Columns Archive, Recovering the Self

Breaking Cycles

Content note: depression, suicidality, self-harm, sexual trauma

Ever since I was about seven or eight years old, I’ve struggled with being present in my own body. To such an extent that I developed dermatillomania, or skin picking disorder (SPD). I experienced sexual trauma at an early age and have struggled to be in my body consistently since childhood. In clinical terms, this means I frequently experience dissociation, which is a detachment from my body and/or my emotions. Dissociation isn’t something you can control unless you know its symptoms, associated behaviors, and outcomes. Imagine being a little “spacy,” talkative kid who moves ahead in most of her schoolwork so she can daydream during class. Think about what it might feel like as an anxious, bright kid with performance anxiety, to be in such distress that you hurt yourself to bring yourself back down to earth. That’s what I carry. Every day. To carry trauma and not connect it your behavior, memory, or self-image falls under the category of what Ruth King, M.A. calls the mind/body split in her book Healing Rage. Per King, both childhood and unresolved generational traumas sow rage in us. he first time I read this, I immediately got angry, then sad, then scared. This lady who doesn’t even know me pulled my card. Yikes

It wasn’t until I was 35 that I realized that this near-constant inability to connect with my body is not “just a me problem,” but the result of my brain trying very hard to protect me from deep hurt that I  carry in my body? This break in my consciousness has been a closer companion than any human has ever been. It’s been the story I’ve told about myself for so long—I quit college because I couldn’t push through like everyone else, I never pursued my one-time dream career of being a midwife because I hate science as a subject, I can’t be in a relationship longer than twelve months because people drain me. The truth, when I care to acknowledge it, is more complicated than that. Complicated by family history, my personal history, and a world that reinforces trauma cycles.

During most of 2018, I was sick, receiving poor medical care and no useful answers about my body’s condition. My symptoms were all concentrated in my pelvis and occurred at the time when I should have been having my period. I was amenorrheic, which means my period was completely absent. I’d never been one to miss a cycle, no matter how late it was. I was confused and scared I begged my gynecologist for solutions. The options she presented me with weren’t good enough. I realized I stood at the confluence of medical-industrial trauma and sexual trauma. What did it mean to be ignored when I acted out as a kid, then ignored as an adult who explicitly named what was happening to her? What impact would this reopening of wounds have on me? What would I remember, after all this time? What new hurt would I encounter, and how would I even begin to heal it?

Without being conscious of it, I went back to my child self and her protective measures: self-harming, eating to the point of pain to distract myself. My adolescent self stepped in, too: escaping via television, books, and magazines. When my twentysomething self showed up with her near-constant takeout splurges and one glass of wine too many, I knew something was up. I had to pump the brakes. How did I get here, and how long had it taken? What kind of mindfulness did I need to engage in order to acknowledge and/ or handle my triggers and emotions? What were my past selves telling me about what I actually needed and was in power to give?

Thankfully, I had a therapist who helped me sort a lot of this out. When she felt I was ready, she signed me up for prolonged exposure therapy, where I discussed a specific trauma and its related triggers. In prolonged exposure therapy, I was able to excavate and examine parts of myself that I tried to kill long ago.  As I moved through two therapy sessions a week for about 8 weeks, I made all kinds of connections between my body and the way I operated the world as my past and current selves. I understood over and over again: everything I’ve done, good bad or otherwise, was in response to the person I believed myself to be. I know that sounds really new age and not at all based on facts. But let me tell you: it came from the trauma of not being believed when I spoke. Not about things that hurt me, not about things that scared me, not about things I wanted or needed. In the midst of all that misinformation about myself,  I decided that it wasn’t worth it to be authentic or honest. “Yeah, I’ll go out with you,” when I wasn’t interested. “No, it’s fine that you canceled,” because nobody listens when I say it’s not fine any damn way. What did it matter when I wasn’t important enough?

Enter my hysterectomy in June of this year. After a brief period of peace and quiet from my uterus, I had to decide when to have surgery. It had become the only viable treatment, after 7 months of maltreatment and another 7 months of trying everything else to no avail. My trauma feelings had not subsided, but I knew I had to make my way through all of this to save myself. To save my selves. To end a cycle of disbelieving survivors in my family and my community. To rebuke the idea that being the bearer of a uterus automatically means my life should be filled with unmitigated harm and suffering. To unpack my wounds, and heal them a better way this time. So my child self would be believed. So my adolescent self may feel full and comforted. So my twentysomething self finally knew she didn’t need to beat into her own head that she deserved sweetness and kindness.

Choosing to end my suffering with such finality has been the greatest gift I could give myself. Here’s to the cycle breaking parents, non-parents, aunties, grands, cousins, and chosen family. Here’s to the people who pour into each other as a matter of course, not a perk. And, most of all, here’s to those who lavish one another with love, praise, care, and respect, because it’s deserved, not earned.

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Filed under: Columns Archive, Recovering the Self


Lenée Voss is a fat, Black, queer femme who lives in Philadelphia. She’s a lover of Black music, Steven Universe, true crime, and doing the electric slide whenever possible. A new plant mom and a baby yogi, Lenée writes tweets as @dopegirlfresh.