“Well, the body keeps the score,” I sighed, as my arthritic fingers struggled to open the bottle of pills in my hand. The phrase is the title of one of the most important and widely recommended books on trauma, but it also become a mantra of sorts for me—a reminder I could repeat whenever I felt tempted to chastise myself. A reminder that the physical manifestations of my own trauma weren’t my fault. My body was too damaged in the past to behave sensibly in the present. As a child I had experienced hunger and neglect, so my body struggled with a relationship to food, hygiene, and self care. As a child I had experienced abandonment and loss, so my body lived in a constant state of heightened alertness, always preparing to be either abandoned by those I love or to have them otherwise ripped away from me somehow. As a child I had experienced harm at the hands of a caregiver, and so my body bore an invisible set of scars that manifested itself in not only my mental health, but my physical health as well. My body truly did keep the score, and I deeply resented it for that fact.
With Mother’s Day was just around the corner I was needing the mantra more and more. A flare up of health issues left me feeling only barely functional. But I wasn’t surprised, I would be hard-pressed to find a birthday or Mother’s Day where I hadn’t been sick in some way, a pattern I would learn from my therapist is rather common in adoptees, especially those with traumatic beginnings.
When I was first diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), I had assumed that therapy would mean finally learning how to ignore my body’s misplaced cues of crisis and danger. I expected to gain tools to desensitize myself to all the false alarms, and learn how to separate my logical mind from the body that had unhitched from it. Except learning how to separate my “good” mind from that “bad” malfunctioning body wasn’t what I would be learning in therapy at all.
Embody, Not Compartmentalize
One of the very first things my therapist would teach me was that trauma therapy is never about rejecting parts of yourself, but rather learning to recognize each fragmented part as vital to the greater whole. Healing would never come from trying to further divide or compartmentalize, but in learning to find a sort of gratitude for the ways the very things I resented my body for because they had ultimately served some purpose in helping me navigate a dangerous world. I would learn to better recognize connections between hidden scars and seemingly unrelated behaviors or health issues. I would learn to reframe my thinking to see purpose inside of supposedly “bad” habits or personality quirks. I would learn to seek ways to embody wholeness in my identity and my sense of self. Yet one of the primary losses I had experienced in adoption had been any clear sense of who that “self” even was.
For most of my life, I’ve been mourning the empty spaces that lay hollow in the framework of my identity. What sort of holiday traditions did my birth family have? Was there anyone notable in my family tree? What sort of things did they enjoy doing for fun? What sort of faith did they have, and what did they believe about God? What were my birth parents personalities like, and how was I like them? Or was I even like them at all? So many pieces of the puzzle were missing and I felt broken and incomplete without them.
But you see, the body keeps the score.
She does that same thing.
I reestablished contact with my birth mother. Apprehensively, I took the step to visit her in person. And then there I was, sitting in an unfamiliar diner, looking across the red and white checkered tablecloth at a row of equally unfamiliar faces. My birth mother’s face was directly in front of me. Around the table were various members of her family, each trying in their own way to adjust to the anomalous addition to the evening’s roster.
I was trying to take in some pieces of the conversation on the other side of the table, when my birth mother’s husband leaned over from his seat beside me to whisper, “She does that same thing, all the time.” He grinned with such tender affection as he gestured towards my right hand where I was mindlessly rubbing the tip of my middle finger in circular motions across the tip of my thumb. It’s a silly little quirk that I rarely even notice anymore, a habit of sorts whenever I’m nervous or lost in thought. But in that moment, that thoughtless repetitive motion became something powerful, something I had been missing for almost thirty years. This wasn’t simply a behavioral oddity, but rather an instinct—a product of my unbreakable genetic link to this woman I no longer recognized, but still carried inside. Her presence in me evident with each lightly drawn circle.
My body had kept the score.
My body kept every score.
That almost momentary interaction in the diner had sparked a significant shift in my relationship to my body. Yes, my body carried the scars of trauma, but it also carried the unseverable connections to the history and identity I thought I had lost. In each and every one of my cells I carry my unique DNA, an accurate written history of who I am and where I came from. Just as my body has faithfully carried painful secrets about my trauma until I was safely ready to remember and address them, my body has also carried important truths about my identity as well, in hopes I would one day have the tools to uncover them and embody wholeness in all new ways. My body has always carried Jewish blood inside of these veins, long before I ever learned the truth of my Jewish ethnicity. My body has always carried a walking copy of my mother’s features, long before I saw her childhood photos and mistakenly thought they were my own.
Who knows what other hidden truths my body is devotedly carrying for me? Perhaps I got my father’s eyes, or perhaps my devout Jewish grandmother had the same fiery passion for fighting injustice and speaking uncomfortable truths? Perhaps one day I’ll find something to explain where my youngest son got his curly hair, or where my eldest got his emphatic love of math? Perhaps it’s all tucked away somewhere deep inside these cells, just waiting for the perfect time to be revealed.
Healing from trauma means seeking to embody wholeness and learning to recognize the ways your body has unknowingly been protecting you and serving your hidden needs all along. For me that’s meant learning that my body served not only as a record keeper for my past scars, but also as a genetic tapestry holding key pieces of who I am and where I came from. My birth mother’s quirks, my father’s hopes, my adoptive family’s years of nurturing and influence, and the choices I’ve made myself along the way—it all somehow finds harmony and wholeness together in this body I call my own.
Cover image by Andrei Lazarev