**TW: child abuse, sexual abuse/rape, self harm, suicide, mental health issues -depression, anxiety, violence, sex**
My relationship with my body is just that – a relationship. It’s a negotiation between what I can do and what my body can do. Sometimes my body is like my best friend, and it looks out for me and protects me. At other times, it feels more like my body and me are an old married couple that bicker and throw tantrums and sulk at each other for not being good enough. I am a trauma survivor. I dealt with pretty bad emotional abuse for most of my childhood and adolescence. Even after managing to escape the people who inflicted that abuse on me, I perpetuated these abusive behaviours in my behaviour and my interactions with people. I am living with the consequences of this trauma now, and part of where I carry these memories is in my body.
I have depression, which comes and goes but often brings fatigue with it. Fatigue is the hardest to deal with of all my problems. It makes walking from my bedroom to my kitchen look impossible. It means that I can’t carry a light bag because my arms and back end up actually painful. It means I might want to go out and see my friends, but I’m worried that I won’t be able to walk all the way there and all the way back. Fatigue means my muscles often hurt and simple tasks like walking can be painful. I am lucky enough that I have enough money now that if the worst comes to the worst, I can get a taxi home from the bus station – but it wasn’t always like that, and I’ve learnt through necessity that my body can do things it is 100% sure it can’t do, if there’s no other option.
I have anxiety, most of which is a direct result of emotional abuse destroying my confidence, and I feel that in my body as well. Overwhelming anxiety starts by stealing all the feeling from my legs, so that they’re numb and shaky and heavy. My tummy starts going round and round like the alarm light on a police car. Low level anxiety, which is with me most of the time, can manifest itself by blotting out my bodily functions. I won’t get hungry or need to go to the bathroom if i’m in a situation that is potentially stressful (like staying at a new friend’s home) – this is my body protecting me from the anxiety these activities can trigger. I might not even notice that I’m panicking, until I’ve realised that I haven’t eaten anything all day and still don’t feel hungry.
Incidentally, my fatigue is actually pretty good for my anxiety because sometimes I just have to sit by the side of the road for half an hour – and necessity makes it easier not to care that people are staring at me. If I’m too exhausted to have many emotions, reason kicks in and reminds me that it really doesn’t matter what random people on the street think about me.
Depression and anxiety are the mental consequences of my experiences. There are physical consequence as well. My abusers taught me that nothing I had was really mine, including my body. While I was living with them, there was nowhere that couldn’t be violated without warning. No privacy and no safety, even within my own body.
This came out into my relationships with other people as well as in how I dealt with and felt about myself. I started having sex when I was 14, and looking back I can recognise almost all my adolescent sexual experiences as non-consensual and abusive. Now, I’m trying to work through all of the sexual abuse I’ve dealt with and exploring ways to actually want and enjoy having sex. Being present during sex is a challenge because I learnt to have sex by dissociating and zoning out. My body automatically tries to shut that whole area down because I’ve learn that it’s wrong and that it hurts and that the best way to survive it is just to shut it out and let it happen. But I don’t want to feel that way anymore, and I’m making efforts towards allowing my body to feel sexual and for that to be a positive thing. Trying to actually be in my body during sex means that I’m more likely to have anxiety and find it difficult not to panic, but I’ll take that because it means I’m making progress. Allowing myself to experience sexual attraction is also hard because that’s one of the things my body decides it’s not worth experiencing – but my brain is pretty sure that it is, now that I’m only sleeping with people who only want fully-consensual, mutually enjoyable sex.
My body is intrinsically wrapped up in all of my trauma issues; it is also a key part of my healing. The worst of my abuse was over by the time I was about 14, and I started recovering by forcefully making a claim over myself and the environment around me. I wallpapered my bedroom with pictures cut out of metal and rock magazines. The entire room was black and ugly but it was finally a space that was mine. I dressed my body in corsets and skinny jeans and eyeliner – and when I got abuse about looking ridiculous I felt proud inside because I knew I looked shit hot – I’d chosen this outfit with care! The claim I staked over my body was somewhat violent – partly because the clothes I wore and the music I listened to got me attacked by strangers on more than one occasion, but also because my tendency to self-harm (present since I was a child) became a regular and defined habit. I don’t think self-harm is healthy, but I know that it was positive for me because it was the first time I’d really been able to stake a claim over my own body. Because my abusers at this point were also people who loved and cared about me, I was obligated to keep my scars hidden from them – and they became my first secret, the first thing that was really and truly mine. My body also demonstrated its remarkable capacity for healing by swallowing the scars time and time again – keeping my secret with me.
I moved out of that house as soon as I possibly could. Living away from there for the first time was an eyeopener – until recently, I didn’t even recognise a lot of what happened to me as abuse because it was presented as so normal. My mental health issues are my body reacting to being safe. I am no longer in a crisis situation, and my body is beginning to let some of that in and deal with it. That’s why I’m considerably less able to function on a day-to-day basis than I was when I was a teenager. I’m forgetting some of my coping mechanisms because I no longer need them every day. I used to be superb at hiding my emotions and thoughts (I could have a panic attack without anybody around me noticing) and now I can’t do that – but I’m working to see this as a positive thing because it means I’m surrounded by people who are going to be ok if I have a panic attack. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m surrounded by people who are going to everything they can to help me if I have a panic attack..
I am still learning that all of the things I learnt as fact when I was growing up are not fact. It’s beginning to sink in, after four years away from home, that I can do whatever I want with my body and my life. I have piercings and tattoos now, and some of my tattoos are ridiculous and anaesthetic and my family Do Not approve and I’m yet to explain them to anyone without getting a sort of disbelieving sneer in response – and my reaction is to shove two fingers up at them and remind them that nobody gets a say but me! Now I can put write a note to myself on my mirror, and know that nobody is going to come in and look at it without my permission. I can leave my diary lying on the floor of my bedroom. Hell, I can leave my diary lying on the floor of my living room because nobody would even dream of opening it! I can walk out of my room with fresh self-harm marks, and the only reaction I will get is people who care about me and want me to explain to them how I want them to help me. I can lie on my bed and kiss someone, and not be required or expected or obligated to have sex with them, and even though I still have difficulty feeling that that is true I know on an intellectual level that it is. I’m just waiting for my body to catch up.
My depression in high school made me want to not live because I couldn’t envision anything remotely worth living for. I expected to get married and have children because that was what I’d been taught inevitable happened, and I would probably have a job – but none of this held any particular emotional or motivational appeal for me. I didn’t have any dreams or hopes because I couldn’t envision anything giving me a positive life experience. I went through phases where I didn’t particularly want to die, but I sure as hell didn’t want to stay alive and I’d fall asleep at night praying I just wouldn’t wake up. But now, I’ve worked out that there are things I want to do – and I mean want with a burning passion that occasionally keeps me awake at night because I’m so excited about doing them. Now, I want to live so badly that even when I’m going through a bad depressed period and beyond experiencing emotion at all, I can remember that those feelings and wants exist and feel sure that I just need to hold on and work through the depression and when I come out the other side, all of the good things and good people in my life will still be there waiting for me.