The Body is a Doorway
Image is from the Siluetas series by Ana Mendieta
(NOTE: I posted this essay on Facebook this past November and have since been asked by many to make it more easily available to read. As I am currently navigating the kind of autoimmunity mentioned in the first paragraph, it feels even more important to speak about. This essay is excerpted from a book of essays I am currently finishing about healing beyond the human.)
The Body is a Doorway
The body is a doorway. And for survivors of early trauma and abuse that doorway is always open. Wide open. Hypersensitivity (both cognitive and physical) has been tied to early trauma and sexual abuse time and time again. A 2019 study published in the journal of Rheumatology showed that in a sample of 67,000 women, those with the highest incidence of childhood abuse, were at a three-fold greater risk of developing lupus than those who had not experienced abuse. Survivors are also at an increased risk for developing serious autoimmune illness, chemical sensitivity, and allergy disorders. The correlations between early abuse and illness, disability, and neurodivergence are too many to list. The takeaway would seem to be that childhood experience of trauma registers not only emotionally, but physically.
This was something I understood intimately as a child. I seemed to notice more. More bugs. More smells. More texture. More noise. More micro expressions on adult’s faces. More birdsong. More temperature fluctuations. I knew something terrible had happened to me and that I was quite good at keeping it hidden. But I didn’t connect my radical hypersensitivity to the abuse. I just knew that, for better or for worse, I seemed to be highly attuned to my surroundings. Yes, I watched doors, constantly monitored adults around me, and scanned rooms for signs of danger. But I also was transfixed for hours by dirt spangled with mycelia, air scintillating with dust, slugs leaving behind starlight-slick stories on the porch. I could read the breathing patterns of our cats and dogs, keyed into the smallest fluctuations in their wellbeing. Blue was more blue. I could feel a cat’s purr in my belly. Frog song vibrated below my tongue. The blooming lilac was so bright a smell it almost made a sound. A song. Life was often agonizing. But, much to my confusion, it also seemed more available to me than it did to others. Why was this?
Sensory Gating is the neurological process whereby we filter out “redundant” stimuli from our sensual experience to create a homogenized reality. The experience, while necessary to function, has been tightened by patriarchy and civilization. Research at MIT, especially the work of Michael Halassa, has shown that we receive an outrageous amount of sensory data. Yet we manage to hear our name in a crowded room and spot a friend’s face in a sea of people. These stimuli don’t show up more “brightly”. They show up because we learn to “dampen” and gate out the sensory information we deem to be redundant. As a child we learn from our parents and our social environments what information is redundant. And as that sensory information gets classified as “non-goal oriented” we stop noticing it. Children see the world as magical not because they are naïve, but because they are actually more neurologically open to it. They haven’t been taught yet to “gate” out the aliveness of the more-than-human world. One strange aspect of abuse is that it opens those “gates” even wider, showing you that you are permeable. It also creates a need to remain “hypervigilant”. To shut down sensory stimuli would be to put yourself at risk. This is why so many survivors of childhood abuse experience a constant alertness to their surroundings.
For so long I have characterized this as a burden and a failure. And it is true that this constant state of awareness leaves your body exhausted and more likely to develop illness. But if I am tired of how my body and mind are affected by the abuse, I am even more tired of the paradigm that problematizes how I diverge from a normative body and normative nervous system. Yes, the abuse made me hypersensitive and probably led to my genetic illness manifesting so dramatically later on. But my hyper sensitivity and awareness didn’t discriminate between human and non-human stimuli. And this has been my saving grace. While I scanned a room for danger, I also let my eyes take in the gestalt of ecosystems. I noticed minute shifts in cloud formations. I could read the silver-flipping twist of leaves to predict the exact moment when a storm would hit. I could taste the milky-rust flavor of mycorrhizal systems below my feet as I walked through a forest. I was able to notice more. Particularly the very small and the very unacknowledged: molds, mushrooms, tadpoles, pond scum, voids of birdsong where the year before there had been a frenetic chorus.
For a long time, aware that my illness is tied to trauma, I made myself available to every possible healing modality to try and integrate the violent memories. I just needed a little bit more EMDR, a little bit more somatic experiencing, a little bit more acupuncture and talk therapy, to bring my nervous system back into “the window of tolerance”. It was my responsibility to heal this trauma so that my body could finally relax.
It is important to note that westernized somatics and psychotherapy have created a baseline of comfort and relaxation as the goal treatment is supposed to provide. The individual and the individual’s commitment to healing are centered. But when trauma is a multi-causal event caused by a web of relations caused by systems of oppressions, how can the individual possibly untie all the tangles? And should that even be the working goal? Perhaps relaxation and comfort should not be the goal as we confront climate collapse. I’m not sure I believe in wellness anymore. Or healing. I’m increasingly wary of how both terms have been weaponized by institutions of oppression that enacted the harm in the first place, seeding us with the belief that we are ultimately individually responsible for how harm appears in our bodies. This phenomenon is known as “healthism” and is defined as the preoccupation with personal health and personal responsibility for health as primary often at the detriment of understanding that the health of one person is intimately tied to and representative of a whole population. Trauma does not belong to an individual. It is a web that includes someone. It is not an object that can be removed. Your body’s innate ability to dance with harm and with discomfort is not always a problem. It is a relational tactic. An unconsensual opening to both the good and the bad, the human and the non-human. As I release the need to perform completion or healing, I’m more drawn to the idea of alchemical storytelling. If you have a genetic illness with no cure, a divergent nervous system, a wounded heart, if you can’t undo what happened, how can you recontextualize trauma ? How can you tell a new story about it?
What if the abused body didn’t passive aggressively keep the score? What if it acted more like an aperture, capturing pictures of horror as well as also imprinting cosmic light from distant galaxies? What if the body was a doorway open to more than human stories? Just as I realized my connective tissue disease mapped directly onto my love of underground fungal connective systems, so could I understand my trauma to be less of a mortal wound, and more of a compass pointing out of anthropocentrism. What if the shape of your wounding, the exact flickering silhouette of your hypersensitivity, was the shape of the doorway into another being’s pain and experience?
I am allergic to spiritual practitioners who suggest my trauma was an initiation, but I am equally unimpressed by the prognosis of western psychology and colonial somatics that I must dole out hundreds of dollars and years of time to manage and integrate and fix these problems. I have earnestly tried to integrate the trauma. I have spent thousands of dollars trying to come back into a normative nervous system. And I’m done. If I can’t fix this then let me understand how it could be my superpower. If I can’t close my sensory gating, then open me wider. Dilate me like a cervix so that I may be the birth canal for stories that are not about human beings and human progress. Let me become a doorway for viruses and ecosystems and fungi and dove song. Let me become a doorway so big and so open that a new way of being can emerge, one not tied to the fiction of human individuals. One that is equally aware of the agony and ecstasy and is allowed to wildly swing out of the window of tolerance, achieving both the valleys and peaks that our culture has denied us. Let me exceed the graph. Let me swing past wellness into something wilder and less predictable.
We could say the climate itself is out of its window of tolerance. How then can I ride these nervous system oscillations in wild solidarity? How does the body of an abuse survivor act as an expert barometer for shifting ecosystems and temperatures and weather patterns? It is important to note that the temperate conditions human beings consider optimal are an actual rarity in the history of deep time. What if the window of normalcy that trauma survivors are expected to re-enter isn’t normalcy at all? What if it’s just an anthropocentric model that gates out the wily and often ecstatic experience of being ecologically alive and aware?
I am tired of the word survivor and the personal responsibility of coming back into cultural legibility. I want a better word and a better story. What if those who survived trauma and early abuse could call themselves doorways? Too big and too wide for binaries of good and bad. What if we could honor that our nervous systems and our bodies are openings to stories that are vital right now as we confront cultural chaos, mass extinction, and climate collapse?
Image from the Silueta series by Ana Mendieta. This piece is also written in memory and honor of her entire body of work.
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