safe for me and was how I was able to regulate my #nervoussystem and share openly in a way that wouldn't cause me to become too #dysregulated.

When my stories were able to be held by Merel with compassion and she was able to show me understanding, I was able to challenge the beliefs I had about being horrible and irredeemable in my loveability.

You see, what I had experienced from a young age were connections that were not able to hold space for my true, authentic self. These connections were with primary caregivers who, while they loved me and communicated that verbally, had their own histories of unresolved attachment trauma and were very #shutdown. As I child, I was not able to understand that the lack of attunement from my caregivers was not my fault, but a result of a deeply unhappy marriage with layers of unresolved resentments that had begun before I was even born. When you are young and your needs for secure, authentic attachment and connection aren't met by primary caregivers, your only option is to assume that it has something to do with your own lack of #worthiness or #loveability. The reality that your parents cannot meet your needs is too deeply frightening and threatening to your being as you are depending on these individuals for your survival. I learned very quickly that my feelings, emotions and experiences were 'too much' to be held by these caregivers. As a result, I learned to create a version of myself that would be acceptable enough to get my basic attachment needs met, (even though they still rarely were) and I continued to adapt in these ways well into my adult life. I still do it now.

I don't need to go into detail about the various, ongoing and consistent traumatic experiences that I experienced in childhood (both within my home and outside of it) but suffice to say I did not have the safety required in relationship in order for me to truly feel seen, heard and to express and process these experiences and the emotions surrounding them. THAT is the important thing to note about trauma, it is not often what happens, but the absence of what should have happened that leads to the damage.

Fast forward to the age of seventeen when my parents finally separated, my Dad left for another partner and my mom went into a life crisis of her own. I found myself in an extreme state of what I now know to be #dorsalvagal, a defence mechanism where the nervous system shuts down and dissociates as it is no longer capable of being present to 1) the degree of threat at hand 2) the lack of authentic connection and safety. This defence mechanism is physiological in every sense of the word. It is a protective mechanism that we share with all other mammals and even our earliest primates, reptiles. It is the the oldest and most developed branch of our #autonomicnervoussystem. I would discover twenty years later that not only had I entered a dissociative protective state at that time, but the stress on my body/mind would also contribute to the onset of an autoimmune/ hormonal illness, #HashimotosThyroiditis, a condition that went unrecognized and untreated for most of my adult life. The combination of all of this lead me to seek support where I had been taught to seek support, from my Family Doctor/GP. Of course, as the standard of 'treatment', I was handed a prescription for antidepressant medication in as little as fifteen minutes, with zero exploration or link to what was perhaps happening at home or in my personal life. I was handed something else that day along with my prescription, as well. Though it wasn't explicitly said, I was handed a belief system - something was 'wrong' with me that needed to be fixed, and this pill was what was going to do it. The only problem was, the pill didn't fix it. I was given no other explanation for my distress or symptoms outside of this concept that I was experiencing a random chemical imbalance. Or perhaps not random - ‘genetic‘.

This message/belief that I inherited that day would set in motion a chain of events that would take me close to twenty years to work my way through, and at the end of it, barely survive. It told me, in so many words, that the underlying #belief that had been created in my childhood, when I was not adequately nurtured, that there was something WRONG with me, was correct. There WAS something wrong with me and it was that I was depressed or, as it is so often labelled by society and the medical community, 'mentally ill'.

Had someone sat me down, asked me what was happening in my family, told me that perhaps my feelings of anger, grief, sadness and suppressed rage due to what I had experienced were valid and totally understandable, perhaps I would have had the opportunity to process them, safely, with the support I needed. I did go to a therapist at the time. She was a friend of the family and while extremely empathic and passionate about her work, there was no explanation of trauma or the body included in the process. The talk therapy that I experienced did little for me aside from allowing me to ruminate actively in front of another human being for one hour a week. It gave me some sense of connection, which I am grateful for, but it still pathologized me, helping me to 'cope' with the symptoms of my 'pathology' in the 'best way possible'.

This focus on my 'wrongness', the pathology and the 'genetic' nature of what I was experiencing completely dismissed environmental causes. Did my grandfather experience depression? Yes. He also grew up in a profoundly abusive home environment and then proceeded to be sent over to Germany in WW2 where he was the sole survivor of a bombing of his platoon. He was immediately given alcohol by his comrades to deal with the symptoms he was experiencing, as was so common back then, and it became a years long battle with addiction for him. Was there a genetic predisposition? Perhaps. What was neglected was the fact that my grandfather had been profoundly traumatized. And so had I.

What was missing from those early doctor visits and therapy sessions was what I have come to understand as #traumainformedpractice which understands the role and effects of #stress on the #nervousystem. My body shutting down and bringing me into a disconnected state was a monumentally intuitive, powerful, protective and resilient act. It was survival based. Was it safe for me to be connected with the stress, uncertainty and ongoing stress occuring in my home? No. Was it safe for me to process emotions like anger, shame and even, yes, rage, towards my primary caregivers, the ones who were biologically supposed to protect me? No. Did it then make sense that my system adapted to meet the immediate needs of my circumstances? The answer, I believe, is yes.

Did neurotransmitters play a role what I was experiencing? Perhaps. I have come to believe, however, that this theory is extremely reductive and simplistic, not to mention that is has never actually been scientifically proven in the history of medicine. (If you have a hard time believing that, as I did, I encourage you to look it up for yourself). It is, at best, a guess that has continued to be honoured as the standard of care in North America for mental/emotional distress.

My whole point to this sharing is that twenty years ago, when I went through one of the most monumentally stressful periods of my life and my body responded, I was met with the notion and belief that there was something wrong with me that needed to be fixed. And I believed that - for twenty years. And it perpetuated my symptoms. It lead me down a path of going to clinician after clinician after clinician, asking for help, support and guidance. Giving my power away. Asking for solutions from a system that medicalized me. Continuing to try to shut my body up and shut it down. And it never helped. It only got worse. Pathologizing what I was experiencing only pushed my system into a deeper protective state, reinforcing the 'brokenness' 'separateness' and shame that I was already carrying around. It mirrored perfectly the lac of attunement, validation, connection and #safety that I had experienced growing up. It retraumatized me.

The question that I find myself asking now is: what if, in the moments when I was stressed, struggling and shut down, I had been supported in understanding that my body was a brilliant survival machine? And that while, yes, what I was experiencing was monumentally painful and challenging, there really was nothing WRONG with me after all. What if I had been provided with the safe connection I was starved for and recieved help to reconnect to my #body and its sensations and the emotions that were shoved down inside of it? What if my experiences of abuse and neglect, while maybe not viewed as severe as a combat veteran or a car crash surivor, had been validated as real and my pain had been legitimized? Would Would I have felt as great a need to continue to disconnect from my body, symptoms and emotions?

There's no way to be 100% sure BUT these are all the questions that I am beginning to ask myself as I learn more and become empowered by #traumainformedcare, #thenervousystem, #polyvagaltheory, #thepowerofconnection, #attachmenttheory, #internalfamlysystems, and many other practices and modalities that are helping me to understand and connect with my inherant #unbrokenness.

Slowly and steadily I am taking my #power back.

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