I went bad and became a thrill-seeking, pleasure-hungry sensualist...
This is one understanding of disorders like PTSD and CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). It will not matter if that individual can reason and they know, for example, that losing their keys and being late for work won't kill them, the body and the primal functions of the brain will respond to that occurrence in a way that resembles being chased by a hungry predator. The brain is wired to this response indefinitely. It can be rewired, but it takes very focused and personal inner work to do so, as well as a conscious understanding of your behavior patterns, from where they come, and how their origins differ from the experiences you have now. It also takes consistency in whatever method you choose and a long period of time to see those changes.
I don't really talk about the specifics of my personal mental health struggles in terms of diagnosis and the medical treatment of them. I have made this choice in the past because of stigma and in my line of work - teaching, writing, and physical/personal health and wellness through yoga and movement instruction, I was afraid that the fact that I had been diagnosed and have received medical treatment for mental health issues would cost me opportunities. I'm not afraid anymore. I have, among a few other things, been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and CPTSD. I have been medicated off and on since my early 20s for these struggles. For the last 2 years, I have chosen to not be medicated and to work primarily with trauma informed movement, yoga, weightlifting, and mindfulness practices as my discipline and medicine. In August 2018, I was diagnosed with a heart condition called POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome). It is a dysautonomia and has been correlated with the experience of trauma. I am taking two heart medications for that issue. I feel like I am actually dealing with the results of the trauma that I have experienced in tangible ways that have altered the way I live my life for the better. This does not mean I won't need medication in the future or that I have ever regretted being medicated in the past. I am, however, feeling that the changes I am seeing in my response to stress are more permanent, making the possibility of needing medication in the future less.
But... during a pandemic where everything about my day and ability to earn income has changed without a timeline of when it will end, it has never been more clear to me how important it is to be with my body. These past three weeks have seen me become more of a sensualist, as Bourdain mentions in the opening quote. It has become imperative in order to stay on top of processing how my brain and body are communicating this stress with each other. How do I effectively become the middle man, if I rely on one over the other? Older and easier coping patterns will take over. On some days I feel them creeping closer than on others.
Bourdain is so right. The body is an amusement park. Five plus senses guide us through life. We have emotions and the feelings felt and unfelt that create them. We have the need for the body to be in homeostasis. It is a smorgasbord of sensation. The body is perfectly ok with this. It is our brain that sometimes muddies the situation. We interpret and experience the sensation of the body through the language we use to define it. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to experience what we are experiencing and why. Sometimes the opinions, morals, societal norms or religious doctrine of other individuals cause us to experience shame and guilt in regard to the experiences of our body and the consequent emotions or states of being they create for us that we otherwise would not have, if the only story that dictated our experience was our own. Those same things cause us to try to limit "the flesh" and label the sensations it gives us as faulty. The body is not capable of giving us "bad" information. Its function is to provide us with an initial signal and subsequent feedback loop based upon our brain's interpretation of the initial signal. Think two people about to bungee jump. The first is psyched and ready to suit up and go. They describe the sensation in their stomach as excitement. The second is horrified. They feel forced to take the risk by peer pressure, or fear of looking cowardly. They begin to cry. They describe the feeling in their stomach as a seizing of horror.
These pictures of my face illustrate the spectrum of any given day and the experience of the body. The tiredness we may feel. The peace. The weariness of heart and soul. The hope we may or may not have. If you take the time to look at someone's face, or more importantly, your own, you can see subtleties that you may not be otherwise aware of. The ones that you train yourself to ignore because we've been taught to hide feelings. Who knew selfies could have a therapeutic use?
My body has been lit on all fronts since life as I knew it stopped. All the memes suggesting we should take this time to enjoy family, clean, start creative projects, meditate, are all reliant upon one's ability to separate from the trauma response brought about by an uncertain, high stress situation. Perhaps, for some, their particular configuration of personal privileges (which we all have) provide for them the space where their stress is lesser and they can access the places of the brain that allow them to do these things. For me, all I want to do is move and process through movement the sensations of my body. Otherwise, the sensations would overwhelm me into feeling dangers I am not presently in. Through movement, I am able to slow down and find connection to things that I can control, such as my breath and how I direct the energy of the sensations I feel. The butterflies only become tension if I deny the feelings and hang on to them in some mental compartment which then stores the energy in my body as a knot in my trapezius. My heart palpitations only become an emergency if I don't breathe through them and take a moment to hear their message.
I'm covered in scrapes and bruises. I've been so diligently in my body, experiencing limits and new space I have created, that the effects are beyond average for me. These effects are not abuse, but a learning. Where can I go and how do I utilize the understandings of where I have been? I'm going here willing. Gratefully. For, without this discipline (it is nothing about motivation), I would be utterly lost in this time. My focus for writing is not there. This is the first time I've been able to write a longer piece of anything in a long time. Those higher functions stifled by stress. Yet, that stress is energy. Energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed. Through movement, I am learning the language of my body and learning to speak back. I am learning to alchemize the energy of my feelings into greater understanding of my experience and capabilities. I am learning to drop the shame and guilt associated with sensual experience and instead approaching it with consciousness open to the fullness it brings to being human.
So, am I ok? I am. I'm not spiraling into the abyss. The changes that may or may not be coming to the way I have to live my life are concerning, but I am not yet laying down to the uncertainty. I may not have a spotless house, a perfectly organized writing space, a book written, tons of craft projects complete with my daughters, the read-alouds I volunteered to record for their school, or even a daily schedule to keep us on track, but I am here and fully present in my body. I'm not storing away the stress. I am not overreacting. I'm forgiving myself. Giving myself the space to breathe and feel what I am feeling. I'm feeding myself and my daughters as well as I can. I am opening to new experiences and new ways of seeing myself through how the truth of it feels in my body.
In two aspects, I contest Bourdain's quote above. The body is a temple where we come to worship at the feet of being human. It is where we experience our own divinity and that of others. I also believe that being a sensualist should not be merely labeled as "bad", but what motivates the sensualism should be understood. Seeking thrills and being hungry for pleasure can be the catalyst for being fully alive, depending upon the approach and from where the desire is led. Perhaps I am understanding myself as a spiritual humanist and sensualist. I believe in a Source and Higher Purpose, but I duly believe we are here derived from Source to experience the spectrum of Truth. The body experience. The human experience as divine.
Which brings me to the questions of duality, but that will have to be another blog post.
So save your predictions
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, weightlifter, yoga and movement instructor, chakra reader, and Reiki practitioner.