The Body (Keeps the Score)

“We get the clients that we need.”

I don’t remember who told me this or when, but as most therapists will know this is probably the most common hazard of being one. Friends and acquaintances will sometimes say that “being a therapist must be so hard”, and this is true, sometimes. Not because we sometimes support very complex life experiences, but because those very complex life experiences will often match our own. It was Carl Jung who first introduced the concept of synchronicity to analytical psychology, to describe the phenomena of coincidences that are related by meaning, rather than by cause and effect. Therapists experience this constantly, and this is what often makes the work of therapy heavy. Not the complexity, but its resonance.

A couple of weeks ago, the organisation I work with announced their theme for Children’s Mental Health Week next February, “Healthy: Inside and Out”. The connection between physical and mental health. I immediately rolled my eyes. Not because I don’t think it’s important, but because physical health is a sore subject at the moment. The therapeutic process of my longest running client has shifted towards understanding the body better, its sensations, its language, its stories. I struggled through one of our sessions recently, like I hadn’t struggled through a session in a very long time. My other clients are also exploring themes that are related to their bodies, in different contexts. This is synchronicity: coincidences that are not directly related to me in cause and effect, but directly related to me in meaning and resonance.

You see, I’m having a bit of an argument with my own body. I had surgery a few weeks ago, and many, many things have come up since. I’ll try to make sense of them in this post, as I’m very much in the midst of a sometimes-overwhelming surge of emotions and sensations. I tend not to write from this state, but as you may have noticed, I didn’t write anything last week, and had no clear idea of what to write about this week, and I just feel like I have to push through this, otherwise I might not write anything at all for some time. Which brings me to my first point:

Pushing through - I went back to work exactly a week after my surgery, because there’s a part of me that always wants to please others and wants them to think that I’m perfect. If I wasn’t still slightly high from the medication I was taking, I was in great discomfort and pain, but as I always do so well, I rationalised all of it away, and I kept telling everyone that I was fine. I then had a long day of drinking with my best friends on the weekend, where the alcohol numbed everything and allowed me to have a great time. But then I spent this past week, recovering not only still from my actual surgery, but also from pushing through the pain, and thus causing further damage. Why have I done this to myself? Why have I made myself feel worse by trying to make myself feel better? You can call it many things, but I call it denial and dissociation. Denial because I often don’t admit that I’m not well, and dissociation because most of the time I’m not even in my body, or aware of it.

Dissociation – I had this thought today that I often don’t connect to my body unless it is in pain. I’ve walked around most of my life living from my head and rationality, using my body to take me from place to place, but never really taking the time to connect to what it is actually feeling. I even struggle with feeling pleasure. Sometimes I wonder if my love of food and alcohol is really about pleasure, or actually about numbing. And let’s not even get into sex, because, in fact, all my physical traumas and source of body dissociation are related to sex. Dissociation is a disconnection. It’s sometimes being so unaware of something that well…you just don’t know it’s there.

Nothing has been more painful in the past few years than being forced to reconnect with my body. And as world renowned trauma specialist Bessel Van Der Kolk defends: the body keeps the score. You may not be relating to it, or connecting to it, or paying attention to it, but ultimately, it will make you pay attention to whatever it is you’re ignoring. This happens because we’ve all been conditioned to hold the mind as the most powerful aspect of our being, and that the mind and the body are somehow separate. I still find it surprising when people describe their emotions as living in their minds. Their feelings in their brain. Brain is king of the organs it seems, and we always hear about how much we still don’t know about the brain, but we forget that the brain is, in fact, a physical organ, and if there is still so much to know about its physicality, there is also so much to know about how its physicality affects or interacts with the rest of the body. Thus, there is still so much we don’t know about the body!

Keeping the score – Have you ever heard those stories where someone who’s never smoked gets lung cancer, or someone with impeccable diet gets stomach cancer, or when someone gets something, and you think, “how did that happen, they live such a healthy life!” Isn’t life a mystery, sometimes? We take great care of our physical bodies with exercise, healthy foods, nature, etc, but we constantly neglect our mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The body keeps the score not by telling us what’s out of balance in our bodies, but what it’s out of balance in our minds, hearts, and souls. The great myth of our current world is that all these things are separate, when, in fact, they are all connected. How can we really believe that our thoughts and emotions don’t affect our bodies? A few years ago, I was hit by a physical health scare, which relates to the recent surgery I had, not because I was being neglectful of my body, but because I was being neglectful of everything else. This is the score: the body is the last point of call of the complex web that makes us who we are, because all other signs have been ignored. It’s hard to ignore physical pain or imbalance.

It may be helpful to look at physical ailments as effects of unprocessed emotions, destructive thoughts, disconnection. I’m not saying it’s easy to do this. To be very honest with you, I feel quite angry at my body these days. I feel that it has failed me, betrayed me, when I’ve always taken such nice care of it. But the paradox of it all is that, the body also holds emotions, memories, traumas, identity. We deal with these things by being rational about it, by analysing it, by thinking they live in our minds, when they live everywhere. Processing all of these things must also include our bodies. I say this from my very own experiences of therapy as a client and as a professional: talking and emoting is great and healing, but the physical must also be included in the equation, for most of our life experiences are felt primarily and initially through and by the body.