Healing Your Traumas
At The Bar
My partner and I entered a bar to catch a drink one evening in 2018. We had spent some incredible hours facilitating a gender workshop and thought it fine to enjoy a band over some light conversation while supping some refreshments.
The band strapped the evening with their vast swathes of Congolese tunes. The bass was as fresh as my previous orgasm. Those guitars spoke in tongues. But just as I sat, my body began shaking. My girlfriend wondered what the matter was. The weather was quite friendly and I seemed to fair okay in my sweatshirt until that moment.
It was the alcohol at the counter; stashed in a tall continuum headed for the roof with a waiter at the bottom center on standby. In classes and variety. The blues and reds and greens and seemingly menacing whites.
What did the bottles do to trigger me, you ask? And how did it relate to my trembling?
You see, alcohol was never such a safe drink in my home. And village. I never saw partakers around me spare it merely for leisure. It often appeared as a death race. That people drunk to get high to die, and in such a valorously murderous technique. It was evident that the more you drunk the greater a hero you were. Or maybe they didn’t put too much worth to their names, it was okay to self-destruct.
One evening dad returned home from his usual spree. His tongue hanging on his lower lip. His dancing body totally defeated by the mechanics of moving ground. I had mastered his stagger. And the songs his broken voice spurted in that stupor. He conjoined a streak of hysterical jokes on his good days; but on his worst, he was a monster.
The Night of 2012
Like this unforgettable night in 2012.
Mother had forgotten to send some money to the caretaker of our boma in Ugenya. The man had insistently called dad the whole day imploring him to send the cash. Dad delegated the responsibility to mum, who unfortunately was unaware of the urgency; and two, had a long run of a day that it escaped her mind until evening. By the time dad was getting home, she had just sent my cousin to deposit the money to her MPESA.
He sat treacherously by the dining table and ate to his fill. I was in my bedroom attending to campus girls with my 500 Safaricom texts. Then the air broke with a sudden squeak in the living room.
Then I heard a scream.
My adrenaline kicked in. I gushed out to find dad on mum’s back as she forcefully knelt on the carpet, venomously pulling her hair. This was punishment for delaying sending the money. Her hairline had begun bleeding.
In that blood rush I shouted for assistance from Rose, the househelp. Jumped onto dad’s back and negotiated with his huge body until he let go his grip on mum’s hair, getting off her back.
I was wildly enraged!
I wanted to kill him that night. With something; a pen, a knife, my head – anything. I was ready to go to jail. Or the grave. Either of us dies or we kill each other.
But then restraint happened. My senses somehow regained control over my body. Then I went into shock and helplessness. I was tired.
Tired of the violence. Tired of constantly seeing my mother in distress. Tired of living in extreme anxiety in my own home waiting to stop the next fight. Tired of being in this world whose pain seemed endless.
Dad went on to hurl some hard words at me and mum. Like how he regretted marrying her. How I was foolish as her. And other things I’d rather not remember.
But even worse, he had forgotten all that when morning came. Because that’s the comfort of escape alcohol gave him. He could do and say whatever he wanted and get away with it without guilt.
Such hideous injustice!
Back to the bar
Back to the bar…
My body is shaking. Girlfriend asks what the matter is I request her to hold me. The trauma was eating at me. It was so bad those days every time I even saw a beer commercial on a billboard or on my phone my heart rate would instantly shoot up. Then my brain would play all the horrible things I saw in my home when dad was in that state. It was horrible.
It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.
I know we tell people that it is their responsibility to heal lest they bleed on those who didn’t hurt them. It’s true. It makes sense. I’ve also felt it is incomplete advice since, especially for willing participants, social support is equally paramount to assist in trauma healing.
I say this carefully and conscious of the reality that acting out of our traumas traumatizes our loved ones. There is something called secondary trauma. Which caregivers battle with a lot. It’s a tricky balance. And often, because of lack of information and professional help, most relationships suffer.
Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score)
As Bessel van der Kolk reiterates in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma: social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us; feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal and grow, we need a visceral feeling of safety. No doctor can write a prescription for friendship and love: These are complex and hard-earned capacities. You don’t need a history of trauma to feel self-conscious and even panicked at a party with strangers – but trauma can turn the whole world into a gathering of aliens.
This is what would happen to me whenever I saw alcohol bottles or entered a bar. My brain would go on over-drive and I start imagining the worse things happening to me. And you see, even the traumatizing instances your brain forgets are stored in your body, deep into your nervous system. Which later manifest into physical responses like anxiety, depression, procrastination, need for risky behaviour, over-indulgence, poor communication skills, irritability, etc.
Over time we develop depression as a cumulative response to exhaustion from constantly living life on high alert.
In neuroscience there’s something called ‘neuroception’. This describes how our nervous systems distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life threatening. As a form of healing, social support like having safe and healthy relationships enable us to ‘co-regulate’. This is connecting to another safe nervous system that helps us rewire our brain to be safe for us. So if your nervous system does not have capacity to read another’s appropriately, then you know something is off. This explains why people constantly find themselves in abusive relationships.
There is work to do, friends. We have work.
So people ask me, Rix, where do I start? I know I’m living with this thing and it is eating me up every day. I’m struggling in my marriage, or relationship, or studies, or concentrating at work. And therapy is incredibly expensive in this country.
The other reality is talk therapy, I found out, is not enough. We need a more holistic approach to trauma healing. Now we are moving to what psychology calls somatic experience.
Somatic therapy is a form of body-centered therapy that looks at the connection of mind and body and uses both psychotherapy and physical therapies for holistic healing.
Somatic means “pertaining the body”. This is where a lot of our counseling has huge gaps because it lacks this significant component.
Dealing with the unknown
We don’t have a lot of capacity as human beings to deal with the unknown. Hence you can only heal a pain you understand.
Your senses are your first assets. You receive events from the outside through your body system. Then you give them meaning. Then you develop a behaviour. Then a result. But if you don’t understand your senses, you won’t have much control of your behaviour.
I studied so hard to understand myself. It’s taken me over 15 years. What motivated my triggers? How did trauma affect my brain? How can I gain skills to self-regulate and have ability to harness healthy relationships that will further support me to co-regulate with loved ones?
It is a lot of emotional labour. You have to want it and want it badly.
I promised myself this would be my most productive decade yet. As any human being living in a complex noisy world, I have my slow days. But the tools I have acquired through constant training help me trust my body to get out of the funks.
There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.Friedrich Nietzsche