Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared July 1, 2011.
cross-posted at The G Bitch Spot
Bear attacks. Shootings. Stabbings. Airplane crashes. Rapes. A lot of rapes. Kidnappings and hostage situations. Random violence and planned lunacy or evil. Horrific child abductions. Serial killers. Leftist guerillas. I am addicted to “I Survived…” on Biography, sneaking in bits and chunks and back-to-back episodes when no one else is home. I call attackers “animals” outloud and curse them and cheer survivors and marvel that the man who survives a bear attack mourns the bear being killed “for safety reasons.” I cringe as women, in various states of physical distress and injury, do anything to save their children or quietly acquiesce to evil to stall for time, think a way out, or just not die right away. The common threads—I survived because I didn’t want my parents to have to bury me, I survived because God had a different plan for me/knew my work on earth wasn’t done, I survived because I stayed calm and alert, I survived because I didn’t want to die there, I survived because I didn’t want him/them/to win, I survived…I don’t know why, I just did.
I was up for Mac McClelland’s “How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD.” And I understand why it works even as I try, days later, not to think too deeply about paragraphs 27-29. In the second-hand trauma of so much death and brutality, McClelland had no way to process it for herself because of its second-hand nature. So it caught up with her, in ways that New Orleanians may recognize, though at a much higher pitch for McClelland: insomnia, drinking, crying, dissociation, anxiety, nightmares, easy to startle, numbness, and more.
“Trauma” gets thrown around a lot. Here, I mean what Peter Levine explains [more Levine below]:
…trauma is something that overwhelms us, that makes us feel helpless, that makes us feel paralyzed. And it’s something that happens to our bodies and our brains, something that happens to our nervous system, to our whole organism, that doesn’t un-happen; …leading to feelings of overwhelming helplessness….we mobilize a tremendous amount of energy. This is the so-called fight or flight response. And there’s another response that occurs when we are overwhelmed beyond the fight or flight response, and that’s the freezing, numbness, shutdown.
Processing trauma is also a physical phenomenon, not just mental, spiritual, psychologically, whatever you want to name it. When the physical/somatic reaction is blocked, the stress accumulates and strains the body, not just the spirit:
When the charging (sympathetic) phase is followed by a parasympathetic discharge of equal magnitude, then pre-activation homeostasis is reestablished and the stress is said to be resolved. On the other hand, it is shown that under certain physiologic conditions (and behaviorally where mobilization–i,e., somatic response to stress–is blocked), the charge phase is no longer balanced by rebound. In these cases activation is not resolved and the stress becomes incorporated within the organism, as a diminished adaptational capacity.
In an interview with Tami Simon, he explains:
But if people have to live in a whole environment, a climate of stress—for example, a child that’s born into a family where there’s a lot of alcoholism and/or yelling at each other, or tremendous tension. Well, the children pick that up, and this is an ongoing stress…if this goes on for a long period of time, it really erodes our sense of self and our resilience.
I realized also that the part of the brain that’s affected by threat, by stress, is the same part of the brain that we share with all mammals. Yet animals—in the wild, that is—don’t develop trauma symptoms. In other words, if a rabbit is chased down by a coyote and it escapes, he’s none the worse for the wear. Because if animals didn’t have that innate capacity to rebound from these threatening encounters, number one, they wouldn’t survive, because the next time they would be slowed down, they wouldn’t be as effective in evading a predator, and they would be eaten. So not only would the individual rabbit die, but soon the whole species would become extinct. So I reason that there had to be really robust innate mechanisms both in animals and in humans that take us through our encounters with extreme threat. And what I discovered was that animals and people have this innate capacity to shake off the threat and come back to equilibrium.
And that’s how Isaac helped McClelland through the somatic stress and allowed her to express it and not, in that instance, develop PTSD and also, whether he or she knew or not, discharge some of the trapped, pent-up, overstimulation of her secondary trauma:
After he climbed off me, he gathered me up in his arms. I broke into a thousand pieces on his chest, sobbing so hard that my ribs felt like they were coming loose.
Not only did she need to survive, she needed that survival validated:
Isaac pulled my hair away from my wet face, repeating over and over and over something that he probably believed but that I had to relearn. “You are so strong,” he said. “You are so strong. You are so strong.”
In a phone session, McClelland’s therapist tells her:
“Being aware and understanding what’s going on in your system and then literally working it through your body, like retraining your body how to calm down, is really useful,” Meredith says. For many of her trauma patients, it’s a long and intense process. And if it goes untreated? “A lot of people don’t heal, and it manifests in a lot of different ways throughout their lives. There’s a study they did with Vietnam vets who’d had—clearly—a lot of trauma during the war. Twenty years later, they measured their levels of pain before and after they showed them intense footage from Vietnam. Pretty much across the board, after they saw this really intense, violent footage from the war, their levels of pain went down. Because when trauma doesn’t get to work itself through your system, your system idles at a heightened state, and so getting more really intense input calms your system down.” Which is why, she explains, “A lot of folks who’ve survived trauma end up being really calm in crisis and freaking out in everyday life.” [emphasis added]
Or calm in the face of a retelling of a gang rape, a slashing, a fireball of jet fuel, a gorilla attack, lost limbs, integrity, safety and belonging. Or having a steady diet of serial killers, rapists, poisoners, people who shoot, stab, slash, dismember, mutilate, rape and impregnate their own daughters or granddaughters, who hold someone captive to torture for his amusement and sexual arousal. I can’t get enough of that shit. When The Girl sees Female Serial Killers laying around or Most Evil or Deranged on the TV, she calls it “Mom Stuff.” I’ve read most of TruTV’s Crime Library once, if not several times. Henry—saw it in Chicago when it first came out and watched it at least twice more on VHS—gave me no nightmares though I did cringe a few times at the end which had nothing to do with gore.
What McClelland did is not for everyone, and does not mean that “all” rape survivors need is some violent sex to heal their psyches. This should absolutely not be over-simplified and made into some bullshit ___. And we cannot compare what McClelland did with full consent and someone she trusted with her bodily safety in her own place, her own bed, to this poor child or this one or Ebony [WARNING: “I Survived…” video starts automatically]. But she got in one night what some never get in an entire lifetime—a chance to reset the nervous system, to dunk down and come up feeling somehow cleaner.
So I watch I Survived….
A final deep, slow breath, and it’s done. Click.